Saturday, 16 May 2015

Galileo's Dream

When I went to Kim Stanley Robinson's Kaffeeklatch at WorldCon last year, he talked a bit about his recent book, Galileo's Dream. He said that he'd got to a stage in writing where it was a hard slog, and not enjoyable any more - but then he started writing under a canopy in his garden, and being outdoors in pleasant surroundings made it fun again. He said that Galileo's Dream had been written like this, and he'd had a lot of fun doing it.
It shows in the writing - and you can also see how much KSR likes Galileo as a character.
He's irrascible and stubborn and annoying - and fascinating and fun to be around too. And a genius, of course.
The Renaissance isn't a period I ever liked overmuch - I usually much prefer the Middle Ages - but this book takes you right inside the workings of Renaissance Italy, with Galileo's struggles to find a new sponsor (the authorities in Venice not being so generous as he had anticipated when he showed them his telescope), and also right into the household of Galileo, with the students and his mistress and his poverty stricken brother and the problem of what to do with his little girls when they grow up. And all the time, he's working on mathematical problems, and spending sleepless nights observing Jupiter and the four moons. I learnt a huge amount, quite painlessly, about the way the Vatican worked, and the arguments between the different scientists and theologians, and Galileo's relationship with his daughters who he sent off to be Poor Clare nuns. He even includes actual letters and documents from the time - he must have done a huge amount of research.
Being Kim Stanley Robinson, of course, this is not a straight biography (though I think I would have read it if it was). A mysterious stranger gives Galileo the first idea to experiment with telescopes (and there isn't even a name for them yet), and at various times in the book he is whisked away to the very moons of Jupiter that he is observing, and into the far future, where he is acclaimed as "the first scientist" and drawn into the politics of the four moons. All the technology is seen from Galileo's point of view, and has to be explained to him in terms a Renaissance man will understand, but he grasps the basics very quickly, and hungers to know more.
Readers of other KSR books will recognise certain things which also appear there - like the characters with extreme longevity, for instance. Some of them have managed to wangle their way into Galileo's household as servants, where they are protecting him as best they can, while the mysterious stranger from the opening scene is trying to manipulate Galileo's life in a way that will best serve his needs in the far future.
So, this was great fun, and I learned a lot - and I'm going to be reading more about Renaissance history in future because of this book.

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