Kim Stanley Robinson: Galileo’s Dream
True to form, with Galileo’s Dream Robinson serves up a brick thick slab of a book clocking in at just under 600 pages. However, unlike a few parts of his otherwise outstanding Mars series, this book never drags, not even a little. The book is based around the life of Galileo Galilei and his invention of the telescope, which eventually leads to him being tried for heresy by the holy inquisition when his discoveries proving the Copernican view of the solar system correct are made public. In conjunction with this fictionalised biography, Galileo is occasionally propelled forwards in time into the far future and finds himself travelling between the moons of Jupiter, present at humanities first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence.
At first this conceit seems ill-concieved, the science fiction sitting awkwardly alongside late renaissance Italy, and at very few points are the two stories actively reconciled. Robinson leaves it up to the reader to make the connections, and very cleverly done it is too. It soon becomes clear that this is a very, very subtle first contact novel. In meeting the minds of the Jovian system humanity is struggling with a vast intelligence orders of magnitude greater than itself which possesses seemingly vast repositories of power, and with which it can only inneffectively communicate. This very much echo’s what it must have been like for Galileo to try and deal with the stubborn, defensive, and effectively infallible Roman Catholic Church and Inquisition. Not merely this, but by placing Galileo at the scene of First Contact and describing how communication with an alien entity proceeds almost entirely within the framework of a shared mathematics, Robinson produces a hymn to his historical subject, extrapolating in the widest possible sense from the path that the first scientist set the human race upon.
In this novel, as in the Mars trilogy, Robinson’s scholarship is clearly on display. The fullness of his research into the life of Galileo is evident, but what is most surprising is the way the scientist is humanised. He is portrayed as a strong willed, defiant character, constantly verging on the edge of arrogance but never really tipping over. The depiction is objective and critical, a character at one point even suggesting to Galileo that his relationships with women were seriously unhealthy. Other times it is suggested that this misogyny was at the root of much of the suffering of those he loved, and even the cause of their deaths, but the book is ultimately sympathetic to Galileo as a human being, replete with flaws and yet charismatic, struggling to do what is right, and all without portraying the man as the standard damaged and selfish yet righteous genius figure that so many founding scientists are frequently portrayed as.
Overall this is another monumental book from Robinson. From conception to execution the book is extremely well put together, brilliantly and lucidly written even when it attempts to portray the future of mathematics, and bears all the hallmarks of a labor of love the like of which we have come to expect from this author.