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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: Galileo's Dream
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 Paul Kincaid

In the early years of the 17th century a noted scientist finds himself transported, by means he can only assume involves witchcraft, to a celestial body where tall beings impart news that is, by turns, astounding and disturbing. The scientist was Johannes Kepler and the dream, Somnium, published posthumously in 1634, is recognised by some authorities as the first work of science fiction.

Now, as the title suggests, Kim Stanley Robinson has revisited Kepler's Dream, but translated the subject into Kepler's contemporary, Galileo Galilei. And given his astronomical discoveries, in this version Galileo is transported not to our moon but to the Galilean moons of Jupiter. What's more, the novel doesn't just record one revelatory visit, but a whole series of visits over the last 30-odd years of Galileo's life, visits that become more urgent as they coincide with his increasing entanglement with the papal authorities.

Our story begins in 1608, with Galileo an ambitious but frustrated teacher in Padua who believes that he never receives due recognition or, more importantly, the money he needs from the Venetian authorities. It was then, as Galileo himself told the tale, that a Dutch visitor told him about the telescope that had been invented earlier that year by Hans Lippershey in the Netherlands. In Robinson's novel, this visitor is Ganymede who introduces himself as coming from Alte Europa. Galileo misunderstands this as a clumsy reference to "Upper Europe," the Protestant north, though we realise soon enough that Ganymede in fact hails from high Europa, the Jovian moon.

The hint about the telescope is enough to get Galileo investigating the optics of such a device, and then immediately improving its magnification. The resultant device is a huge hit with the mercantile and political leaders of Venice, and it looks like he might at last accrue some of the fame and wealth he craves. But Ganymede reappears to suggest he turn his device on the heavens. This, in reality as well as in fiction, was the turning point in Galileo's life, though it would take many years for its ramifications to fully sink in.

At this time, as Europe splintered between the Catholic south and the Protestant north, the church was not overly bothered by the theories of Nicholaus Copernicus. As long as it was no more than an intellectual game for mathematicians, the notion of a heliocentric universe offered no particular threat to their world view. But in January 1610, Galileo, using his new telescope, observed four satellites orbiting Jupiter, a fact he hurriedly included as a brief afterthought in his short treatise, Starry Messenger, published in March 1610. This was electrifying, because it was the first observational evidence to undermine the Ptolemaic system; but later that same year Galileo went further, he observed the phases of Venus, which proved the heliocentric model. Galileo's observations were supported by the Vatican's own astronomers, and in 1611, when he first visited Rome, he was feted by everyone from the pope on down. It was the high point of Galileo's relationship with the church, because in less than a year he had turned the Copernican system from a mathematical game to a fact about the world, and in so doing he had unthinkingly undermined many of the certainties upon which the pope's authority rested. At a time when the Catholic Church was becoming more intolerant in response to the political and theological threat from Protestantism, there were bound to be repercussions.

All of this is beautifully presented by Kim Stanley Robinson. 17th century Italy is drawn with extraordinary vivacity and depth, the colours, the smells, the clamor all make this as solid a reality as any you will encounter in the pages of science fiction. The confusion of Galileo's ill-controlled household, the mess of his daily life, come across very well, while Galileo himself is a remarkable creation. Here we begin to understand how his scientific genius is balanced with political and religious stupidity; how his excitement at the potency of his own inventions makes him intolerant of anyone who is not immediately convinced of the rightness of his views; how his daily life is constantly spinning out of his control; how he never receives the glory or the wealth he believes is truly his right. He is a character of dramatic contradictions, but in Robinson's novel this is all forged into one single, coherent and utterly convincing character. As a novelisation of Galileo's later life, this book is unsurpassed.

However, that is not all that Robinson does. No sooner has Galileo first observed the moons of Jupiter than Ganymede appears once more. This time, he invites Galileo to look through a new telescope he brings with him, and when Galileo does so, he finds himself falling into the device, into space, and suddenly he is on Europa. The telescope is a time travel device, and Galileo has been brought forward to the 30th century for reasons that never entirely make sense. Ganymede, as we eventually learn, is some sort of cross between charismatic preacher and political ideologue who may, himself, come from even further in the future. His aim appears to be to prevent the Europans exploring beneath the icy surface of their world because that will bring them into contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence; except that he later sets out to further his aim by destroying that intelligence. And his purpose in bringing Galileo forward in time seems to be to provide intellectual backing for his purpose; except that he never explains his purpose to Galileo, he never tells Galileo anything he may need to know, and he never gives Galileo a chance to speak to anyone in furtherance of that aim.

If all of this seems rather skimpy, it's because Ganymede quickly becomes a minor character. A woman called Hera, whose role and purpose, other than to oppose Ganymede, is never made clear, quickly wins Galileo away from his original companion. She, and a woman scientist named Aurora, set out to educate Galileo about the history of science since the 17th century, and also to teach him about himself. This is comparatively weak stuff. The various Jovan moons that Galileo and Hera visit are never more than thin surfaces, concatenations of strange sights, with no sense that these might be places where people live. Set alongside the depth and solidity of the 17th century scenes, this future does not begin to convince on any level. It is as superficial and as incoherent as a dream, but despite the title I don't think we are meant to assume this actually is a dream, in part because if it was no more than a dream we would surely expect the dream world to have more resonance with and more impact upon the waking world yet in most fundamental ways the two remain completely detached.

Along the way, it turns out that the confrontation with the aliens (which is never given any great narrative tension or urgency despite the fact that we are told it might bring the destruction of the human race) is only a side-show to Ganymede's real purpose. And this purpose is to change history, to have the church burn Galileo at the stake as they had earlier burned Giordano Bruno, and so make him into a martyr for science which will supposedly ensure the triumph of science over religion and hence transform the history of the world. Offhand, I am far from convinced that the martyrdom of Galileo would have had quite such a transformative effect on human history, but, understandably, Galileo feels he would quite like to avoid that outcome. Curiously, this discovery happens relatively early in the story; when Galileo returns to his own time after this discovery, it is just at the beginning of his troubles with the church. Following this, he returns several more times to Jupiter, though I cannot honestly see that his presence adds more than the occasional grace note to the unfolding drama there, and it certainly makes no material difference to his ongoing difficulties on Earth.

Indeed, his problems as the church starts to turn against his ideas are absolutely riveting. So much so that I quickly came to resent every return to Jupiter as an interruption to the real story. It is a very familiar story, one we have been told many times in histories of science, biographies, even plays such as Brecht's Galileo, yet Robinson makes it fresh, engaging, and more convincing than ever. The Galileo we follow here is so in love with reason that he cannot understand why a rational argument will not convince anyone when other factors intrude. He fails to see that the threat of Protestantism abroad and internal divisions within the church make his own position more precarious than ever. We watch him laughing at his own jokes as he writes the dialogues that will inevitably bring him before the Inquisition, and we see him convince himself that a few patently half-hearted asides will absolve him of any charge of refuting the church's position. When finally brought before the Inquisition, he lies without compunction, then is shocked when the Vatican presents obviously forged documents against him. And when the Inquisitor privately offers him a way out, he is so wedded to the rationality of his own position that for a long time he does not seem to recognise the compromise he will have to make in order to save his own life. And after the trial, the last years of exile in Tuscany, his increasingly poor health, his relationships with his two illegitimate daughters in the local nunnery, his slow return to writing up his early experiments in mechanics that will eventually be published in the Protestant north, all are written so affectingly that one comes to believe that this is one of the finest fictional portrayals of Galileo every written.

I know it is wrong for a reviewer to criticise a book for not being something else, but I'm sorry, in this case I can't help it. I wish that Kim Stanley Robinson had been content to write a straightforward historical novel about Galileo and had not been tempted to echo Kepler or create a science fiction. It is the science fiction that makes this novel weak, it is the history that makes it strong.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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