Synopsis: This novel interleaves two narrations: The most prominent one is the historical biography of Galileo Galilei. The second one is a time travel story where Galileo is repeatedly transported a thousand years into the future in order to mediate a controversy of several factions of Jupiter moon inhabitants. The core of the novel is that Galileo – “first scientist, father of physics” – has been the founder of modern science, using experiments to proof hypotheses and mathematical formulas to describe them.
Galileo’s annus mirabilis are the years 1609/10, when he built one of the first telescopes, watched the Moon, discovered Jupiter’s innermost moons, and found Venus’s phases similar to our Moon. The narration follows the master through these years and transports the wonder of Galileo’s findings, his joy and frustrations in an absolute intoxicating way. Galileo hasn’t been an easy character: a hot-tempered Italian raging at the stupidity of his fellows in comparison to his mathematic genius; at the same time plaged by numerous health problems, hypochondria not the least of them. But all that bad behavior was balanced by his intense experiments, thoughts, and his caring for his children, most of all his oldest daughter.
After his breakthrough discoveries which made him most prominent all over Europe, and brought him a patronage with the Medici in Florence, there came a lot of bad years. That’s when the Roman Holy Inquisition began to be interested in his works, fed by Galileo’s numerous enimies. While he was a strict Catholic, and tried to protect his church with his findings, the Inquisition was of different opinion – most of all his propagation of the Copernican heliocentric world model vs. the church’s doctrine of the Ptolemaian cosmology with an unmoving Earth at the center.
While he didn’t end on the stake and wasn’t tortured by the Inquisition, the Catholic church put his works on the index, forbade him to lecture or even talk about Copernicanism, and grounded him to house arrest in his Florence home.
The following year, Galileo worked on different scientific topics, building the basis for later natural philosophers like Newton or Leibnitz. Robinson gives a parody to Newton’s famous line, emphasizing Galileo’s scientific isolation:
If I have seen less far than others… it is because I was standing on the shoulders of dwarves” (191)
The second, interleaving narration is a time travel story: inhabitants of the inner moons of Jupiter managed to travel back into time, taking with them an apparatus which made it possible to travel through time and place to an entangled machine.
They decided to kidnap Galileo as the first scientist who would bring a new view and moderate their controversy: they’ve found an intelligent entity deep in Europa’s ocean, but fear to interact with it.
One of the most interesting lines here is Galileo’s statement that science shouldn’t be independent of religion, but
Science needed more religion, not less. And religion needed more science. The two needed to become one. Science is a form of devotion, a kind of worship.” (419)
Review: With a biography, one needs to build trust the author doesn’t make up things. The author integrated many (translated) citations from Galileo or his contemporaries, always easily recognizable by using italics. And I already knew about the basics from Galileo’s life from another historical fiction – Bertold Brecht’s Life of Galileo has been several times the topic in high school. One can say that I always was a fan of that guy.
As far as I can tell, Robinson nailed Galileo’s life and his time in Venice, Florence, and the Vatican accurately. But then again, I’m not a professional historican and can’t really assess the correctness.
On the other hand, this is a narration, a novel. Not everything has to be 100% correct, and some elements are up to literary freedom. Most importantly, Galileo’s travels into the future and his musings there – looking back to his life and scientific findings, his relation to religion and the church – are all made-up.
While others hated these time travel parts or disregarded them, it was the exact opposite for me. While the SF plot didn’t do much for me, Galileo’s disscussions brought a very fine reflection about himself and his time – cf. the citations above. Having read those allowed me to understand much more than just following the historical narration.
The novel is KSR’s (only) work using a special SF trope, namely time travel. I won’t discuss the relation to his otherwise tendency to Hard SF, but I guess that he wanted to check every subgenre of SF with its own novel. I’ve seen far better usages of time travel with more interesting ideas around it, and the whole novel itself isn’t the author’s best work. But I highly enjoyed it, and welcomed the character of Galileo Galilei.
Highly recommended for fans of the author interested in the main protagonist. There’s lots of action in it, great characters, and an interesting way of interleaving future and the past.