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
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
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
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.