Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo's Dream, Voyager, 2009.
This novel explores the life and scientific discoveries of Galileo Galilei, along with a far-future plot line that considers the importance and implications of Galileo's role in the history of science.
Galileo is a compelling character, with a stark contrast between his intellectual integrity and his emotional flaws of pride and stubbornness. We follow his scientific progress and the politics surrounding his career. He is committed to discovering and teaching the true nature of the universe, and is frustrated by the unwillingness of others to change their minds when superior evidence is presented. He is quoted as saying, "There is no hatred like that of ignorance for knowledge", a statement that is still true today. He keeps his faith in God throughout, and his problem with the religious authorities is their insistence on the literal truth of scripture. He believes that humans are capable of discovering the truth through the evidence of their senses and the power of thought, all of which are parts of God's universe.
The SF part of the story comes when Galileo is transported, at several points in his life, to a far-future era and embroiled in a political struggle on the moons of Jupiter, where humans are making first contact with an alien intelligence. His experiences there, and his gradual exposure to various alternate versions of his life and the impact he has on the progression of history after his era, are used to explain the choices he makes back in his own time.
The book cites in italics passages from Galileo's writings, and those of his contemporaries, and in some cases the citations seem to be explained in the context of the fictional future plot line. This is an interesting way of linking the historical novel to the SF content, but in some cases it felt rather forced.
This was the first of two books I read recently that used the idea of multiple universes, in very different ways. Here, Galileo sees many possible futures of his life, and wishes to alter one in which he is burned at the stake. It seems to me that a person understanding the multiple universe theory would realize that even if it were possible to prevent a certain outcome in one universe, this would not change others where it still happened, just add one new universe to the many that still exist.
As with many novels that contain two main plot lines, the reader is left wondering what is going on in the other plot line and waiting for the next section of the other plot. Each story line is read in light of what has been happening in the other.
The future part of the novel was interesting, but had a dreamlike remoteness. A society with such advanced abilities, such as time travel through alternate pasts, would be motivated by different ideals than ours. The characters are strongly drawn, but the reader gets the impression that they know much more than Galileo, or current readers, can possibly understand. This makes them hard to identify with, and Galileo is manipulated by them in a way that leaves him powerless and frustrated. The clear parallel between his struggle with the Inquisition and his involvement with future Jovian-system factions creates sympathy for Galileo's situation(s), even when his attitude and behaviour make him a flawed hero. All he can do is maintain his confidence in his discoveries and his world view, while others around him distort his words and intentions, kidnap and imprison him. The portrayal of such a strong-willed person becoming so helpless is touching.
The novel is beautifully written, with vivid descriptions of places, events, and characters alike, and an interesting plot and structure. The ideas raised are of interest in today's society, where the conflict between science and religion, or between rationality and dogmatism, seems as strong as ever.