Wednesday, July 28, 2010

2010 Not-a-Hugo Nominee GALILEO'S DREAM by Kim Stanley Robinson

My third and final not-a-nominee entry. Galileo’s Dream is an ambitious work from one of sf’s most prominent (and, I’d say, best) writers, so I expected to see it on the nomination list. When it didn’t appear, I wondered if it’s late US release date (December 29th!) had hindered it in some way. For all I know, that could be the case, and it may even be eligible again next year. However, while I liked the book, now that I’ve read it, I’m not quite so miffed to see it absent from the nominee list.

Robinson’s main focus is on writing a biographical novel of Galileo Galilei, the seventeenth century scientist who made a host of discoveries that reinforced the idea that the earth revolved around the sun and paved the way for Isaac Newton a few decades later. Galileo emphasized mathematics and empiricism, and thus also influenced the modern practice of science. And, he made some of the first important observations with a telescope, discovering Jupiter’s largest moons among other celestial objects. When Galileo published his observations, he faced persecution by the Catholic Church, which had committed itself to a geocentric view of the universe that put the Earth at the center of everything (ironically, this was the result of a thirteenth century bout of rationalism in the Church that had Thomas Aquinas synchronizing Greek thinkers like Ptolemy and Aristotle with the Bible, and Aquinas was also persecuted and recanted, but that’s a whole tangent that Robinson doesn’t really get into).

So, about 3/5ths of the novel covers Galileo’s life, which is suitably operatic: he has an abusive mother, he suffers bouts of debilitating (mental?) illness, he fathers three illegitimate children with the same woman, his two daughters end up in a convent and suffer from their own illnesses, he’s caught up in court intrigues, he makes the aforementioned scientific discoveries, and he has a dramatic trial that includes forged evidence and startling testimony. There’s lots of material to work with, and though these biographical portions started out slow, I eventually came to prefer them to the science fiction portions.

So, yes, the other 2/5ths of the novel involve Galileo being plucked out of time by 31st century colonists of Jupiter’s moons. He’s pulled forward by competing factions who are involved in scientific disputes and want to alter Galileo’s destiny for their own purposes. Early on, these sections were very intriguing, and it’s fun to watch Galileo learn about Einstein (though he takes things in a little too easily). But it all gets a bit fuzzy as the story goes on, and we begin to get vague, pseudo-sciencey talk about “entanglement.” Robinson is usually known as a hard sf kind of guy, but, paradoxically, a hard sf version of time travel inevitably takes you to some sort of probabilistic, quantum mechanics-heavy view of the universe. The uncertainty principle is good science, but it’s not very satisfying from a narrative point of view: “ah, yes, you’re the Galileo who died young – or not – or both. Oh well, who cares?” This story just gets more bizarre and more pointless as it goes on, and I found some of the future discoveries about Jupiter to be just plain silly.

There are other weird decisions in the book as well. The future debates all involve the relationship between science and religion, and what it means for human history. But, it’s never explained all that well, and that entire narrative thread feels unfinished. There’s also a first-person narrator, but he generally refers to himself in the third person and drops completely out of the novel for hundreds of pages at a time. Again, I was left wondering what the point was.

There’s a lot to like here. Robinson’s writing and ideas are characteristically strong, and the Galileo material is generally compelling. But, the novel never quite comes together. It’s very unclear and uncertain, which may have been the goal…but it makes for a difficult and unrewarding read.

Grade: B-

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