From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on Barnes & Noble Review
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."
Read an Excerpt
The Stranger All of a sudden Galileo felt that this moment had happened before—that he had been standing in the artisans' Friday market outside Venice's Arsenale and had felt someone's gaze on him, and looked up to see a man staring at him, a tall stranger with a beaky narrow face. As before (but what before?) the stranger acknowledged Galileo's gaze with a lift of the chin, then walked toward him through the market, threading through the crowded blankets and tables and stalls spread all over the Campiello del Malvasia. The sense of repetition was strong enough to make Galileo a little dizzy, although a part of his mind was also detached enough to wonder how it might be that you could sense someone's gaze resting on you.
The stranger came up to Galileo, stopped and bowed stiffly, then held out his right hand. Galileo bowed in return, took the offered hand, and squeezed; it was narrow and long, like the man's face.
In guttural Latin, very strangely accented, the stranger croaked, "Are you Domino Signor Galileo Galilei, professor of mathematics at the University of Padua?"
"I am. Who are you?"
The man let go of his hand. "I am a colleague of Johannes Kepler. He and I recently examined one of your very useful military compasses."
"I am glad to hear it," Galileo said, surprised. "I have corresponded with Signor Kepler, as he probably told you, but he did not write to me about this. When and where did you meet him?"
"Last year, in Prague."
Galileo nodded. Kepler's places of residence had shifted through the years in ways Galileo had not tried to keep track of. In fact he had not answered Kepler's last letter, having failed to get through the book that had accompanied it. "And where are you from?"
Alta Europa. The man's Latin was really quite strange, unlike other transalpine versions Galileo had heard. He examined the man more closely, noted his extreme height and thinness, his stoop, his intent close-set eyes. He would have had a heavy beard, but he was very finely shaved. His expensive dark jacket and cloak were so clean they looked new. The hoarse voice, beaky nose, narrow face, and black hair made him seem like a crow turned into a man. Again Galileo felt the uncanny sensation that this meeting had happened before. A crow talking to a bear—
"What city, what country?" Galileo persisted.
"Echion Linea. Near Morvran."
"I don't know those towns."
"I travel extensively." The man's gaze was fixed on Galileo as if on his first meal in a week. "Most recently I was in the Netherlands, and there I saw an instrument that made me think of you, because of your compass, which, as I said, Kepler showed me. This Dutch device was a kind of looking glass."
"No. A glass to look through. Or rather, a tube you look at things through, with a glass lens at each end. It makes things look bigger."
"Like a jeweler's lens?"
"Those only work for things that are close."
"This one worked for things that were far away."
"How could that be?"
The man shrugged.
This was interesting. "Perhaps it was because there were two lenses," Galileo said. "Were they convex or concave?"
The man almost spoke, hesitated, then shrugged again. His stare went almost cross-eyed. His eyes were brown, flecked with green and yellow splashes, like Venice's canals near sunset. Finally he said, "I don't know."
Galileo found this unimpressive. "Do you have one of these tubes?"
"Not with me."
"But you have one?"
"Not of that type. But yes."
"And so you thought to tell me about it."
"Yes. Because of your compass. We saw that among its other applications, you could use it to calculate certain distances."
"Of course." One of the compass's main functions was to range cannon shots. Despite which very few artillery services or officers had ever purchased one. Three hundred and seven, to be precise, had sold over a period of twelve years.
The stranger said, "Such calculations would be easier if you could see things farther away."
"Many things would be easier."
"Yes. And now it can be done."
"Interesting," Galileo said. "What is your name again, signor?"
The man looked away uneasily. "I see the artisans are packing to depart. I am keeping you from them, and I must meet a man from Ragusa. We will see each other again."
With a quick bow he turned and walked along the tall brick side wall of the campiello, hurrying in the direction of the Arsenale, so that Galileo saw him under the emblem of the winged lion of St. Mark that stretched in bas relief over the lintel of the great fortress's entryway. For a second it looked as if one bird-beast were flying over another. Then the man turned the corner and disappeared.
Galileo turned his attention back to the artisans' market. Some of them were indeed leaving, folding up their blankets in the afternoon shadows and putting their wares into boxes and baskets. During the fifteen or twenty years he had been advising various groups in the Arsenale, he had often dropped by the Friday market to see what might be on display in the way of new tools or devices, machine parts, and so on. Now he wandered around through the familiar faces, moving by habit. But he was distracted. It would be a good thing to be able to see distant objects as if they were close by. Several obvious uses sprang to mind. Military advantages, in fact.
He made his way to one of the lens-makers' tables, humming a little tune of his father's that came to him whenever he was on the hunt. There would be better lenses in Murano or Florence; here he found nothing but the usual magnifying glasses that one used for close work. He picked up two, held them in the air before his right eye. St. Mark's lion couchant became a flying ivory blur. It was a poorly done bas relief, he saw again with his other eye, very primitive compared to the worn Roman statues under it on either side of the gate.
Galileo put the lenses back on their table and walked down to the Riva San Biagio, where one of the Padua ferries docked. The splendor of the Serenissima gleamed in the last part of the day. On the riva he sat on his usual post, thinking it over. Most of the people there knew to leave him alone when he was in thought. People still reminded him of the time he had shoved a bargeman into the canal for interrupting his solitude.
A magnifying glass was convex on both sides. It made things look larger, but only when they were a few fingers from the glass, as Galileo knew very well. His eyes, often painful to him, had in recent years been losing their sharpness for nearby things. He was getting old: a hairy round old man, with failing eyesight. A lens was a help, especially if ground well.
It was easy to imagine a lens grinder in the course of his work holding up two lenses, one in front of the other, to see what would happen. He was surprised he hadn't done it himself. Although, as he had just discovered, it didn't do much. He could not immediately say why. But he could investigate the phenomenon in his usual manner. At the very least he could look through different kinds of lenses in various combinations, and simply see what he saw.
There was no wind this Friday afternoon, and the ferry's crew rowed slowly along the Canale della Giudecca and onto the open lagoon, headed for the fondamente at Porta Maghere. The captain's ritual cursing of the oarsmen cut through the cries of the trailing seagulls, sounding like lines from Ruzante. You girls, you rag dolls, my mother rows better than you do—
"Mine definitely does," Galileo pitched in absently, as he always did. The old bitch still had arms like a stevedore. She had been beating the shit out of Marina until he had intervened, that time the two had fought; and Galileo knew full well that Marina was no slouch when it came to landing a punch. Holding them apart, everyone scream- ing . . .
From his spot in the ferry's bow he faced the setting sun. There had been many years when he would have spent the night in town, usually at Sagredo's pink palazzo—"The Ark"—with its menagerie of wild creatures and its riotous parties. But now Sagredo was in Aleppo on a diplomatic assignment, and Paolo Sarpi lived in a stone monk's cell, despite his exalted office, and all the rest of Galileo's partners in mischief had also moved away or changed their night habits. No, those years were gone. They had been good years, even though he had been broke—as he still was. Work all day in Padua, party all night in Ven?ice. Thus his rides home had usually been on a dawn barge, standing in the bow buzzing with the afterglow of wine and sex, laughter and sleeplessness. On those mornings the sun would pop over the Lido behind them and pour over his shoulders, illuminating the sky and the mirror surface of the lagoon, a space as simple and clear as a good proof: everything washed clean, etched on the eye, glowing with the promise of a day that could bring anything.
Whereas coming home on the day's last barge, as now, was always a return to the home fire of his life's endlessly tangled problems. The more the western sky blazed in his face, the more likely his mood was to plummet. His temperament was volatile, shifting rapidly among the humors, and every histrionic sunset threatened to make it crash like a pelican diving into the lagoon.
On this evening, however, the air was clear, and Venus hung high in a lapis lazuli dusk, gleaming like some kind of emblem. And he was still thinking about the stranger and his strange news. Could it be true? And if so, why had no one noticed before?
On the long dock up the estuary he debarked, and walked over to the line of carts starting out on their night journeys. He hopped on the back of one of the regulars that went to Padua, greeting the driver and lying on his back to watch the stars bounce overhead. By the time the cart rolled past Via Vignali, near the center of Padua, it was the fourth hour of the night, and the stars were obscured by cloud.
With a sigh he opened the gate that led into his garden, a large space inside the L formed by the big old house. Vegetables, vine trellises, fruit trees: he took a deep breath to absorb the smells of the part of the house he liked best, then steeled himself and slipped into the pandemonium that always existed inside. La Piera had not yet entered his life, and no one before her could ever keep order.
"Maestro!" one of the littlest artisans shrieked as Galileo entered the big kitchen, "Mazzoleni beat me!"
Galileo smacked him on the head as if driving a tomato stake into the ground. "You deserved it, I'm sure."
"Not at all, maestro!" The undeterred boy got back to his feet and launched into his complaint, but did not get far before a gaggle of Galileo's students surrounded him, begging for help with a problem they were to be tested on next day in the fortifications course at the university.
"We don't understand," they wailed contrapuntally, though it appeared to be a simple problem.
"Unequal weights weigh equally when suspended from unequal distances having inversely the same ratio as the weights," Galileo intoned—something he had tried to teach them just the previous week. But before he could sit down and decipher their teacher Mazzoni's odd notation, Virginia threw herself into his arms to recount in officious detail how her younger sister Livia had misbehaved that day. "Give me half an hour," he told the students, picking up Virginia and carrying her to the long table. "I'm starving for supper, and Virginia is starving for me."
But they were more afraid of Mazzoni than they were of him, and he ended up reviewing the relevant equations for them, and insisting they work out the solution for themselves, while eating the leftovers from their dinner, all the while bouncing Virginia on his knee. She was light as a bird. He had banned Marina from the house five years before, a relief in many ways, but now it was up to him and the servants to raise the girls and find them a way in the world. Inquiries at the nearby convents, asking for prenovitiate admissions, had not been well received. So there were some years yet to go. Two more mouths, lost among all the rest. Among thirty-two mouths, to be exact. It was like a hostel in Boccaccio, three stories of rooms all overoccupied, and every person there dependent on Galileo and his salary of 520 florins a year. Of course the nineteen students boarding in-house paid a tuition plus room and board, but they were so ravenous he almost always fed them at a loss. Worse, they cost time. He had priced his military compasses at five scudi each, with twenty more charged for a two-month instructional session, but considering the time it took from him, it had become clear that he made each sale at a loss. Really, the compasses had not turned out as he had hoped.
From the Hardcover edition.