A few months ago, I took a look at the career of Kim Stanley Robinson here on Strange Horizons. Since then, Robinson's new book, Galileo's Dream, was published in North America. John Clute has already looked at the new Robinson work for Strange Horizons, so I will examine the book itself only briefly. For me, Robinson is a writer who gives the clearest sense of the places in his books, but there are many other genre writers who can help transport us either to places we know very well or are new to us. I'll try to point to a few broad categories of books that can show us real-world locations in a convincing way. For example, the world-building in an epic fantasy is generally thorough enough, and whole generations of readers have wanted to visit Middle Earth or other famous fantastical settings; all the same, there's something just as alluring about being able to visit the locales that are depicted in fiction (or in the case of something like Robinson's Mars trilogy, look at the locales through a telescope). More in a moment.
As for Galileo's Dream, this is an odd bird of a book. It's ostensibly the story of Galileo, the famous scientist, attacked by the Catholic Church for the cause of scientific progress (or as the book demonstrates vividly, for having a big mouth and a tendency to stir the pot in an era when those were both dangerous tendencies). The historical elements of the story take place in the early 1600s, in all the famous Renaissance locations like Venice and Florence, as well as, inevitably, Rome, and we learn a great deal about the politics and scientific arguments of the time. And there are some rather shocking medical bits—Galileo's health is discussed, um, frankly. But the emphasis of the title is on the dream, not Galileo per se.
That's why, interspersed with the historical material, we get some trips to the Jovian moons. Galileo has a historical connection to them of course, but in this storyline, some conflicting factions from the 2800s bring him (or, more precisely, his consciousness) to the future and to the Jovian moons. There is much more detail about Jupiter and its system of moons than I was expecting! Granted, it's not the same level of detail as can be found about Mars in Robinson's famous Martian trilogy, but there is some vivid description about the four biggest moons, the planet itself, and so on. Galileo, as an inhabitant of the 1600s, is at first lost in the new setting, but soon starts to draw parallels—things like the perpetually conflicting factions of the moons acting in a similar fashion to the perpetually conflicting city states of the Italian peninsula. Galileo also gets a tour of the 1200 years of scientific progress between his day and the 2800s, and Robinson makes a surprisingly adept stab (or at least, adept enough for a general readership in 2010!) at what the next 800 years of scientific discoveries might be like.
About halfway through the book, there's an interesting discussion of how cultures can go insane. Again, the Jovians and the people of Galileo's time are mirror images of each other. The people from the future have a great deal of power, but have no agreement on what to do with it; Galileo's reaction to their level of scientific advance is interesting, in that he seems to understand it. One of the points of the book is that when you've crossed a certain threshold, i.e., in Galileo's case, gotten hold of the idea that the universe can be explained via math and/or geometry, everything else is small potatoes. The small potatoes may be something like a supercollider the size of the solar system! But Galileo picks up the notion pretty quickly.
All of this is complicated by the issues of narration, which Clute points out in his piece. These start out very subtle, dropped into the smooth surface of the storytelling like tiny pebbles. I won't spoil this aspect, but I will say that it reminded me of the tricksy meta-connections between the storylines and characters in the Three Californias books.
To take one step back, I must say that I admire the shape of Robinson's career. Galileo's Dream is like The Years of Rice and Salt (itself a bizarre and fertile project) collided with the Mars trilogy, recognizably his work, but still something strange and new. I like when authors find a groove and focus on familiar pleasures; I'm also appreciative of authors who will surprise you with every outing.
Now, on to some broad categories of genre fiction that can provide a sense of place. By definition, these are not going to be straight travelogues, but I'm always interested in how these speculative (or fantastical, or horrific) books can still transport you to a different time and place. I'm thinking of Guy Gavriel Kay's historical recastings, which take a time period (usually long ago) and cultural location (mostly European—I haven't had a chance to read his latest book yet), fictionalize it heavily and add a pinch of magic, yet still give an amazing sense of being there. I'm going to focus on books that are more specifically real-world than Kay, but that's the idea.
Or: adventures in known astronomy. This means the solar system generally, since the nature of life on other planets is more speculative, and hence not really shared between books. Kim Stanley Robinson is a huge name in this category, as I talked about last time. Ben Bova has been doing the planets for a few years now, and the 2001 series is a famous example. Interestingly, this changes over time: in 1954, Asimov wrote a book about life on Venus, and later added a foreword to warn readers of the outdated material in it. As if Paris in the 1950s, for example, would be anything like Paris of today!
I would put Robert J. Sawyer here as a prime example, as he has been mining the near-future SF territory throughout his whole career, rather successfully, and his books always have a tremendous sense of place. Another name who has been working the "detailed real-world setting" angle is Brian K. Vaughan, with his Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man comic book series, while Robinson's Science in the Capital series is a perfect fit. The whole techno-thriller genre could sit here comfortably, and I'd put cyberpunk here too. I recently revisited Neuromancer, and was struck by how Gibson could use his settings so effectively (granted, the Sprawl is a deliberately rammed-together conglomeration, but the stops in Tokyo and Istanbul are fairly memorable). I don't see as many medical thrillers anymore, but I would point to something like Darwin's Radio as an example here as well.
This is a genre that Kim Stanley Robinson used to great effect in The Years of Rice and Salt (the world without European influence), and one of my all-time favorite books, The Man in the High Castle, imagines an alternate outcome for World War II. The American Civil War and WWII seem to generate a ton of material, but I would mention Yellow Blue Tibia as an entry here that is far less stereotypical. That's a book about an alternate version of Communist history in which Stalin tasks some SF writers to come up with a scare-story about alien invasion. The book features a memorable road trip from Moscow to Chernobyl.
Historical Fiction with Speculative Bits Bolted On
I'm filing some odds and ends here—I don't think this is a publishing category, but I don't know where else to put Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, since that book appears as a cross between alternate history and epic fantasy (and the opposite of both at the same time—quite a tricky book). Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy is a dark-satanic-mills/Victorian thing, with magic, and Naomi Novik's tales of the Napoleonic Wars, with the slight addition of dragons, has proved to be a satisfying bit of entertainment (and left me with just about as much information about the time period as, say, the Sharpe series). And of course Galileo's Dream.
Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance
This is definitely a major publishing category, but I'm not entirely sure what to call it. For old-school urban fantasy, I would mention someone like Charles de Lint, and for this whole dark fantasy/paranormal thing, there's a whole range of writers like Charlaine Harris all the way to Stephenie Meyer. I mention those two writers specifically, because of recent onscreen adaptations that keep that sense of place, True Blood (on HBO) and two Twilight movies so far. Harris and Meyer are not the only writers here: there are massive amounts of material, and from the fraction that I've seen, most of it takes place in interesting real-world locations (and quite a lot of it in Louisiana!).
I'm not as sure about this one. The big series, Harry Potter, has a sense of Englishness, but focuses its action on an imaginary location, Hogwarts. I haven't read widely enough in this category to draw other examples.
Stephen King's Maine comes to mind. Again, I'm not widely read enough to comment.
Those are the headings I would draw for genre fiction that has a strong sense of place. Except for the last three, Kim Stanley Robinson is a strong presence in all of them. Anyone else care to pitch in some names?
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