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.

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.



Spelunking NYC

I started reading Caves of Steel with a sense of excitement. I’d thoroughly enjoyed I, Robot, after all, and I’m a huge fan of the turn-of-the-century mysteries of which Asimov was fond, so the idea of a good old-fashioned detective story set in the Robot universe was extremely appealing.

Okay cover, doesn’t have much to do with the story.

Detective Elijah Baley is a New York City cop some thousand plus years into the future from I, Robot. The city now exists entirely indoors, though I honestly never was quite clear on whether it was all underground or if the cities were somehow enclosed, and sprawls over 2,000 square miles (the state of Delaware is 1,948 square miles) including much of New Jersey. Connected by a single entry point to the city proper lies Spacetown, a domed open-area where people from the Outer Planets live. The Spacers are descendants of Earth Colonists who headed out to the stars a thousand years before. They have long-since gained independence from Earth and created their own societies and norms, which include the ubiquitous use of robots. Earthmen have never lost their fear and discomfort with robots so evident in Asimov’s short stories, and resent the Spacer’s attempts to introduce robots into their way of life. When a prominent Spacer is murdered, Baley is assigned the case and a new Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. The R. stands for Robot.

I have no idea what this thing is supposed to be!

Much of the first half of the book deals with Baley’s discomfort with his new assignment and partner. He repeatedly attempts to find ways to get out of both the case and the partnership. He also flatly refuses to consider that possibility that an Earthman may be the culprit, concocting wild speculations as to his partner’s guilt several times which are easily taken apart. Baley never visits the scene of the crime and takes the word of Daneel (his suspect!) and his boss as to the fact that there’s nothing worth bothering with there. Sherlock Holmes he is not. The real murderer is painfully obvious almost from the start, though the method and motive take some time for the reader to figure out. The “mystery” part of this story ended up a disappointment for me.

But I don’t think that the deductive process was Asimov’s main concern. Much of the story revolves around the conflict between the “Medievalists” and the Spacers.  The Medievalists yearn for a return to “simpler times”; to soil and open air, though the very idea of open air terrifies them to their core. The Spacers want to see more colonization, believing that the people of Earth need to move out to the stars and begin anew. On the face of things, it would seem these goals would complement each other. Where else is there open space and soil to tend than on other planets? But the Medievalists want to reform Earth, without the help of robots, while the Spacers want to see new societies born that combine the best of their technology and economics with the best of Earth’s. It turns out that the Spacers have been pushing Robots on the people of Earth in the hopes that enough people will lose their jobs to the machines that they will want to leave Earth. Instead, they create a backlash against themselves and their technology that threatens both sects’ ideologies.

This one at least tried.

The ideas presented are intriguing, though the storytelling was uneven at best. It’s hard to understand the apparent love the Earthmen have for their cities; the lack of fresh air, the homogenized culture (everyone speaks English and the cuisine of the world is flavored yeast), the lack of privacy or autonomy, it sounds like a nightmare to me. At the same time, the Spacers have eradicated disease and live for hundreds of years which has caused them to become hyper-vigilant when it comes to population control; long-since closing their borders to new colonists, who might bring disease with them, and euthanizing children born with congenital or mental defects. If you could only choose one of these ways of life, which would it be? If you were suddenly confronted with a 3rd option, one that combined the best of both, would you take it? These are the real questions Caves of Steel seeks to unwind. Me? I’d be the first one on the colony ship!

Time Travel is Never Simple

Yesterday I read the super short and super intense The Big Time by Fritz Lieber, winner of the 1958 Hugo for Best Novel. I’m still trying to process it, but I also want to get some of my thoughts down here before I forget everything that happened in those 110 pages. (According to LibraryThing anyway, I was reading the Kindle version; no actual pages.)

The Big Time is told in first person by 29-year-old Greta Forzane. Greta is a Demon and Entertainer for the Spiders during the Change War. It seems that there is a war raging throughout time between the Spiders and the Snakes. Both sides travel through time and change events in the hope that their side will eventually come out the victor:


Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me. (Kindle Location 12)

Demons are people who were plucked out of their own times, (kind of) to act as Soldiers and Entertainers. Entertainers exist in Places in the Void, which is the nothingness between times in the cosmos. Greta is a part of a six-member Place. Sid, an Elizabethan poet who knew Shakespeare, is the pilot. Beauregard (Beau), an antebellum gambler, is the co-pilot and piano player. Doc, whose job is self-evident, is a Russian drunk. Maud, a 50-year-old party girl hails from the 23rd century where they have technology that keeps her looking and acting like a teenager. Lili, the newest, was a flapper. Greta herself is from Chicago in what must be the late-40s or early-50s, though it’s never really specified. Their job is to provide comfort and relaxation (and some occasional first aid) to Soldiers coming back to the Void between missions.

The Place is operated by two Maintainers. The Major Maintainer allows them to hold their place or navigate within the Void. The Minor Maintainer controls the gravity (and one assumes other life-support systems) within various sectors of the Place. The Place itself is broken into a variety of areas for entertainment. There’s an Art Gallery, a Bar, a Kitchen, and a Surgery, among others. Within the Surgery is an apparatus called the Inverser, which allows doctors to turn patients inside out (more or less) to operate without cutting them open.

The story kicks off when the Place picks up 3 Soldiers who were just trying to kidnap the baby Einstein back from the Snakes in Russia. Soldiers seems to be chosen from people who performed the same function in life, so this group consists of Mark (Marcus) a 2nd Century Roman; Bruce, a British World War I soldier; and Erich, a Nazi commandant. Bruce and Erich are in the midst of an argument that results in a duel. With swords. Bruce is new to the Change War and is upset by the whole idea of Changing history:

“Here’s yet another example. To beat Russia, the Spiders kept England and America out of World War Two, thereby ensuring a German invasion of the New World and creating a Nazi empire stretching from the salt mines of Siberia to the plantations of Iowa, from Nizhni Novgorod to Kansas City!” (Kindle Location 226)

The argument is ultimately resolved when it turns out that Lili was a fan of Bruce’s poetry when they were both alive, in fact, Lili has been in love with him from afar for a very long time. Shortly thereafter, they receive a strange S.O.S. and the final three members of the party arrive; Kaby, a Cretan; Illy, a furry, tentacled Lunan from a billion years before; and Sevensee, a Venusian satyr from a billion years in the future. They bring with them an atomic bomb which Erich, Mark and Bruce are supposed to set off in Ancient Alexandria. This announcement pretty much kicks everything into high gear. Bruce begins agitating for peace, suggesting that they travel to other Places, both Spider and Snake, and try to bring an end to hostilities. Meanwhile, Erich advocates the continuation of the war. At some point during the debate, the Major Maintainer is switched to Invert (removing the Place from access to the Cosmos) and disappears. Chaos ensues. Accusations abound. And the bomb is activated.

In the end, this story seemed to be a variety of things all at once. It’s a study of the difference between men and women; between Soldiers and Entertainers; between Past and Future. How well it explores these themes is up for debate. I tend to have trouble with stories that have too much substance and not enough form and I’d venture this story falls into that category. While there’s a coherent plot to be found, I’m not sure that it does all that much to advance the ultimate theme Lieber seems to want to get across of evolution and change. When you reach the final thesis statement, it’s difficult to discern exactly where it came from, which is why I say I continue to ruminate on the story as a whole. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself and see if you feel different.

Bechdel Score: 2.5 out of 3; I’m giving it a half-point because, while the women to talk to each other and it’s never overtly about a man, there’s a pervasive undercurrent of misogyny throughout the story that seems to say that, for women, everything revolves around their feelings for men. I just couldn’t bring myself to give it full marks.

My First Heinlein

While I’m making an effort to read the oldest books on the Hugo Novel list first, the 1953 and 1955 winners are not available as eBooks or, for a reasonable price, as “new” books. I placed an order at AbeBooks for five of the early novels on the list unavailable on my Kindle and those should be winging their way to me soon. In the meantime, I got started with the earliest novel that was available for the Kindle, which turned out to be the 1956 Winner, Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein.

As the smart reader can probably guess from the title of this post, I hadn’t read any Heinlein before. (I know there are people out there who would say I can’t call myself a Sci-Fi fan without having read any Heinlein, but I don’t really care and besides it’s kind of the point of this whole venture, catching up on the classics.) Anyway, while I’ve seen the Starship Troopers movie more than once, I hadn’t actually gotten around to reading it or anything else of his. (Starship Troopers is coming, it won in 1960.) Double Star is the story of actor Lorenzo Smythe (nee Lawrence Smith) who accepts a job as a double without knowing who he’ll be doubling or why his services are needed. (I’m going to go ahead and be a bit spoilery as the book is 56 years old, I’ll try not to give away the whole plot.) After a fairly lengthy talk with his would-be employers, they are interrupted by a Martian and a human who attempt to kill everyone in the room and, as often happens, end up getting themselves killed instead. Smythe helps his employer, Captain Dak Broadbent, clean up and they hightail to Dak’s ship. It’s not until they’re on the rendezvous ship and heading to Mars that Lorenzo finally gets the full story.

Smythe has been hired to “play” The Right Honorable John Joseph Bonforte, a major political player in the Expansionist Party. Bonforte is to be “adopted” into a Martian family, a ritual is to be performed in just 2 days, and the opposing Humanity Party has kidnapped Bonforte. Unfortunately, the Martian’s notion of “propriety” is such that if anything but death were to keep Bonforte from his appointment, he would need to submit to death rather than shame himself and his proposed family. (This is, of course, why he was kidnapped in the first place instead of being killed outright.) Smythe is needed to perform the ritual in Bonforte’s absence to avert war. He studies up and does his duty. While performing the ritual, Dak and the others who know about the kidnapping find Bonforte, brainwashed and ill and Smythe is asked to step in for what ends up being considerably longer.

I know enough about Heinlein to know that many of his books have an overtly political bent to them, and this one is no exception. The point seems to be no matter how hard you try to avoid it, politics will get you in the end, as poor Smythe never even registered to vote before being pulled into the this conspiracy.

“I had never meddled in politics. My father had warned against it. ‘Stay out of it, Larry,’ he had told me solemnly. ‘The publicity you get that way is bad publicity. The peasants don’t like it.” (Kindle Location 654)

There is also a point to be made about the power one charismatic man (or woman, says I) can have to provoke change if he wields it well. Certainly a point that is as true today as it was then.

Speaking of “then”, I knew going into this that some of the older books were sure to have ideas and rhetoric that were out-dated and foreign to me. It was still something of a shock to me when in the very first chapter Smythe worried that Dak might be interested in him sexually. Having just finished reading the 2012 Hugo nominees, wherein at least half of the stories included a LGBT, omni-sexual or, in one case, hydro-sexual character with little to no comment, the idea that such blatant homophobia could still exist in the future was jarring. (There was also a huge amount of cigarette smoking – or, deathsticks as I like to call them (pretty much the only thing I like in Attack of the Clones). But it was the rampant misogynism that bothered me the most. Here are just a few examples:

“Stow it, Penny, or I’ll spank your round fanny – at two gravities.”  (Kindle Location 726)

“I took hold of her chin and tilted her face up. ‘I know why you find it so hard to have me here, in his place. You love him. But I’m doing the best job for him I know how. Confound it, woman! Do you have to make my job six times harder by treating me like dirt?‘” (Kindle Location 957)

“Penny sighed softly and fainted again.” (Kindle Location 2577)

And that wasn’t all. Pretty much every scene with Penny in it (the only woman, an epic Bechdel Test fail) had men condescending to her or threatening her (or both). While I realize that it was a “different time” in 1956, but it’s obvious that the idea that women might be equals in the future obviously didn’t even cross Heinlein’s mind, even as he wrote a story about accepting alien races as a part of the human empire.

In the end, I actually did enjoy the book. It was a good story and by the end I had come to like the bombastic blowhard Lorenzo Smythe. I’d definitely recommend this book to someone looking to read more classic sci-fi, just be ready for a future that, in some ways, is socially mired in the past.

Bechdel Test: 0 of 3