Celestial Matters - Richard Garfinkle

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

Celestial Matters
A novel of alternate science among the crystalline spheres
Richard Garfinkle
ISBN: 0312863489 (Amazon link)

Summary: Hilarious romp through an alternate universe where the science of Artistotle and Ptolemy is real, where Alexander became a Spartan, where the Gordian knot wasn't cut, and where the entire world is split by the ever-escalating war between the Greeks and the Taoists. Oh, yes, and the Taoist science seems to work as well, but it's incompatible with the Greek worldview. This is hard SF, but unlike no other I've read, and deserves to become a classic. Recommended, A+.

Celestial Matters was a novel recommended by the newsgroup, I have no idea who made the specific suggestion, but would like to thank that person! This is a unique novel, quite unlike anything else I've read, and I enjoyed it hugely.

Given such an audacious and world-changing premise, you could forgive the author for neglecting the central plot, or for sketching less than fully realised characters. You could, but you don't have to. This is a very well rounded novel, and I'm astonished to learn that it's the author's first. It's deftly written - juggling the demands of the plot, the 'scientific' rigour, the alternate history and the characterisation, while maintaining an effortless tone requires applause.

The plot doesn't lack the important sensawunda. This is no subtle alternate history. This is hard SF, exploding spaceships and all. Aias is our hero, an Athenian scholar (a bit prissy at the start of the novel), one of the Archons (co-commander) of his spaceship, Chandra's Tear, made, of course, from a chunk of Selene (the moon). What else would a celestial vessel be made of? His co-commander is a Spartan officer, and his life is revolving around an arms race in which he is involved in a Manhattan Project. His task is to navigate his vessel past Selene, Hermes, and Aphrodite to the sphere containing Helios, and net a piece of that celestial fire to drop on 'AngXou, thus ending the war at a stroke. Not an easy task, and one complicated by spies, assasins, beguiling bodyguards and corrupt slaves. Aias even finds time to come to terms with some 'issues' regarding his father.

The arms race, and its obvious parallels in the real world, assumes greater importance in the plot later in the book, and provides a sombre counter-balance to what is otherwise an absolute alternate world romp. The effect isn't outright comic, rather this reads as if the author wrote the book with silly grin plastered on his face. (I recall reading an interview with Brust where he talked about writing the Dumas pastiches, in which he confessed he had huge amounts of fun writing it, and the book was almost for his own amusement rather than something to be read as an end product!) For all the seriousness of the plot, the deadly purpose of the mission, the depth of emotion suffered by the main characters, this is a fun read. The effect is only heightened by the portentous tone adopted by Aias. He is telling his tale before the gods, and uses the appropriate, respectful and formal tone. This is how things start (chapter alpha of course, he'd have gotten bonus points for ending with omega, but alas, that isn't so):

"I supplicate myself before Apollo of the poets and before the Muses. I ask
them to fill me, a weak-voiced scientist, with their gifts so that I may in
their honour adorn the tale I must tell with beauty, yet in it say nothing
but the truth.
But forgive me, O gods, it is not right that I honor Apollo with my
voice and dishonor his father Zeus, god of guests, with my anonymity.
Therefore, I tell you that my name is Aias; that I was born in the city of
Tyre in the 935th year since the founding of the Delian league; that my
antecedents are honorable, since my mother was a child of a great Phoenician
merchant house and my father a Spartan general who in his youth commanded
armies and in his maturity served as military governor of many city-states
within the League.
As for my personal honours, I graduated at the age of twenty from the
Athenian Akademe and in the twenty-three years since then I served the
League as a scholar in the fields of Pyrology and Ouranology. Most recently
I held the post of Scientific commander of the celestial ship 'Chandra's
Tear', and on that vessel I oversaw the researching, creation, and operation
of Project Sunthief. It is because of my actions in that capacity that I am
now called and do freely submit myself and my story to the gods for

A pious man, and why should he not be? The gods are real, they have talked to him and through him. Indeed, a major focus of the novel focuses on his duties to his competing muses - as an scholar of the League he is a product of the Akademe, where Athena is revered. However, Aias, in a nicely handled theme through-out the book, also owes allegiance to Kleio, Muse of history. There is a war on, and naturally, our scholar hero starts to wonder about the service to which his putting his learning. (Some of the most memorable scenes in the book involve the intervention, in subtle ways, through mere mortals, of the gods and muses. Even Romulus and Remus take a hand, enabling the doughty old Roman ship's physician to ward off, for a time, a Nipponese assassin.)

This stylised tone may not appeal to some readers; it is highly affected, but for me, much of this novel's appeal lay in the tone. It rarely slips, and the author does a nice job of changing Aias throughout the book without ever changing the essential nature of his 'voice'.

I can't really recommend this novel highly enough, but if I had to pick a nit, I'd 'ave a go at a 'ighly quirky typographical feature. Did you get the clue there? This is a novel featuring 'Ermes, 'Elios, and 'Erakles. I have just enough education to realise that H is not a Greek letter, but no other letters are represented in this way, and anyway, to be ultra-pedantic, the ' used is the wrong way around. (I think.) It's a nice touch, but to UK ears at least it triggers associations of cheeky Londoners, and salt of the earth boxers ("Know what I mean 'arry?") rather than ancient Greece. A translator's or author's note would have gone some way to achieving the intended effect from the beginning. Nit picking over. There is very little else I would have changed in this novel; reading it has led to an increase in my Jovial Humours.

Posted: Mon - June 2, 2003 at 01:42 AM