Galileo’s Dream

By KIM STANLEY ROBINSON

In a manner fully in keeping with the radical theory of “triune time” proposed by Kim Stanley Robinson in his invigorating, questing and touching new novel, Galileo’s Dream, I will for a moment depart from the  familiar chronology of the book review — which would have us begin at the opening of this captivating hybrid historical/science-fictional tale. Instead, let us leap into the sea of the author’s imagined “e-time,” where all events exist simultaneously and eternally, and quote directly from the last chapter, which reveals the core concerns and theme of this ambitious book:

[S]cience is a religion, the most ethical religion, the most devoted and worshipful religion…. [T]he enormous inertia of human weakness, greed, fear — [counteracting that] is what science is trying to do…. [P]ut your shoulder to whatever wheel you have at hand, whatever moment you’re in, and push too! Push like Galileo pushed! And together we may crab sideways toward the good.

These words are dictated by a fellow named Cartophilus near the end of his life as he faces death by guillotine during the French Revolution. Cartophilus is an otherwise immortal dwarf from the thirty-first century who performed for thirty years as assistant to Galileo Galilei, the real-world figure who is arguably the first true scientist in history. And while Cartophilus is undeniably a clever invention of the author, the Galileo on stage is as historically accurate and well-rounded a figure as the author’s empathy, skills and powers of research could fashion. (Special thanks are offered by Robinson to a Galileo expert, Mario Biagioli of Harvard.)

That is, the protagonist of Galileo’s Dream is in all respects Galileo as the history books record him, save for his disconcerting habit of being time-shifted to the year 3020 and space-shifted to the moons of Jupiter, any time the squabbling “posthumans” of that future era decide they need his counsel.

We begin the book in the year 1609, with Galileo’s fabled invention of the telescope. But in this scenario, indicating that we are inhabiting an alternate history slightly skewed from our own, Galileo is given hints about the optical wonder by an odd stranger named Ganymede. Beset by domestic and professional troubles, Galileo will leap eagerly upon this technological breakthrough, perfecting the mechanism for commercial use. From this milestone accomplishment develops in inevitable fashion the familiar saga:  the acquisition of rich and powerful patrons and enemies; the discovery of the moons of Jupiter; the writing of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, with its heretical endorsement of the Copernican theories; the trial for heresy; the recantation and the slow slide into frustrated old age, not without bursts of autumnal creativity.

In short, situating the bulk of his novel in the past, Robinson has given us a deep new fictionalized biography of one of the seminal figures of Western civilization, an icon central to the whole meaning of science, and hence to science fiction. In our current cultural scene of frequent anti-intellectualism, occult beliefs and irrational conspiracy theories, Robinson’s program is a timely and vital one. As the quote I used from Cartophilus indicates, Robinson’s entire narrative enterprise is geared toward illustrating what drives science, what its limitations and powers are (often counterposed to that other non-overlapping magisterium, religion), and what it can achieve for the betterment of our species. Galileo’s life serves as the microcosmic embodiment of this theme.

And what a rich, robust, exotic and satisfying life Robinson depicts!  His Galileo is fully fleshed, blood and sinew, from his troublesome hernia to his weird laugh, from his fits of stubborness, pride, and temper to his love for his favorite daughter. The man strides boldly off the page, in all his flaws and virtues. The reader truly shares Galileo’s thrill of scientific insights and his frustrations with the reactionary forces that hinder progress. Likewise, his 17th-century milieu is vividly sketched, and all the speech of its inhabitants rings colloquial and earthy.

But wait — isn’t there a whole science-fiction aspect to this tale?  Is it truly integrated into this life of Galileo, or merely stage dressing to add genre allure?

The scenes set in 3020 do comprise the lesser part of the novel. But they are not exiguous or tacked-on. The dilemma being enacted on the Jovian (or Galilean!) satellites is intriguing and symbolically complementary to Galileo’s own existence and plight. Moreover, the 17th-century man plays a vital role in these future doings.

In fact, because we get to experience the future settings and people through Galileo’s eyes, we are treated to a sense-of-wonder, conceptual breakthough narrative which evokes frissons worthy of Clarke and Stapledon. The human settlements on Europa, Io and elsewhere emerge shimmeringly like Diaspar in Clarke’s The City and the Stars. The main plot thread concerns the discovery of an alien intelligence in the ice-locked seas of Europa, and is a well-done exploration of that familiar motif, exfoliating out into fresh intellectual territory. The characters who inhabit this future — Ganymede, Hera, Aurora and others — radiate a convincing otherness. The 31st-century politics and fractionation of our species summons echoes of the complications of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee series.

But the main source of intellectual stimulation — and the chief dovetailing with Galileo’s own concerns — is the new physics of the year 3020, which Galileo assimilates by means of drug-enhanced virtual reality. Robinson does a convincing job of explicating scientific discoveries about the nature of the universe as yet unconfirmed in 2010. Chief among these is a theory of time as a manifold of three strands: forward motion, backwards motion and eternal stasis. This echo of the Holy Trinity of the Church that bedevils Galileo is certainly intentional, and in fact the entire novel can be seen as triune: the forward motion of the future plot, the backwards motion of the historical narrative and the hybrid stasis/synthesis of both conjoined.

While not venturing to produce precisely a full-fledged novel of chronal paradoxes, Robinson has fun with the multiverse, braiding together scenarios where Galileo is and is not burnt at the stake. His terminology for time travel — analepsis and prolepsis — and the quantum methodology of it is similarly inventive.

Galileo’s Dream takes its place in a fascinating subgenre of speculative fiction, in which writers discover particularly rich possibilities in the lives of the great minds of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Giordano Bruno — another proto-scientist whose dates overlap Galileo’s — looms large in Galileo’s consciousness as an example of a kindred soul who fared much worse at the hands of the Church. Bruno plays a large part in John Crowley’s celebrated Aegypt Quartet, but in those books Crowley emphasizes Bruno’s more occult leanings, and it is instructive to compare Crowley’s angle of attack to Robinson’s, revealing just what core attitudes still distinguish fantasy from science fiction, even in this present-day atmosphere of interstitial blendings. Another stimulating comparison is to Rudy Rucker’s As Above, So Below, which gives us the career of Pieter Breugel as a similar visionary out of time, yet one whose filter on life is mainly artistic. Charles Sheffield’s Erasamus Magister, concerning the fictional exploits of Darwin’s grandfather, is another relevant datapoint, as is the short story by Robert Silverberg titled “Gianni,” in which the composer Pergolesi is extracted from his native era by manipulative future music lovers.

When Robinson’s Galileo observes that the reliance of the moon-dwelling citizens on technology for their everyday survival is a far cry from the warm embrace of Mother Earth, his host objects, claiming that even on Earth, the species counted on its inventions to keep them safe. “It’s like a sea voyage. You could not have your ship sink and survive.” Galileo replies, “But you people never land. You sail on forever.” And the riposte comes: “Yes, that’s true. But it’s true for everyone, always.”

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