One of the advantages to science fiction is the ability to posit a different reality as a prism through which to examine ourselves and society. That is part of the philosophy behind Galileo’s Children: Tales of Science vs. Superstition, an anthology of previously published short stories
The 13-story collection, issued on the relatively new Pyr imprint, is replete with notables, starting with its editor, Gardner Dozois. Dozois has won more than 30 Hugo and Locus Awards for best editor in addition to two Nebula Awards for his own writing. Also appearing are Hugo and Nebula award winning authors Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Egan, Ursula Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Mike Resnick, and Robert Silverberg. Yet names alone don’t make anything a worthy venture. It’s the content. While the contributions of some of speculative fiction’s luminaries certainly are notable components of the content of this work, some of the more compelling pieces are by perhaps lesser known authors.
Given the title, some may see the book as one equating religion with superstition. As Dozois details in the preface, Galileo is the anthology’s namesake because of his sentence to house arrest for life after his 1633 prosecution by the Catholic Church because of his belief the Earth revolved around the sun. (It was not until 1992 that the Church publicly admitted it made a mistake in condemning Galileo). Certainly, religious-based conflicts with science are a catalyst here. At the same time, several of the stories also tend to view superstition in the broader sense of dogma and intolerance of all sorts, whether arising from religion, politics or other cultural forces.
That some of the works focus on religious attacks on science is a reflection of human history, something perhaps illustrated by the fact the stories in the collection were initially published over the course of five decades. It is a struggle that continues today, which is part of the reason for the anthology. Dozois notes:
One of the major battlefields is science fiction, one of the few forms of literature where rationality, skepticism, the knowledge of the inevitability of change, and the idea that wide-ranging freedom of thought and unfettered imagination and curiosity are good things are the default positions, taken for granted by most of its authors.
Yet the same idea of freedom of thought leads various stories in the anthology to leave to the reader the ultimate evaluation of what resolution is appropriate in any particular situation. A prime example is Resnick’s “When the Old Gods Die,” a part of the author’s stories about Kirinyaga, a utopian space colony based on ancient Kenya. The tale presents the quandary created when the second and third generation of the colony realize the benefits that can be gained from scientific advances of others, advances the founders have struggled to keep out to avoid despoiling the ancient tribal principles upon which the society was intentionally built. Although the story resolves who ultimately wins the struggle it leaves us pondering not only the dilemma but whether the resolution is one that best serves that culture.
Another story touching on the moral dilemmas that can result from conflict between science and positions founded on belief rather than objective analysis is “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream.” In it, James Alan Gardner uses an alternate history to examine how science can be impacted by inquisitions, whether initiated by religion or by political zealots. In so doing, he also addresses the equally important issue of how co-opting basic scientific findings to support or advance religious or political contentions can gradually lead to a point of no return even for those who are intent on acting with science at heart.
Other highly worthy entries include “Falling Star” by Brendan DuBois, a look at the backlash against science and scientists when blame for a catastrophe is laid at the feet of science. And Chris Lawson’s “Written in Blood,” originally published in 1999, now seems almost prescient in combining societal and governmental reaction to Islamic terrorism and doctrinal rifts among the Muslim people with concern over the ramifications of high-tech bioscience.
As with almost any anthology, any particular reader may find stories that do not fit their individual taste. Dozois, however, not only seeks a balance between old and new but also blends genres and styles within broad field of SF. Equally important, the anthology attempts to consider the issues the conflict between science and superstition creates without necessarily pointing fingers at any particular personalities, faiths or ideologies. In creating this distance and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks, the anthology provides an opportunity to set aside preconceptions and produce a more penetrating and perhaps objective examination of these seemingly never-ending issues.