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May/June 2010
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Galileo's Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Ballantine Spectra, 2010, $26.

The God Engines, by John Scalzi, Subterranean Press, 2010, $20.

On the Edge, by Ilona Andrews, Ace, 2009, $7.99.

KIM STANLEY Robinson's books have always felt somewhat distant or cerebral to me, which has made many of them both impeccably well-written and unapproachable. I'm therefore uncertain whether or not this particular book is different, or if something in my reading protocols have changed over the years—but I found this book, while possessed of the former, incredibly moving and provocative.

At its heart is Galileo Galilei. He is both a man entirely of his time, and a man who can think and see beyond it—but only in regards to his beloved science. The book opens on a man concerned with the crowded and financially stressful household over which he presides in Venice, with its workshop, its many servants, the students he's undertaken to teach, and the two illegitimate daughters Marina Gamba bore him. He is, like so many of us, in need of what amounts to a better job in order to meet his many obligations.

Approached in the market by a stranger, he is told of a glass that can be used to see across distances; intrigued by this, he goes home to experiment with lenses in an attempt to achieve this affect. Mazzoleni is the craftsman at the heart of Galileo's workshop; he hasn't Galileo's mercurial insight—or temper—but he has an instinctive ability to understand exactly what the maestro wants him to build.

They build a telescope. But the building is a dance of character; in this first on-page endeavor, we see Galileo as he is: driven by the joy of discovery, the frisson of sudden understanding, the almost child-like glee, and the incredible desire to be first, to be significant. Everything else in his life seems subordinate.

He does manufacture his spyglass; he does present it to the men in power in Venice, and in the end, he does acquire a better job. But this job requires that he leave Venice, and when he does, he leaves his house and its workshop behind. He also leaves his daughters with their mother, for children disrupt his work.

He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a noble man, and in many authors' hands, he would be insufferable (and I would be suffused with a longing to kick him across the page in annoyance). But Robinson's handling here makes him human enough that I still liked him while wanting to kick him. I did think he was selfish, self-centered—and he is—but he is also compelling and, in the end, sympathetic. His ego, his sense of his own importance is often the most humorous element on the page.

So far, so good.

In novels in which time travel is an important element, I'm not the ideal reader because if the world as laid out to the point of the intervention is strong enough or real enough, I feel the sfnal elements as a break, a change in tone and gravitas. Here, the break in historical narrative is seen entirely through the eyes of a very bewildered Galileo, and it works as part of the mystery of his world.

Ganymede was the stranger who approached him in the market, and Ganymede is the stranger who, offering him a view into a much better telescope than Galileo himself has been able to build, leads him to the future, in which the moons of Jupiter are populated. What no one—including the reader—understands is why.

But it becomes clear that Ganymede is politically at war with another faction—or factions—of the council that govern the moons of Jupiter. It also becomes clear that not all of the moon's inhabitants are as impressed with Galileo as Ganymede initially appears to be; Hera, a woman who is not part of Ganymede's faction, is one such; she's polite but she's certainly not deferential.

After a glimpse of a council meeting, an interruption, and the awe-inspiring sight of the moon itself, Galileo is abruptly returned home to continue with his work—the memories of the event elided by the use of carefully applied drugs. But his work is now guided or encouraged by visits from Ganymede.

On his second trip to the moons, Galileo witnesses what may be man's first contact with alien life; it is this life, in the seas of Europa, that drives Ganymede to interfere with history. Robinson has done something with his alien life that I think is unique in the genre, although it's hard to talk about it without spoiling significant plot elements.

In some ways, this book is a biography, and the mystery of the future is, in part due to Galileo's lack of conscious memory, displaced by the weary unfolding of daily struggle, the dream giving way to the waking life. But because different factions in the future have different intents, they allow Galileo access to different things, and he at last is shown his fate: to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Ganymede is attempting to change history subtly, to encourage the adoption of science and scientific principles over religious dogma earlier than it would otherwise happen because he feels it utterly necessary for the fate of future man.

Galileo is not a brave man. He is not a martyr. His sharp and pointed defense of scientific principle is not in conflict with his very genuine Catholicism; in short, he is not a man who has any intention of dying in order to better a future that doesn't involve him anyway. Hera allows him the memory of his own death-by-fire by first depositing him in it, and he hurries back to his life in order to avoid such a death.

Sadly, he is what he is; his outspoken, angry words are driven by ego and outrage more than by common sense or fear, and in true Greek tragedy fashion, his attempt to ensure that he is not in conflict with the church leads to, well, conflict.

But conflict continues in the future as well.

A third party elects to teach Galileo the math and physics that will eventually be derived from his very first experiments; from Newtonian physics to quantum physics, to the physics of the manifold dimensions, of which we can apprehend three. She teaches him the theory of time and the flow of time, to explain how it is he can be here at all.

It is in the manifold dimensions and our inability to sense more than three that the life at the heart of Europa lies.

I want to say more about this book. I can't. The climax of the action itself is philosophical in nature, but it is also joyful and astonishing. Humanity, our understanding of what it means to be human, is made moment by moment; it's made by endeavor and understanding and trial; by the alchemy that transforms early experience into wisdom, a wisdom that is earned and not observed. Woven through this is the fate of an individual, the responsibility he has, or should have, to the future, the personal nature of god. And love.

The closest thing to this novel in feel and in thought is Neal Stephenson's Anathem, but they're entirely different works, and if a book can be said, without pretension, to be profound, it is Galileo's Dream.

*     *     *

John Scalzi is known for his wit, his sarcasm, and his offbeat sense of humor. Everything he's written to date has showcased them (this would include his blog). In that regard, The God Engines is a radical departure. It is also his first fantasy, although it's a science fantasy, complete with the spaceships and fleets that are driven by the engines of the title.

Let me be clear: I like Scalzi's sense of humor; I like his characters; I find his novels entertaining. They're not always deeply thought-provoking, but then again, that's not always what I want. The question is, can he write a good book without any of these hallmarks of his previous work?

The answer is a definitive yes.

The God Engines are literal. Gods—captured and broken—are the power source used to drive the starship which Captain Ean Tephe commands. Each ship is powered by one such god. These gods have been defeated by the God to whom everyone in Tephe's society owes and offers obeisance and perfect faith; defiled, they exist to serve.

As you can imagine, they don't take well to the service, and there are ways to command them, most of which involve a very special iron—first-made iron, defined as iron which is born in the heart of a star, as it died and strew itself into the darkness. What humanity can produce in its forges is third-made iron.

The hierarchy of first, second and third is important. First-made is the iron that can kill gods, and it's necessary: the gods in this universe are very real, and they are not very pleasant.

Captain Ean Tephe serves God. He, like every single member of his crew—or any starship's crew—has a faith that is not a matter of lip-service; he believes. He has no reason not to believe. God grants some portion of his power directly to his followers in the forms of talents—medallions that confer specific abilities when worn; he binds the gods that serve as engines in their captivity. Faith in God gives God power; it is an unassailable truth.

Each ship also has a priest, to make sure faith remains strong.

The universe of Ean Tephe is a dark, disturbing place; faith has kept it stable—until now. Followers of captive gods still survive in small pockets and something is attacking the colonies; something with enough power to cause doubts about the supremacy of God.

In the course of this novella, Ean Tephe will find out more than he ever wanted to know about the difference between faith, belief, and truth. Ean Tephe is given a mission to bolster God's power in the face of the coming war, and in this universe it's possible to meet God in the flesh—and to begin to question the very foundation of one's own life, even if doubt means death.

This is a much darker work than anything that Scalzi has published to date. But there's something ineluctably his own about the work itself; Captain Tephe is a man who would be at home in any of Scalzi's other universes. He is smart, perceptive, pragmatic; he is, if not kind, not cruel, and in his handling of a first-contact situation, there are elements of similar encounters in the Old Man's universe. But he isn't in any other universe, and therefore his choices and his responses are of necessity different.

And because this is all true, there's really only one place for the novella to go—there is justice, of a sort, in this universe, and it is a very, very cold comfort.

*     *     *

The last of the three books comes under the important and much-valued class—in my reading life—of Comfort Novel. Ilona Andrews has written three novels in the Kate Daniels paranormal/contemporary series; this one is a bit of a departure. Not as much of a departure as the Scalzi, but a departure nonetheless.

Rose Drayton is a competent young woman living on a shoestring budget as an illegal immigrant in the U.S., which seems like a familiar story, except for her country of origin. She lives on the Edge, in a world between ours (the Broken) and the Weird, where magic and the innate ability to harness it defines power—as does birth.

In so many of the contemporary fantasies these days, the protagonist is a loner, often a militant one. But it's hard to be much of a loner when you're the sole support of what's left of your family. Rose has two younger brothers: Jack and his older brother Georgie. The very first thing that happens in the opening pages of the novel—so I feel safe in considering it out of the spoiler zone—is that Grandpa Cletus has to be shot. Again.

He was a much-loved father figure, because the Draytons' father is entirely absentee, and when he died, Georgie missed him so much he brought him back. Unfortunately, Georgie's power can animate the dead; it can't actually return them to life. And Georgie was a lot younger at the time. Therefore Rose is stuck with a revenant who looks and frequently sounds like her grandfather, but who likes to eat dogs' brains when he manages to get loose from the chains that keep him in the shed.

The second thing that happens is Rose notices what's left of Jack's new shoes—the ones she bought so that he could have his own shoes when he went to school, which is starting soon. Rose has scrimped and saved for a long time to be able to afford those shoes, and she is frustrated, stressed and unhappy. It's not easy to make money when you live on the Edge. It's not easy to be a parent when you're young, either, but Rose manages.

And that's the thing about Rose. She manages. She loses her temper sometimes, but so would anyone else, and she clearly loves her brothers, while on occasion wanting to strangle them, or at least turn the hose on them. They, in turn, protected and raised by her, are in many ways normal pre-teen boys; they love comics, action figures, toys, and they interact like brothers. In other ways, however, they live on the Edge, like Rose does; Georgie is a ten-year-old Necromancer. Jack is an eight-year-old shapeshifter.

And Rose is determined to give them as much of a normal life as she can, although Rose herself is blessed—or cursed—by a strong magical talent. That talent was noted in her school days, and is part of the reason she lives in isolation: She's half-blood, but politically no commoner could possibly have that power, so it's been determined that she must have some noble's blood in her. That, and she would make very powerful babies for the right family.

Since that's out of the question on all fronts—and since she spent a chunk of her adolescence being hunted and almost kidnapped by people who want to own her or sell her to the nobility—she keeps her head down and tries not to attract attention.

Enter William and Declan. William is a handsome stranger with an edge who nonetheless likes action figures and comics; she meets him while shopping with the boys in the Broken. He asks her out. She says no.

Declan doesn't ask her out; he appears, armed with a very large sword, in the vicinity of her front porch, where she's armed herself with a crossbow. She tells him to scram because she isn't interested in haring off to be a noble's mistress and breeding ground, and he tells her that she'll do whatever he wants, in the end.

But…before she can truly learn to hate or fear him on a more than knee-jerk level, he does the only possible thing a man in his position could that would make a difference: he saves the life of her baby brother, who would otherwise have died at the hands of—well, the jaws of—inexplicable, terrifying, and not entirely corporeal hounds who appear to hunt and eat magic.

If Declan were exactly what he seems to be, the book wouldn't work nearly as well—but Declan is actually on his own mission in the Edge, and in the end, he, Rose, and William have to work together to save the small community of people with whom Rose has grown up.

Andrews has come up with an interesting magic system, and an interesting universe to go with it—but what makes this book shine are the characters themselves. Rose is impulsive but she's responsible and she's decent, and I found myself really, really admiring her. When her worst enemy shows up at her doorstep asking for help, Rose can acknowledge that Leanne was a hideous, malicious witch in high school—and that, malicious or not, that crime doesn't deserve the punishment her lack of help will cause.

Jack and Georgie are pitch perfect, and there are some truly touching scenes between Jack and William, and Georgie and Declan, that both fit the story and add a level of emotional reality to characters that, rough edges and all, just cry out for a sequel.

*     *     *

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