Reviewed by Karla Powell
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:6 (#347) in June 2011.]
Galileo’s Dream is a standalone book in the constellation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre. Robinson writes an excellent historical fiction that includes trips to the moons of Jupiter. For Galileo. Robinson’s history begins prior to Galileo creating a better telescope and discovering the first four moons of Jupiter and ends after his death with the creation of a memorial and the moving of his remains. In between, Galileo’s early life is presented as memories Galileo uses to make decisions and assuage any guilt resulting from his decisions. Robinson crafts a complex, realistic portrait of Galileo, his family, the Catholic Church, and Italy. It is wonderfully written and meticulously researched. Even if he had stopped here, it would be a book worth reading. Yet Robinson adds a trip to Galileo’s Jovian moons and a bit of time travel romance to his life. Moving him into the future and onto another planet occurs during Galileo’s syncopes, times in his present when to all appearances, he is in a fit-like trance. Using a physical ailment creates a plausible explanation for the time travel sequences that Robinson seamlessly weaves into this historical fiction.
Galileo is brought forward 3000 years by a time traveler from even further in the future, named Ganymede. Ganymede claims that Galileo will sway the ruling council on Europa regarding a scientific expedition to the center of that moon. During the multiple trips Galileo takes to Europa, then Io, and finally Jupiter, it becomes clear that Ganymede is trying to influence Galileo’s writing. Ganymede desires that Galileo be burned at the stake for heresy in order to ensure a positive outcome for mankind during Ganymede’s time period. The problem with this outcome is the loss of millions of lives over the next thousand years versus a loss of trust in science, but not an overwhelming loss of lives, during the same time period.
Robinson used historical reports of Galileo’s complex personality, from his obsession with his bodily functions to his certainty of his genius, to sculpt a complex, funny, articulate, and believable portrait of the first scientist. As a backdrop is the Catholic Church of the Inquisition, a discussion of the place of women, servants, and children, and the role of food in everyday life in the 1600s.
The book includes multiple narrators, including one called Cartophilus, a time traveler who decided to live out his 700 year long life on Earth. His time machine allows him to observe Galileo during time-travel, supplying details outside of Galileo’s experiences. Since he lives after Galileo’s death, he finishes the narrative by describing the eventual building of the current monument to this famous man. Robinson uses this character’s voice to explain confusing occurrences in the story, whether historical or fictional.
While this is a wonderful romp through the life of a well-known scientist, there are some minor problems that if fixed would move the book into the stellar category (no pun intended). Some may be editorial changes, rather than authorial problems: the use of modern terms such as tennis balls. When reading historical fiction the author needs to situate the reader within the terms and language of that time period. Robinson does this beautifully with terms of measurement like braccio but misses when writing tennis balls instead of boccino. The modern insertions were jarring to read amongst historically appropriate Latin and Italian. Regardless of the minor jarring references, this book blends readable historical fiction and believable science fiction. Few authors have the ability to write separate books in two different genres, even without trying to meld them into one story. With that said, the best part of this book is that it is a lot of fun to read.