Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
I was intrigued by Kim Stanley Robinson's attack on the conservatism of the Booker prize, its tendency to favour historical fiction whilst overlooking science fiction, and his claim that science fiction at its best explores the new, for a number of reasons. First, I think the general thrust of his critique is well justified. Second, over the last 12 months I have consciously begun reading a fair bit of science fiction (a genre I had more or less ignored since my teenage years). And, third, when I read the article, I was in the midst of reading Robinson’s new novel, Galileo's Dream.
Whilst Robinson was making specific claims about the UK SF scene, the timing of his intervention nevertheless prompted the question of how his own book measures up to the criteria of his critique. The book -- which, at nearly 600 large scale pages, shares a common predicament with the tendency of both historical fiction and SF to indulge in length, often, it seems, for its own sake -- has a structure which has felt forced and not entirely successful to most reviewers. In "parallel" stories (how and why they are not parallel will prove to be significant), Robinson depicts Galileo more or less biographically, as his astronomical observations and interpretations inexorably lead him into conflict with the Catholic church; whilst, at the same time, Galileo makes a series of journeys to the moons of Jupiter, at a time some 3000 years in the future, where the descendants of humanity are about to encounter their first alien species. The threat would have been that, by this plot device, Robinson might risk undermining the scientific achievements of Galileo. Whilst for much of the book, the "parallel" stories do sit uncomfortably alongside one another, by its conclusion, Robinson's gamble reaps a very rich reward.
Stylistically, the writing is, for the most part, functional -- in keeping with much "hard" SF. However, during two long sections, and one shorter section, the writing achieves a stylistic resonance of the highest quality. The first section where this occurs is during a period when, following one of his trips to the Jovian system, Galileo returns to his earthly life with a distorted temporal perception. He experiences temporal moments with a mixture of déjà vu, presque vu and jamais vu. Time, for Galileo, is out of joint, and Robinson's prose strives brilliantly to capture the phenomenological dislocation that Galileo is enduring. The short section occurs when Galileo and the Jovian humans encounter the alien mind -- although not quite so successful, Robinson nevertheless achieves something impressive even here. Finally, during the last 100 pages or so, which depict Galileo's declining years spent under house arrest, and through which time he finds some sort of reconciliation with the daughters whom he condemned to a life of suffering and hardship in a convent, the writing captures a melancholy, the profundity of which is in stark contrast to much of the writing which precedes it. These two long sections are amongst the most evocative passages of writing I have come across recently.
What the excellence of these two passages share is a focus on time. And it is this focus on time which, in the final analysis, lifts this book, however flawed in conception or execution, on to a higher plane.
There are a number of very effective passages where Robinson captures Galileo's excitement as physical theories suddenly make sense. For instance, he is very good at capturing Galileo's wonder, when reflecting on the equation which captures the movement of falling bodies, that the universe should be "designed" in such a way that, not only is there a profound relation between distance and time (despite these phenomena being, to all appearances, radically distinct), but that this relation should be expressible as a simple and beautiful equation. Why should the universe be thus? Why should it express itself with such beautiful mathematical simplicity? For Galileo, these are marks of God's infinite creative genius. More than this, God gives humans the ability to understand this creative genius, to understand the mathematical relation between space and time expressed by the movement of a falling body.
But what of more recent developments in physics, such as quantum theory? After all, isn't it precisely quantum that provoked Einstein to claim that God doesn't play dice? Could there be a way of conceiving the relation of time and space in the post-quantum universe which similarly revealed God’s infinite creative genius?
This is where the time-travel element of Robinson's book delivers its pay-off. Most SF writing worries about the specificities of the time-travelling device. Robinson, however, has a much more ambitious aim -- what might time's nature be, if time-travel were to be possible? Much of the Jovian part of the book is taken up with Galileo's coming to terms with the physics and maths of the temporality which has allowed him to travel in time. Robinson asks us to imagine a delta basin, fed by many tributaries and currents, where water flows back and forth with the tides; and then to think of time as a manifold of these multiple flows. Interventions at any part of these various flows might, or might not, influence the direction of the flow of current, or cause previously separate currents to interfere with one another (or vice versa). These, he suggests, are the various potentialities of time, which each intervention causes to collapse, just as a measurement or observation causes the wave function to collapse in quantum experiments. The unity of these flows, these potentialities, is "the manifold of manifolds".
All of this is conceptually demanding, but at the same time conceptually intriguing. But what makes it all so impressive, for me, is that Robinson is not interested in this conceptual picture as an end in itself. For he asks, in effect, that if time were indeed like this, such that time travel as he describes it were possible, what would life be like? What would the temporality of consciousness be like? And the two sections where Robinson's writing reaches its highest stylistic achievement happen to be the sections where he tries to offer answers to just this question.
The most beautiful idea of all is the recurring image of Galileo feeling as if a bell is ringing inside him when he alights upon scientific understanding. At the book's conclusion, Robinson has Galileo dream of the waves resonating out from this ringing bell of understanding through time and space, resonating with other minds engaged on similar quests. Beautiful in itself, this idea is made all the more poignant by the fact that this resonant connection between beings is a phenomenon of which Galileo has been made aware while on Jupiter, and is the spur for his attempts at the dusk of his life to find peace and love with his daughters. And much of this ground has been prepared by a series of reflections on memory and forgetting, again, deeply rooted in the image of time depicted by Robinson, which play out both in the crucial scenes with the Inquisition, and in his last months, as Galileo remembers all of the spirits departed from his life, all the moments of his life during which he chose not to tarry, so intent was he on future achievements.
Just as the braiding of the currents and flows in the manifold of temporal manifolds is richly complex, so also is the weaving of themes throughout Robinson’s book (such as the most appropriate balance between the claims of science and religion, whether humanity can overcome its tendency towards violence, or how it will respond to an encounter with an alien species). What raises this book above the chatter of much SF, and what ultimately demonstrates that Robinson is a writer of real merit, is the way in which his hard SF exploration of a vision of time informs, and is informed by, a profound exploration of the temporality of consciousness, and of life. In the interweaving of these two aspects of the core theme of his text, Robinson is able to find new perspectives, and new things to say, about what it means to be alive, and what the universe in which we are alive, may be like. This is indeed an impressive achievement.