The ancient Greeks believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. The great astronomer Ptolemy mapped the solar system and stars, locating each heavenly body in a crystalline sphere, the spheres forming a concentric series that progressed in an orderly fashion outward from the earth. Celestial Matters is a startling novel of hard SF, set in an alternate, ptolemaic universe in which these beliefs are literal scientific fact. The greek empire of Alexander the Great has lasted for a thousand years, and for a thousand years it has been at war with the Empire of the Orient. Now, a spaceship has been built to voyage through the spheres to the sun and return with the ultimate weapon: a fiery piece of sun matter.
(summary from Google books who wrote it much better than I could have)
Okay, this is what they call “hard science fiction”. What seems like magic or impossible is actually based on real theory (which has since been found wrong) and has a logical baseline. That doesn’t mean that it’s an easy read, though. You have to get used to the idea that the ancient theories of matter and space were right and that gods are regularly talking to scientists and war generals. Richard Garfinkle takes these old assumptions – that the Earth is the center of the Universe, that there is breathable air within each celestial sphere, that you could take a piece of the sun – and creates a world where these theories are laws.
Garfinkle has also created compelling characters. It makes sense that Spartans are the warriors and that Athenians are scholars. They each have their own viewpoint on the world and their place in it, and the honor that they owe to their society. I have to admit that I would have probably found a different enjoyment in the book if I had a better grasp on Greek and Taoist history and science, but I found it completely accessible even without it.
The only criticism I have is the ending. I might have missed something along the way, but I think I’ve missed something subtle. Also, it seemed to end a little abruptly which was a surprise. It’s a first novel, so I think that I can cut him a little slack given the general expanse of the book. I’m sure I’ll come back to this one at some point – but I need to do some additional reading before that happens.
Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle, 348 pages