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.

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!