18 January 2010

Book Review: Galileo's Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is well known for his fictions about the near future in the face of climate change (the "Science in the Capital" series that begins with Forty Signs of Rain; Antarctica), and even better known for his Mars trilogy - Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars - which looks in dazzling detail at the near-future colonisation, terraforming, and coming to independence of the fourth planet from the sun.

But Kim Stanley Robinson has also had a long-standing interest in history and alternate history. That has shown out in several fine short stories, and in his novel The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternate history in which medieval Christian Europe is wiped out by the plague, and Islam and Buddhism compete for dominance of the emptied land.

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Galileo's Dream, is a curious hybrid of historical novel and near-future exploration of the solar system.

In the main, it is a biographical novel about Galileo Galilei, covering the period from his middle years to his death, and focusing on his crucial discoveries and on the causes and consequences of his famous trial for heresy. But, through what might best be described as "the magic of quantum", the Galileo of this novel also jumps over 1000 years into our future, becoming embroiled in the politics of the inhabited Galilean moons.

That's an interesting story. Galileo's life is also an interesting story. But I'm not sure the two cohere. The machinations and rivalries of the Europans and the Ganymedeans, and the major discovery on which their part of the novel turns, are very interesting - and reminiscent as much of Arthur C. Clarke as of what we've come to expect from Kim Stanley Robinson - but are left frustratingly unresolved. And, although events in the future story parallel events in the biographical part of the novel, they aren't allowed to do so to the extent that the narrative of Galileo's life depart from known biographical fact - which makes me question the point of including the future story in the first place.

But this review is turning out to be more negative than is warranted, or than I intended. I may have my doubts about the way these two stories are interleaved, but both are very interesting, and Galileo's Dream, like every Kim Stanley Robinson book I have read, features memorable characters acting boldly on the issues of their time, while engaging in fascinating speculations on science, sexism and society.

Yet what really stands out in Galileo's Dream is its depiction of ageing. Galileo fears, and then undergoes, the loss of his powers and faculties. His failing body, and the fate of his children, torment him. He has renown, but loses the capacity to enjoy its fruits. More than science, speculation or intrigue, it is this portrayal of the impact of age and infirmity on a vigorous creative life that stayed with me when I finished Galileo's Dream.


Meliors Simms said...

well put, Tim, this pretty much sums up my response to the book

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Meliors. I enjoy the ambition of KSR's writing - even a relative failure by him (if "Galileo's Dream" can be considered such) is more interesting that many other sf writers' successes.