Thursday, August 25, 2011

For Pleasure: Galileo's Dream

Of the summer reading I outlined, I did complete that lovely volume of Margaret Atwood's stories (Moral Disorder,) and a number of James Hillman essays in Puer Papers as well as in Picked Up Pieces--more on those in a later post.  I also read Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Mother Night, but I'll probably take a break in my journey through his novels to read a forthcoming biography of him I've received.  But the major read was Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream. 

As a fan of his science fiction and near-future fiction (the Mars trilogy, Three Californias, Science in the Capital) I’ve been reluctant to tackle Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate histories. But I started his latest novel, Galileo's Dream (Spectra), and more than 500 pages later I finished it, wondering what my problem was.

Part of my reluctance was the historical dialogue choice between two equally awkward alternatives: does everybody sound hopelessly antique and false, or do these characters from remote times talk like they’ve got smartphones in their togas?

Robinson opts for a contemporary vocabulary, though with a minimum of anachronisms plus appropriate historical touches and maybe some subtle Italian rhythms. He makes it work mostly because he creates a complex, believable and likeable Galileo, clearly the result of impressive research, but also a literary character—a kind of Italian Falstaff (Galileo and Shakespeare were contemporaries) with a quick and penetrating intelligence.

Galileo’s intellect and insights are formidable, but his ego, impatience and appetites cause him as much humiliation as his battles with the Church over how the solar system works. He’s got marital, family and money problems, devoted friends and dedicated enemies. Plus he keeps getting sent to the moons of Jupiter in the year 3020.

That’s the science fiction part of the story, and some readers have found those scenes and characters less satisfying because less complete. I like the way the problems of the future feed back into the historical story, and manage to even create suspense about Galileo’s ultimate fate. (There are hints that the past of this future is different—even the solar system has a few more planets. And that this future may depend on Galileo being executed. ) That the future characters have mythological names adds another layer of mystery. In terms of how humans react to new knowledge that humbles them, past and future stories correspond.

The future segments allows Robinson to describe a fascinating new cosmology based partly on contemporary theory. (This also makes Galileo’s means of transport credible, and there are other impressive technologies in this future.) Galileo’s scientific attitude and curiosity lends credibility to how easily he accepts what he sees and learns.  The idea of a greater consciousness is not new--Lem's Solaris has a living sea, and the great Olaf Stapledon built up to conscious star systems--but here the importance would seem to be how future humans respond to something that seems to reduce their centrality in the universe, much as people in Galileo's day did to the implications of what he saw through his telescope.

In other ways the interaction not only provides perspective from the future viewing the earth's past, but the other way around. About the inhabitants of these moons, Galileo observes: “Surely living out here must make you all a little bit mad? Never to sit in a garden, never to feel the sun on your neck? We were never born for this.”

Though Robinson (who teaches down the coast at Davis) is just shy of 60, this novel expresses a notably mature perspective, both in content and forthright expression. This gives Galileo’s aging observations even more resonance.

Ultimately this is the story of the first scientist (though the word “scientist” didn’t arrive until the 19th century), and the meaning of his insights as well as the fullness of his life. There’s humor and incident within the framework, and towards the end of his life, when Galileo sees something different in one of his daughters, there’s a feeling of possibility as well as elegy. That’s even stronger when you figure out the identity of his last visitor.

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