Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

THE CURRENTS OF SPACE

A novel by Isaac Asimov (2002, Doubleday [original copyright: 1952])
Book 2 of the Galactic Empire Trilogy

A man tries to remember his past and some important information, after being abandoned with amnesia on a planet of slaves.

 

 

4 stars

Read August 10th to 13th, 2003 for the second time  
    An exciting mystery, well-written, and with enough character interaction and scenery to make it feel quite real.

Right from the start, I was hooked by the plot of this novel. It is definitely plot-based, but the characters fare well, also. We follow Rik as he goes from a peasant hired hand through his transformation to his old self.

For Rik was not always a peasant. He was a Spatio-analyst, which meant he was a scientist who studied the "currents of space", and the dire news that he was going to present to the world of Florina got him put under the psychic probe, which erased his memory.

The rest of the novel has his memory come back piece by piece, giving him (and us) frustrating bits about who he actually is, and what kind of news could have him essentially taken out of the way. We see his good friend Valona as she wants to help him, but is afraid to lose the only true friend she has. She needs to take care of him, and dreads to find out what kind of emotions she would have once his dependency disappears. Nonetheless, she remains his true friend, giving him support, even when she doesn't understand. She attacks a patroller to help him escape from the library in the Upper City. She helps him get aboard a ship, and in the end, identifies the person who put him under the psychic probe.

I recognise the universe this book is set in, immediately. The same terminology is used in The Stars, Like Dust, especially the weapons of the neuronic whip and the psychic probe. Space travel has advanced considerably since that book, for which I am grateful. It still takes a lot of skill to fly a spaceship, but much seems to have become automatic. The time period is at least 500 years after the first book in this series. At least, it has been that long since Trantor was a tiny group of planets, instead of a soon-to-become Galactic Empire.

From Rik's perspective, we see the backwater nature of Florina, kept under the thumb of their rulers from the planet Sark. It's amazing how so many stories can take place in the far future, where the people are reduced to pre-industrial age technology, instead of the advances we would expect. These people are farmers, or they work at a plant that processes the precious silky kyrt that only grows on Florina. There is such a caste system that we must hate the Sarkites for it. The patrollers, outsiders to both Florina and Sark, keep the Florinians in their place. The Sarkites, or Squires (to make them sound more deserving of their high-and-mighty nature) keep to the Upper City, if they come to Florina at all.

We also get a point of view for the Townman, who is in charge of the small town that Rik finds himself in. He is a Florinian who has been educated, so that he can serve in the civil service for the Sarkites, whom he hates with a passion. As Rik begins to recover his mind, Terens takes an interest in the man, hoping to use him to strike up an insurgence in Florinians. When Rik gets away from him, Terens manages to kill a couple of Sarkites, patrollers, and steal a yacht. Fortunately, a potential buyer comes around and decides to give it a spin, so he has a pilot to take him into space and to Sark, where he decides Rik must have gone. The pilot is, of course, a spy.

The mystery is presented in a rather intriguing way. The setting of a planet under the thumb of another, where both are under the scrutiny of Trantor, allows us to watch the spy story unfold. We don't know who to trust, and who Rik should trust -if anybody. There are at least four sides to this situation. The Spatio-analysts want their man back. Trantor wants control of Florina. Sark wants to maintain that control. Florinians, through the Townman, want their independence, from both Sark and Trantor. The best part is, however, that we get to cheer for them all!

Rik and Valona get to Sark when they stow away on a spaceship, which is under the protection of the Great Squire of Fife, who controls half of the silk production, and thus half of the actual planet. It is certainly he who would have the most to gain from silencing Rik. His daughter, who is very interested in the romance of the man who lost his mind, gets involved, and is thrust into an awkward situation, which gives the ambassador from Trantor the leverage to call a conference with the Great Squires.

What everybody sits through then is the typical Asimov inquisition scene, and what would become common in the Robot Novels, where Lije Bailey would gather everybody in a room and give the details of the case. Everybody would get bored with the repetition of what they already know, and perhaps somebody would be caught off-guard enough to confess. However, in this case, there is no Lije Bailey. A lot of conversation goes on, with a lot of accusations. I loved the way everything pointed to Fife, until he stood looking at Rik from ground level, proving that with his short stature, he could not be the person who "looked down" on Rik when administering the psychic probe.

We are also led down so many misleading pathways that it's amazing I didn't get lost! With hindsight, it makes sense from everything that we are told that Terens is the guilty man. He hated the Sarkites, he was in the civil service until he was transferred to become Townman. As a civil servant, he was privy to much more information than the "upper class". He had his eyes on Rik from the moment the man was discovered. We are party to his thoughts, but he doesn't reveal anything that makes him look guilty. I was a little suspicious when the doctor died after seeing Rik, but that thought was far from my mind when he seemed interested in helping Rik. Of course, it was only in his best interests to help Rik, so that he could use him in some way once the effect of the poorly-used psychic probe wore off.

Just about every character has a hidden agenda, from the ambassador, to the Squire of Fife, to the yacht pilot. I liked the way we were led in two directions at once. Not remembering anything at all about this book from the first time I read it, I took all of the misleading pathways. But knowing where everybody was going, I am sure that their thoughts, primarily those of the Townman and the yacht pilot, would yield completely different impressions.

This book is rather different because of its low-tech nature. The science fiction comes from the society, rather than the technology. Space-travel is taken for granted, while the ramifications and inevitability of Trantor's Galactic Empire are well-discussed. I wonder how much of Asimov's own society he was poking fun at, with the racial divide (having most people in the galaxy being brown-skinned, the genetic result, I'm sure, of generations of "inter-breeding"), and one of the Great Squires (Steen) was definitely gay. He was ahead of his time with this book!

There is not much more to say about this one. It is a good read, with a good mystery. The SF aspect is much more subtle than in Asimov's other books, but that works well here. This book was a step up from the previous one. This time, the female characters were smart, though the males still patronized them a little -but far less than in The Stars, Like Dust.

After reading the first book in this trilogy, I wasn't sure I wanted to keep these books permanently. This one has changed my mind, and perhaps upon rereading the previous one, I will feel differently. I wish Asimov had written many more books about the time when Trantor was just becoming a powerful entity, rather than just these three, because he did it in a very subtle manner, compared to his later books.

This one, the middle of a trilogy of only partially-related books, is worth the read.
 
   

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