||A very interesting concept, but the
execution, and especially the characters, were not very enjoyable.
The most frustrating thing about this book
is not that it takes place in two time periods, which is what the author
seems to worry about (according to his note at the beginning), but that
the characters are so arrogant. I did not find one character that I
truly liked, though a couple were tolerable.
The book starts out about a cult
leader, though he is a duly elected official. Janus Pitt becomes the
Commissioner of Rotor, a space Settlement in Earth orbit, which develops
hyper-assisted travel, and discovers a new nearby star. His is a bigot
and a tyrant, for the most part, and we are not supposed to like him, I
think. He doesn't understand that emotion and nostalgia are part of
being human, and that we don't have to give them up to become advanced.
Pitt worries about people following them to the stars, which will ruin
the cultural homogeneity of their new population. Strangely enough, the
racism in the book was not limited to Pitt. He does everything
possible to keep his plan secret, for as long as possible. Pitt was able
to move anybody anywhere on Rotor and beyond. For a democratic society,
that sounds like a true infringement of freedoms. How did he put Insigna
on a security veto, anyway? Between this book,
The Caves of Steel, and
others, Asimov doesn't seem to think that free speech will survive into
the far future!
On board Rotor are Eugenia Insigna, an
astronomer, and her daughter Marlene (who pronounces her name Mar-LAY-nuh).
Insigna discovered the nearby star, Nemesis, which Pitt seizes upon as
their destination. She used the name Nemesis because she thinks this
star is orbiting the Sun at a very large distance, but the red dwarf was
blocked by a thick cloud of dust, so remained undiscovered. The star ends up being Earth's nemesis anyway, though, even if it
isn't orbiting -it is approaching the Sun and will disturb the Solar
System in 5000 years, rendering life on Earth impossible. I don't
understand why the word Nemesis seems to be so unknown at that time. It
is common enough now that it shouldn't disappear anytime soon.
Half of the chapters in the book take
place when Marlene is 15 years old, on Rotor, orbiting an habitable moon
of a gas giant which orbits Nemesis. Marlene has unusual abilities -she
can read a person's body language with a glance, and so is never fooled
by anyone. Don't ask how this ability works, but it was annoying at
times, because there are people who are very skilled at hiding what they
really mean, and I seriously doubt that Marlene could read people like
that. The point is a minor one, though, because there are so many more
things that are annoying about her. Her certainty about Erythro, the
moon, not being able to harm her, for example, was a terrible literary
device. Other characters, while not believing her, gave her enough
chances to prove that her intuition was right, without any evidence
Worse, however, was the blathering and
completely irrational thinking of her mother. Eugenia was so overly
emotional that she came across as completely unintelligent. I got so
tired of reading her whining about Marlene's danger out on the surface
of the planet, that I wanted to skip those discussions altogether.
I've noticed that in Asimov's later
books, all we really get are discussions, with little narrative. One
person talks, explaining concepts and concerns, followed by another
person, with a response from the first person and so on. There is little
space given to thoughts or description. In fact, the best parts of the
novel were when the talking stopped, and the characters went into
introspection. Unfortunately, that didn't happen often enough to make
the novel enjoyable. Much of the dialog sounds like it came from a soap
opera, because there is no rational explanation for the way these people
don't communicate with each other while talking so much.
As Marlene whines her way out onto the
surface ("mother!"), and enjoys more and more freedom, it is is obvious
that the planet-sized moon is affecting her. She is so sure that she
will not be harmed, that the author is making sure that we know she is
being contacted in some way. Eventually, she communicates with the
life-form that pervades Erythro. The virus-sized cells are
inconsequential taken alone, but together, they form a powerful
intelligence. It sensed humans when they arrived, but damaged their
minds because it didn't know any better. Marlene's mind is unique, and
so Erythro chose her for companionship. I do get tired of mind-reading
and mind-altering entities in these books.
Two light-years away, back on Earth,
and fourteen years in the past, Marlene's father Crile Fisher returned
from Rotor and tried to fit back into his old life, as an Agent of some
Terrestrial security agency. Having failed to learn anything about
hyper-assistance on Rotor, where he was married and had a child, he
opted to return to Earth in disgrace rather than accompany the
Settlement to wherever it was going. From the beginning, I was pretty
certain that Crile was an agent of some sort. The "romance" that Eugenia
and he went through didn't sound like love, to me.
Through Crile's ideas, Earth finds the
Neighbour Star, and so he is assigned to bring the leader in
hyperspatial theory to Earth from a neighboring Settlement, so that they can develop a way to
evacuate Earth in less than 5000 years. Tessa Wendel jumps at the
chance, even though she is a Settler, and over the years develops not
hyper-assisted space travel, but true superluminal flight.
Through the Earth chapters, the
scientists involved put forward all sorts of conflicting hypothesis that
made the world seem quite real. That is the strength of Asimov- that his
concepts are grounded in reality of some sort. Almost all of the
theories about Rotor and Nemesis were wrong, but it was interesting to
see what brilliant minds could come up with when provided with
Unfortunately, all of the scientists
were also portrayed as power- and credit-hungry people, who only work so
that they can claim credit for a major breakthrough or discovery. Tessa
works so that she can claim superluminal travel to her name. Wu wants
the gravitational credit. Insigna wants the discovery of Nemesis. The
doctor on Erythro wants her name in the history books for curing the
Plague, and so on. Aren't there normal people out there?
All of the characters in the book are
suspicious of everyone else, perhaps because they themselves keep
secrets so that they can claim credit. Crile and Tessa get to know each
other so well over the years. Why are they so willing to believe that
the other will ignore their interests at the slightest misconception?
Why are they so quick to take offence? Insigna had the same kind of
relationship with the Dome commander on Erythro, Seiver Genarr. The only
difference was that Genarr was a reasonable person, honest, empathetic,
and full of good ideas, although he was also swayed too easily by
Marlene's unprovable certainty.
Asimov used some rather strange and
cumbersome phrasing for unusual or non-standard science fiction concepts,
such as "not-from-Earth-ers", and often goes on to explain how
characters came up with new scientific terms. This made some of the talk
confusing, especially the technical parts, where it was obvious that
Asimov was trying to simplify some concepts, but ended up using so many
words that everything he was trying to do got lost. If people were
familiar with the concepts, it was understandable, but for those who
didn't know anything about them, the discussions would not have cleared
it up, so why bother?
For one thing, there was an
extraordinary amount of astronomical knowledge divulged in this book,
which is cool, but the explanations were often roundabout! I did like
the mention of the coriolis effect of elevators inside rotating space
stations. It was given, and not explained thoroughly. In other words, if
readers wanted an explanation, they could look it up. Or they could pass
it by as just another physics phrase, as they wished. Interestingly, the gas giant Megas was five times more massive
than Jupiter, but had a smaller diameter. More details in this case
would have probably been appreciated. I also thought Pitt should have
been worried about the stability of the Nemesis system, since Eugenia
thought the Solar System would be in jeopardy. It was discovered much
later on that the system was compact enough to rough it out, while the
loosely formed Solar System would be reorganized. But he didn't know for
so many years. That should have been one of his long-terms worries, at
One interesting thing that Asimov did,
though it became fatiguing as the novel went on, was the use of "devil's
advocates" in so many of his conversations. One person would give a
theory, and the other would say "what-if...", and the discussion would
go on. It was as if he was trying to poke holes in all of the theories
he came up with, as he thought of them. It might make the novel more
realistic, but it became much more complicated as a result.
Asimov also paved the way for this book
to become part of his Robot-Empire-Foundation series, if he wanted to.
He stated in the introduction that he had no present intention of doing
so, but there are numerous instances where I could spot insurance in
case he did. Robots are mentioned a few times, though not in the
capacity we would expect after I, Robot (the book, not the
repulsive-looking movie). He also uses the terms Spacers and Settlers,
with capital letters, which are the chief labels among the robot novels.
He even goes on to say that Spacers might be of a special breed... which
they most definitely are. The reason this comes up is because Erythro
has started choosing unique minds to join it in companionship. Marlene
is obvious, but there was the hermit of the asteroids, and the
super-intelligent Wu, as well.
One of the fun things about reading a
book over again after more than a decade is trying to figure out what I
remembered about it. I had only vague memories of the plot (such as it
is), and characters (such as they are). Specifically, I recalled that
Earth discovered Nemesis by studying deep space in areas other than the
that Rotor shared with them. I recalled that Erythro was alive in some
way. I also recalled that the solution to saving Earth, instead of
colonizing Erythro (which would have killed the lifeform) was to use
hyperspace, though I couldn't remember how, except that the ship ended
up facing the wrong way because it used a curved trajectory through
hyperspace instead of a linear one.
The key was that objects moving faster
than the speed of light encountered some negative forces compared to
what we experience here. In hyperspace, gravity is a repulsive force, so
by passing heavy objects very fast close to the star, it could nudge it
out of the way enough not to disturb Earth's system. Cool idea!
I still think that superluminal
communication could be at least inefficiently completed by sending packages back
and forth from ship to ship. This would be better than nothing at all,
which was a chief worry of many characters. They were able to send dust
particles and small objects from one position to another, so why would a
message canister be any different?
I became rather tired of this book
partway through, and realized from the first pages that it was going to
be a difficult read, which is unusual for an Asimov book. I always
remembered this book as being less enjoyable than his other books, and
now I know why. Although so many of the ideas and procedures were really
neat, the characters and their discussions were often unbearable. The
whining of Eugenia and Marlene (why not change her last name back to
that of her mother's?) were incessant, and not enjoyable. I wish we
could have had more logic to their part of the story, rather than just
gut instincts, which cannot be analyzed logically, but the characters
tried to do so anyway.