The four stars were moving around Jupiter, orbiting it in the same way the moon orbited the Earth. He was seeing circular orbits edge-on; they lay nearly in a single plane, which was also very close to the plane of the ecliptic, in which the planets themselves moved.
He felt the ringing in him. He straightened up, blinking away the tears in his eyes that always came from looking too long, and that this time came also from the sudden surge of an emotion he couldn't give a name to, a kind of joy that was also shot with fear. "Ah," he said. A touch of the sacred, right on the back of his neck. God had tapped him. He was ringing.
No one had ever seen this before.
I've been meaning to write this post for some time. Since April, in fact. It's not unusual for a book to wait longer than that for a review here, these days; I'm a chronic procrastinator. But I'm also OCD enough that I find it nearly impossible to let books go without writing about them, even if it's a year since I read them.*
Particularly such interesting ones as the last of my Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist reading, Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream (2009) - a big, rich, thoughtful, deeply enthusiastic book, overflowing with a love of humanity and of our spirit of enquiry. It's a science fictional biography of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) that dances back and forth between past and future to explore the different ways that we perceive, understand and represent the world: through personal experience and memory, positivist historical narrative, individual biography, imagination of the future and, centrally, the experimental observation and theorising of science. As I noted in my Clarke round-up in April, it's infuriating at times - I don't think I've ever spent so much time arguing with a book I really admired and liked - but it's certainly a work-out, and it does all add up to a novel that I felt I'd lived through.
The bulk of the story centres on Galileo's astronomical observations in support of Copernicus' heliocentric model of the universe, and his subsequent clashes with the Catholic Church over his findings. This strand opens in 1609, with Galileo and his faithful assistant Mazzoleni - whose "weathered face [is] an entire topography of wrinkles, delta on delta" - building a modified telescope (the device had been invented only the previous year, in the Netherlands). Galileo's priorities are signalled early: in his excitement, he "tousle[s Mazzoleni's] hair as he would a child's", reflecting that the two of them share a bond unlike any other relationship Galileo has known, because "they made new things together, they learned new things". The empirical urge - the desire to formulate theories, test, and observe - is evoked wonderfully; for all the drama of Galileo's life, on one level this is quite simply a book about the joys of learning and thinking.
The rest of Galileo's life is in a semi-permanent state of "pandemonium", by comparison. Learning the world is his consuming passion, and - being a man of a certain social standing and wealth - he has been able to pursue it at the expense of everything else, and furthermore can spend much of his time cushioned from the consequences. His household, a continually rotating and perpetually neglected collection of students, children, servants and other dependants, is "crazy as a convent and running at a loss". In one of a number of self- and historically-reflexive moments in the opening section of the novel, the omniscient first-person-plural narration (on which more below) notes that this has much to do with the fact that "La Piera had not yet entered his life, and no one before her could ever keep order". Biography, for all its pretence of linear storytelling, can rarely resist the allure of foreshadowing.
The historical sections are interspersed - rather disorientatingly, for both reader and protagonist - with episodes set in the far future, on the very moons that Galileo is watching through his telescope. Waking up there for the first time, Galileo believes himself to be in his own Dante-esque afterlife, and addresses the first person he encounters as "My Virgil"; he understands little of what he sees, and believes even less, but he is fascinated by it all and characteristically eager to learn:
"Reality is mathematical, as long as you understand that uncertainty and contingency can be mathematically described, without them becoming any more certain."
"Teach me," Galileo said. "Teach me how you breathe here, and what these tides of colour are, and - teach me everything. I want to know everything! Teach me everything you have learned since my time."
He is told that his 'Virgil' (whom we later learn is called Ganymede) is part of a group of people who wish to consult with Galileo - as humankind's "first scientist" - on certain issues regarding exploration of the moons and contact with possible lifeform(s) on them; coming from the distant past with no awareness of the intervening years of human history, they believe he will be a suitably unbiased subject.
In general, I found these passages much less compelling than those set in the past. The setting feels rather insubstantial beside lively, noisy, untidy Italian city-states like Venice ("its usual grubby midday self. Magnificence at low tide"), and there is a tension between the limits of Galileo's viewpoint - he recognises next to nothing of what he sees, of course - and the omniscience of the narration; the mixture of the two is uneasy, and sometimes ineffective. The thematic and plot implications of these sections, though, are fascinating, opening up the historical story in a number of different ways. We gradually learn that several members of the group have another agenda: some wish to interfere with the events of Galileo's life, in the belief that by doing so they will change their present; others are equally convinced that Galileo must remain 'on course'. But even the act of observing, of course, creates changes in the object observed - and, in any case, it is nearly impossible for any of the observers to resist the urge to meddle.
A contemporary portrait of Galileo, by Ottavio Leoni (1578-1630); taken from here.
No-one - whether time-travelling scientist, church official, family member, or Galileo himself - can resist imposing a narrative on Galileo's life: the birth of modern science; the great clash of reason and religion; the further revelation of the marvels of Creation; a beleaguered Pope fighting for his authority and the Church's independence from powerful neighbours; a terrible father treating his offspring terribly. Robinson is not only aware that this is what he, too, is doing, he makes thematic hay with it. He is interested in Galileo, of course. But more broadly, he is interested in why certain people and events are remembered, while others are allowed to fade from the picture: why some things are considered historically and culturally important, and how those things are affected by the act of remembering them. We bring our own significance, he concludes, to the things we observe, creating them anew in our memories and histories. ("Paying attention", Galileo notes - our rather, our narrator guesses at his thoughts and notes for him - "was itself a kind of magnification.") At best we can only approximate the reality of the thing, because we - unavoidably - seek meaning.
Put another way, what happens when people start trying to write your story when you're still in the middle of it? On this evidence, they spend a lot of time telling you that you're doing it wrong. Robinson gives us a Galileo who is blithely - or arrogantly - ignorant about how his work might be construed. He is utterly convinced that no-one could be anything other than as intrigued and gleeful as he is; presented (or brow-beaten) with the facts, people will see the world as he does. Thus he proceeds to, um, tell the Pope how he should see the theological implications:
Mostly he talked about the joy of seeing new stars in the sky, and of the blessing it was to witness the new powers now given to man by God.
"Some speak of theological problems arising from the new discoveries," Galileo said calmly, "but really these problems are not possible, as creation is all one. God's world and God's word are necessarily the same, both being God's."
Yeah, that'll work. Can't think of any reason why the Catholic Church, rarely keen on sharing religious authority, might have become a bit more twitchy about people running around interpreting doctrine for themselves in the last hundred years. Again, we run into issues of narrative, and hindsight; the reader knows how this will end, and so the reader finds herself wanting to give Galileo a swift elbow to the ribs before he can dig himself in any deeper. Events gain significance by their placement in the narrative: we know that this will prove to be a contribuing factor to Galileo's persecution, because it has been selected for inclusion in the story.
Galileo is naive, but he is hardly unusual in not recognising the full extent of the danger he is in, or expecting that the entire force of the Church is poised to fall on his head. He sincerely believes that he is doing no wrong - that he is, in fact, helping to demonstrate the glory of his God ("'God makes the world using mathematics, and he has given us minds that can see it. We can discover the laws that He used! It is a most beautiful thing to witness and understand! It's prayer. It's more than a prayer, it's a sacrament'"). He forgets that human institutions are subject to human whims, and the vagaries of circumstance, and all manner of pressures.
Hera, another of the time travellers, does her best to get him to understand. She lets slip that there may be trouble ahead ("'No one has ever forgotten the price you paid for insisting on the reality of the world'"); in response to his fearful questioning, she gives him, in a striking, disturbing passage, a glimpse of his future:
The pain was such that he would have screamed immediately, but an iron muzzle clamped an iron gag into his mouth. His tongue was nailed into his palate by a spike set in the gag. He worked desperately to swallow the blood pouring into his mouth fast enough not to choke on it. His heart was racing, and when he saw and comprehended where he was, it beat even faster. Surely it would burst with the strain.
It continues, in the same vein, for a couple of pages. This is not the fate of our Galileo, of course; but it is the fate of this Galileo, as seen from the future he visits. Among Hera's colleagues, as I have already noted, there are those who wish to alter this fate, and those who are determined to keep things the way they are/were. Hello, many worlds theory: there are many possibilities branching out from Galileo's lifetime, and as many different ideas of which one would offer the best outcome for humanity. In short, Galileo has become a pawn in a struggle to control the narrative not just of his own life, but of all human history after the early seventeenth century.
Hera is of the change-the-past persuasion, and she expends quite a bit of energy on trying to nudge Galileo in her desired direction. Unlike Ganymede, Hera opts for education over sleight-of-hand (and, since this is a Kim Stanley Robinson novel, the reader might thus develop a hunch that she's the good guy), giving Galileo a crash-course in scientific, political and social developments during the centuries between her time and his. At length, however, she gets more personal; with the true biographer's conviction that the key to her subject's intellectual life lies in his home life, she sets about dissecting his relationship with his mother, partner, and children. Unlike contemporary biographers, who must just imagine their subjects' thoughts, the people of Jupiter can simply invade Galileo's head:
Well, these people could voyage among the planets, and back and forth in time; of course they would also have tried to dive into themselves, penetrating the vast ocean that lay under every skull. So they had developed the power to dive into consciousness itself. [...]
It was a power that made Galileo more frightened of the Jovians than ever. Which didn't really make sense, he knew: remembering something vividly should not be more alarming than being transported across centuries. But one's mind was a private place.
This pushes some of my buttons, and taps into a discussion Vicky and I have had before, both here and elsewhere. I have reservations about the use of real people in historical fiction - and, for that matter, with some of the excesses of biographical writing - because I am uncomfortable with the appropriation of people as public property, as well as with the claim to authoritative knowledge of an individual beyond their actions or their own self-expression. (This is not to say that such works can't be creatively interesting!) I find it interesting, therefore, to see Robinson engage with this, letting his protagonist protest the intrusiveness of those who feel entitled to know everything about him so that they can better construct their narrative - and, in turn, questioning our own motives for reading biographical-fiction of this nature. He is explicitly not the real Galileo, or even an attempt to recreate him - the whole point is that he comes from an alternative world - but he nonetheless baulks at efforts to construct a reading of his life from the inside out, without his consent.
That said, I'm going to talk about his home life anyway. ;-) It's another important facet of the central theme: what and who gets remembered, and who and what is forgotten. Women - with the exception of the hot young love interest model - are so often left out of this sort of story, both in fiction and in history. Hera aims to put them back in, although I found myself frustrated and puzzled by her methods of trying to convince Galileo that he treats his family like crap in his self-centred pursuit of knowledge. Take the glance back to Galileo's youth, via the Jovians' mind-reading device, and the difficult relationship between his "gorgon" mother (Galileo's word) and his under-achieving musician father:
[Y]et in his own kitchen the nightly debates revealed him mostly cruelly to be only the second smartest person in the house - and really, after Galileo reached the age of five, the third. It must have been disheartening. And so he had died. Without your heart you died.
Now, I could snark at this sob story all day: Remember, ladies - hide your intelligence, lest you dishearten your poor husband to death; that's what masculinity is all about, after all, making sure your womenfolk wrap your poor ego up in cotton wool so you don't have to learn difficult truths, like maybe you aren't the most important and wonderful person in the world. But Hera chooses to psychoanalyse the situation. In a patriarchy, she explains, seeing one's mother be so much stronger than one's father is a source of ridicule and shame, as a result of which Galileo grew up to hate women.
As a theoretical explanation for someone familiar with the theory - for example, what patriarchy is - this is fine, but I fail to see how it helps Galileo in his own daily life, as it is supposed to. Would it not be better to put this is terms he will understand? If he is to survive at all, let alone become less of an entitled idiot, he needs to learn how to function in his own society. Because even by the terms of patriarchal early-modern Italy, Galileo is a failure. Hera is entirely correct - and her cluestick starts to find its mark - when she points out,
"You ate yourself sick, you drank yourself into a stupor. And it wasn't the first time, or even the hundredth. While your women drudged and starved. Had the babies and raised the children and did all the real work, the work that's work. The woman you had children with, she didn't even know how to read, isn't that what you said? Didn't know how to add or subtract? What kind of a life is that?"
But perhaps a better place to start might be: call yourself the head of the household? You don't even provide properly for your children. Galileo's two daughters are illegitimate, and thus unable to make any sort of marriage - particularly since his salary is too poor to provide an incentive in the form of a reasonably dowry. Italian life being what it was in this period, and Galileo's finances being what they are, the pair are consigned to a convent; convents being what they were in this period, their life there - without financial backing from a family - is appalling. (Individual nuns were largely left to their own or their family's devices when it came to their food, clothing, and other comforts; most convents were desperately poor as institutions.)
Suor Maria Celeste - aka Virginia, Galileo's saintly eldest daughter (from here).
Galileo recognises this - some of the time - but is quick to declaim any blame for their situation. He hopes instead to pass the responsibility for their living conditions onto influential friends within the church; as he tells Hera:
"Well - my daughters are in a convent. But their order is too poor. A lot of them are sick, and some have gone mad. I'm hoping I can get this new pope to grant them some land. Because it's bad for my daughters."
"You are the one who put them in their situation, right?"
(He then swiftly tries to distract her from that line of questioning.) The fact that he has made stunningly little effort to maintain his relationships with these influential friends - and, indeed, has gone out of his way to antagonise them with his experiments - does not impinge on his imaginings at all. Indeed, his treatment of his family is only a symptom of Galileo's wider problem: he cannot, or will not, play the game. In a society almost entirely organised around the cultivation of personal relationships - a world of patronage and favours, of gratitude measured in money and opened doors - Galileo burns all his bridges on a semi-regular basis. In a fit of pique and wounded ego, he is ready to abandon his dependants - family, employees, and most significantly clients - at the drop of a hat to move to a city where his research will get more respect, trashing the social nexus of his status and protection without a second thought. It is a broken, deeply unfair system, but it is the one in operation, and there is an irony - of course - in the fact that Galileo can plot the paths of the planets but miss the workings of the environment he lives in.
Increasingly as the novel went on, I found myself more interested in the women's stories behind Galileo's: the fierce lover, Marina, whom Galileo never married; the saintly eldest daughter dying in service to God, and the one who never speaks to him again once the convents doors are closed on her; the intelligent mother doomed to be the harridan who haunts her son and fights with her not-daughter-in-law. I was disappointed, then, when they disappeared from the story - if not unheralded, then certainly a long way from truly explored or appreciated.
But Robinson's Galileo is a Galileo who might be, a Galileo that those observing him need and want. He is a scientist, a father, a pioneer, a martyr, a heretic, and a patriarch who can't even do patriarchy very well. He is a Galileo that we have created with the agendas we bring to reading and writing about him. Which is why the narration is in first-person plural:
"Now you are one of my angels. I have so many of them."
He did indeed. So many, stepping onto the stage from nowhere: the people who helped him, the crowd who tried to do him harm. Any event in history that gets more crowded the longer you look at it - that's a sign. Sign of a contested moment, a crux that will never stop changing under your gaze. The gaze itself entangles you, and you too are one of the changes in that moment.
And even writing about it, six months on, I find I am moved all over again.
I'm sure that the history you tell yourself is still a tale of mangled potentiality, of unnecessary misery. That's just the way it is. In all times people are greatly lacking in courage.
But sometimes they aren't. Sometimes they keep trying. This too is history. We are all history - the hopes of people in the past, the past of some future people - known to them, judged by them, changed by them as they use us. So the story keeps changing, all of it.
* I've learned to take quite detailed notes...