In the Future, Everyone on Earth will be an A**hole

I first started reading Pebble in the Sky last fall, immediately after finishing Robots and Empire, but I got bored and, as stated in a previous post, moved on to other things. When I finally decided it was time to come back to the Empire series, I was somewhat relieved when I realized that Asimov recommended saving Pebble in the Sky for last, as I hadn’t found the chapters I had already read all that engaging. In fact, I seem to have developed some sort of block about this book. It took me two weeks to finish a 256-page book! I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was that was effecting my desire to read Pebble in the Sky and I think it comes down to the fact that I didn’t like any single character in the book. I truly didn’t give a crap what happened to any of them.

This publication series found an artist who read the books and then chose the most mundane moments to put on the cover. They’re interesting.

Pebble in the Sky opens in Chicago during the late 1940s. The war is over and the Cold War is under way. Retired tailor Joseph Schwartz is walking past a nuclear research lab when they experience a minor (seriously, it’s extremely minor to the scientists involved) accident.  Schwartz is consequently transported tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of years into the future in the course of a footstep. He finds himself on an Earth that has experienced true nuclear disaster. The vast majority of Earth is uninhabitable and off-limits. That’s about as far as I can get providing any sort of cohesive summary. Like the rest of the Empire trilogy, Pebble in the Sky bounces from viewpoint to viewpoint, offering snippets of plot here and there that only come to a whole in the last few chapters of the book. What I can do, is give a basic rundown of each of the major characters we come across (and attempt to put into words just what I don’t like about each of them!)

I imagine this is the Mt. Everest stronghold of the Procurator. Not bad.

Joseph Schwartz: I have already mentioned. Obviously, you’re supposed to easily sympathize with him. A man pulled from (roughly) our own time into a strange world, through no fault of his own, where he can’t even speak the language. I honestly can’t say exactly when I stopped. I think it was around the time he attempted to escape from the Nuclear Research Institute to which he is brought shortly after his arrival. He seems to spend an awful lot of time feeling sorry for himself, and with all the other characters being even more obnoxious to my mind, his wallowing soon became the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back.

Loa, Arbin, and Grew: Their farmhouse is the first place Schwartz finds after his sudden displacement. They are terrified commoners who want both to make use of Schwartz (they haven’t told the government that Grew can no longer work so that 2 people are trying to do the work of 3) and to get rid of this seeming imbecile who babbles nonsense and grows hair out of his face. It is their fear, distrust, and lack of education that truly sets everything in motion. (I supposed it could be argued that it’s also the catalyst for the ultimate outcome which saves the human race (spoiler? You all know there are more books that take place after this right?).)

There were no floating cities in this book.

Dr. Bel Arvardan: A member of the Empire (not from Earth) and an archaeologist, Arvardan has recently made advances in the field showing that it is likely that all human life evolved from one planet, rather than the more accepted view that humanity evolved simultaneously across the galaxy. He has come to Earth believing it may well be the planet of origin for humanity. Due to the radiation levels of the planet and the subsequent genetic mutations of the people who live there, this is a very unpopular idea in the Empire at large. Arvardan is from the Sirius sector, known to be more anti-Earth than most of the galaxy and he actively fights against his prejudices. Again, this should be noble and ingratiating, however his innate sub-conscience bigotry often makes itself known and perhaps, strikes a little too close to home in our P.C. culture.

 

A bit boring maybe, but at least it makes sense!

Dr. Affret Shekt: A physicist who has developed the Synapsifier, a device to allow the treated to learn faster. The device works, however Shekt has been forced by the “Ancients” to make it seem to the public at large that it is risky and unpredictable. He has asked for human volunteers while the word has simultaneously spread that doing so is tantamount to suicide. In actuality it is only the chosen of the so-called “Ancients” (we’ll get there) who receive the enhancement. Until, that is, Arbin brings Schwartz in to “volunteer”. Shekt is obviously a dupe and remains rather wishy-washy and spineless through much of the book.

I think I know what this is supposed to be, but it’s certainly not anywhere close to what I imagined.

Pola Shekt: Dr. Shekt’s daughter is a student interning with her father. During Schwartz’s escape post-treatment she meets Dr. Arvardan. When she discovers Arvardan is not an Earthman her reaction is extreme. I suppose, given the society she has grown up in, it is not surprising that she should react strongly. I suppose my main objection to her is the way Asimov wrote women in general. Even when strong she shows weakness: “‘Oh, we’re all going to die, and I don’t care any more-but we could stop it, we could stop it-And instead we just sit here and-and-talk-‘ She burst into wild sobs.” (Kindle 4164) Just because I recognize that the book was written in the 1950s, doesn’t mean I can’t feel disheartened about her post-speech breakdown.

I haven’t the foggiest.

Lord Ennius: Ennius is the Procurator of Earth, the Emperor’s representative. Ostensibly in charge, he spends most of his time worrying about a rebellion and then fails to act when confronted with crisis. There’s really nothing much to like about a man more worried about his diplomatic future than the good of the human race.

Secretary Balkis (and the High Minister): The High Minister is the elected head of Earth. A member of the Society of the Ancients, the current ruling party of radical zealots believing not only the Earth is the origin planet for all human life, but that it should and would be again – through force of course (otherwise there would be no plot). Balkis, however, is the true power. It is he who makes the plans that will destroy all life not native to Earth and he who has despotic intentions to rule. He is the most obviously unlikable  character but more than his melodramatic villainy it was his truly insane leaps of logic that rubbed at me.

This whole post seems very complainy doesn’t it? It’s not often that I spend so much of a book detesting all of the characters and though some come through in the end, it was the distaste that stayed with me when I finished the last page. As a whole, it wasn’t much different from the other Empire books, a small group of people put their cultural differences aside and come together to best the true societal threat. Perhaps because this was Asimov’s first novel he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of prolonged characterization yet. I do know that if I reread his books in the future, I will likely skip this one.

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I totally saw that coming – and I totally teared up anyway

Whether I read in publication order or Asimov’s preferred order, the middle book of the Empire “trilogy” is the middle book. I can’t screw it up! The Stars, Like Dust is that book. It’s weird.

As is usual with Asimov, the focus is on political and social injustice and the need for change. However, the message is somehow simultaneously more on-the-nose and less prevalent than usual.

The book opens as the sleeping Biron Firrell is wakened from a deep sleep by a call. (The first couple of paragraphs are amazingly true to life today, basically he put his phone on vibrate, but he’s woken up anyway when someone tries to Skype him with a terrible connection.) Once awake, Biron realizes that his lights aren’t working, his “visiplate” will receive but not send, his ventilation system is off, and he can’t get out the door. As a college student ready to graduate in a few short days, he naturally assumes this is a prank, until he discovers the radiation bomb in his closet. He is saved by Sander Jonti, who had realized his peril just in time.

Jonti, it turns out, knows Biron’s father, the Rancher of Widemos, who has just been arrested and is likely to be executed shortly. Jonti suggests to Biron he needs to get off planet and head to the Director of Rhodia for assistance. That’s the first 1 and 1/2 chapters and the names and places are already difficult to keep track of, aren’t they? Things get even more convoluted from there, so I’ll boil it down to this. There are a group of planets on the other side of the Horsehead Nebula called the Nebular Kingdoms. They have been taken over by Tyranni who are (surprise!) tyrannical. Each world maintains a semblance of their former government (Rancher and Director are examples) but are, in fact, ruled by the Khan or Tyran. Their seems to be a group of rebels planning to fight against their rule and Biron’s father is one of them. It’s never clear just how much of this Biron knew, but he had been tasked by his father to find a certain document on Earth before he leaves, which he fails to do. This document will supposedly destroy the Tyranni rule but it is rarely mentioned through the story.

Of course, no one is as they seem. There are so many twists and turns, double- and triple-crossing, lying and spying, it all gets a bit boring after a while. There’s also a surprising amount of violence, most of it hand-to-hand, and a seemingly out-of-place love story. This is not to say The Stars, Like Dust is not worth reading. The first 9 chapters are riveting (and the first, down right scary) and the last 5 chapters create a surprisingly satisfying (the obvious) close.

I’ve now reached a point where I’m both out of things to say and brimming with thoughts I want to express. It seems a fitting way to end my review of a dichotomous novel.

There is no good title for this post – much as there apparently wasn’t a good title for the book itself!

Remember way back when I first started reading the Asimov books and I had that whole post about reading them in the wrong order? I almost did it again. I bought and started Pebble in the Sky ages ago because it was the first of the Empire books written. Luckily, before going back to it, I reread my past posts and saw that Asimov’s suggested reading order is to read the three Empire books in reverse order, starting with The Currents of Space (1952) and ending with Pebble in the Sky (1950). I quickly purchased and downloaded Currents of Space and finished it in short order. That was almost a week ago. Originally I was going to wait a day, as I usually do, before posting, give my thoughts time to settle. Life got in the way and here I am struggling to remember anything I wanted to say!

No actual giant floating heads will be found in this book. Also no green men.

The plot is built around a mystery of sorts. The book opens with two unknown men in conversation. One has information of the utmost importance he is desperate to get to the people who need it, the other is intent on keeping the information out of circulation entirely and therefore drugs and uses a “psychic probe” on the unfortunate man. After the psychic probing, the man’s brain reverts practically to infancy. He not only loses his memory, but also the ability to walk, talk, and process the world around him. “It was a grown human being, nearly naked, chin wet with drool, whimpering and crying feebly, arms and legs moving about aimlessly. Faded blue eyes shifted in random fashion out of a face that was covered with a grown stubble.” (Kindle Location 427) He is dropped in a small village on the planet Florina and adopted by Valona March.

There are spaceships though! Not a lot, but some!

When the story resumes, Rik, as he has come to be called, has begun to retrieve memories from before the psychic probe. He remembers that he analyzed “Nothing”, meaning he was a Spatio-analyst, and that he had important information that constituted a danger to Florina and its inhabitants, though he had no idea what that information may be. The remainder of the novel is the mad dash by multiple characters to find Rik and what he knows, for good or evil depends on the character.

No naked red women or devils in Samurai armor either, but someone should write that book.

As with all Asimov’s works, it’s the socioeconomic elements that are of real interest to me. Florina is a world controlled by the people of Sark. The City consists of two levels, the lower level where native Florinians live and the Upper City, where Sarkites, known as Squires, live. The Florinians of the Lower City literally live in the Squires’ shadow. Some Florinians are chosen at a youngish age, to go to Sark and train to work in Civil Service, some remaining on Sark and others being sent back to Florina as Townmen. This may seem reasonable on the surface, but there is something more sinister behind this policy:

“Further, neither the Townmen nor Sark’s clerical assistants may breed without losing their position. Even with female Florinians, that is. Interbreeding with Sarkites is, of course, out of the question. In this way the best of the Florinian genes are being continually withdrawn from circulation, so that gradually Florina will be composed only of hewers of wood and drawers of water.” (Kindle Location 1048)

This Hebrew edition looks great! Somebody read the book.

This inequality is the crux of the entire conflict through The Currents of Space. Florina is the only planet in the galaxy able to produce kyrt, a cellulose capable of producing the most luxurious fabrics known to man. It is the native Florinians who work the fields and mills, producing the kyrt and performing the necessary steps to transform it into workable material. It is the people of Sark however, five men in particular, who reap all the benefits.

Each character we meet is affected by the Sark/Florina social system in some way or another from Squire Fife, the greatest (richest) of all the men of Sark to Dr. Selim Junz, who has been looking for Rik since his disappearance to Myrlyn Terens, the Townman of the village in which Rik is found. Each character has a unique vision of the social disparity based on their own situation and experience and Asimov’s real accomplishment in this novel is that, whether you agree with them or not, you can truly understand each character’s motivations throughout the story even as you try to unravel the complicated whodunnit within the plot.

I found this story eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable.