Blogging for a Good Book

Galileo’s Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is a compelling portrait of the brilliant, irascible Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century scientist who pioneered an investigative method based on observation and experimentation; invented medical, military, and scientific instruments; dropped stuff off the tower of Pisa; perfected the telescope; plotted lunar revolutions; mapped sunspots; and, sometime in his midlife, took up visiting the moons of Jupiter in his (admittedly limited) spare time.

The historical Galileo suffered lifelong from various maladies. The conceit of Robinson’s science-fictional biography is that his worst fits were just a front for his travels in time and space. When future humans living on Jupiter transport him 1,400 years into the future to experience a first-contact scenario gone awry, they hope to convince him of a way to change history for the better. He just has to go back to the 1600s and die in a fire.

The surprising thing about this genre-blender is that, despite Robinson’s stellar reputation as a writer of sci-fi, it’s the history that’s really captivating. Sure, space is awe-inspiring and gorgeous, especially in the vivid, color-splashed prose that Robinson devotes to his descriptions of Jupiter and its moons. But it was never long before I’d wonder, “when do we go back to Florence?” The story really snaps into focus on its human scale, the life of Galileo.

Restlessly curious, he works through the nights for a better understanding of the heavens. He deals with money troubles and family troubles, lawsuits, his harridan mother and worthless siblings, and all of the monumentally stupid people whom he has not yet debated or browbeaten into acceptance of patently obvious mathematical and physical truths about the universe. (Galileo has a bit of an ego.) Over his visits to outer space, he’s variously time-shifted, mind-wiped, and brain-accelerated so that he can cram several centuries worth of mathematical progress in one heady geekout. Back in Italy, all that he’s learned about temporal theory and his own lifespan shakes out into a distressing state of constant déjà vu, presque vu, and outright panic. Because eventually the Catholic Church wants to talk to him about this book he wrote? In which he implied that the pope is monumentally stupid? And dying by fire suddenly seems very likely.

I enjoyed Galileo’s Dream for many of the same reasons that I enjoy Neal Stephenson, especially the history-of-science aspects of Stephenson’s Quicksilver. Both authors make the history of ideas immediate and exciting, while creating characters that you care about.

Check the WRL catalog for Galileo’s Dream.