Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

Harper Voyager, 2009, 584p.

 Galileo’s Dreamcover

I had been about to start this book when I received Robinson’s 2312 for review for Interzone. I don’t usually read books by the same author very close together so I slipped this one down the queue.

As the title suggests it features Galileo Galilei, who one day in early 17th century Venice encounters a strange man who informs him of the recent Dutch discovery of the magnifying power of two lenses fixed in a tube. Galileo soon improves the device markedly, sells it to the rulers of Venice and then, fatefully of course, turns his own towards the Moon and Jupiter.

It soon transpires that the stranger is from the far future, the 3020s, and is able to transport our hero forward in time where Galileo witnesses proof of his observation of the circulation of Jupiter’s four main moons. Here there is a plot involving human interference with sentiences in the oceans of Ganymede and Europa; and in Jupiter itself. Subsequent trips to the 3020s elaborate somewhat. Galileo’s memories of these trips are made hazy by an amnestic drug. There are strong indications that this is an altered history – or at least an alterable one as a faction among the Jovians wants Galileo to suffer martyrdom for the sake of Science. Indeed, Galileo is shown evidence of and experiences his own execution. However, the events in the end follow those in our timeline. Robinson follows modern interpretations of Galileo’s reputed remark, “Eppur si muove,” (“And yet it moves”) as being uttered well after his trial rather than directly on his recantation. There is also a nice touch when Robinson, paraphrasing Einstein, has Galileo refer to himself as “standing on the shoulders of dwarfs.”

The narrative voice is mostly third person, the tale apparently being told by Galileo’s assistant Cartophilus. Occasionally this opts for the first person plural and towards the end uses the singular I or me. Cartophilus is eventually revealed to be one of the long-lived Jovians though this is obvious to the reader very early on.

Despite the Science Fictional gloss the far future sequences are unconvincing while by contrast the scenes in Italy are absorbing and compelling. Galileo’s life and circumstances are admirably evoked as are the politics of the time. Those in the Jovian system come to seem a distraction from the real drama of the coming inquisitorial trial and the unfolding of Galileo’s life. Robinson has written an affecting and engrossing account of Galileo’s life. Perhaps, though, his publishers might not have accepted such a book from him without the tacked on Science Fiction elements.

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