December 09, 2009

Two books

I recently finished reading (well, listening to) two Isaac Asimov books in the course of my bathroom renovations: The stars, like dust, and Pebble in the sky. In both cases, I picked them up at the library because I'd been thinking I need to buff up my Asimov—despite being generally a sci fi fan, I'd read almost nothing by him—and I had, let's say, mixed reactions to them.

The first was The stars, like dust, which is a space drama about the dispossessed heir to a planetary despot running all over known space to reclaim his title and/or get revenge on the folks that overthrew his father. There are, to be sure, some nice moments in it, but the drama is not very good, the romance isn't very good, and the central plot point is so blindly rah-rah-USA I couldn't help but roll my eyes. I'm going to spoil it here because it was telegraphed so obviously in the very first chapter: the secret weapon, threatening to a galactic empire, that was part of the lost lore of ancient history, that most had never heard of but those who had were literally dying to protect or steal its physical on-paper representation, was, drumroll, the US Constitution. This is only explicitly revealed in the last sentences of the book, but the way they go on and on in just about every chapter, wondering what the contents of the military secret could possibly be, what could the ancients of Earth have known that could bring down a modern empire.... well, I confess I wasn't sure if it would be the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

It didn't help that almost from the first time I heard of the king of Rhodia and his daughter, my mental image was of the king and his daughter from Spaceballs ("funny, you don't look Druish"), but I suppose that part at least can't be Asimov's fault.

Nevertheless, despite being underwhelmed by the first book, knowing Asimov's reputation I decided to try another. Pebble in the sky was considerably better, though not without its faults. This time we see future Earth itself in some detail, with virtually the whole book taking place in a future post-apocalyptic Chicago on a radioactive Earth that has become the backwaters of a space empire. What I found most remarkable about Pebble was its ability to turn a lot of our racial hangups on their head—and how many of them are not a whole lot better now than they were sixty years ago when he wrote it. Though a few discerning scientists know better, the general feeling is that Earth people are necessarily of an inferior race, not suitably evolved for polite galactic society, not nearly smart enough to be worth bothering with, and too savage to be able to bring into proper civil society. For their part, the Earth people aren't much for equality, seeing themselves as the superior race....

The book has two puzzling weaknesses, though, both forms of deus ex machina. The first, which seems basically forgivable, is that one of the protagonists got magically* transported into the future from our own time; this did give Asimov an excuse to portray future-Earth differences as they would be seen from the eyes of current-Earth readers, so I guess it's okay. It's sort of part of the initial premise (and laid out in a prologue before the main action), so it doesn't bother me too much. The weirder one, though, involves one of the characters developing psychic abilities that manage to get stronger in steps just as the plot requires it, with the final plot climax hinging crucially on this ability. Which is sort of explained, except that most others who had undergone the same treatment didn't acquire the same abilities. It certainly didn't ruin the story, and as I said, there's some very nice social criticism throughout. But it still isn't what I'd think of as the mark of a great writer.

* well, by some strange reaction involving radioactivity and uranium. Like I said, magic.

"I have decided not to take a sabbatical after all. You go off to the woods for a year and it puts you under terrible pressure to write 'Moby Dick' or something worthy of having had an entire year in which to write, and the longer you work at this masterpiece, the shabbier it looks, the whale turns into a guppy, and at the end of the year you have torn up almost everything you wrote and you are filled with self-loathing and bitter regret. No thanks. I am sticking to my post and recommend that you do, too." --Garrison Keillor

Posted by blahedo at 4:37pm on 9 Dec 2009
It is worth noting that Pebble in the Sky was his first novel. I think he got better at explaining stuff in a credible way later rather than relying on on almost Star Trek like science mumblings, but his romance scenes are pedestrian in that they remind me of description of someone crossing the street. Posted by lee at 11:02pm on 9 Dec 2009
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