Galileo’s Dream, by author Kim Stanley Robinson, takes the reader on a time traveling adventure between the moons of Jupiter and the most famous cities of the Renaissance, between the political turmoil of the distant future to the inner turmoil of Galileo’s own mind. Our guides throughout the journey are a man named Ganymede – who seeks to use Galileo’s presence in his own time for unknown reasons, and a woman of the future named Hera – who tries to guide Galileo’s actions by helping him to explore his own mind.
The book begins when Ganymede visits Galileo during the Renaissance – prompting the development of the telescope. From there, the book follows the scientist throughout the course of his life. Galileo, in poor health throughout the entire story, falls into syncopes – a condition that renders him senseless to his surroundings. During each episode, he travels to the Jovian moons that he’s recently discovered – at first at the bidding of Ganymede and later for his own reasons. In the distant future, Ganymede wishes to use Galileo to either to prevent some future catastrophe in his own time or to influence Galileo in the past. There’s also the distinct possibility that Galileo will be burned at the stake. In both settings, Renaissance and future, there’s danger, political intrigue, and mystery. Why is Galileo brought to the future? Can he escape the fire?
As the story progresses, it paints a vivid portrait of one of the most famous scientists of all time, not just as a historic figure but as a person. The details of his life and the author’s vision of his personality come across in extreme detail. The book is not so much a read as an entire experience – and not always a pleasant one, since Galileo is as abrasive as he is brilliant.
Beautiful and archaic language is used throughout the book, as well as some profanity and disturbingly crude imagery. Some of the terms are difficult to understand, though through repeated use (or a handy dictionary) their meaning becomes more clear. The novel engenders the reader with the curiosity to look up more history concerning this subject, a curiosity mirrored by the character of Galileo himself.
The book also features several strong female characters, both from the time of Galileo and the distant future. Both Hera and Sister Maria Celeste (Galileo’s daughter) show remarkable resilience, bravery, and courage in adversity; strengths of character that exceed that of many of the novel’s main male characters.
At over 500 pages, this book takes a good deal of time to get through – months, in fact, on my part, since I found the author’s style hard to follow. The plot meanders throughout Galileo’s life on Earth and his time traveling to the distant moons of Jupiter – the moons he himself views repeatedly through his newly invented telescope. Events are repeated through memories and retellings, the story is confusing because of the way it jumps around time, and for most of the book the character of Galileo is fundamentally unlikable.
This book has a lot to recommend it to readers; strong interesting characters, a dynamic historical perspective, a detailed view of possible futures. And although I’d like to recommend the book based on these considerations alone, I simply can’t. Even if a reader manages to wade through the language, sift through timelines and alternate timelines, and put up with the aggravating character of Galileo; the book itself is far too long to subject yourself. The novel has redeeming qualities, but in the end, it’s simply not worth the investment of time. I’d recommend instead looking up the actual history of Galileo, one of humanity’s truly great scientists.