Review of Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
by Kim Stanley Robinson
There is a theory that views all of history as the result of actions by individuals at pivotal moments. These "Great Men" (or, let's be fair, "Great People") are the movers and shakers of historical periods. Leaders like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Elizabeth II, and Napoleon Bonaparte shaped society. Scientists like Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and yes, Galileo Galilei shaped our perception of the world. These are the people whose mark lasts long on history, or so we think. I do not subscribe to the Great Person Theory. It appeals too much to our individualism and our love of anecdotal explanations. We are creatures who like nothing better than a story, and the episodes from the lives of these Great People make for great stories. Assigning all, or even most of, the responsibility for historical change to these individuals is simplistic.
So whenever someone comes along and proposes that history would be different if, say, Galileo had burnt at the stake, I wonder: aside from the tautological sense, would history truly change if this happened? Of course, we don't know, and we probably can't ever know. Such counterfactual speculation remains just speculative, which is probably why I enjoy it so much.
Kim Stanley Robinson plays a bit to the Great Person Theory in Galileo's Dream. I wouldn't go so far as to say the book propounds it, because Robinson's model of time travel accommodates alternatives. Rather, many of the characters from the 31st century who travel into the past to alter it—commit "analepses" in the book's terminology—subscribe to this theory. Thus, Ganymede tries to ensure science's dominance over religion first by aiding Archimedes; when that does not go well, he moves on to Galileo. However, he does not want to help Galileo. He wants Galileo to burn at the stake, to become a martyr for the cause of science.
It's a profound thought. Galileo's heresy trial is an infamous moment in the history of science and the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Often we envision it as a moment of ignorance—or arrogance—triumphing over justice. Galileo was found guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy" and forced to recant any belief in the Copernican model of the solar system, a model we have since adopted as the preferred one. We have the advantage of hindsight, however, and Pope Urban VIII did not. He was embroiled in ongoing enmity both within the Catholic Church and between Catholics and Protestants. His enemies, many of whom did not much like Galileo, accused him of being soft on heretics.
Robinson emphasizes the political climate around Rome at the time of Galileo's trial. Galileo's Dream shows how his trial was more than just a matter of science versus religion (although it was that); Galileo's fate was as much a matter of political expediency and political expectations than justice or injustice. In an era where many of the highest-ranking clergy were related by blood, Galileo's trial involves more than testimony. It was an intense episode of intrigue conducted across family lines. Galileo called in favours for services rendered, and his friends marshalled his crumbling support base.
There is more to Galileo than his trial, of course, and the book follows Galileo from Padua to Florence. We share in his hope that the patronage of Duke Cosimo de Medici will give him the freedom to tinker and experiment. We experience his anxiety over the fates of his children: his two daughters have been destined for a convent since birth, but the convent they enter is impoverished and their health suffers as a result; his son is lazy and unaccomplished. And then there's his mother. Apparently insane (or just very mean), Giulia is a thorn in Galileo's side, one that he cannot remove.
Despite such hardships, his continuous illness, and his troubles with Rome, Galileo's life wasn't that bad. He had some money; he had family (no matter how difficult at times); he even got recognition for his ideas as well as scorn. The telescope was a pretty neat invention; his experiments involving incline planes were neater still. I get a sense that Galileo was, like many scientists, a discovery junkie, always hooked on the next big idea.
So far I have mostly just been gushing about Galileo. That's because Galileo's Dream offered me a rich look at his life. Though not without fault, this book's depiction of Galileo was diverse and thoughtful, and it has made me want to learn more about Galileo through other sources (such as non-fiction). I love it when books make me think, question, and want to learn more.
The historical parts of Galileo's Dream, then, are exceptional. What of the science-fictional elements? Time travel! Visits to a far-off future of Jovian colonization! Encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence! Compared to the chapters set in 17th-century Italy, the adventures of Galileo in space are lacking. It seems like I'm not the only reviewer who has noticed this.
The characters and society of 31st century are very vaguely described. We meet only a handful, and they refer to various councils—presumably democratic—who are quite ineffective in the crisis of the moment. Ganymede is the one who begins bringing Galileo into his future, ostensibly as some sort of rallying symbol for his quest to stop the Europans from contacting the intelligence in their ocean. Soon enough the people who initially oppose Ganymede's analepsis begin bringing Galileo forward quite frequently. They educate him in all of mathematics and science since his time, then wipe his memories when they create a debilitating sense of déjà vu. But each time Robinson latches onto a plausible reason for Galileo's visits to the future, such as the intermittent attempts to communicate with this strange intelligence, the story pushes the reason aside and stubbornly returns to a discussion of the philosophy of time travel.
What we have here is, rather than a lack of exposition, misplaced exposition. Robinson spends all of Galileo's time in the future explaining time travel and not enough explaining the 31st-century society. Since we never learn much about the society, it is difficult to care about the politically-motivated action sequences or the attempts to contact the Jovian intelligence. Galileo's visits offered little of interest, and I found myself wishing for a swift return to the past.
As far as Robinson's time travel mythology goes, I'm ambivalent. On one hand, it is confusing, and Robinson resorts to vague, semi-philosophical explanations rather than any solid, say, physics. On the other hand, time travel, if it is even possible, is bound to be confusing, so I don't think I can fault him for that. Yet the time travel in Galileo's Dream disappoints me, because it doesn't change much. As far as I understand it (and maybe I'm wrong), Galileo didn't "originally" (always a dangerous word to use when discussing timelines) burn at the stake, but Ganymede wanted to change his present by ensuring Galileo did. Since the book ends with Galileo not burning (and also burning . . . but that's a couple of chapters of explanation), nothing much has changed. Oh, we've got some time travellers stranded in the past, and then there's the question of whether Galileo would have stumbled upon telescopy without Ganymede's prompting . . . but it's not enough for me.
The narration of the book is odd, because it is seemingly in third person for the entire book—but first-person pronouns occasionally sneak into the text. In the end, we learn that Cartophilus, Galileo's servant from the future, is the author of the text. He refers to himself as "Cartophilus" in the third person because this is just a role he plays, albeit one he has played for a long time. However, like the time travel, this doesn't add much to the book.
Galileo's Dream reads like two books, one historical and one science fiction, united by the mind of a single man, who was a great man if not a Great Man. It contains a fascinating look at Galileo and a . . . not so fascinating possible future. What will stay with me overall is its depiction of the human struggle to discover, as well as the obstacles that one must overcome during the discovery.