Kim Stanley Robinson’s name is synonymous with the term “future history”, which is used to describe those highly detailed sagas that tend to damage the social lives of hard SF junkies such as yours truly. Galileo’s Dream certainly has elements of future history within it (and I will get to them soon) but first and foremost, it is a sensitively fictionalised biography of one of the pillars of modern science.
A brilliant mathematician, though naive in politics and other practical affairs, Galileo Galilei struggles to support his family as a tutor and part time inventor. He is fascinated on hearing of the invention of lenses that enable one to view distant objects clearly and soon improves upon the idea and creates his own telescope. His subsequent astronomical observations bring him world-wide scientific recognition and seem to secure his future. But his discoveries, including the four Jovian moons, lead him to revive the heretical notion of Copernicanism, putting him at odds with the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
This much will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of science but there’s a twist in this version of the story. Just as Galileo’s heretical studies put him in danger of being burned at the stake, he begins to suffer from a series of collapses, each lasting for several hours. While in this state he is visited by a recurring dream in which he is brought to the year 3020 as an advisor to a disagreeing group of future scientists. They are debating whether or not to make contact with a new form of life discovered beneath the surface of Europa and have brought Galileo forward in time to act as arbiter. The ‘dreams’ grant Galileo an insight into the future history of scientific discovery, from Newton to Einstein and beyond. All of these insights are forgotten on awakening, except for the clear knowledge that history tells he will be burned at the stake for speaking the truth.
The heart of Galileo’s Dream lies in its evocation of a man prepared to stand up for scientific integrity in the face of religious dogma. But this book is much more than an exercise in scientific hero worship — it paints a mesmerising portrait of a wayward genius and devoted family man whose name and contribution to our understanding of the universe will no doubt still be remembered 1000 years from now.