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Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (2009)
Recently, I was sort of following a debate going on in the science fiction community about the lack of optimism in sci fi these days. Honestly, I hadn’t noticed that science fiction had been growing more pessimistic, since I tend toward downer books anyway. There is not much hope in your average dystopian or post-apocalyptic story. But it does make a certain amount of sense that science fiction as a whole would be growing more gloomy. Back in the Golden Age of sci fi, when we were just starting to contemplate space exploration and making fantastic technological innovations, the writing reflected the general mood: one of optimism and looking forward to a rosy future, where everyone gets their own jet pack or flying car. But as our cultural outlook grew more pessimistic, when we realized the havoc we were wreaking on our environment and the dark side of technology, of course the books got more pessimistic as well.
But I have to admit that Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Galileo’s Dream made me feel downright dejected. It pits science in a battle against religion, and science does not win. The projected future for humanity is very bleak indeed.
Galileo’s Dream is an intriguing blend of historical fiction and science fiction. It tells the story of Galileo’s life from when he developed the telescope — an idea that was suggested to him by a mysterious stranger — to his death. When Galileo uses his new telescope to discover Jupiter’s four largest moons, the stranger returns and transports him through time and space to one of those moons, 1,000 years in the future. (That’s the science fiction part, in case you hadn’t guessed.)
While Galileo’s life story is interesting, and Robinson pays close attention to the historical details, the scenes on Jupiter’s moons made for the most exciting reading. Robinson describes the moons with human settlements — icy Europa, sulfurous Io, rocky Ganymede — with loving precision, and the images of Jupiter hanging above them are awe-inspiring. There is also more action in the future scenes, as Galileo is dragged along by two factions fighting over how to deal with the discovery of an alien sentience in the ocean underneath Europa’s ice shell, and I wish we had spent more time there.
It is not at first clear why Galileo was brought forward into the future, but it seems that the stranger — whose name is also Ganymede — is trying to manipulate Galileo’s fate, in an endeavor to alter the course of human history. As the “first scientist,” Galileo is a pivotal figure in the development of science and the efforts of religion to suppress scientific discoveries. He was accused of heresy for supporting the Copernican view that the Earth orbits the Sun and brought before the Inquisition. Apparently, Ganymede is trying to ensure that Galileo is burned at the stake for heresy, which will in some way help the cause of science. Human history has been so traumatic that the colonists on Jupiter’s moons are suffering a permanent post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. No details are given; we don’t even know if the Earth is still habitable in the future. But Galileo’s unjust execution would result in more people accepting science and turning away from religion. For me, this story line and the reasoning behind it was somewhat muddled and hard to follow, which is the main fault I can find with this book.
Regardless, it’s clear that even with the right outcome, things won’t get better for humanity, just less bad. Humanity is so destructive, so doomed, that the horrors we visit upon ourselves can’t be avoided entirely. They can just be mitigated. This view felt overwhelmingly pessimistic to me, although I can understand where Robinson is coming from. As an advocate for scientific approaches to mitigating climate change, Robinson must feel let down by the public’s refusal to accept the evidence of global warming. Even in the early 21st century, science doesn’t get much respect.
Galileo, ironically, is the most optimistic character in the novel, even though his final years weren’t all that pleasant. He has no trouble reconciling religion and science, and he can accept the alien consciousness on Europa because he already believes in and respects higher beings. In science and mathematics, Galileo clearly sees the hand of God at work — in the beauty of the simple ratios that occur naturally again and again. He relishes the act of understanding the natural world as a religious experience. Yet he lives in a brutal, uncertain, superstitious time.
Galileo’s Dream is a meaty book that may require more than one reading to fully digest. I haven’t even touched on the philosophizing about time and dimensions that goes on, which is all fascinating. But the net effect of reading it was so depressing that I’m not sure I’ll go back for seconds.