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Science Fiction Book Review: Celestial Matters

May 29, 2014

Celestial Matters is a fine book. Notwithstanding the extra time it took to become ingratiated with the alternate world and its unfamiliar technology, the Delian League feels like it could exist in this reality. Having grown up in a post-Cold War environment, it is not so hard to imagine a global standoff with the Middle Kingdom power being all-consuming. Had Soviet Union and the United States of America resorted to war without atomic weapons I am sure both sides could just as easily reach such desperate points. We certainly did with developing the nuclear bomb.

This world has the same issues we have of disagreement and politics, logistical shortcomings and difficulties, and treachery. It has the same anxiety about losing a war we face on occasion. The people in this world are as realistic as any leaders or heroes we read about in history or the modern day. The only things missing are the physics and the gods we no longer believe in, and the way some people behave, it wouldn’t be very different.

Richard Garfinkle has done a remarkable job making the world of a geocentric universe tangible. The reader can feel the same tension and elation as Yellow Hare of Sparta (a warrior actually from the North Atlantean continent, but possessing a warrior spirit making Sparta proud), Aias of Tyre, and others, and thanks to the momentum built by the final chapter, it seems like the reader himself or herself has a stake in the hope for a better future. I hope there is a sequel somewhere.

Overall, I am very fond of this book. I must point out some issues I take with it, however, and then extol several things I enjoyed about it.

For one thing, even used to emphasize the presence of many gods—and simply to identify the pertinent ones as per each scene they are present in—I find there are too many invocations of the gods in Celestial Matters. It is necessary to mention them when their words are felt (almost like possession, I would say), when their habits come into play, and one who believes strongly in the polytheistic universe would reference them as often as a devout Christian conjures the name of God for help or thanksgiving. That is, provided, the name of God is permissible to speak or write. But Garfinkle uses invocation of gods and goddesses enough to become irritating. I would have preferred the deities were cited, but not so strongly called upon in all the instances they were.

That said, the saturation of ritual Aias and others undertake is not at all excessive. It may seem so, but per capita, ritualistic passages are not too many and they are all pertinent to the scenes in which they take place. It made me think about how life would be different if we carried out rituals in Christianity the way the Old Testament called for. Every incarnation of the host of gods, although somewhat heavily applied, was topical and pertinent for Aias and his situation. Input from gods or goddesses, their insight, and their judgments are interesting. These things have bearing on the plot despite the fact the source of such information needed not be so pedagogic.

Specifically, experiencing the presence of a god foreign to Aias, for instance, was a nice touch. It was quite fitting for the passage, even if it was too merciful for who it involved.

Another point I want to make is technology of this novel makes it seem a bit too large for believability, even given the nature of obligatory ritual and settings expected of devout adherents to the polytheistic faith. The Delian League outclassed Middler battle kites with moon sleds. That I can follow. They carve a ship from Selene and build bases on the other planets to maintain their advantage over the Middle Kingdom.

But carving a ship so large as to have an amphitheater, sports fields, laboratories, and an assortment of other facilities? It isn’t necessary. The Delian League would not likely make ships so large as that when the war seems to be too costly in resources. It only means more propulsion is necessary, and fire-gold is not a cheap thing to make. Rituals must be performed as necessary and they require adequate facilities. But there is a limit for practical purposes.

That is the extent of my negative points. I find Garfinkle has done an excellent job with the development of dynamics between characters. Principally, Aias and his bodyguard Yellow Hare are not very close in mindset or behavior at the beginning of the book. Their relationship changes in a natural, wholesome sort of way without being rushed or forced. Its change is also not exaggerated. I appreciated that.

The focus is equally judicious with the bond between Aias and the rest of the cast. The closeness with Kleon and Ramonojon is congruent with the context and draws the reader in. The later problems with Mihradarius and Anaxamander create an emotive response with the reader, as well, and effectively planted doubt in the success of Aias’ ambitions. The connection between Aeson and Clovix, the familiarity fostered between Aias and Phan Xu-Tzu, and the procedure of the final meeting all fit with the cultures emplaced.

Celestial Matters’ conclusion is an inventive blending of Taoist and Delian modes of thought. Garfinkle creates a superb synthesis of worldviews, both symbolic and symmetrical for a conflict with two halves of the world at odds. I am a bit confused by the ending paragraphs, but it’s alright: with a universe filled with active deities, a review by them is bound to cross the lines between mortality and spirituality.

All in all, I would advise potential readers to give themselves a good block of time and try out this book. It’ll keep you entertained and make you wonder how different the universe could be.

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