The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 218pp, 1951
Young Biron Farrill, the son of the Rancher of Widemos (a noble position on the world of Nephelos in the Nebular Kingdoms), is attending the University of Earth, partly to get an education and partly to find a precious document his father wants. He wakes one evening to a puzzling situation in which his room’s ventilation system, communications system, and even the door aren’t working. At first, he thinks it’s a prank but comes to realize that he’s been trapped in a room with a radiation bomb. Fortunately, Sander Jonti (an associate who is from Lingane, also in the Nebular regions), is able to break him out of his room. Through Jonti, we learn that Tyrann is a budding empire in control of fifty worlds and has imprisoned (and will soon execute) Biron’s father as a disloyal threat to them. Jonti convinces Biron to flee to Rhodia, a world ruled by the half-idiot Hinrik, to avoid being killed by Tyrannian powers like his father. After Biron is on his way, we learn that Jonti and his companion, Rizzett, are also looking for the document but that, wherever it is, it’s been stolen from Earth quite some time ago.
Biron, traveling under a false name, is recognized aboard the starship en route to Rhodia and is brought to Simok Aratap, a powerful “Commissioner” of Tyrann who seems to be both a frustrated artist and conqueror (since Tyrann has been ruling its fifty worlds for fifty years and hasn’t expanded since being checked by its “Associate” world of Lingane). He lets Biron go to see if the young man will lead him to bigger game. Biron meets Hinrik, but also his lovely daughter, Artemisia, who is facing a forced marriage to a repulsive Tyrannian lord, and Artemisia’s Uncle Gil, a man with a scientific bent who does his best to appear harmless by playing the part of a ridiculous dilettante. Determining that Biron can pilot a spacecraft, both beg him to take them away. However, acting with uncharacteristic decision with only a few hours hesitation instead of the usual days, Hinrik has already decided Biron might be a test from Tyrann and has turned him in and Aratap has already arrived. Much running and fighting follows before the trio finally do escape, stealing Aratap’s own ship (which is not the good fortune it seems to be).
Gil then relates the tale of his experience of accidentally discovering a rebel base while lost in a damaged spaceship. He doesn’t know where he actually was but he believes the rebellion may offer a refuge if he can find it again, whether it’s nearing readiness to face Tyrann or not. Believing the Autarch of Lingane to know something of the rebel world (and after Biron and Artemisia discover their affection for one another), they point the ship to Lingane where they discover something surprising about the Autarch (who also finds Artemisia appealing and isn’t above creating animosity between her and Biron). Thus begins a very uneasy alliance to search for the hidden rebel base which takes the trio’s ship and the Autarch’s into the murky depths of the Horsehead Nebula, with both crews unaware that Aratap and a fleet of Tyrann warships are right behind them. Before the deeds of this tale are done, some will be lost and much will be found, but not always what was expected.
While I remembered much of this book and even most of the twists, I had forgotten how little connected to the “future history” it is. This seems to be set about 10,000 years in the future or 40,000 years before Pebble in the Sky. There is no reference to Trantor and there is a bizarre reference to a “robot messenger,” albeit only one. Earth is radioactive just as in Pebble but in that novel, it was only assumed to be from a war and, in this, it is made explicit (which later novels ignore). On the other hand, it is known to be the birthplace of humanity at this point and there doesn’t seem to be any particular animosity to Earth – indeed, it’s got enough cachet to have noblemen send their children “abroad” for an education. The hyperspace Jump technology seems to be the same, there are blasters, neuronic whips, biwheels, and more (there is even the first visisonor), but many of Asimov’s stories re-use various bits of tech. So, at the time of this book’s release, it may have seemed very independent.
In addition to seeming less like Asimov’s other series books in terms of fitting into a future history, it also seems less like his in other senses. Unlike pudgy, bald, old Joseph Schwartz the tailor, who made for a very unusual and compelling protagonist in Pebble, Biron Farrill is a young (sometimes petulant), muscled, 6’2″ nobleman for whom violence is no last refuge. Similarly, while Artemisia seems like a nice enough girl, she’s no Arkady Darrell, but usually a “matrimonial object” and not always the brightest one. The triangle of the Autarch, Biron, and Arta also leads to a little too much soap opera in the space opera for my taste, though it may appeal to others. On the other hand, the villain of Pebble was a true foaming-at-the-mouth black hat which was unusual for Asimov (though this one has one, too, which I can’t get into for spoilers) and Aratap, who is the initial bad guy of this piece, is more like Asimov’s usual complex and not-entirely-evil villains and was more interesting than the heroes.
Some other common motifs are more problematic. Coming off of searches by the Mule and the Foundation for the Second Foundation, this search for a rebel world seems familiar and, although they are different people and Biron is providing the means of escape, Arta and Gil aboard ship feels something like Arkady and Homer. Some of the twists and turns have been used before, too.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is the logic. While there are the usual excellent Asimovian conversations such as that between Aratap and Major Andros on what sort of forces to deploy and Aratap also repeats a recurrent theme of Asimov’s in which a character develops a web of impeccable logic which perfectly describes events–until it doesn’t because it was a coincidental abstraction–there is also “peccable” logic. Much is made of Tyrann’s political considerations and how they can’t use all the brute force they might like, but it is overused to excuse things that really should be more direct. Further, Biron seems to swallow lies repeatedly, yet “always knew” better or comes to know without receiving additional information to explain his increased comprehension. Also, by giving us the singular subjectivity of duplicitous characters, Asimov doesn’t always seem to play fair with the readers in this one. And there is a particularly glaring issue with Gil’s eavesdropping habits combined with ignorance of certain key things.
That said, there are many things I like about this book. While there is some very dated technology (the corneal contact lens seems to be a cutting-edge invention thousands of years in the future and spaceships seem to have a lot of dials) there is also a really tremendous depiction of two ships docking and a person traveling between them which reads like science writing from the present rather than imagination over fifteen years before such things began to happen.
Early on in the book, aside from Biron’s locked-room drama, things seem to be moving toward action a lot more than being in a state of action, but the movement is interesting and, when the action kicks in, it’s engaging and entertaining.
Perhaps the best thing is the depiction of the bubbling state of the galactic region and the cultures and personalities of Tyrann, Lingane, Rhodia, Nephelos, and even Earth. The different economies, living habits, ship designs, political considerations, variations in powers, interrelations, etc., all make them almost as much characters as the individual people representing them.
At least as of 1979, this was the novel Asimov liked least of his but this was mainly due to the fact that Gold interfered editorially by making him include the “document” sub-plot. This is neither a great feature nor grave flaw to me, though. Still, considering The Foundation Trilogy, I, Robot, and Pebble in the Sky to have been written, whether they’d achieved final book form or not, I think it is actually fair to say that this is the weakest of them so far and not the first book I’d hand to someone unfamiliar with Asimov, but I still enjoyed the re-read.