NESFA Members' Reviews


by Richard Garfinkle

Tor, ISBN 0-312-85934-1, 1996, 348pp, US$23.95

A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 1996 Evelyn C. Leeper

Most alternate histories are based on some historical event happening differently. For example, it might ask, "What if the South had won at Gettysburg?" A few go back even further, with some change in prehistory, such as "What if the dinosaurs survived and developed intelligence?" But Garfinkle goes even further in CELESTIAL MATTERS and changes the basic premises of the universe, by asking, "What if Aristotelian science and Ptolemaic cosmology were an accurate description of the universe?" So what we have is a universe where the stars and the planets really are fixed in crystal spheres; everything really is made up of earth, air, fire, and water; and the gods and goddesses really do exist and interact with mortals. Garfinkle also assumes that Alexander did not die young and went on to conquer Asia until he ran up against China, and the story takes place nine hundred years later, with Greece and China still fighting each other. (Well, if Greek medicine actually worked, then Alexander probably would have survived.)

I had two main problems with all this. One is that my knowledge of the details of Aristotelian science and Ptolemaic cosmology is fairly skimpy, since they aren't really taught in great depth these days. So whether the universe Garfinkle constructs is accurate or consistent is not clear to me, nor did I always understand the explanations given. My other problem is that Garfinkle has constructed a universe in which both Aristotelian/Ptolemaic and Chinese science and cosmology are "true," but they also appear (to me, anyway) to be somewhat contradictory. Harry Turtledove did something similar in THE CASE OF THE TOXIC SPELL DUMP, which assumed that ALL religions were true. Even though that premise is just as contradictory, I found it presented more believably than Garfinkle presents his competing cosmologies. (For that matter, one might ask how other cosmologies such as Mayan or Maorian fit into all this.)

In spite of these quibbles, I enjoyed this book. But I am a fan of alternate histories, and the original approach that Garfinkle takes sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill alternate histories that use fairly traditional variations. And in science fiction in general and alternate histories in particular, originality is getting harder and harder to find. (I just hope that Garfinkle's next book is not a sequel to this one, since the ending does seem to imply that there could be sequels.) Also, since I did minor in classics in college (and actually took three years of ancient Greek, of which I remember distressingly little), the classical setting appeals to me on its own. I guess the best question to ask is whether you are interested in the HISTORY of science. If so, this book will probably appeal to you.

[Publishing note: I see that Tor is releasing this first novel as a hardback rather than as a mass-market paperback or trade paperback. While this will keep it on the shelves longer and give it more of a chance to find its audience than if it were mass-market, I wonder if the hardback price with limit its audience. It is my personal--and admittedly relatively uninformed--opinion that trade paperbacks are the format of the future for quality fiction. Mass-market books have major drawbacks as far as bookstore shelf life goes, but hardbacks cost too much for many readers to spend. This of course has very little to do with whether this particular book is good or not. Let's just say that while I recommend the book, I'm not entirely comfortable with saying you should spend $24 on it.]

%T      Celestial Matters
%A      Richard Garfinkle
%C      New York
%D      April 1996
%I      Tor
%O      hardback, US$23.95
%G      ISBN 0-312-85934-1
%P      348pp

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