TagGalileo’s Dream

Clarke Award 2010: in review

The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.

The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.

I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.

There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.

So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.

The month in reading: January 2010

January 2010 didn’t bring any absolute knockout books my way, but there were some fine reads nevertheless. My favourite book of the month was Robert Jackson Bennett‘s Depression-era fantasy Mr Shivers, which has substantially more subtextual depth than many a quest fantasy I’ve seen over the years.

Silver- and bronze-medal positions for the month go to two very different books. Simon Lelic‘s Rupture is a fine debut novel, centred on a school shooting perpetrated by an apparently placid teacher; and Up the Creek Without a Mullet (reviewed in February, but read in January) is an entertaining account of Simon Varwell‘s travels in search of places with ‘mullet’ in their name.

Bubbling under, but well worth checking out, are Nadifa Mohamed‘s wartime East African odyssey, Black Mamba Boy; and Galileo’s Dream, a historical biography spliced with science fiction (or perhaps vice versa) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not a bad start to the year by any means; but, still, I’m hoping for even greater riches in the months ahead.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream (2009)

This may turn out to be less of a review of a book than a ‘working-through’ of one, because I’m well aware that I haven’t grasped everything that Galileo’s Dream is trying to do, and so can’t appreciate it as much as I would have liked. But I’d like to set down my thoughts all the same.

It would be quite easy, I think, to describe this novel in a way that sounds like a bad movie pitch: Galileo receives visitors from the future, who take him back (forward!) to their time in an attempt to stave off a threat to humanity itself! All of this is accurate, but makes the book sound gimmicky; it’s to Robinson’s great credit that Galileo’s Dream has far more gravitas than that.

Two narratives combine: one a fictionalised account of Galileo’s life and career (beginning with his work on the telescope), which is here punctuated by visits from a stranger who nudges Galileo’s researches along, and later transports him forward 1,400 years, where humanity has colonised Jupiter’s moons and is debating how best to approach an alien intelligence it has found there. Galileo, the stranger thinks, could help sway the different factions towards his preferred solution – but his motives run even deeper than that.

These two settings mesh together somewhat awkwardly, partly because the future society is depicted rather more vaguely; and partly because of a clash of styles – the 31st-century sections are generally more novelistic, whilst those set in the 17th century are typically written more in the manner of a historical biography. That said, all these choices are justified – Gailieo’s visits to the future are episodic in nature (during those times, he appears in Italy to have fainted, so those visits are also dreams of a sort to him); and Galileo’s Dream is framed as a particular kind of text, which accounts for its different modes of telling – and the combination does work well enough to be convincing.

Galileo’s Dream is a long, detailed novel; and some of its passages drag on too long (though it could be that I feel this because I didn’t know all that much about Galileo’s life). But there are also brilliant moments, and some of the best are also among the most dense with information. Robinson brings vividly to life the sheer amount of painstaking work that would have been involved (and that, I’m sure, still is involved) in scientific experimentation; the character traits that could go with it (Galileo is portrayed as well-meaning but difficult to get along with, and as not paying attention to the political landscape, which ultimately proves his undoing); but also the wonder of creating knowledge.

Another aspect of Galileo’s Dream is that (as I read it) Robinson seeks to reflect the novel’s scientific concepts in the narrative itself. So, for example, Galileo learns that changing the past could change the future; and then, each time he visits Rome, he feels that it’s a different place each time, because the political climate keeps changing. For me, the best example of this comes after Galileo is told of the myriad possible time streams that exist and that all pasts, presents and futures are tangled together; in a beautifully written passage, he then returns to his time and wonders what’s the point of doing anything.

I think this last area was where I missed out the most – I sense there’s quite a lot on which I didn’t pick up – and, since it’s so central, that naturally affects how much I took from Galileo’s Dream. I don’t think it’s an entirely successful work, but I am glad to have read it – it was my first Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and I intend to read more.

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

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