Review of GALILEO'S DREAM by Kim Stanley Robinson
Spectra, December 2009
A stranger approaches Galileo and tells him that someone in northern Europe is using a lenses to see far-away objects. Intrigued, Galileo experiments with lenses, creating a telescope and (upon further prodding by the stranger) discovers the moons of Jupiter. Then, he's shanghaied to the moons of Jupiter themselves where a future society of humans are attempting to sustain life and explore their worlds. The stranger attempts to use Galileo for his own ends.
Galileo learns that he was burned at the stake in at least one future and sets out to prevent this fate. He can't however, help himself from his snarky commentaries, making fun of those who support the (Church-favored) Ptolemaic geo-centric model of the universe. Ultimately, despite his efforts, he is brought to trial by the Catholic Church. Even those who thought they were his friends cannot, or perhaps will not, exert themselves to clear his name.
Meanwhile, Galileo attempts to manage his own life. Perpetually in debt, unable to make any money off of his inventions, forcing his daughters into a nunnery, and perpetually sick and miserable, Galileo is not a happy man.
In GALILEO'S DREAM, author Kim Stanley Robinson re-imagines one of the seminal moments in human history--the time when science confronted religion and claimed for itself a position that, if not superior, is at least separate and non-subordinate to the long-dominant forces of non-evidence-based faith. Robinson asks us to wonder what would have happened if Galileo had not angered the Church, if he and his science had been co-opted into the Church. Would progress have slowed? If so, would the wars we've fought since then have been shorter, or perhaps even more violent and destructive?
It seemed to me that Robinson was attempting to accomplish a number of purposes with this story...perhaps too many. First, he brings Galileo, one of the great scientists of history, to the science fiction reader. I, for one, have never read a biography of Galileo and was interested in his personal and scientific life. Second, Robinson is presenting an alternate history, one where Galileo is aware of his future and put in position to change it. Third, we have the pure science fiction angle, with Galileo heading to the moons of Jupiter to reason with the other humans...and the non-human intelligences of the Jovian system.
For me, those second purposes didn't quite work. The science fiction story never really jelled. It was hard to see what should be done and it wasn't at all clear to me that Galileo's presence there made any difference at all. As far as the alternate history angle, I would have liked to see how the world changed as a result of Galileo's knowledge of his future. This is a fairly substantial book, with the bulk being a biography of Galileo...but a biography that diverges from history in ways that aren't explained and that the casual reader may not recognize. GALILEO'S DREAM is an interesting experiment. It left me feeling unsatisfied although it was certainly worth the effort of reading.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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