David Montgomery's Reviews > Celestial Matters

Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle
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really liked it

A fascinating, and very well-executed, novel of "alternate science." It's set in a world in which what Aristotle posited about the nature of the world — four elements, rotating geocentric celestial spheres, four humour-based medicine, etc. — are actually true. (Mostly. More on this.) Furthermore it's a novel of alternate history, for which the point of divergence appears to be that the Peloponnesian War never occurred. Rather, Athens and Sparta united in the Delian League and eclipsed Macedonia culturally and militarily. Alexander, as a League general instead of a deified emperor, lived until old age. His tutor Aristotle used his science to create new weapons of war that led to an even larger, and much more durable, Hellenic empire.

In the time of the novel's setting — the world is essentially divided in a forever war between the Greek Delian League and the Chinese Middle Kingdom, with the battle lines in Tibet and central North America. (The time period is never quite specified; it's said Alexander's empire has lasted a thousand years, which would put it about 700 AD, but the feel of the setting, with motorized ships and space travel, is more 20th Century.) The needs of the great war have led to accelerated science but atrophied culture, with philosophy and history both low-prestige disciplines.

I've talked mostly about the setting rather than the plot, but honestly, the setting is the reason to read the book. It's a clever conceit that's executed well, with a first-person narration that drops you into the deep end of an unfamiliar world but doles out details on its rules in a steady fashion as the book goes on. This includes not just science but culture, as the characters of the book hold to ancient Greek traditions: the Olympic pantheon, funeral games, inspiration from the muses, a Spartan sense of honor, and a huge classical influence on the ideals of heroism.

My biggest qualm with the book is the way its final act developed, which stepped into the realm of world-saving, world-shaking heroism. The too-neat conclusion was justified by a little divine intervention, though I suppose one could argue that is itself authentic to the material's inspiration. Regardless, it felt a little narratively implausible; I'd have felt it to be more earned if the novel's conclusion had been the end of a trilogy that started on a very grounded level and only gradually raised the stakes.

I was also left with questions about the world. Though by the end I understood the Aristotelian physics undergirding the universe rather well, in a confusing twist the Taoist model of the universe ALSO turns out to be true. The novel never really explains how two contradictory models of reality can be true at the same time — the narrator and protagonist figures it out but doesn't actually tell us what he's figured out. Given that the author thought out the implications of both physics models with great care that suggests he didn't quite square that circle either.

But altogether it was an enjoyable read, at least for someone like me who is vaguely familiar with Aristotle. (A lover of speculative fiction with no background might still enjoy the story; I can't say how that experience would be different — or the experience of someone who's actually an expert in Aristotelian or Taoist physics.) The writing style seemed accessible, though I'm not particularly picky on that matter; particularly well done seemed to be the narrator's habit of periodically expressing regret for not noticing something important, foreshadowing future developments without giving it away.
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Reading Progress

August 11, 2016 – Started Reading
August 11, 2016 – Shelved
August 11, 2016 –
page 53
15.06%
August 13, 2016 –
page 140
39.77%
August 14, 2016 –
page 282
80.11%
August 16, 2016 – Finished Reading

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