PEBBLE IN THE SKYA novel by Isaac Asimov
[original copyright 1950]
Galactic Empire Trilogy, book 3
A man transported through time is subjected to a mind-altering procedure, and stumbles upon a plot to destroy the Galactic Empire.
-- 2nd reading (multi-book hardcover)
As usual, this book was very tightly written, with full-fledged characters, and an interesting plot. Only the ending suffers from what seems to be an anticlimactic climax.
It's interesting -very interesting, I think- that in this story, the main character travels through time, but the element of time travel is immaterial to the story. Joseph Schwartz is taken fifty thousand years into the future in the blink of an eye, through some freak nuclear accident. The Earth that he is brought to is unrecognizable to him. In fact, we later learn that it is almost completely radioactive.
Of course, we already knew that, after reading The Stars, Like Dust (but remember that Pebble in the Sky, though it takes place afterwards, was Asimov's first novel). As I said there, it looks like Giskard's ploy to force humanity into the stars in Robots and Empire worked, but that there was also retaliation, because it was said in The Stars, Like Dust that bombs had been used. Here we actually get the extent of the damage -everything except Mount Everest contains a higher degree of radioactivity than normal, though there are pockets where the ambient level is liveable.
It is the culture of Earth that is most interesting. Having seeded the stars, it is now an insignificant pebble among much larger worlds. Earthlings resent that, hating off-worlders the same way off-worlders hate them. Earth is a unique world in the Empire, which is ruled fully by Trantor at this time.
Consistent with the later Robot novels, there are no robots on Earth, though robots are actually mentioned in this book! Asimov mentions that there were robots in the Rigel sector. I wonder if this is where Hari Seldon's opponent was from in Forward the Foundation?!
Earth is not ruled democratically, and it appears to have swung over to a fascist sort of rule, even though "Washenn" is the capital. The planet was pretty much communist in The Caves of Steel, and the main character chooses a sort of Galactic Communist State at the end of Foundation's Edge. Asimov doesn't seem to believe much in democracy, despite the elevated importance of it in The Stars, Like Dust. I guess that idea disappeared with time, again, since Trantor is ruled by an Emperor, with all the court politics that go with it.
Earth has not always been a police state, but the people in power now are the Society of the Ancients. They strictly enforce certain Customs, and people are constantly looking over their shoulders and reporting on their neighbors. I suppose after three failed rebellions, these people took their jobs seriously!
The writing in this book is very tight, which is something I expect from Asimov. There is little to no exposition for the sake of telling us what is happening. Nearly everything comes from the point of view of the main characters, who tell us either in thoughts or dialog everything we need to know. Everything we learn is important, and logically connected to something else -there is no extraneous stuff.
The plot does not get in the way of the story of these characters until the very end of the book, which is unfortunate, in a way, because the ending is the biggest impression that we are left with. Several characters have independent and interacting moments, which at first are designed to tell us about their characters and the environments in which they find themselves. Two of the main characters are way out of their elements.
My favorite moments involved Schwartz and the farmers. There was little reason to give the farmers an extra disabled hand in their care, somebody who couldn't contribute to society, but it made them very much more interesting, and it told us about the sustainability of the planet, and why they have to kill anybody older than Sixty. I especially liked Grew. He was completely no-nonsense, and his interaction with Schwartz was amazing. As we watched Schwartz' mind grow, as he learned to slowly speak the language of the day, I found his thoughts fascinating. I did not like his complete chess game, described square for square, move for move, all the way through, but I did enjoy the questions he finally decided to ask. As he learned about his new world, so did we.
Schwartz' earlier escape from the Institute where the operation had been performed, in order to try and increase his intelligence, provided the opportunity for the other characters to converge. The archaeologist Arvardan was a sympathetic, yet he still carried himself like a foreigner, somebody who thought he was better than the others. I find it remarkable that such subtlety can be written into a person like this. The first time, it occurred on the airplane to Chica (Chicago fifty thousand years later). The most fun was when he assaulted the officer who was mistreating the girl. Though it was an obvious parallel to make, I didn't appreciate him causing trouble for Arvardan later in the book because of it. It certainly makes sense, though, especially since he hates all Earthlings, and his job on this planet.
Pola Shekt and her father, the scientist who invented the device that could increase brain power, don't feature in much of the story. Pola acts as a love interest for Arvardan. While this is a bit of a tired concept, especially since she is another of Asimov's "beauties", at least she has brains and can use them to good effect. Unfortunately, she can also sob at all the appropriate moments, requiring a man's arm around her to calm her down. I had hoped she would be put to larger use.
There is a conspiracy of the Earth government against the Empire, built up through all the resentment and the three previous rebellions. It seems that after fifty thousand years, they finally found a cure for the common cold! However, a particularly nasty mutation could be found in the radioactive zones on Earth, and that was adapted, by biologists with improved brains because of the same machine that was used on Schwartz, to react only to off-worlders, not to Earthlings. They were set to release the virus to many nearby worlds, where it would be spread lethally all over the Empire!
I am not as convinced as the main characters that this would be as deadly as they say, that it could wipe out the Empire. Surely there have been other types of outbreaks, and I am sure they would have quarantine protocols, even for entire worlds and sectors. Still, in the wake of SARS, we can safely say that it would have a deadly effect on many populations, perhaps even whole planets, before it died out.
By the time Shekt tells Pola and Arvardan, it is too late. Schwartz is in custody, after finding out that he can now kill with his mind, as well as read people's thoughts. All of them are arrested. It is insane that the Secretary of the Ancients didn't monitor the conversations between those four, because he could have learned how clueless the Empire really was to the threat. It is only because of the paranoia of the Secretary that he was himself thwarted!
The main part of the book that I didn't like was the extent of the powers that Schwartz possessed. I liked his ability to read minds, something that Asimov is fond of (see Giskard in Robots of Dawn, or the Mule in Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, and Foundation's Edge, for examples). However, I never liked Giskard's ability to influence minds, something that Schwartz does here to the extreme, even manipulating the Secretary's arms and legs to walk him calmly out of the room.
Once they leave the jail of the Secretary, they make their way to the Imperial garrison, where they again jailed. That was an interesting twist, as Shekt says, that nobody believed them. The final gathering of people, which is an Asimov staple, was rather weak at this point. That the Procurator was a cautious man afraid of upsetting the local government was natural under the circumstances. That he would wait it out, not checking on the evidence he was presented with, was very strange.
The twist comes at the very end, as usual, but this time, it happens off-screen. After the deadline for the launch of the virus passes, the Secretary comes to rub it in the face of the Procurator and the others, and the Procurator apologizes to Arvardan in shame. He is ready to accept defeat so simply, instead of trying to get the antidote by force, to at least save some of the people.
I initially wondered is the Secretary would not have a back-up of the virus in case something like this happened, but then figured that the project had to be so secret that they would have to keep it and all the people responsible in one location.
The twist to the plot is that Schwartz had already taken care of the problem of the virus, by influencing a few people around him so that a bomber destroyed the launch complex. This happens in dialog form after the fact. I hope it was a nuclear warhead, because a simple bomb would simply spread it around, breaching the containment tanks.
It's a wonder that the Procurator wasn't told about Schwartz going missing, after believing the paranoia that the Secretary fed him, or about the bomber that wouldn't turn back, hours before the deadline!
For a moment, I thought Pola had also received mind powers, that she had been subjected to the mind-altering device, but it was not to be. It was hinted at by Arvardan being in love with a lowly Earth-girl, and that we never got to see through her point of view. The discussion of the group being under some influence seemed to have some sort of merit, but it didn't happen.
I continue, as with the other books in this series, to be amused by how much Asimov underestimated the technology of the future, considering he uses magnetic levitation, walls that can solidify or dissolve, permanent hair removal with a salve, and so on. Yet the use of computers, especially flat panel devices such as what we use now, were completely absent. This is something that he mentioned in one of his letters, and it is excusable, since everybody underestimated computers at that time. But surely he understood what capabilities spy satellites would have, especially with a population subject to rebellions and anti-Imperial tendencies, even a decade or more before their first deployment.
Trantor will undoubtedly keep a closer eye on Earth from this moment on, and probably institute all the changes they want, now that they have an excuse. They might even bomb it again, to obtain the completely radioactive effect found in Foundation and Earth. Because at the end of this book, the Galactic Empire is working to restore the radioactive soil on Earth. I suppose they could simply stop their supply of good soil, and obtain the same effect. And so Earth continues its decline into obscurity.
Make no mistake -I liked the book a lot. The writing was immensely enjoyable, and I loved the way the characters provided such insight and growth. But the plot was a little too thin, especially at the end, where I also disagreed with some of the methods used. Schwartz was given too much power, and had to force too many people do too many things in order to get the plot where Asimov wanted it. I prefer when things happen naturally.
Thus ends the series of only three books set in the age of the Galactic Empire. I wish Asimov had written more books about this era, especially in his later days. I would have loved to see the Empire at its full glory, perhaps on another world. Next in line in this timeline are the Foundation novels.
-- 1st reading (paperback)
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