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Fascinating but flawed...,
This review is from: Galileo's Dream (Paperback)Having produced three trilogies (Three Californias, Red Mars and Science in the Capital), and novels like Antartica and The Years of Rice and Salt, all of which are wide-screen takes on the interaction of history, politics and science, this at first looks an odd work for this author.
It appears to be a retelling of the life of Galileo. Apart from a meeting with a stranger who discusses the idea of a telescope to him, and the occasional odd lapse into a perspective observing Galileo, the novel's first part takes a detailed look at Galileo's rise to fame and renown for his inventions and learning. The historical detail is well done and the everyday life of Renaissance Italy, and Galileo's continual struggles to earn enough money to support his large household and 'extended family' convince in their historicity, all the while fighting against ill health. Many of these troubles are assuaged by the success of his telescope business.
But the telescope is ironically his downfall, as his observations (hitherto impossible with the naked eye) of the moons of Jupiter prove to him that heavenly objects circle one another. Although his writings on his other observations, for example, of how objects fall, are the basis for the scientific approach, his strongly-held Copernican notion of the Sun as the centre of things, not the Earth, puts him at odds with the Church of his time.
To a certain extent, this is itself 'science fiction' but things take a more orthodox turn when the stranger re-appears and reveals himself to be from the future and is in need of Galileo's help. Something alien and alive in the depths of this Jovian moon is causing a power struggle, thousands of years in the future, between the local human inhabitants, and others (the stranger's faction) from even further into the far future. It is essentially a time war, in which both sides, to use the metaphor employed in the novel, are trying to alter the flow of the 'river of time' to the betterment of humanity and Galileo is a pawn in that war.
A problem for this novel is that the historical characters come alive to a level that the future humans do not. They unfairly hector Galileo for living in their eyes a less than worthy life while they act like feckless teenagers, flying around Jupiter and having wild parties at the drop of a hat. The main advantage for the novel of taking Galileo into the future is that, via learning drugs, he gets a awe-inspiring vision of the future of science, up to the ultimate answer in physics, the 'manifold of manifolds' which, although he loses memory of this epiphany, seems to give him the strength needed to stand up to the Church, on behalf of science. However, this also devalues the courage of the historical Galileo, who could not have known what the future held but simply put his faith in science, contradiction intended. In this novel the 'wide screen' approach is its weakest part.