Harper Voyager (2009)
Reviewed by MacLaren North, March 2010
Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of over a dozen novels and dozens of short stories. Perhaps best known for his Hugo and Nebula Award winning Mars trilogy (Red Mars – 1993, Green Mars – 1994, Blue Mars – 1996), all of which are deeply concerned with the politics and practicalities of terraforming Mars and the notion of ecological sustainability, Robinson has also delved into alternate history (The Years of Rice and Salt – 2002), ecological thrillers (Forty Signs of Rain – 2004, Fifty Degrees Below – 2005 and Sixty Days and Counting – 2007) and other areas. Much of his work is concerned with the impact of humans upon their environment and, thereby, on each other.
In Galileo’s Dream Robinson returns to alternate history, though in a way unrelated to his earlier works. This novel is concerned with the later life of noted Italian scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, from his frustrated mid-career period starting in 1609 through to his death in 1642. When Robinson joins Galileo, he is an unhappy university lecturer at the University of Padua, feeling overworked and underpaid, his notebooks filled with unpublished scientific discoveries and his workshops full of unsold inventions which have failed to bring him his fortune.
One day Galileo is accosted by a strange man in the market who claims to be a colleague of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Describing a device for seeing the world at a distance supposedly invented by the Dutch, the man inspires Galileo to experiment and, over a short period, invent increasingly more powerful telescopes. Galileo’s immediate thoughts turn towards the potential military uses of the device and he seeks out royal patrons to purchase these novel devices. But soon he turns his invention to the stars and discovers four large moons around Jupiter, re-igniting his passion for the pursuit of pure science, but also unknowingly putting himself on a path dictated, at least initially, by the strange man from the market. For soon after these discoveries begin to inspire Galileo, the strange man returns with a telescope of his own, one showing unimagined wonders to Galileo.
Here the novel turns to the “dreams” of the title. Galileo finds himself transported to the second of the Jovian moons, in the company of the stranger, who now refers to himself as Ganymede. Ganymede has reached back through time to touch Galileo (through a never clearly discussed process described as “entanglement”) and draw him as the “first scientist” into Ganymede’s present in the 30th century to act as Ganymede’s advocate against a potentially rash scientific experiment. For humans now inhabit the Jovian moons, but recent investigations suggest that they are not alone. Ganymede and his followers fear what lurks beneath the ice of Europa, while another faction appears determined to make contact with what may be another intelligence.
Galileo becomes caught up in the political back-and-forth of the Jovian system, both a pawn and a figurehead for the various factions. Sent back to his own time with only hazy memories of his unbelievable adventure, Galileo becomes enmeshed in the politics of the Roman Catholic Church and the Inquisition due to his discoveries. His observations of the Jovian moons have caused him to adopt the heliocentric, and potentially heretical, views of Copernicus – that the Earth revolves around the Sun, as the moons of Galileo’s discovery revolve around Jupiter. Here he seeks to reconcile cosmology and theology and attempts to enlist various church and political figures to his cause.
The novel alternates between Galileo’s 17th century world of court and church politics, as well as the far future happenings around Jupiter. Ganymede’s manservant Cartophilius takes up residence with Galileo, sending him into the future to participate in the debates about the Europan expedition, which degenerates into open warfare. The Jovians find themselves divided behind two leaders: Hera, who wishes to peacefully contact the Europan intelligence and Ganymede who is violently opposed. This may be because Ganymede is mad and power-hungry, or it may be that he is a visitor from an even more distant future, who claims contact with the Europan intelligence will be the end of humanity.
Robinson keeps the focus of the novel on Galileo and his machinations, and he rarely comes off as a sympathetic character. A man of vast intelligence, he is also frustrated and arrogant from being under-appreciated. His relationships with his mother, daughters and son are all negative and he expresses a constant frustration with the size of his household and the expectations placed upon him. Many of these scenes are played out with only slight variation and with some repetition, leading the reader to admire Galileo’s brilliance, but not think much of him as a person. Galileo’s interactions with the future Jovians, while richly imagined, also serve to make one wary of his character, as his lust for their scientific knowledge outweighs much of his concern for these future descendants of humanity.
Robinson is playing with his old themes here – how much should we interfere with an environment we can never fully understand, and a concern that scientific or technological solutions are often dehumanizing, requiring a balance to be struck between scientific ambition and what society can cope with. His exploration of Galileo’s later life, on brief investigation, appears quite faithful. In some instances however, such as with Galileo’s family relationships, the novel slides too much into biographical detail that does not move the book along. This leaves the historical sections of the book to feel overlong, while in the Jovian sections Galileo is often little more than an observer to events he cannot understand, rather than a shaper of those events.
There is a place for dense historicism within science fiction, if it is used as a tool which drives the more fantastical elements of the plot. Robinson’s grand vision of Jovian society and hidden intelligences within the moons and, perhaps, within Jupiter itself, do not always mesh with the historical details into an engaging story.
Robinson has put a great deal of effort into researching Galileo’s history, writings and character, and put a man both fascinating and fractious into a situation where the fate of worlds may rest on his navigation of the jagged straits between science and religion. But at times Robinson has gotten too wrapped up in his subject and cannot decide whether he is writing a biography or a novel.