21 April 2011

Books update 2: Witches and heretics

Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream is a a historical novel about Galileo Galilei, with SF interludes where time-travellers take him to visit the civilisation of human colonists living on the Galilean moons of Jupiter in 3020 AD.

This, at least, is true on the face of it (it's how Guardian reviewer Adam Roberts describes it, for instance). However, the history (though it is indeed meticulously researched) is continually inflected by Galileo's response to his revelations of the future, and in particular his efforts to escape the fate he has -- in these people's history but not in ours -- of being burned at the stake. While this certainly contributes much to an excellent novel of character and ideas, it renders it fairly dubious as a narrative based in historical events. (In this connection, the intervention of time-travelling agents using anachronistic technology at a crucial point in his heresy trial doesn't help.)

Galileo is richly and vividly imagined -- a brilliant, arrogant, insatiably inquiring character. We're spared neither the details of his various progressive illnesses nor his moral blindness, although the Jovians are there to comment and to challenge him on the latter (his conventional, monstrous treatment of his daughters, for instance) from what might just as well be the reader's 21st-century perspective. The novel's full of fascinating historical detail -- I hadn't known that the elderly Galileo met the young Milton, and Robinson makes a mordant play of their respective attitudes to blindness.

Philosophically, the novel deals with predestination and free will, understanding and ignorance, experimentation and revelation, in ways which are complex, subtle and never simplistic, involving some intricate inversions as the plot unfolds in the two timeframes. Just as in several other works of Robinson's (to which this is tied by a few links of continuity), future history becomes a vehicle for visionary writing. My main quibble is the same as Roberts' -- that (in a much lower wordcount than that of the painfully overlong Mars trilogy), the future society seen here isn't, by Robinson's usual standards, terrifically detailed or convincing.

It is, however, a bloody good read. Over this kind of length Robinson's style usually becomes dry, but that never happens here.

* * *

For ages I refused to read Terry Pratchett's Discworld subseries for young adults, the Tiffany Aching books. This was partly because I was annoyed by what I saw as a prevalent trend of packaging fantasy for children instead of adults (the same reason I've still not got round to China Miéville's Un Lun Dun), but mostly because I'd found the first book's titular characters too bloody annoying for words in Pratchett's earlier Carpe Jugulum.

This was silly of me, as I recently discovered after caving in and reading the first two: The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky. They're excellent novels about the lived experience of childhood, and tiny smurfish scots-speaking fairies play a relatively minor role in both. Carpe Jugulum was a poor novel which fails to live up to the promise of its "Witches vs Vampires" premise, whereas the two Tiffany books are excellent character studies of a young witch, which endeavour to deconstruct the fantasy clichés of certain other magical coming-of-age sagas I could mention.

Tiffany's experiences are both universal and highly individual. Her relationship with the Nac Mac Feegle (who, to be fair, are often very funny here) is subsidiary to the story of her origins and training as a witch, and her developing relationship with Granny Weatherwax, possibly Pratchett's finest continuing character since Equal Rites, who -- on the showing of these first two novels -- might end up as either her mentor or her archnemesis. At the same time, Tiffany's growth into a place in the adult world, her recognition of the various darknesses inside her and her learning to embrace and transcend them, are archetypal aspects of a child's journey into adulthood.

So yes, I was wrong. And I need to read Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight as soon as possible. Happy now?


  1. Matthew Graham1:39 am

    I've avoided the Tiffany Aching books for much the same reasons but might now have to give them a go.

  2. I couldn't agree more about Carpe Jugulum - it remains the only TP book I've ever given away, and not counting the very early, Rincewind-centric books is my least favourite of his DW books by a distance.

    The Tiffany Aching books are lovely though (I quite like the Mac Nah Feegle, I must say - they remind me of home perhaps :)

  3. We read Galileo's Dream at our book club last month and we felt the same way about the future society -- there was some argument on if it was supposed to feel less alive than Galileo's time or not, but in the end everyone felt that no, it just wasn't well flushed out.

  4. Anonymous5:33 pm

    Seriously? Call me an idiot, but Carpe Jugulum is one of my personal favorite Discworld Books. I don't know if you all have been reading way too much Twilight, but I prefer a different take on vampires, that doesn't include the standard veggie vampire.

  5. I wouldn't dream of calling you an idiot when I have no idea who you are.

    I've never read Twilight -- when I first read Carpe Jugulum it wouldn't be published for years, anyway -- and I have no desire to. Different takes on vampires are fine, and Pratchett on vampires and their relationship with faith generates some interesting ideas. It doesn't stop the book as a whole being a sloppy, poorly-structured mess, though.

  6. Anonymous9:43 pm

    I understand what you mean, but I just feel like too many people make negative reviews on the book, just because of its structure. I prefer to focus on the plot, and the characters personalities. My one exception to this is Inkheart. That is what I call a sloppy, poorly-structured mess!
    I might be naive in my opinion, but, this is how I think.


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