Galileo’s Dream (book, Kim Stanley Robinson, 2009)

This book review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel also comes from the never-published Death Ray #22.


Kim Stanley Robinson/Harper Voyager

Part historical novel, part SF story set in Robinson’s Accelerando universe, Galileo’s Dream returns Robinson to his favourite topics: human failings, human potential, memory, being and truth (subjective and objective); set against an entertaining, science-fictional theory of multi-dimensional time.

Galileo is one of the most important men in scientific history, whose observational rigour helped usher in the modern age. He is also, according to the book, an important nexus in the braided histories of reality, one whom the denizens of the Jovian moons in 3020 hold in especially high regard, partly because of his discoveries, but mostly because they are convinced that by altering his life, then later taking him to the future, they can shorten the centuries of horror that mankind must endure before achieving a state of rational grace.

But Robinson is an author with a a complex agenda, and the story is not so simply as all that. Galileo’s Dream is a book of dualities. Robinson does a fine job of juxtaposing Galileo’s choleric nature with his genius, his naivete with his wisdom, his ambition with his love for his family and friends. The inhabitants of the Galilean moons of Jupiter have the machine-lent powers of gods, and are diffident and arrogant because of it, but feud and scheme with as much enthusiasm as the Italian princelings of the great astronomer’s time. In fact Robinson goes even further, repeatedly pointing out that as grim and cruel the 17th century was, it was at least full of life. By comparison the 31st century is aseptic and unfilling. Or perhaps just different, though the deciding argument in conserving a little bit of illogical barbarism in our make up comes when the entirety of the universe is revealed in full to the characters. Galileo stands exulted, having achieved his ambition of seeing God’s work in full. The atheist 31st century characters by contrast are horrified, realising that they are not the epicentre of everything, but merely small parts of something vast (this in turn is reflected by Galileo’s trial for heresy in 1633, where the papacy try him for promulgating Copernican heliocentrism).

It is a playfully self-referential book, toying with actuality and recursion. Galileo burns at the stake, but does not, he dies as a young man in a cellar, but does not, because there is an infinite number of himself. The book replays events and stories, both within the memories of the characters and within the manifold of manifolds – Robinson’s multi-dimensional infinity, which, he heavily hints, are pretty much the same thing. Each time the events related are different, sometimes they are even fictional. All are true, more or less.

It is as a historical novel that Galileo’s Dream is most successful. Life in the 17th century, good and bad, is beautifully depicted. Galileo himself is marvellously drawn, a complicated, arrogant yet lovable character, as misguided as the rest of us, but brilliant and possessed of a clarity of vision the mass of humanity simply does not possess. The passage of his life is effectively evoked, the tension of his trial gripping.

As an SF novel it does not function quite so well. Robinson’s Jovian worlds are obviously allegorical, to the point of pastiche. Allegory is among the higher forms of SF, but when set alongside his naturalistic depiction of 17th century Italy there comes a disconnect that Robinson probably did not intend. (In fact, so unreal is this future, it is hard not to imagine his Jovians prancing round a modernist setting wearing togas). Galileo also has the tendency to pop out of joint, becoming less a convincing portrayal and more of a mouthpiece for Robinson’s opinions, which are set at odds with the equally didactic strawmen of Jovian politics for the reader’s edification. This is probably a conscious effort to mimic the Socratic dialogues common to Galileo’s own work, but it jars with the naturalism of the other sections, especially when Galileo is required to oscillate between all-knowing genius and amnesiac naif, sometimes with unbelievable rapidity.

That, however, is a corollary of the story’s ambition, and perhaps this roughness in some ways highlights Robinson’s intentions, either way, it distances the reader by way of disassociation. It needn’t have been this way, both his 17th and 31st centuries are equally fictional, after all.

Despite these slightly jarring moments, this is a book full of wit, a definite return to form for Robinson.


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