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Galileo's Dream
Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Spectra, 532 pages

Galileo's Dream
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson has travelled and worked in different parts of the world (including Washington, DC and in Switzerland) with his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist. His work has garnered many awards including the Nebula Award ("The Blind Geometer" and Red Mars), the Asimov, John W.Campbell, Locus and World Fantasy Awards ("Black Air") and the Hugo Award (Green Mars).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Sixty Days and Counting
SF Site Review: Fifty Degrees Below
SF Site Review: Forty Signs of Rain
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2002
SF Site Review: The Years of Rice and Salt
SF Site Review: Antarctica
SF Site: Kim Stanley Robinson Reading List

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

We might need a new category for this one. Science fiction writers have used historical characters before, everyone from Jesus Christ to Richard Nixon has had their life, or part of it, used as the basis for a science fiction or fantasy story. But using a standard science fiction plot device like time travel as a means to enhance and expand upon what is at its core a serious biographical look at the life of one of the most important figures in the history of science is a bit out of the ordinary. The world of literature has long been home to historical fictions and biographical novels, time to make room for biographical science fiction.

As the novel begins, Galileo is middle-aged, already recognized as a scholar and inventor, but bothered by financial difficulties; neither his professorial stipend nor sale of military compasses earns enough to support his household of family and servants. He needs either a new patron, a new invention, or both. A mysterious stranger approaches him, and asks if he has heard of the new telescoping lenses being made in Amsterdam. That's enough to set Galileo on the path to making his own telescope, and the rest is history.

The mysterious stranger is from the future, a member of a society based among the very Jovian moons that Galileo was the first to see. He eventually takes Galileo there, hoping to involve the man who they regard as the first real scientist to influence a decision that threatens to embroil their society in conflict. The catch is that when Galileo is returned to his own time, he remembers little or nothing of what has happened to him in the future.

The time travel episodes are incidents, the main focus of Galileo'e Dream is the life of Galileo. We follow his struggles to earn enough money, his problems dealing with other people, and his joy at the discovery of the mathematics underlying the results of his experiments with acceleration. And we follow with trepidation as he walks headlong in to the fate we all know awaits him.

So why add a science fiction element to what is otherwise a straight-forward, if intimate and meticulously researched, look at the life of Galileo? One thing it does is to allow Kim Stanley Robinson to introduce a third party critique of Galileo's life. In modern biography, there is a sense that the subject's actions and statements should be read in the context of their own time. And there can be an element of unfairness in judging the past by the standards of today. By taking Galileo out of his own time, Robinson avoids that problem. In the future, Galileo meets several people, and while they are all appreciative and admiring of his work as a scientist, there is criticism of his personal life, especially his treatment of his mistress and his daughters. When it came to scientific discoveries and the pursuit of knowledge, Galileo was able to see beyond the conventional wisdom of his time. When it came to social conventions and personal relationships, he was not.

But Galileo's trips to the future don't offer just revelations on his personal life. Galileo is also treated to a vision of the future of physics. Using an enhanced learning technique, he learns how far his early experiments in physics have gone, leading to a multi-dimensional vision of the universe that fills his mind, and ours, with wonder. Robinson uses this opportunity to flesh out Galileo's Dreams with speculations on physics, philosophy, history, the nature of time, and the paradox of how one man can be at once so much a part of his own time, and also so far beyond it.

In the end, that's what makes Galileo's Dreams not just a biography, but a science fiction biography. And in a career that's included visions of alternate Californias and a terra-formed Mars, Galileo's Dreams is Kim Stanley Robinson's crowning achievement.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson notes that in the 400th anniversary of Galileo pointing his telescope skyward, NASA has just unveiled its latest space telescope. We are, in essence, still following the path he laid out so many years ago. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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