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Science Fiction Book Summary: Celestial Matters

May 29, 2014

In the present day the Western world is anchored, one may say cemented, in its notions of right, wrong, and the appropriate way of doing things. The United States sees fit to install democracies everywhere it has interests—I mean, where peoples’ rights are curtailed, of course. It’s just coincidence our own republic doesn’t function much better than most of those we plant elsewhere… Culturally, we are just as sequestered. What we don’t adapt cannot be mentioned or permitted visibility.

Scientifically, the West is just as insulated. I have pointed out in blogs before how the very approach of science is warped today: rather than investigate something we don’t fully understand, we presume an explanation for a riddle and seek to prove it. This precludes the other possibilities being given a fair chance, and in most cases, that means they are discarded or ignored, besides the simplicity of a more practical solution too often being discounted because it would undermine the illusion of human mastery over the universe (or at least humanity’s supposedly competent understanding of the universe).

I am pleased to see a book like Celestial Matters appear and invalidate such hubris, even if it is only fiction.

This novel, written by Richard Garfinkle, was published 1996. I was in grade school, so I wouldn’t have understood it well then, and I haven’t heard of this book before I found it in the last several months. It’s amusing to think about the time I was watching Independence Day, this book presented a very different view of the universe, to that point in its chronology at least, devoid of alien life and in favor of a universe filled with gods.

I’ll begin with the inescapable. This novel is a slow starter. The difficulty of a lay (modern Western) person immersing himself or herself into this alternate world is forgiven, however, from a riveting plot and masterful characterization.

The story is presented as an accounting of facts by Aias of Tyre, a high-ranking Greek from the scientific establishment called the Akademe. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about Pythagorean concepts, the geometry of astronomical circles in ancient Greek education, and though I know quite a bit about history, I can’t pretend to have a full grasp of the world’s geopolitics when Alexander the Great was marching across the known world. If I had such understanding, as this author seems to fairly convincingly, I may have an easier time following the precepts science operates on in Celestial Matters.

I have a very hard time imagining the devices included—primarily the mechanics of the Delian League’s impellers and tetrahedron guns, and the Middle Kingdom’s Xi lances. This difficulty is partially due to the fact I can’t visualize the principles at work with a critical component of Delian League technology. Understanding of the elements, in the Greek sense, is the basis for incidental development of medicine (involving the four humors, used much like syringes inject drugs in our technology) and the creation of an alloy called fire-gold.

Fire-gold’s properties generate rarefied air, crucial to the contemporaneous Greek and Spartan military technology. It effectively creates a pressure differential like incendiary fluid burning through a nozzle, although that approach would be more in keeping with Middler technology and its alchemists in this setting. Taoists, alternatively, use the flow of Xi, and is much more based in the transmutation of existential matter. There is a pervasive gulf between Middler and Delian mentalities too wide to bridge even with captured texts.

As Aias takes command of a major operation, it is during an endless war with the Middle Kingdom: a rival empire encompassing the Middle East and Japan as the Americas lay in dispute (North and South Atlantis). Opposing it is the Delian League, a union of Greeks and Spartan military units ruling over an allegedly democratic alliance spanning the Atlantic Ocean and into other continents. Leadership comes in pairs, much like the original design of presidential elections in the U. S. Constitution. Coincidentally, Rome is a member state much disposed to conflict the same way Sparta is.

In an effort to end this war decisively, the Delian League sees fit to undertake an operation called Sunthief. Propulsion by means of rarefied air gets the Delian League to the Moon, Mercury, and Venus—or, as they are named for the ever-present gods, Selene, ‘Ermes, and Aphrodite. In Celestial Matters, space seems smaller and it is filled with the necessary air pressure to breathe between all astronomical bodies. Thus celestial ships can traverse open space without space suits.

Without spoiling the plot, fire-gold impellers and the natural orbital inclinations of astronomical matter guide a ship carved from Selene itself (or herself) to ‘Elios to accomplish a mission that flies in the face of the gods, who themselves are always poking in with a word of advice or censure. The Middle Kingdom, naturally, uses its resources such as battle kites to hinder this and other Delian endeavors. Aias and his staff fly into space to undertake their mission and encounter more issues than they could have ever expected.

Suffice to say, there are action and intrigue. There is almost tangible depth in the execution of sabotage, espionage, and the application of Selenian, ‘Ermian, and ‘Eliosian celestial matters (pun intended by the author, I think). The physics of Aias and the devices shown are complex but logical, even if they are alien to our sensibilities. Alliances are made in unpredictable ways, and new methods of progress on Earth are made feasible with characters we meet later in the novel, although they had been present most of it. After all the turns and unexpected stops in the journey, not to mention the artful way treason was finally revealed, Aias manages to find a way to make the future better… assuming it works as he hopes.

The gods favor Aias when he works for the good, rather than misguided glory. Through his efforts and those of his confidants his project and their definition of duty undergo drastic reinterpretation. The mission becomes infinitely harder than Aias expected but in the end, the hope for a better future is stronger than anyone, Middler or one of the Delian League, could have conceived before.

For those who are interested, follow up with this summary with my posted review of Celestial Matters.

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