Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Isaac Asimov
(1989, Bantam Spectra)

After an orbiting settlement leaves the Solar System for an approaching star, a team from Earth attempts to develop faster-than-light travel to find them.


-- 2nd reading (paperback)
July 25th to August 5th, 2004


A very interesting concept, but the execution, and especially the characters, were not very enjoyable.

Spoiler review:

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 whatsoever!

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 incomplete information.

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 least.

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 images 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.


-- First reading (paperback)
June 19th to 24th, 1991


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