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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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.