Book Review: Celestial Matters

Celestial Matters is a strange and utterly fascinating novel that deserves to be read on account of the incredible and fantastic world contained within. Richard Garfinkle begins with a simple premise, but he takes it quite seriously, and extrapolates from it the intricate details of a universe that draws readers in.

Celestial Matters imagines a universe in which the ancient Greeks were completely correct in their understanding of science and the natural world. The planets and the sun, attached to celestial spheres of crystal, orbit the Earth, and terrestrial matter is made up of different elements: earth, water, air, fire, and ether. Motion occurs not as described by Newton’s laws, but as understood by Aristotle.

These basic but essential changes have sent this alternate universe along a path of intriguing scientific possibilities. Steam power, flight, artillery, and eventually what we would call space travel all become possible due to breakthroughs in the manipulation of the elements and an understanding of the properties of celestial materials, which behave differently than earthly matter.

Doctors have become skilled in managing the balance of the different humours in the human body. Furthermore, as Aristotle posited, it is possible for life to spontaneously generate from other forms of matter. This simple change in the basic nature of biology carries stunning implications. If it is really possible for maggots and flies to emerge spontaneously out of rotting flesh, then why can’t other animals–pigs, chickens, cows–appear from other types of matter?

Scientists therefore have found ways to grow livestock out of strange combinations of different materials: plants, dung, minerals, and so on. Suddenly, this ancient society possesses a near-industrial level of food production that gives it an incredible ability to sustain populations, feed armies, and support long-distance travel.

Garfinkle, therefore, is brilliantly able to bring the assumptions of his wild premise to their natural conclusion: we can actually see the consequences of a universe that follows a different set of scientific laws.

So, this is the wonderful world of alternate science created by Garfinkle. But as my plot summary (with very few spoilers) will make clear, Celestial Matters is also an interesting example of alternate history, in which seemingly minor historical modifications lead our world down a different path.

For 1000 years, the Delian League of Greece, led by Athens and Sparta, has fought the Middle Kingdom of China, which has grown powerful through its understanding of not Greek but Taoist science, based on the ideas of chi, as well as yin and yang. War has raged for centuries and both sides seem to be divided by unbridgeable philosophical, scientific, and ideological differences.

The protagonist of our novel, Aias, the scientific commander of the celestial ship Chandra’s Tear, has been sent on a Manhattan Project-esque mission to fly his ship to the sun to retrieve a piece of celestial fire. The leaders of the league believe it will be such a deadly weapon that it will be able to end the war, at long last.

But Aias faces innumerable difficulties: in addition to threats against his life from traitors aboard his ship and from “Middler” (Chinese) agents, he must also face his own conscience, as he wrestles with the moral consequences of his actions. Can he do his duty to his nation and follow the orders of his superiors, if dropping celestial fire over the Middler capital leads to millions of civilian deaths? Can he allow his great love–scientific knowledge–to be used as weapon of war?

In his dreams, the Greek sun god Helios taunts him, and Aias wonders if his task–to steal from the sun–represents the sheer hubris of mankind. I will see nothing further of his struggles, for the sake of avoiding plot spoilers.

But already you can see that Celestial Matters hints at the dangers of overreaching in our pursuit of knowledge and in our attempts to control nature. We see how war, ideological differences, and arms races–as in our world’s Cold War–can wrest away control of positive scientific progress for destructive purposes.

Also, there is a lesson to be learned in the struggle between Taoist and Greek science regarding how to bridge disparate ways of thinking and of recognizing that one’s own approach to understanding the world may not be the only valid answer. This is perhaps something of value for academics and politicians alike.

Alexander.

But how does the Delian League, which historically collapsed within 100 years of its founding, last so long in Celestial Matters? The first historical difference in Celestial Matters is that Sparta is given a leadership role in the Delian League equal to that of Athens, rather than Athens creating the league on its own. The jointly-led league is far more successful against Persia and does not collapse.

And then, Alexander the Great comes along. As a youth, he goes to study at the Spartan military academy and he soars through its ranks. Eventually, he becomes one of the leaders of the Delian League and goes on a grand conquest of the Persian Empire and beyond.

Aristotle.

Here, we see the implications of this world’s alternate science: Aristotle is, like in our world, Alexander’s tutor and a great philosopher, but in this alternate world, he is the greatest scientific mind to ever exist, having created a fully accurate picture of how the natural world functions. He devises powerful, elemental weapons for the campaign, and thus, Alexander conquers all of India, rather than turning back. The great conqueror survives until old age, having turned the Delian League into a superpower.

In terms of its creative and intriguing world-building, Celestial Matters is a resounding success that takes seriously the implications of its premise. It dips into the weird realm between alternate history, science fiction, and fantasy, and carves out its own unique space. It brings up interesting thematic issues of knowledge, different ways of thinking, and the moral consequences of war and ideological differences on scientific thought.

But it is not perfect. In some ways, the brilliance of its intricate universe detracts from the actual plot of the story. Most of our time is spent with Aias and his crew on a ship far out in space, but I found myself wishing I were back on Earth. I wanted to learn more about the wondrous history of this universe. I wanted to know what contact with the native people of North Atlantea (America) was like or how the Delian League came to control Rome (instead of the other way). Greek and Taoist thought are dominant, but about the belief systems of the Mayans or the Hebrews?

We, unfortunately, do not spend enough time exploring these fascinating ideas. We spend far too much time reading of tedious ship repairs and complex maneuvers in space. The confined space of Chandra’s Tear as a setting is restrictive, preventing us from really going out and exploring the details of this grand universe.

The plot itself, except for the moments when it starts to drag on, is decent, but it has no characters to act as an emotional anchor. There were no figures who were characterized well enough for me to invest emotionally in, despite the unique background that each character must have emerged from, having lived in such a well-crafted world.

The writing style is respectable, but it is nothing extraordinary. It carries with it a philosophical–almost academic–approach, mixed with references to Greek religion and mythology. This is most effective during the novel’s discussion of complex ideas, but this style has the potential to become boring and long-winded at times.

So, do not expect Celestial Matters to be a literary masterpiece. Its writing style, plot, and characterization are not nearly strong enough. Nevertheless, there is a shining gemstone to be found within: Richard Garfinkle has succeeded in creating of a wondrous and imaginative universe so much like our own, and yet so different. This is the crowning achievement of Celestial Matters.

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