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Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

01/05/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Galileo's Dream in the USA - or Buy Galileo's Dream in the UK

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pub: Spectra/Random House. 532 page hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $32.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-553-80659-5).

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Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of the multiple award-winning trilogy of Science Fiction novels about the terraforming and colonisation of Mars, 'Red Mars' (1992), 'Green Mars' (1993) and 'Blue Mars' (1996). Most of his more recent novels have focused on the SF implications of various ecological problems here on Earth. 'Galileo's Dream' is a departure once more, as it combines alternate history with far future SF.

The main plot of 'Galileo's Dream' follows the famous seventeenth century scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei over the last three decades of his life. It starts with his discovery in 1609 of the largest four moons around Jupiter, soon after learning the new science of telescope making. It ends with his death in 1642, living under house arrest after being found guilty of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church, because of his support for Copernicus' theory that the Earth was not the centre of the universe but orbited the sun. We follow this brilliant but brittle genius as he makes his revolutionary discoveries, makes enemies with his short temper and acid tongue and slowly succumbs to a succession of debilitating physical ailments.

So far, so conventional. However, the sub-plot of 'Galileo's Dream' takes us in a very different direction. Early in the story, Galileo is approached by a mysterious stranger who invites him to try out his own more advanced telescope. When he does, he is transported to the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa many thousands of years in the future. The residents, who are distant descendants of humanity, laud him as the 'First Scientist', whose ill-judged persecution by Rome broke the church's stranglehold on debate and led to the enlightenment. However, they have an ulterior motive for bringing him to the moon. All four of the Galilean Moons of Jupiter - Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto - have been settled. They are governed jointly by a council of senators from all four worlds. This council is locked in a bitter argument about how best to communicate with an advanced life-form that they have discovered living in the seas below the surface of Europa. Some of them feel that Galileo's genius may help them to a solution. Throughout the story, he travels repeatedly to Jupiter's moons, finding out about the Jovian settlers, the life-form under the Europan ice and about the future of scientific discovery back on Earth between his age and theirs.

As the story progresses, Galileo's Jovian friends try to warn him about the personal dangers of his coming conflict with the church. They point out that, if things go very badly, he could end up being burned at the stake. However, Galileo is egotistical and headstrong. He thinks that life is black and white and that a theory based on strong evidence will always carry the day. His understanding of people and politics is close to zero. Worse, he doesn't see this as a shortcoming. When an admirer of his is made Pope, Galileo thinks that his troubles are at an end. The new Pope, however, has political problems of his own to deal with. As Europe stands on the brink of war between France and Spain, the Pope's earlier support for the difficult physicist is soon sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

As Galileo's situation turns from bad to worse, we are left wondering whether he will survive the charge of heresy or will end up being burned at the stake. We also wonder whether what happens to Galileo the man may also impact on the future of Europe. Will his punishment by the church lead to a scientific golden age or will Europe descend into an age of religious fundamentalism and intellectual stagnation?

'Galileo's Dream' is a complex and multi-layered novel with a great deal to recommend it. As a fictional but well-researched account of the life of one of the most important physicists of all time, this is a wonderful insight into Galileo's life. As a former physicist, I found the opportunity to get behind Galileo's numerous theories and inventions to the deeply flawed, yet ultimately sympathetic, human being enormously rewarding. The characters are well drawn and 17th century Italy is portrayed in such warts and all detail that you really feel you are there alongside Galileo.

My main problem with the book is in the contrast between the verisimilitude of the historical sections and the relative superficiality of the Jovian characters. There are some beautiful descriptive passages as Galileo is flown around the Jovian system at various points. The sub-plot about the intelligent being living in the oceans of Europa is also a great idea. However, I never felt that I got to know any of the Jovian characters in anything like the level of detail accorded to even the minor characters in Galileo's 'real' life. In consequence, the Jovian episodes never became completely real for me.

That one fault aside, this is a deeply rewarding book to read and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Patrick Mahon

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