Book Review: Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

This latest novel from Kim Stanley Robinson is at once both identifiable as Robinson’s unique brand of philosophical science fiction and a departure from his work. In some ways it feels more like a homage to the early works of the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

It starts as a simple biography of the first true scientist as he first observes and then shows others the miracles he can observe through his telescope. But one night a mysterious stranger asks Galileo to take a look at his device. Galileo obliges and finds himself transported to another world: Europa in the 30th century to be precise. The Galilean moons are home to human factions currently arguing over whether scientific knowledge should be advanced by attempting to communicate with an advanced intellect that lives beneath the surface of the icy moon. The occupants of Europa require the assistance of Galileo to stop it happening and talking the other representatives out of their plan. This particular plot in so many ways reflects what is happening to Galileo in the 16th-17th century by mirroring in theme each phase of his engagement with the Vatican. He doesn’t make one trip; instead he flits constantly between the two worlds to allow real-world events to happen before he is whisked back to Jupiter.

This is a “warts and all” look at Galilei Galileo. Far from portraying him as a Saint for the secular thinker, he is shown as a short-tempered bully, an excessive drinker, a womaniser and sometimes a fanatic whose single-mindedness in overturning the Ptolemaic model leads him to push his daughters into a convent without much thought for anything else. Also, we get an intriguing insight into the world of Vatican politics as a succession of popes are confronted with the problems of the age; not just Galileo but the impending 30 years war and other religious conflicts.

There is a moral tale at work too. The Europans are attempting to manipulate Galileo for their own end, pushing him further in order that he is burnt at the stake to become a secular martyr. Their ultimate goal is make the war between religion and science over quickly. Galileo feels uneasy at this; after all he always considered himself a good Catholic. In real life he dies a sick man under house arrest having been brow-beaten into recanting.

Not only is this an intriguing and thoughtful novel, it is also quite fun. We delight at the sense of adventure as he explores the four primary moons and confronts the sentient being that lives in the Jupiter system.

I really cannot fault this book. A great idea well executed 5/5

Risk taking – Post a day #141

Risk taking (as suggested by post a day), like conflict, arguably drives fiction. If characters didn’t take risks, nine times out of ten we have no story.

Take Lyra Belacqa, protagonist of His Dark Materials takes an endless series of risks: by hiding in the cupboard she saves Lord Asriel’s life; by deciding to travel north to save her missing friend, she begins to unravel the abuses of the church and aids Asriel in his revolution.

Risk though, should always be about cause and effect, there should always be a moral outcome (good or bad) at the end of the action. In fiction, we always expect justice to be served (and it is most of the time) even for the most dangerous of risks. Harry Potter spends seven years taking risks and suffers terribly. He steadfastly stands up for justice despite that it puts his and his friends lives in danger.

Arguably, the thriller genre is founded on the concept of taking risks. Whether that be Robert Langdon burrowing through the layers of evidence to get to the truth of the conspiracy or one of John Grisham’s lawyers exposing a mafia plot or a government cover up, such books are page turners because they are about risk and it inspires excitement in the reader to discover what will happen next.

When writing, I always try to use risk as a character driver or a plot driver; I try to make risk important to the story and therefore necessary. This is because when reading books, I tend to get frustrated at unnecessary or pointless risk taking that seems to have no ultimate goal. This makes the writer seem desperate and the character(s) either stupid or reckless so it is important that risks have an ultimate goal.

What invention do you most need right now? – Post a Day #137

Today’s Post a Day is about invention. I’m not sure about technology that I need, but I want to talk about a technology that I really would like to see in my lifetime but am unlikely to.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to see Uncaged Monkeys which was a hugely popular tour (well done guys, hope to see another tour next year!). Basically, it was an event of mini lectures about important scientific issues aimed at the lay person. On the guest list was Robin Ince, Professor Brian Cox, Doctor Simon Singh, Doctor Ben Goldacre and Professor Steve Jones. Quite an impressive lineup!

Professor Cox gave a lecture about relativity, the size of the universe and Hubble Deep Field Image where Hubble focused on a tiny amount of apparently empty space and revealed nearly 3000 galaxies. If you don’t know about it, read up on the wiki page; it is a very humbling experience.

Edit: See the image at my tumblr page

Simon Singh amongst other things, discussed the “pale blue dot” image:

Pale Blue Dot

The immensity of space is humbling in that it makes us realise just how small and insignificant we are. Our nearest neighbour, The Andromeda Galaxy is approximately 2.5m light years from our own. That means it will take light 2.5m years to reach it from our own galaxy. So obviously the technology I am most looking forward to is the possibility that one day we could invent a method of travelling faster than light so that we may explore at first our own galaxy and later, the far reaches of the universe.

Whether that be through technologies explored in science fiction: warping (Star Trek), hyperspace (Babylon 5), faster than light (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica) or space folding (Dune, Event Horizon) or some as yet unexplored concept, I’m sure that eventually we will seek to expand beyond our own solar system.

Though relativity says that physical objects cannot move faster than light, it does not forbid the existence of particles that can only travel faster than light. These particles (still only theoretical) if discovered and harnessed, will revolutionise travel as we know it.

My first steampunk story

I’ve been thinking a lot about the story I started last week. Though I’ve only written two paragraphs, at the moment I am thinking that this is going to be the critique of anti-science movements, specifically the climate change denialists/conspiracy theorists. The scenario is obvious I think, that the reason the city is atop a volcano in the first place is that it is a safe existence and they know there is unlikely to be a major eruption for a very long time… except there will be.

Around the internet I’ve been involved in arguments with many climate change denialists so I’m well versed in the sort of rhetoric they use. I’m also well aware that few of them have any scientific training in the respective fields so are just parroting propaganda they’ve been fed and do not have the capacity to evaluate it. This is as true of the anti MMR lobby as it is of creationists, alternative therapy advocates, climate change deniers and… I don’t know what the term is… but the sort of people who accept the Graham Hancock/Robert Bauval/Erich von Daniken approach to ancient civilisation.

I’m perpetually frustrated by such people, mostly because that they consider themselves so open-minded but when it comes down to it, no matter how well you destroy their argument they stick to their guns and when they have nothing left dismiss it all as a conspiracy.

Now I feel compelled to express that frustration in my writing. That may still change if I have another idea for my ‘impossible city’. Watch this space for updates.

EDIT: Linked to a laterPost a Day

Reflections on “The Walking Dead” Season 1

On Sunday night, the first season of The Walking Dead finished on Channel 5. Despite having very little that is original, the series is proving to be a global success.

Brit Andrew Lincoln (This Life, Love Actually, Afterlife) plays Rick Grimes, a small town American deputy Sheriff who is shot in the line of duty. The wound does not kill him but it does render him comatose. When he wakes up he finds the hospital has been subject to something violent, the staff have all gone and the hospital grounds are filled with dead bodies. He soon realises that the city is overrun with zombies. So begins the tale of a man desperate to find his family and somewhere safe and maybe get some answers.

Director Frank Darabont (The Mist, The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption) arguably took a bit of a gamble in converting the (still ongoing) graphic novel into a TV series rather than film but it seems to have paid off. The general slow pace of TV adaptations juxtaposes well with the tension of the zombie apocalypse. What results is a series where the viewer gets a strong sense of the day to day struggle of existence while experiencing the characters grow as people. Though zombies appear in every episode, they are rarely central to the story of the week and in the final episode of the first season they barely appear. Because of this focus, we stop seeing the group as cannon fodder to be gradually picked off, and see them as people.

In an odd way, this can also be said of the zombies. In the pilot, the writers are keen to remind us of what should be obvious but is easy to forget: these were people once. Early on in the pilot, Rick meets a man and his son. It is soon revealed that the mother has become a zombie and the father cannot bring himself to kill her. She returns every day to the house, walks up to the door, sometimes knocking it, sometimes trying the handle. There is a flicker of recognition in her eyes that reminds us of her humanity and terrifies in equal measure. A little later on, Rick returns to the scene of an encounter with a zombie woman crawling in the park. She is crawling because she no longer has any legs. Rick expresses pity for what has happened to her and while she is reaching for him her expression seems to be one of desperation. Despite being of no threat to him, he puts her out of her misery.

Overall I think the success of The Walking Dead (so far) has been down to three things. Firstly, the desire to commit to an ongoing story. Lost and The X Files both found success with this formula but later on both collapsed under the weight of their own complexity. And that brings me to the second issue: simplicity. Complex stories often have limited appeal. Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and its prequel Caprica never had broad appeal but were highly regarded. Thirdly, the fact that The Walking Dead is so gripping. Each episode has finished on a sort-of cliffhanger that makes you crave more.

The second season, I believe, is due to start shooting in June. I’m looking forward to it already.

My favourite character – Post a Day #126

Though the question is “Who is the character from a book that has made you feel so close to him/her that you simply can’t stop thinking what’s gonna happen next?”, I’m going to change it slightly and talk about my favourite character and why I like them.

My favourite all time character is a 12 year old girl living as the ward of a university, believing that her parents had been killed when she was very young and that her primary carer is her uncle. She is tough and doesn’t take nonsense from anybody; she is intolerant of most adults and any attempt to control her. She is tomboyish and inquisitive and as a result, is always in trouble. This inquisitiveness however early on allows her to foil an assassination attempt.

Her name is Lyra Belacqa and she is the central character in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

So why do I like Lyra so much? Well, because despite her flaws she is highly intelligent and thoughtful. She is also incredibly brave and seemingly fearless in standing up for what is right. During the first book, tricks the usurper of the panserbjørne (who is a polar bear) having already told the usurped leader that she finds his self-pity and destructiveness to be a disappointment considering everything she had heard about the panserbjørne.

Despite going along with Lord Asriel’s plan, she doesn’t trust him and when summoned away from her journey by one of Asriel’s henchmen she proclaims “we ain’t going!”

Lyra is one of the most complex yet straightforward characters in fiction. Far from being the sort of girl who you might want to take care of, she would probably be top of your list in choosing allies for a fight.

Someone else’s blog – Post a Day #123

Today’s post a day is to pick a blog post you enjoy and post about it.

Since starting this blog last year, I’ve found a number of useful fiction writer’s blogs. The one I visit most is Lisa Rivero’s. Often amusing and always informative and helpful, Lisa’s blog was my first subscription.

I found this post particularly amusing.

A Modern Prometheus Revisited

I’ve just finished reading the novel Frankenstein, having felt compelled to do so after seeing the amazing National Theatre production in March this year. I want to, not so much review it, but share some of my thoughts and draw comparisons between the original text and the play.

To use a cliché, this book blew me away and would say that it is a strong contender for my top 10 books of all time. There is so much to take from it and the BBC article I linked to in my original post lists 10 possible meanings. It is not difficult to see why each of these interpretations are applied but personally, I still favour the abdication of personal responsibility.

This is very much a character piece which centres around Doctor Frankenstein and the creature; all other characters are very much incidental – and very much victims of their destructive vendetta. We are hearing the story from the point of view of Doctor Frankenstein and the novel opens with him being rescued in the arctic before giving his lengthy tale to the ship’s Captain.

What is clear is that though the creature is the perpetrator of so much death, it is Doctor Frankenstein himself through his actions and reactions that is responsible for the chaos. Like the play, it is easy to feel sympathy for the creature and equally easy to feel increasing contempt for Doctor Frankenstein. And when through his pride he sabotages his only chance to be free of the creature, any chance that the reader will still be cheering Frankenstein is vanquished.

As for the play there are several differences to note; these are mostly focussed on giving other characters larger parts, making each tragedy seem even more horrific as we get to know them a little better and consequently, feel their loss. On the flip side, to emphasise the interplay between the man and the creature, several elements were sacrificed. In the play we do not see Frankenstein’s learning of alchemy or his experiments. Instead we cut straight to (a rather lengthy) “birth” scene for the creature. In the novel, Frankenstein was arrested for the death of his friend Clerval (who was not in the play) upon his arrival in Ireland, we do not see the death of Elizabeth and he is not rescued by the ship and consequently, neither of them died on board.

Danny Boyle’s production restored the most important elements of the creature: his voice and his intelligence with which he realises and expresses the disappointment with his creator. However, where the play really emphasises how the creature has become engulfed by the message of Milton’s Paradise Lost, this is not as central a focus in the original text though the theme and the creature’s sympathies are quite clear.

I suspect that this will not be my last post on Frankenstein.

A question to fellow writers

Have you ever had one of those days where you get an image or an idea stuck in your head and it buzzes around inside like a trapped wasp desperate to get outside?

I had one of those today and it consisted of a single image of a city built on top of a volcano. The desire to get something written down was so great that I hastily wrote a quick paragraph on my BlackBerry. It was like a craving, I’d never felt it before.

I rarely share unfinished work… and this one is barely started but this is the paragraph that I wrote:

From a distance, Vulcan City looked like a giant spider atop a dormant caldera hungrily locking its eight legs around the rim partly as if it were a prey on the verge of escape, partly claiming the burning mountain as its throne.

And that is all I have. I’m going to try to make something of it. I’m already strongly considering that this may be my first steampunk piece but novel or short story I do not know. As for plot I don’t have the faintest idea. I guess something will come to me. This weekend is supposed to be quite stormy. Perfect excuse to stay in and write, write, write!

Change the ending to a story – Post a Day #115

Interesting post a day for today about which story endings we would like to change. Obviously there are major SPOILERS ahead.


Daybreakers: Talk about a seriously wasted ending! In the near future, the world is full of vampires and the last few remaining humans are in hiding. In stark contrast to I Am Legend, society to all intents and purposes, has carried on as normal. But the blood exploitation on which the economy depends (obvious metaphor for oil) is in increasing short supply and scientists have been unable to synthesise it. Society is breaking down as demand for food outstrips supply. In the middle of all this, it is revealed that one man has been able to cure himself of vampirism. It eventually becomes clear that he has indeed been cured and in the final battle, the chief protagonist’s brother who has by this time been cured, sacrifices himself to start a chain reaction that should have reverted the populace back to human. But this chain reaction ends quickly when the vampires attacking him are cured and then gunned down by a single man making the elaborate plot all for nothing, killed by a lazy bit of writing. I would change it to show that the protagonist’s plot succeeded but I would make it a dark ending and show just what a huge sacrifice was made and how bloody (pardon the pun) the revolution was.

It’s a Wonderful Life: It is one of the films to watch at Christmas but whenever I watch the end I can’t help feeling that Potter has got off lightly. Is it really punishment enough that this avaricious and corrupt man, the source of so much misery in the town, is alone at Christmas? Not for me.

Alien: Resurrection: The human-like alien was awful. I would take it out and have a showdown between Ripley and the Queen as the ship rapidly approaches Earth.

No Country for Old Men: Seriously uneventful as Tommy Lee Jones’ character announces that he is disillusioned with being a cop. No idea what I would have done, but that was so sudden you have to ask ‘is that it?’


The Amber Spyglass: As regular readers will know, I am a huge fan of His Dark Materials but personally, I see no reason for making Lyra and Will separate at the end never to see each other again. To keep them together would have given closure that the trilogy required. Philip Pullman has so far written two short books Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North. Lyra appears in the first and Will is conspicuous by his absence. We may yet have resolution, as Pullman has been promising for years that a novel that will tie up all loose ends The Book of Dust will eventually be published.

The Witch’s Honour: When I read the first part of this trilogy Prospero’s Children, I did so with little expectation as it was a magazine freebie. I’m glad I read it because it is one of the best examples of contemporary fantasy – and I am pretty fussy about fantasy. The story is about a 16 year old girl named Fernanda who re-locates to the north of England with her father and brother. She soon discovers that things are not quite right: strange noises in the night, sinister locals and a strange man with an equally strange dog always seemingly watching her. She ends up finding a portal to Atlantis within the house. In this final part, Fern is now in her late 20s and has spent the last few years suppressing her magical powers. At the end she decides to give them up and forget everything that happened. There was a number of loose ends that were never tied up and this ending made an unsatisfactory conclusion. I still recommend the trilogy though.

The Lord of the Rings: I am probably going to get flamed for this but I really couldn’t care less about the raising of the shire. For me it put an unnecessary delay between the defeat of Sauron and the sombre departures at Greyhavens. Of course, it closes the Saruman story but it could have been done so much better and maybe even before the destruction of the ring.