Galileo’s Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, is part historical novel and part science fiction novel.
As an historical novel, it is an interesting and minutely-detailed look at the life of one of the most important men who ever lived. And, even though readers suspect they know what will happen to the “first scientist,” they are compelled to keep reading, because there is always the possibility that Robinson will follow an alternate time string before the end.
As science fiction, the tale combines time travel and first contact. Far-future human beings travel back to influence history, and Galileo Galilei is transported from Italy in the early 1600s to the moons of Jupiter in the year 3020. The inhabitants hope his impartial mind will help settle a dispute about how to deal with recently-discovered planet-wide alien intelligences.
At the heart of the saga is the clash between science and religion which led to Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition and which has influences even into the 31st century. Thus, Robinson presents philosophical discussions in both times that eventually erupt into violence. And when both sides are dogmatic in their beliefs, the chances for compromise are minuscule.
Like many authors who use time travel to combine the past and the future—one thinks here especially of some terrific novels by Connie Willis (Blackout, the first in nearly a decade, arrives in just two weeks)—Robinson is better and much more descriptive when he writes about the 17th century than when he sends his protagonist to Europa, Io, and Jupiter in the 31st. Yet the major accomplishment here is how the two times and worlds parallel each other.
Galileo’s servant, Cartophilus, an immortal time traveler himself, narrates the story (sometimes causing problems as he frequently slips from 1st to 3rd person). In addition to catering to the maestro’s notorious whims, Cartophilus is the keeper of the box, a pewter-colored object that enables the scientist to instantaneously make the jump to the far future. For the most part the servant stays in the background and avoids influencing events in Galileo’s life. But his obvious affection for his master eventually makes him step in to save the obstinate scientist from causing his own destruction at the hands of his enemies. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about Cartophilus and some of his fellow time travelers until near the end. His story could be a book in itself; maybe it will be.
Galileo’s Dream was obviously a labor of love for the author. Copious research must have taken years. The biggest problem with the book is that it takes considerable work to read it. The 500+ pages of the tome involve some pretty heavy science, including quantum mechanics, and several of Galileo’s discoveries are discussed to the point of redundancy. Readers may also get a bit weary of hearing about the intimate details of Galileo’s life, from his bathroom problems to his enjoyment at weeding the garden.
To me, reading Galileo’s Dream was like running a marathon or climbing K2 (neither of which I have done). It seemed more an accomplishment than a pleasure, but I’m glad to be able to say I did it.
Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.