Asimov’s Centennial: Pebble in the Sky (Two Versions)


The first of Isaac Asimov’s hundreds of books has a tangled history. Sam Merwin was editing Startling and wanted an Astounding-type 40,000-word novel from Asimov so, from June to September 1947, Asimov worked on a novel he called “Grow Old with Me” which was a misquote from a Browning poem. Merwin was very pleased with its progress until it was completed at 48,000 words and then, in October, announced that Startling was dropping the emulation of Astounding and now wanted Amazing-type stories. Infuriated, Asimov refused to rewrite it that way and it went into the drawer. Fortunately, Fred Pohl was in the mood to be an agent again, got Asimov to admit the existence of an unpublished novel, and took it to Gnome in January 1948. Though that deal fell through, he persisted until, at the end of March 1949, Doubleday agreed to take it if Asimov would lengthen it to 70,000 words. Asimov worked on the revision from early April to late May. At the beginning, he discovered the correct quote (“Grow Old Along with Me”) though, in June, his editor told him it needed a new title which sounded more science fictional, so he changed it to Pebble in the Sky. The book was finally published in January of 1950. However, the original version survived and found its way into Asimov’s papers which were periodically sent to Boston University at the request of its librarian, where it and some other alternate versions were discovered by Charles Waugh, part of the prolific Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh editing team, who had the idea of putting out a book of them. Thus, in 1986, The Alternate Asimovs [1] came into being. The versions are quite different in ways, but tell essentially the same story, so I’ll review the best known version, Pebble in the Sky, and then talk about some of the differences between the two.

Pebble in the Sky

Bald, pudgy, retired tailor Joseph Schwartz is walking down the sidewalk in Chicago on one fine summer afternoon in 1949, quoting Browning and thinking about how wonderful his golden years are and will be. He sees a Raggedy Ann doll, begins to step over it, and– Elsewhere in Chicago, a chemist is working with plutonium when something strange occurs and– Joseph Schwartz dizzily collapses onto the grass. It’s a fall evening and he’s looking at the cleanly split half of a Raggedy Ann doll. Indeed, a chunk of his shoe is missing, as well. After much confusion and hysteria, he finds himself tearing wildly about the woods, until he finally finds a house. Beating on the door and yelling, he’s relieved to see a woman open it but terrified all over again when she starts speaking in a language he’s never heard.

So begins Joseph Schwartz’s adventures in a strange new time and old place. He will find that he’s on Earth, after all, but an Earth of fifty thousand years in the future. In the meantime, humanity has spread to the stars and, just over eight hundred years ago, has created a Galactic Empire, but has forgotten where it came from. Earth has become an irradiated backwater of this Empire, either ignored or despised by the galaxy, with those nearest hating them the most [2]. They return this hatred. While there is loose Imperial oversight from a Procurator, the local rulers of Earth are the Society of Ancients, a tyrannical group of people who hold to the ridiculous belief that Earth is the birthplace of humanity. They enforce the Sixty, the euthanizing of people who reach that age, on a planet which now can only support a population of twenty million. Their mad leader has forced a doctor, Shekt, to do work on a Synapsifier to heighten the mental abilities of their biologists as part of his plan to have those biologists unleash a plague on the Empire so that he may become Emperor of what’s left.

As mismatched as the Society of Ancients against the Galactic Empire is, the forces opposing the Ancients on Earth are about as mismatched. Dr. Shekt has learned of the plan through the ravings of a biologist driven mad by the Synapsifier procedure and has told his daughter, Pola. They later recruit Bel Arvardan, an Imperial archaeologist, who has come to Earth to disprove the prevailing theory that humanity arose independently on various planets and has been interbreeding into homogeneity and to prove his theory (ironically also what the Ancients hold) that humanity came from a single birthplace and, more, that this very Earth is it. Caught up with them is Schwartz, who has a decision to make and a role to play despite not wanting to have anything to do with this bizarre future.

While this story is set in the far future, features Galactic Empires with strange worlds and societies, and has tools like Synapsifiers which can give strange mental powers, this is largely about prejudice and empathy. In this, Earth would seem to take the role of Judaea while the Roman Empire is enlarged to Galactic scope but it is not at all limited to this, as much of the hatred between Earthpeople and Imperials is expressed in modes of then-contemporary racism. Arvardan, being an educated Imperial, thinks of himself as an enlightened man but can scarcely conceive of being involved with an Earthie female until he meets Pola. What produces this situation in which five hundred quadrillion lives hang in the balance is traditional hatred in which wrongs are treasured up and hate is met with hate while what it would take to save them is an understanding of the efforts some make to overcome their societal limitations in order to make contact with a shared humanity.

The dislocation and plight of Schwartz as one of the viewpoint characters is engaging, the milieu is a fascinating mix of the familiar and strange, the plot is vast and dramatic (and the key part of it is hard to read these days), and the resolution, while imperfect, is satisfying.

“Grow Old Along with Me”

The essential question about the two versions might be “Should I get one or the other or both?” A fanatic like myself will want both but I suspect the general reader would probably only want one and that one should be Asimov’s “final” version.

As Asimov himself says in the “Afterword” to the story, the main differences between the first and second versions are that he “cut the asinine prologue, epilogue, and intermissions” and wove what had been three separate sections focused on Schwartz, Arvardan, and both Schwartz and Arvardan into a more intermixed narrative.

The “asinine” parts he mentions really are surprisingly bad and jarringly discordant with an otherwise good first version, as are some other places where the narrative voice is off-key or intrusive, which are also minimized in the second version. Though the tripartite structure works well, the blended second version is better. One of the more notable parts of that is an earlier introduction of, and larger part for, Pola. (One of the apparently unintended consequences of this, though, is that it changes some of Arvardan’s motivations in places.)

While Asimov mentions the largest changes, there are many others great and small.

The most noticeable lengthening is probably in the change in which Schwartz is kept for observation by Shekt. Schwartz escapes briefly from the farm in both versions but also makes an earlier escape from Shekt’s offices in the second version which produces the basically new chapters of 8 and 9. (This also creates one of the few continuity problems in the expansion in that Schwartz goes to the city thinking his nature may make him valuable but still applies for the menial job of the first version.) Another additional scene comes from giving an unnamed character who has one scene and naming him Lt. Claudy and giving him several scenes which are put to generally good effect. He hates Earth people more than most and that raises the change in which Asimov originally portrayed some strong anti-Earth prejudice in the first version but dialed it up to 11 in the second version. I’m not sure that this is really an improvement as the point comes across loud and clear even in the first. Similarly, Arvardan’s self-perception of his own “enlightenment” vs. his actual involuntarily ingrained prejudice is made much more heavy-handed.

Claudy is just one of several characters who are named or expanded or slightly modified. For instance, Schwartz is originally taken in by a married couple and the wife’s paraplegic father, Grew. His character is made more prominent and cantankerous in an early chapter. (Both versions, as Asimov notes, feature the chess game between Grew and Schwartz which is taken from a real game. I would note that it is played on a magnificently imaginative and beautiful set.) The Secretary of the Ancients is given the name Belkis and lesser agents such as Natter and Creen are also named and magnified, with Natter getting a more drastic and on-screen fate.

Putting it elliptically, as it’s near the end, the prison scene is much improved by having a character only arrive, rather than arrive, depart, and return, which addresses one pretty severe credibility strain though, oddly, Asimov has a character raise another problem and inadequately address it.

A technically minor change, but a striking one, is that the image of the Raggedy Ann doll made a powerful impression on me and was not actually in the first version. Of all things missing in the first version, I missed this most.

Moving into even more minor things, the date of Schwartz’s origin is changed from 1947 to 1949 and, to give him more to lose, he’s given two daughters instead of one, and there are numerous minor stylistic tweaks which are improvements most of the time.

In essence, everything of value in the good first version except its extreme brevity is preserved in the second while many positive and few negative changes are introduced.

[1] Of all Asimov’s science fiction, The Alternate Asimovs is the only thing that I’m reading for the first time for these reviews.

[2] Interestingly, while this is an Empire novel and those are connected to the Foundation books, the Robot stories and novels were a separate series at this time, yet this fits very well with the semi-Spacer story “Mother Earth,” which was written between these two versions, and the subsequent Robot novels in the Spacer milieu.

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