By John Clute
18 January 2010
That every story is a body English of telling is a truism so obvious it hardly needs telling: maybe. A lot less obvious, though equally familiar, is a corollary assertion: that every telling exposes (or tries to hide) a teller responsible for the tale; that every reader somehow expects to hear a ghost homunculus, however faint, whispering Next And Then And Next into the Oh! of the eye. Even after decades in the acid baths of postmodernism, most of us shy from—or treat as specially abled, or as a limiting case—any text that, "transcending" all the quiddities of love and theft and unreliable narration and location-aware mobile devising, still seems ultimately unvoiced.
"Narratives" that end-run the inherent human sweet tooth for the storyable—for some anthropological-fallacy voiced homunculus the reader can contract to heed—somehow seem absent-minded: for all the who-me? link whoring typical of bad postmodernist texts, internally they are so unoccupied that they cannot take the weight of real folk. The 1990s hypertext revolution tanked so very spectacularly not only because, as Charles Platt said at the time, it violated the contract to speak when you are listened to; but also because the inside of a 1990s hypertext was pure Rules Without Tail: all lit up and nowhere to go, like Orange Alert in the deserted airport just outside of Denver that haunts the dreams of anyone who ever used to fly United.
So it may be a relief to open a book like Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream and find within it words clearly uttered by Kim Stanley Robinson: or it may not, we will see. The text of this long, ultimately very strange novel seems at first glance entirely to honour a straightforward contract with the reader: that a clear-cut recognizable implied author or homunculus whose name is "Kim Stanley Robinson" is going to upack for us in a chaste clear voice an unimpeachably attentive fictional version, buttressed with ascertainable facts, of the life of Galileo Galilei (1564—1642). The voice of the "Kim Stanley Robinson" will be open to all comers. The life of Galileo will unpack. There will be excursions into some sort of SF—but we've read the jacket copy and are prepared for that, and who better to present an arguable conjunction of history and outcome than the author of Three Californias and the Mars Trilogy. So we are ready to be carried away and learn something too. We can already hear the homunculus tapping our eye, already recognize the honest, earnest, slightly implacable clarity of the familiar voice of the "Kim Stanley Robinson," a bit like Lewis Carroll hailing us through the hair-shirt and darbies of the White Knight, though not to weep.
And so the case seems to be. The strain of slightly quixotic honour that stiffens the spine of every tale Kim Stanley Robinson has ever written, in well over a quarter of a century of illuminated argument about the consequences of history, shines through the opening pages of Galileo's Dream, as clear as daylight. The daylight voice of the "Kim Stanley Robinson," the visibly courteous arête-bearing voice capable of saying in clear words impeccably sourced serious things about a world beyond tears, has never more clearly driven the engineering of story than in certain parts of the new novel.
But that a passage like this can be uttered at the start of a review of an unexpectedly huge new novel from his hand does sound proleptic—to use a term frequently found in Galileo's Dream—of a soon-to-come rhetorical turn downwards to nitty-gritty. Indeed there is a turn (and here it comes), but it is not I think downwards: in all its seeming innocence of narratage, Galileo's Dream is a profoundly unreliable fiction. The "Kim Stanley Robinson" who purports to tell the tale is a lure, a fascinator in a hall of mirrors. From almost the first page he/it flickers in and out of focus like some doppelganger, like some ignis fatuus glimpsed through the blurred and distorting lens of one of the primitive early telescopes of Galileo himself, which are described (thoroughly, by someone) in this text.
The book begins, seemingly in clear, in Venice, in 1609, nearly a quarter of a century before the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church jailed Galileo—an act those who remain adherent to the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim ratking will understand better than normal folk—for telling the truth (a truth many Churchmen did not privately deny) about the movement of the Earth around the Sun. (Galileo's Dream makes it clear, or clearish, that not only was the Church establishment as corrupt and worldly as anyone can have ever thought, but that Galileo himself was a piece of work, and that he might have dodged condemnation had he been less astonishingly noisy.) But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. In the first sentence of the novel, Galileo is accosted by a tall thin stranger whom we immediately identify as a time traveller (he speaks a strange Latin, he hails from strange cities, he begins to nudzh Galileo into inventing the telescope, though he is brought up short—"His stare went almost cross-eyed."—by what might be an intertemporal communicator, and abruptly closes the conversation). Most SF readers will immediately assume that Galileo's Dream will turn out to be a changewar tale, with two or more factions vying with each other over a Jonbar point from which differing histories stem; they will be right. And any SF reader who thinks the book may be an Uplift tale, and that Galileo is being prodded to become the world's greatest (or second greatest) scientist ever, will also be right. But no SF reader who thinks that the tall dark stranger is striving to better Galileo's lot will have guessed correctly.
The tall dark stranger, we learn soon enough, is trying to ensure the opposite. He wants to make sure that Galileo burns in 1632. It seems an easy task. Galileo is a bigmouth, rather like Simon Callow in Four Weddings and a Funeral, an obstreperous Commedia dell'Arte blowhard who happens to be a genius who will not shut up. He is bound to rock the boot—the internecine city states of Italy of the early seventeenth century being even more rancorously at each other's throats than usual—and he is too stupidly intolerant of the stupidity of others to succeed in navigating the shoals of the world into the relative safety of house arrest. Indeed, very few paths from the Jonbar point of 1632 see him survive. When he burns, as usual, his immolation will so enrage the Western World that the dominance of the Church will be fatally shaken. The stranger—whose name is Ganymede—knows this for certain because he comes from a future (I am almost certain, though the complexity of Robinson's version of the multicursal nature of time makes this a leap of faith) in which this has happened. The novel we are reading—Galileo's Dream—is set in an alternate world.
But stop here. Just who is telling us this? Who do we trust? The voice is the voice of the "Kim Stanley Robinson," but every now and then in the text we run across an apparent Imperial We, and we begin to suspect that the whole of Galileo's Dream may in fact be something like a dream seen through a telescope darkly: that the teller of the tale is not the safe, epistemologically sound voice of the "Kim" but a figuration bound waveringly within the text. This turns out to be so. Galileo's Dream is not a narrative but the manuscript of a narrative; the narrator, a servant of Galileo's named Cartophilus (he has been seconded to our history for centuries, hence the Wandering Jew moniker), is one of a cohort of timechange warriors from the same fourth millennium Ganymede comes from. They are here to change history, which is to say to keep Galileo alive. Galileo's Dream is therefore an advocacy. What we recognize as our world is an artifact in the world of the book. Nor can we trust a word the book says about Ganymede.
We cannot trust the future it depicts.
But stop here. Before we follow Galileo—via a doubletalk matter/time transmission device—to the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter millennia hence, we need to firm up our sense of just what version of Galileo Galilei we have been given through the wobbly lens of the book. The text is full of direct quotations from the historical Galileo, almost all of them hedged round with utterances of incertitude, for it would be presumptuous to claim to know what in his heart Galileo meant by anything we know he said. Only when it is clear that Galileo's feelings and thoughts have been created by the author himself (by Cartophilus?) does the text shake off incertitude (Cartophilus's?) and tell it as it is: which is to say, only then does the text speak in the omniscient voice familiar to us from authors like Robinson, who normally focus almost exclusively on narrative clarity, with the teller coterminous with the told, and only a whisper of the homunculus in our ear, telling us Fear not, this is the World. In Galileo's Dream, on the other hand, the clearer anything gets the less safe it is, the further it is from ascertainable truth.
All the same, the tricksy coign that gives us sight of what we must for convenience call the real Galileo does in the event provide an astonishingly detailed portrait of 35 years in his life. I don't know if Robinson has ever depicted an historical figure before (if he has, it must be in the same book that incorporates aliens and time travel, and I've never read it), but none of the narratological jostling and scumbling he engages in here manages to obscure the portrait he has created. Shouting, farting, swearing, griding his intimates into stricken silence but also lifting them high, shitting himself so hard he blasts a hole in his own peritoneum, arguing, staggering from the ring of truths so great the world shouts God in his ear, Galileo is a stunning creation, a histrion utterly real to the eye, a porridge of sensation who turns on a dime into icon.
There is little to say about his experiences in the future out in Jupiter country, except perhaps five things. One) we cannot trust a word of Cartophilus's depiction of a world he is bound to, though in fact (see below) he may be working to destroy it. Two) we cannot trust Galileo's understanding of what he sees and learns around Jupiter—though we do regret, for a lot of reasons, the plot-friendly semi-amnesia inflicted upon him whenever he is returned back here to Earth. Three) we can hardly credit Ganymede's motives in bringing him forward (and telling him he is almost certain to burn), motives which amount to little more than his thinking it seemed a good idea at the time. Four) very tentatively, I think we can read the stagey and exiguous world of the future as the default future adumbrated in the book: that is, the future Galileo visits is a future in which he has burned at the stake. So the toytown feuding amongst the Jovians—pale echoes of the deadly wars within Italy—signify a fatal thinness in the texture of reality. Galileo's death at the stake triggers a cardboard world, one devoid of the mire and blood of the more complex dialectic of a history in which Galileo lives on to write not only Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), which the Holy Church would ban for centuries, but also the Two New Sciences (1638), which contributed to the dialogic world we do enjoy, against all the odds, even today. And five) I do not get the First Contact riff with the alien who is a living world, unless we are meant to think that the Jovians' stupidity about dealing with it can be explained by the fact that they inhabit a future whose past was so stupid it allowed Galileo Galilei to burn.
Towards the end of Galileo's Dream—his dream being perhaps the unlikely world we now inhabit—the stays are loosed as fully as Robinson is ever likely to permit, and it becomes possible for Robinson and "Robinson" and Cartophilus and Uncle Tom Cobley to quote in one commorant voice some very great words of Galileo himself, whoever wrote them, Galileo resplendent, Galileo in the garden after they did not burn him this time, our Galileo:
Yes. God makes the world using mathematics, and he has given us minds that can see it. We can discover the laws He used! It is a most beautiful thing to witness and understand! It's prayer. It's more than prayer, it's a sacrament, a kind of communion. An apprehension—an epiphany—it's seeing God, while still in this body and in this world! How blessed we are, to be able to experience God like that! Who would not devote their time to understanding more, to seeing deeper in God's manner of thinking about these things?
Galileo's Dream is a love story. Perhaps that's why this time round Robinson has hidden his voice in so many voices. But you're nicked, sir. I loved this book.
BRIEFLY NOTED. There is very little fantasy in the stories assembled by David Constantine in The Shieling, which is to say there is very little fantasy in his work that can be boiled off: no easy ghost or selkie: though ghosts do claw the walls; and the eponymous young woman who comes to land at the beginning of "Petra," and who farms the men of a small town along the coast of Britain before leaving with her harvest, is as much a selkie unnamed in this world as any selkie named in another. But the point of these stories is not the separation of lives into versions or genres, but the representation of each life as a knot, a nest of bound contingencies, the fractality of the modern world made intrinsicate. Because nothing is let out—not even dialogue, which Constantine usually embeds within paragraphs without quote-marks—there is sometimes a sense of the provincial. But in fact the characters featured here do not leave their indurated lives in Britain out of any inadequacy, but because they are too heavy to shift. The greatest epiphany for any character in this book is the silence at the edge of the possible landscape found in the title story. The only acceptable sound is the sound of evolution adapting us to claw our niche.
The sound of the telling of The Shieling is glyphic, each story like some pictograph that moves, magically, when you're not looking. A book like this is like a dream, way under your skin, where you find yourself almost breathing its moves. Jack Skillingstead, on the other hand, is exactly not anything like that at all. The stories in Are You There and Other Stories are so muscled with what they want to say, and so fast at saying a lot very quickly, that the sound of their telling is like a Doppler wave: never quite catching up with the speed of the next word. Reading Skillingstead is like hearing an echo of where he just left.
The stories in Are You There are maybe a tad too similar. Male protagonists with ruptured childhoods fight solipsism on near-future mean streets tingling with avatars and ghosts and parallels and deaths. Each tale, by itself, is brilliant or close to that. But too often perhaps a wholesome outcome is skidded into by the skin of the teeth, as though the tale just told was a form of therapy; in "Bean There"—like most of the book originally published in Asimov's—a damaged protagonist cannot accept his girlfriend's belief that the aliens who have just landed can genuinely help humans levitate themselves out of the disasters humans are prone to on this sick planet, until the very last moment, when the two meet again cute, as foretold them, back in time to day one of Disneyland. But the title story dances the other way, superbly. A mass murderer is tracked down. The traumas that led him to kill street vagrants echo through the emptying aisles of the protagonist's similarly bruised soul. He shuts down his devices (it is an SF world), he shuts down his voices, he sits in his room. His ex-wife knocks on the door. The last words of the story: "He stared at the door, and in his mind he stood up and opened it."
I think maybe for Skillingstead slingshot is the future.