Kim Stanley Robinson



535pp/$26.00/December 2009

Galileo's Dream
Cover by David Stevenson

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Although the science fictional elements of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream are woven throughout the entire text, the majority of the narrative can be read almost as a standard work of historical fiction, exploring Galileo’s invention of the astronomical telescope and subsequent dealings with the Italian Church. 

The plot of the novel s reasonably straight forward.  A stranger presents Galileo with a new invention, the telescope, and Galileo sees the tool’s implications, turning it on the moon, Venus, and Jupiter while trying to improve on its design.  Robinson follows Galileo’s life as he presents his findings and becomes embroiled with a Church which has aligned itself too closely with a literal interpretation of the Bible, unable to adapt even in the face of evidence.

Had this been all Robinson did in Galileo’s Dream, he would have written a strong historical novel.  However, he chose to incorporate a time-travel story, in which one faction of the human inhabitants of the Galilean moons in the thirty-first century have elected to bring Galileo for several visits to their own time, carefully eradicating any memory he has with a powerful amnesiac before sending him back to Italy and his fate.

The Galileans, however, did not count on Galileo’s innate sense of curiosity, and he eventually manages to avoid the amnesiac and retain a semblance of memories of the future upon his return to the seventeenth century, now knowing more about the workings of the universe, but also an idea of his own fate, which is to be burned at the stake as was done to Giordano Bruno. Galileo sets for himself the seemingly impossible task of bringing knowledge and truth to his contemporaries while avoiding the fate apparently reserved for him.

The historical portions of the novel are practically written in a manner to suggest that Robinson wants his readers to explore this historical Galileo after they finish reading Galileo’s Dream to find out how much was real and how much was the invention of Robinson’s own imagination, aided by the time traveling Jovians.

The Galileo Robinson depicts is egotistical and irascible, his relationships with anyone he sees as his intellectual inferior, from his children to Johannes Kepler, laden with undisguised condescension. While this does not indicate a sympathetic character, Robinson is able to make the reader care about Galileo’s troubles and successes in part because of the knowledge the reader has of Galileo’s place in history, almost as if his genius excuses his arrogance. This is something about which Robinson’s Galileo also has awareness, for despite his foibles, he has seen, first hand, from the Jovians how he will come to be regarded, which can only serve to stoke his ego as he tries navigates through his own time.

The future segments of the novel add extra depth and detail to the historical portion, but in the end, it is Robinson’s portrayal of the historical Galileo, within his own milieu, which is the strongest portion of the novel and retains the reader’s interest.

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