I've put off reviewing this in part because I have no idea how to rate it. It's a patchwork of many books: a historical about Galileo, a time travel tale, an exploration into 31st century anarchist politics, a first-contact story about alien intelligence. Some were exquisite; Robinson's evocation of the 16th century was rich enough to smell and taste, in all its glory and squalor. It made me appreciate Galileo as a person: not a likable one, not a nice
one, but one full of real strengths and real flaws. I laughed along with him at his joy of discovery and cringed at his utter blindness to the political currents around him.
Some parts of the patchwork were . . . rather less successful. In contrast to the well-researched and carefully drawn politics of Galileo's era, the 31st century society seemed paper-thin. There's some thematic rationale for it--Galileo observes repeatedly how unfortunate and tenuous the lives of those who don't live literally in the dirt of earth are--but that doesn't make it more readable. And the future villain never comes across as more than a contrivance to drive home the theme that religion is a useful, perhaps crucial, structure for allowing man to accept with humility when science proves that the universe is vaster than him.
Then there's the mercifully brief but nonetheless excruciatingly clunky section in which one future character earnestly lectures Galileo about the Evils of the Patriarchy, a lecture which he then promptly ignores. If this has any purpose other than to allow the author to show that he
doesn't share his main character's 16th century approach to gender relations, I'd like to hear it.
I almost wish the book had been a straight historical, but there were
parts of the time-travel plot I appreciated. There's something amusing, on a meta-level, about time travelers trying to change history to make it exactly like it really was, about an alternate history in which everything stays the same. If it had to be a science fiction book--and I suppose it did--I wish more had been made of that aspect, and less of the alien intelligences.