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Review: Galileo's Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Renaissance genius meets the distant future —
But is the author's heart in his own conceit?

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Galileo Galilei by
Giusto Sustermans (Wikipedia)

"If I have seen less far than others," Galileo complained in irritation to Aurora, "it is because I was standing on the shoulders of dwarfs."
— Galileo Galilei explains his limitations in Galileo's Dream.

Is Kim Stanley Robinson getting tired of science fiction?

In the five novels since the final book in his already-classic Mars trilogy was published in 1996 and the North American release of Galileo's Dream just after Christmas, Robinson sojourned in alternate history with the excellent stand-alone novel, The Years of Rice and Salt and the very near future, with the not-entirely-successful "Science in the Capital" series; not quite abandoning the field, but staying on its peripheries.

Although his newest novel is an unabashed return to centre of science fiction, that the historical sections of Galileo's Dream are both more convincing and more interesting than those set in the 31st century, suggests that return is premature.

The novel opens in the late 16th century when a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua — as you may have guessed, none other than Galileo Galilei himself — is approached by a mysterious stranger who (I give away nothing that isn't on the dust-jacket) is a visitor from the far future. The stranger tells Galileo of a remarkable Dutch invention, a device which magnifies objects seen from a distance — a telescope, of course.

Intrigued, Galileo returns home to attack the problem and, in so doing, begins the process of invention and discovery that will lead to his eternal fame and to his eventual disastrous run-in with the dreaded Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Robinson is probably the best writer there is when it comes to dramatizing not just the discoveries of science but the processes by which those discoveries are made. The sections which focus on Galileo the scientist are fascinating and brilliantly alive. And he proves he is just as good at historical fiction, clearly and engagingly showing us the intricate politics of late-Renaissance Italy.

It is the conflict between science and religion, faith and empiricism, which is at the heart of the novel and that, perhaps, is why those sections set in the future don't fully succeed.

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