Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

THE STARS, LIKE DUST

A novel by Isaac Asimov (2002, Doubleday [original copyright: 1951])
Book 1 of the Galactic Empire Trilogy

A young nobleman is sent searching for the center of a rebellion that might bring down a tyrannical planetary empire.

 

 

3 stars

Read April 28th to May 2nd, 2003 for the second time  
    Entertaining and well written, this book is too much a product of its times to be a true classic.

I remember reading this book (and its sequels) years ago -decades ago, actually, when I was barely into my teens, if that. I don't remember anything about them, aside from small flashes of scenes, disconnected from anything. About this book, there was only one flash, and I wasn't even sure that I was right about the ending until it was upon me.

This was one of Asimov's very first novels, and it shows. Although I really enjoyed the character introspection that we get through most of the book, something that was missing from many of Asimov's very late books, it is so obviously a product of a young man in the 1950s. Still, it reads like an Asimov book, undeniably, which means that his style did not change beyond recognition once he became published. I find that amazing.

This is a true hard science fiction novel. There is a lot of science, with some really cool ideas (even if they can also be scary). Things are very gritty, not streamlined like in Star Trek, or even Star Wars. Space travel is still dangerous, and requires more than simply a knowledge of where the button for the thrusters is.

It's actually amusing to see how Asimov underestimated technology, while setting us in a future that does so much more than we can do today. Imagine having to consult tables on paper and calculating proper motions of stars. Computers at the time must have seemed like they would not significantly help people through complicated procedures. Now, of course, we take for granted that the computer could initiate communications, could triangulate positions from observations in very little time. Even today's telescopes allow users to polar-align by almost automatically moving from star to star. It could probably even dock a spacecraft, but at the time this was written, there had been no manned spaceflights, and the first Gemini docking was a decade away!

However, this is to Asimov's advantage, because it allows the characters to interact in an environment that is not easily controlled. Biron is required to perform an enormous amount of calculations, which doesn't allow for him to be disturbed. The docking can be very tense, as is walking the tightrope between ships.

While items like the pocket nuclear bomb, which was hidden in Biron's closet, and the holocube of Commissioner Aratap, were cool, they also show the era in which the book was written. The description of Earth as a nuclear wasteland shows the paranoia of the time, when for decades everybody thought Earth would be destroyed by nuclear war. In a bit of retro-continuity, Asimov seemed to explain the radioactivity of Earth using Giskard's trap to get humanity off of the home planet and into space in the novel Robots and Empire. It seems that his plan had unexpected consequences, though, as after the fallout at Three Mile Island, somebody must have become scared and started throwing bombs. It is explicitly mentioned that bombs had been dropped.

More "technology" would be the use of contact lenses. I wonder if Asimov wore lenses before he switched to glasses later in life. Were they the future of vision back in the 1950s, the way laser surgery is now? I suppose he couldn't have conceived of a way to regain myopic vision back then.

It is neat to see that Earth is already becoming an obscure place in the galaxy. It is very believable that by the time of Foundation's Edge, Earth is completely unknown.

This story takes place around the Horsehead Nebula, and it's also kind of neat to see how legends have already started cropping up about its name, like the original founder having been named Horace Head! It also plays into the last Foundation books.

Nobody should be surprised to note that a race called the Tyranni became tyrants in the Nebular Regions. I should think that once the planet was settled, they would have been watched, just because of their names! Biron, after nearly escaping death, learns that his father was involved in a rebellion against the Tyranni, and that he was killed for it. His acquaintance Jonti sends him to contact the Director of Rhodia, to continue his father's work, but he is captured by the Tyranni.

Lots of interesting stuff happened to Biron throughout his stay among the Tyranni and on Rhodia. As he reasons, it looks like everything was set up really carefully, because the opportunities he seizes seem much too convenient. There was Gillbret, Director Hinrik's brother, who was once transported to a planet where he learned of the rebellion, but was released. He desperately wants to find it again. Hinrik's daughter, Artemisia, is a beautiful woman who is being forced to marry a Tyranni, and who also wants to escape. They manage to get inside a Tyranni vessel and take it to a planet where they expect some help. It turns out that Jonti is the Autarch of this planet, and having set events in motion, he has them set out for five stars inside the Horsehead Nebula, where he thinks the rebellion world is located.

Asimov sets up a love triangle, by allowing Biron to fall in love with Artemisia, and having him hate Jonti for forcing him along this path, where he could have easily died many times. Biron discovers the truth, however, that the Autarch really set him up to die. Biron also deduces that the rebellion planet is not located on any of the planets around any of the stars they will visit, but he knows where it must be!

That revelation was alluded to in the middle of the book, and makes perfect sense. Hinrik even told us through his thoughts that he figured Biron must be a trap. But we were told that he was a fool and a puppet, so his reasoning makes sense in that way, also. That was one of the best parts of the book, as one would expect at the climax.

The story was extremely well written in that we learned all about the small Tyranni empire, and a couple of planets, the state of technology and of the galaxy and its inhabitants, all without much exposition at all. Some of the chapters started with introductions to the societies, in the second person, which I didn't particularly like, but much more was given simply through the thoughts and dialog of the characters.

I liked the idea that Biron forced the rift between himself and Artemisia for the sake of catching Jonti's scheme, and that he was very torn by it. Again, the author was misleading in those thoughts, because they could have easily been applicable to the situation as seen from the outside. No wonder he brushes Gillbret aside when the man tries to interfere. The verbal sparring between everybody is almost as good as in so many of Asimov's other books.

The lack of detail in some cases was actually intriguing, as facial features and expressions, or the drawing of weapons were left for the reader to decode. Sometimes a reaction would precede the actual act, which was an interesting way to tell the story.

On the other hand, Asimov gave way too much detail in the science. There was no need to describe a complete spherical coordinate system, to the point where he used Greek letters and converted angles into radians, especially when he confuses two of them later. I could have also done without the medical details, such as "first thoracic vertebra", when Artemisia sits down uncomfortably. It really felt out of place.

My single largest complaint, however, has to do with everybody's attitude towards Artemisia. I hate the way Asimov has the characters think and talk to her as if she wasn't there. He even states, through one of the characters, that he doesn't understand women that much. So he has her thinking about clothing and baths, perfumes, and so on... womanly things! The fact that she is a smart and cunning woman barely comes up, and never by itself -it is always accompanied by the fact that she is beautiful. He never describes the men in terms of their handsomeness. The Tyranni don't seem to think much of women, either, as she is described only as "a woman", while the others are described by their occupations. This is typical Asimov, where even as narrator, he mentions that she was "worth noticing", as well as the way the swell of her breasts pushed against him when Biron hugged her. They don't seem to care about anything else!

The ending was quite exciting, as opposed to the more cerebral middle part, where deduction was used at every turn. I was quite pleased with much of the fight between Biron and Jonti, although it did run into several clichés near that canyon. Aratap's trick into killing Jonti also worked well, as did the escape into the Commissioner's ship in order to alert him to the danger of its destruction.

So my spirits were still high when I encountered the "most dangerous document in the galaxy", the constitution of the United States. Yuck. That was such a disappointing conclusion. It appears that no form of cooperative government or democracy exists anywhere in the galaxy, and the concept of freedom, while encouraged by the rebellion, doesn't really exist in the general populace. Ho-hum. I had nearly forgotten about the document until the end.

Another point of contention that I have is Jonti's smoking. Asimov obviously smoked, at least in his youth, but I would think that even in the 1950 he would recognize the need for clean air in such a small spacecraft. They mentioned the lack of water and no desire to use the water recycled from urine -what about air, which could suffocate them in a much shorter time.

In all, the book was greatly entertaining, because of Asimov's superior power of deduction, leaving all the clues almost in sight, so that when the characters figure out the mystery, it makes sense. However, I found that Biron spent too much of the book knowing nothing, being essentially a puppet of the others around him. He became a strong character once he took charge, but that story only started up about halfway through.

So there were many neat things about this book, but there were some other frustrating sequences. This read like a classic SF novel, which it obviously is. It's not a great book, and I'm not even sure it is a necessary addition to the Robots - Galactic Empire - Foundation storyline. But it does show some early aspirations to bring the Galaxy into some semblance of order.

 
   

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