by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Thomas Nelson
464 pages, 2009
Reviewed by Iain Emsley
Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream is a wonderful beast, managing to come of rather more as a book than an elephant of facts woven together. Though I love Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, losing myself in its intricacies, it came across as alternate history rivet counting -- perhaps weft counting is more appropriate -- to paraphrase the phrase for Hard SF. It was indeed hard, though meticulous, but at times the detail overwhelmed. Galileo's Dream spelunks in a slightly earlier period, covering Galileo's discoveries and subsequent trial, but it deals with much the same area: the entrance of the scientific age.
Galileo Galilei is encouraged to put two lenses together to begin viewing items a distance away. A stranger appears and encourages him to experiment. Our myopia begins to slip away. The stranger speaks to Galileo in common Latin and claims to know Kepler. Having encouraged Galileo to explore, the stranger takes him to Europa where he meets personifications of the Greek gods who continue to explore the universe far into the future.
Metaphorically, he is granted (and accepts) the chance of exploring the realm of pure science. In his travels he is able to see his discoveries and the developments of Newton and Leibniz. Collections of hard science fill his head and delight him. It counterpoints the Dominican persecution of his ideas as his patrons move away from Rome. Neatly he dovetails the politics into the practice of science yet avoids the, now somewhat pointless, Bush-bashing potential. Avoiding cheap politics, he explores the necessary nature of patronage for bold ideas, especially to get them moved forward in the Establishment. And this is what differentiates Robinson's vision from Stephenson. The hackers are trying to push their agenda into the mainstream, rather than bodge it. He meshes the metaphysical travels with Galileo's periods of syncope as if the temporary out of body experience freed his mind to wander and explore. Robinson develops these episodes neatly together to amplify the results of the thoughts.
Robinson's invocation of Galileo's writings echoes James Morrow's equally wonderful, if stridently sarcastic, The Last Witchfinder which explored the insanities, or perhaps inanities, of the scientific revolution. Like Morrow, Robinson teases out the human aspects of his characters and Galileo's character comes through the novel as a flawed person rather as well as a towering genius. He never quite understands or comes to terms with the Establishment reaction to his work and its implications.
In a sense Galileo's Dream echoes The Years of Rice and Salt in its pondering upon the world turning upon the actions of one person.
Galileo may not have been the first to discover that the earth revolved around the sun but his building upon that notion and his own work reflected and developed theses notions. His lack of myopia allowed him -- perhaps forced him -- to become part of the wider stream of critical thought. Galileo's Dream is a thought-provoking book which avoids easy shots and proselytising to encourage the reader to engage with the world that he develops. Told with verve and a sense of excitement, this is a book which expands upon the role of a gifted and curious individual within the world and encourages the reader to wonder at it. | September 2009
Iain Emsley is a reviewer and critic. He is researching a history of fantasy in chidren's literature and owns a specialist bookshop.