Asimov’s Centennial: The Currents of Space

asimov-cos

The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 217pp, 1952

A year after a prolog in which an unnamed person warns that Florina will be destroyed in a nova and another drugs him and uses a psychic probe on him to “remove his anxiety,” we join amnesiac Rik on his lunch break at the mill where he’s suddenly remembered that he “analyzed Nothing” and that the world is somehow in danger. Rik was found in a kyrt field as a drooling, mindless wreck and the Townman, Myrlyn Terens, made the unmarried Lona Rik’s caretaker. He’s since improved to the point of being able to work in the mill. This bit of recovered memory makes Lona fear that a change may come to their relationship, so she goes to the Townman for advice. He is a Florinian and a civil servant who helps Sark rule Florina. While a quintet of Great Squires rule both worlds, and lesser Squires live in the Upper City on Florina, it is the bright Florinians who are taken to Sark, trained, and forbidden to have children, as a way to govern for now and to reduce the abilities of Florinians to do anything but grow kyrt for ever. Kyrt is a crop which grows only on Florina and is used in the production of fabulous fabrics and other products and has made Sark second only to Trantor in wealth, when Trantor rules half the galaxy and Sark just the two worlds. Despite it being against the rules, Terens decides to take Rik to the library of the Upper City to see if accessing books there will jog Rik’s memory further. However, someone has set a trigger to report when books on spatio-analysis are requested. From this minor infraction, things spiral out of control when Lona, who has followed them, sees them threatened by one of the foreign mercenaries known as Patrollers and used by Sark as the fist to the civil servants’ glove, wrests the Patroller’s own neuronic whip from him, and uses it on him. The trio flee to the Lower City and from the angry hornet’s nest of Patrollers they’ve stirred up and are rescued by a baker whose shop has a false oven they can hide in. The baker turns out to be more than he seems and has a special interest in Rik, with no interest in the other two. Terens takes off on his own, while Lona stays with Rik.

Meanwhile, Dr. Selim Junz of the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau visits with Ludigan Abel, the Trantorian ambassador. Junz has spent much of the last year looking for a missing spatio-analyst (those who study Nothing, or the currents within the near-vacuum of space). Through their conversations and reflections on the things which have formed their characters, we learn about, among other things, the tricky relationship Trantor and Sark have. At this point, Trantor rules half the galaxy and is far too powerful for Sark to fight, but Trantor is not yet strong enough to risk consolidating the other half of the galaxy against them, so must tread lightly when it comes to annexing other worlds, especially worlds as important as Sark, with its galaxy-spanning kyrt trade. So relations are handled officially by Abel and, unofficially, by a large spy network. This casts earlier events in a different and clearer light, as the baker is a spy for Trantor who is to bring Rik in. (We also learn that it was Junz who set the trigger on the books of spatio-analysis.) However, this fails to go according to plan, especially for Terens, who becomes a sort of serial killer.

The third component of the tale is introduced through the five-foot, ninety-pound Lady Samia of Fife. She is on Florina, working on her book on kyrt when her father, one of the Great Squires, orders her home due to the disturbances against the Patrollers. Rik and Lona have the strange luck to stow away on her ship and are quickly detected, and her romantic nature ignites with her fascination with the “mystery” the stowaways represent. Indeed, her father has a mystery of his own, which he describes to the other Great Squires, involving Trantorian machinations and his belief that one of the Squires is a traitor, which one of the accused dismisses as a “detective thriller.” The second half of the book involves the working out of these elements. Who did what was done to Rik? What specifically threatens Florina? Is there a traitor among the Squires and, if so, who? Can Trantor and Sark reach an accomodation or will their strains reach a breaking point?

Unlike the Robot and Foundation stories, Asimov never returned to the Empire milieu, so this third novel was the last of the group. The initial version of Pebble in the Sky was written for Startling Stories but never appeared in magazine form until after it was revised and published as a book. The Stars, Like Dust was serialized in Galaxy under the name “Tyrann” and with a subplot of Gold’s worked in. This one was serialized in John W. Cambpell’s Astounding without interference. All three include brief afterwords from Asimov in their early 1980s paperback editions explaining that a key science fictional premise within the novel is no longer considered scientifically viable and asking the writer to forgive that. While Rik is known in this one to be a foreigner, with one of his earlier recovered memories about his specific home world, all three novels are tied to Earth, despite their interstellar scope. While this is clearly the second book in internal chronology, pinning down a date to even the nearest millennium seems difficult. Trantor is described as having risen from a Republic of five worlds, to a Confederation, to a Trantorian Empire of half the galaxy, all within five hundred years so it seems reasonable that this novel is nearer to Pebble in the Sky than The Stars, Like Dust. On the other hand, while Rik’s Earth is the same radioactive blue of the Earth of the other books, there are no particular signs of animosity towards Earthers [1] but the preponderance of evidence points to a fairly late date. The fact of Earth being the homeworld of humanity has been forgotten and is now a disputed theory and the notion of convergent evolution has some strength.

And that brings us to a core theme of the book which revisits one of Pebble from a different angle. Sark’s domination of Florina is clearly driven by economics but, in a galaxy in which everyone, with few exceptions, is now of a more or less intermixed brown complexion, Florinians are white. This adds a racial component to Sark’s “sick social system.” The rebellious spirit has been almost utterly extinguished through a system of divide-and-conquer, surveillance, psychic probes (which are naively underutilized in the future of the essentially good-hearted Asimov), and of economic and classist disparity between the browns/whites represented at various scales by Sark/Florina and Upper/Lower City but which can have a strong basis in skin color and stereotyping. For example, when the noble brown girl, Samia, is caught (unwillingly) in a compromising position with a low-class white man it is used for powerful political and economic purposes when its only leverage comes from the twisted psychology of the Sarkites. Asimov wisely doesn’t limit this to a pure one-to-one metaphor, as aspects of it are reminiscent of Britain’s rule of India and many other aspects throughout human history, but American history is clearly the main inspiration, with one Sarkite even talking about “King Kyrt” (which has cellulose as one of its degenerate forms but which is even referred to once as cotton). While Pebble put its racial theme in the foreground, Currents handles it more cleverly by having it be structural and backgrounded for the most part but I suspect the social focus causes at least one aesthetic blemish in the moral calculus because multiple wrongs from and against this system in the person of one character are allowed to make a right by the conclusion of the book, a failing which anticipates much contemporary fiction. On the other hand, one especially unusual thing I liked in this was Selim Junz being from Libair, which is as atypical as Florina, in that Libairians are much darker than most and have dim recollections of a prehistory of racial strife. This causes Junz to feel a brotherhood with his fellow whites as both are minorities in a galaxy that is primarily intermediate. While this is probably largely a game of musical pigments in which Asimov, as a person of a Jewish minority, is expressing solidarity with African-Americans [2], it is also the actual state of things here on Earth. Blacks and whites are both (possibly temporary) minorities within all of humanity.

Heavy thematic stuff aside, as a simple reading experience, this novel of interstellar intrigue introduces us to a sympathetic but necessarily somewhat undefined character in the mostly erased Rik and his initially interesting relationship with Lona but the main drama begins with Terens joining the story and the three getting embroiled in increasingly out-of-control events. When Terens detaches from the pair, his mortally panicked flights from the coercive powers of his society are exciting and powerful. The amplification of the mystery elements with first Samia and then the Squire of Fife, himself, adds another layer and type of interest. Asimov’s skill in moving from scene to scene, with chapters moving forward and backward in time compared to their predecessors, sometimes redefining what we’ve just witnessed, is also put to good use. This is much improved over the handling in Stars, though there are a couple of overly long gaps between scenes and at least one use of a convenient memory loss and gain. More seriously, there are two chapters in a row (12 and 13) which involve long speeches (the first being the least successful part, dramatically, of the Squire’s involvement and the second being excess from a minor character) which slow the action. Most importantly, the ending isn’t completely satisfying. As I mentioned, the books don’t seem balanced regarding one character, the conclusion for two others doesn’t ring true, and much is resolved too easily. This and Pebble are very comparable and this surpasses it in some ways but, overall, I think I prefer the latter. Either way, I’ve always felt the Empire novels, though they are admittedly lesser works compared to the main Robot and Foundation books, were unfairly underestimated and this re-read of the trio makes me think that even more firmly.


[1] There are some other inconsistencies such as human males still being physically capable of growing facial hair when they aren’t in Pebble, but this may be an oversight. (And, of course, there are inconsistencies going the other direction which are due to the hazards of writing prequels, in that stowaway Arkady should have been detected as easily as Rik and Lona were and there seems to be no kyrt in the Galactic Empire.)

[2] As every sympathetic reader of Heinlein knows, just because a writer has characters advocate certain things doesn’t mean the writer does but, in Asimov’s non-fiction, he comes across as being liberal on race, especially for someone who made his mark in the 1940s and ’50s. In addition, Asimov was economically liberal and this comes across when he has a character advocate a respect for human rights over “mere property rights” and this, again, shows that Campbell’s Astounding, and science fiction in general, was not as monolithic as some like to believe or would have others believe.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Stars, Like Dust

THSTRSLKDS1953-ed

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.

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

Preface

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.

Previous posts in this series: