Asimov’s Centennial: The Stars, Like Dust


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.

2 thoughts on “Asimov’s Centennial: The Stars, Like Dust

  1. The “document” subplot is probably the worst thing about this story. Even as a teen, I thought it ridiculous for several reasons. First, the document in question has been so widely copied and is so important to understanding the history of the past two centuries that it’s absurd to think it would be lost. Second, it’s hardly an indispensable document; the broad concepts in it are the most important, and even if the original text didn’t survive, the principles in it surely would.

    What I remember it for was that part of the action took place on a world with no land life but with an oxygen atmosphere nevertheless. At the time, I was disgusted because I thought “where does the O2 come from with no plants?” But decades later, reading an article by Stephen Jay Gould, I realized that for most of its history (up to the last ~650 million years) Earth was like that. No land life at all. Simple algae and bacteria in the oceans, but no complex life–not even complex single-celled organisms. But that’s enough for an oxygen atmosphere.

    Looking back from a modern perspective, the lack of a comprehensive galactic database is hard to believe. The Gaia mission alone will produce a catalog of 1% of the stars in the Milky Way, and that’s being done from Earth orbit. In 1000 years, given interstellar flight, every ship ought to carry a catalog with accurate info on every star in the galaxy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The document doesn’t bother me as much in that sense because it would be akin to something like the state of Democritus’ atomic theory in the Middle Ages – and here, it’s supposed to be 10,000 years (a Really Long Time, anyway, and post-nuclear war, as well) rather than about 1,000. Who knows what weird losses or distortions there might have been? Many documents were widely copied but got completely lost or reduced to one surviving copy. And the principles may be known but they were also known before the US was founded. It’s just that it wasn’t generally believed in 1776-89 that it could actually work for over 200 years. If you have documentary evidence that a society actually functioned with those principles, it might carry more weight or at least symbolically aid your resistance. It’s not even that old-fashioned – in Cambias’ recent Arkad’s World, the importance of actual cultural documents for resisting alien assimilation is stressed. But this specific instance may not be the most likely thing and having it in this book does feel kind of bolted on and sure annoyed Asimov. 🙂

      Interesting you should point out the oxygen because Asimov, in an afterword to my edition, notes that it should have been nitrogen and carbon dioxide with no oxygen, but mentions how he’d have to substantially rewrite the latter part of the book to fix it, so asks for the reader’s indulgence. (I may have missed it but I don’t think he had the notion of algae and bacteria – I think he had it utterly lifeless, but I’m sure he would have been happy to use that. That’s one thing about exoplanetology – while there are fundamental laws, within that we’re always finding out that things that seem inevitable don’t always happen and things that seem unlikely do. There are, it seems literally, trillions of factors and weird stuff can happen with the right combinations such as just having the right algae.)

      And, yeah, as far as the “uncharted regions” (a notion not unique to Asimov, as we all know), that does seem like quite a stretch, but he does put it in the Horsehead Nebula as a sort of fig leaf. (That’s actually the worst part of the book to me, though even it has precedent (in terms of names getting mythologized when the original context is lost) and I like many puns – but the notion that “Horace Hedd” discovered the region made me groan. 🙂 )


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