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Book Review: Celestial Matters, by Richard Garfinkle
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I bought this one because of the Cool Gimmick. It's not just an alternate history, it's an alternate *cosmology*. Let's start up ancient Greek history, but with the basic premise that their science was demonstrably true -- there are four elements making up the world, the Earth is the center of the universe, surrounded by a series of crystalline spheres which make the planets move, and so forth. The local tech level has reached early spaceflight, and the plot centers around an expedition which will attempt to reach the sphere of the Sun in order to retrieve Celestial Fire. It's a fun gimmick, and well handled.

The basic gimmick becomes even more fun when you realize that there are two *competing* cosmologies here. The (Greek) Delian League is at war with The Middle Kingdom, an alternate Chinese empire that has a completely different scientific system, based on Taoist philosophy. Each side has roughly the same capabilities, but expressed in very different ways, and they don't understand each other's technology very well at all.

That much by itself would have been enough for me to enjoy, and maybe even recommend the book. Add in interesting characters, an exciting space-opera-ish plot, and a surprisingly-satisfying (yet well prepared for) ending, and I liked it even more.

What really put it over the top for me, though, was the *religious* aspect, of all unlikely things. The book is narrated in first person, by a scientist of the Delian Empire. He, and the other members of his culture, have religious metaphors so deeply embedded into their daily lives, that they don't even see them *as* metaphors. For example, when the protagonist has a clever idea, he writes "Athena whispered in my ear." He sees himself, and those around him, as being literally possessed by the Gods on an almost daily basis. From the point of view of an atheist reader like myself, it is clear that this is all just cultural convention; and that the gods have no *material* existence in this world. But the constant subjective *experience* of the gods is clearly a powerful force in their culture. The first-person narration helped me imagine what it might be like to be part of such an alien (to me) culture. Which is one of the things I love about reading Science Fiction in the first place.

Highly Recommended.
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