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