starlady: (but it does move)
Garrfinkle, Richard. Celestial Matters. New York: Tor Books, 1996.

Marie Brennan recommended this book to me, and she was right that I liked it (I borrowed her copy, in point of fact). Celestial Matters is an alternate history novel of science fiction in which Aristotelian physics are true (so the sun orbits the Earth), and the Delian League, which controls half the world, has been locked in unending war with the Middle Kingdom for approximately all of the nine centuries since the death of Alexander the Great.

The plot follows Aias, the scientific commander of the lunar ship Chandra's Tear, who is tasked by the league with a task of Promethean scale: i.e. to steal fire from the sun and bring it back to Earth, where it can serve as the engine of the ultimate weapon to end the war by devastating the capital of the Middle Kingdom, Hangzhou. Aias is accompanied by his friend and co-commander, Aeson (representing the Athenian and Spartan traditions, respectively), and his bodyguard Captain Yellow Hare, who is Cherokee by birth but Spartan by avocation. The ship's Chief Dynamicist, Ramonojon, is Indian, and the rest of the crew are of similarly varied origin--and also even gender.

This book was really interesting in a lot of ways. Garfinkle has clearly put a lot of thought into his alternate physics, and the worldbuilding of the science aspects is really great and thorough. I also thought the way he handled Aias' fundamentally Hellenic worldview, and particularly his interactions with the gods, was a really well done update of the mindset of ancient Greek literature, and I thought the characters in general were well-drawn. That said, a little more attention to social and cultural development might have been good, though I did like the much greater gender equity of this version of the Delian League.

The pacing of the book is somewhat uneven, however--despite spies and assassination attempts, the story lags until a skirmish just off Selene a little more than halfway through the book, at which point it races to the finish. I would have liked more Middler science earlier, and even more banned Buddhism, though I thought the depiction of Daoist science, when that does come, was also really well-done. (Reading any Daoist text for me is basically like reading elementary quantum mechanics, so on the one hand, Garfinkle has it somewhat easier.) I also thought the way that Garfinkle depicted the hardening of science into ideology on both sides was pretty great. All in all, this was a very interesting and unusual read.

A brief disquisition on transcription, and why you shouldn't mess with established systems to show off )

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