VOYAGER £18.99 Order for £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Galileo's Dream, By Kim Stanley Robinson
The science of altering the past
Monday 10 August 2009
Great things are done by imperfect people. Isaac Newton was a curmudgeon obsessed with convicting forgers and working out the date of Creation from Biblical genealogy.
Albert Einstein was an adulterer. Johannes Kepler had fanciful ideas about the music of the spheres. And Galileo, that great martyr of reason and experimental science? He was a blusterer, a flatterer and an arrogant bully who dumped his daughters in a convent.
Kim Stanley Robinson's novel about the events leading to Galileo's trial for heresy is a warts and all picture, but one that makes us love and admire the great astronomer in spite of his weaknesses. Part of the way he does this is by reminding us of the man's physical presence. His Galileo has a bad hernia and drinks too much, he's in constant ill health as he goes about discovering the moons of Jupiter. He is wonderfully tactless and a show-off – and does not bridle his mind even when the logic of his discoveries is leading him in potentially fatal directions.
He is also, and this is the colossal risk Robinson takes, the hero of a science-fiction novel in which he escapes his own time to participate in one of the greatest of human adventures – one that threatens, yet again, to dethrone humanity from the centre of its perceived universe. Some 30th century scientists have discovered, and are communicating with, a being in the ice-covered oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter's "Galiliean moons". They bring Galileo forward, partly as a prestigious tool in their arguments, partly to salve their consciences over the way they have manipulated history to bring about a version in which he shortens the war of religion and science by heroically dying at the stake.
Galileo's struggles to deal with these time travellers effectively dramatise his role as a moral agent. His choice to compromise – to rely on history to absolve him and Copernican theory – comes to seem admirable in Robinson's fable. Sometimes we need living men finishing their work as much as heroes who go down in flames.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 2 How to turn off/stop 'seen by' on Facebook: Disable it to make your chats seem less passive aggressive
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 5 Buckingham Palace guard who attacked passers-by in 'most most violent piece of CCTV footage' police officer had seen walks free
MasterChef, TV review: The final climaxed in a frenzy of herbs and hyperbole
Male student sues Columbia University for 'gender-based harassment' after alleged 'Mattress Performance' rape victim Emma Sulkowicz went public with claims
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election