Monday, September 14, 2009

Pebble in the Sky

Pebble in the Sky
© 1950 Isaac Asimov
223 pages

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After finishing the Foundation and Robots series (save Robots and Empire) I decided to move on to the Galactic Empire series which fits in between them -- tying Earth's near future as depicted in the Robots books and the Galaxy's far future in the Foundation novels together. I was able to purchase Triangle last fall but have never gotten around to reading any of the three Empire books contained within (The Stars like Dust, Pebble in the Sky, and The Currents of Space) in full until today. My impression of the series from what I've read in Asimov's biographies is that they were not produced as a deliberate trilogy, but are rather three books that share the same essential setting. As the stories are not related, I've decided to read them in the order that they were published instead of in order of internal chronology.

The Galactic Empire books are set thousands of years in Earth's future, in which humanity has colonized the galaxy and forgotten its own origins. Eight hundred years ago, the galaxy was united under the Spaceship and Sun emblem of the Empire, bringing peace, prosperity, and order. This I was expecting, and so you can imagine my surprise when the novel started out in 1949 Chicago, beginning with the story of a retired tailor named Joseph Schwartz who is suddenly thrust into Earth's future when he walks through an undetectable fissure in space-time. He is an artifact -- his language dead, limited parts of its vocabulary known only to archaeologists who specialize in the dismal subject of Earth.

Dismal? Earth? Indeed -- in Asimov's setting, Earth is a partially radioactive backwater planet regarded as the back end of nowhere, populated by superstitious and generally nasty people who think too much of themselves. The Galaxy, lead by the city-planet of Trantor, has long forgotten its populations' origins: the theory that life arose on one planet and spread is supported by only a few, and bears an embarrassing resemblance to the stories told by the theocrats reigning in Earth that once Earth was the center of the galaxy, that all of civilization sprung from that meager pebble in the sky.

The theocrats on Earth -- the "Council of Ancients", who rule through custom and secret police -- have not forgotten Earth's former glory. If we can believe characters in the book, Earth has rebelled against the might of the Empire on at least two occasions. Earthers may be their galaxy's Roma, despised and regarded as "uncultured", but they are fiercely proud of themselves regardless. They regard themselves as free and technically at war with the Empire, although they allow an imperial procurator to live in a fortress on Mount Everest. Thus, when an Imperial archaeologist arrives to do some research in Earth's radioactive zones -- forbidden by custom -- and a stranger is taken in by Earth scientists who are quite possible subversives, the Ancients' secret police smell a conspiracy. As the story unfolds, we shall see that their paranoia is being induced by their fear that a plan in the works will be uncovered by the Empire -- a plan that could topple the Empire and give Earth its "Second Kingdom".

Pebble in the Sky is very much dated, but one of the reasons I like reading Asimov's stuff is that his works are dated. His novels and story stories have that mid-20th century feel to them, one that's hard to put into words but very noticeable -- like when the characters speak of tape recordings. The same feeling is present when watching Star Trek's original series, but I can't put my finger on what it is. Pebble in the Sky is a rather interesting story, although it was not originally meant to be a novel and may bear that out. It's recommended reading for Asimov fans like myself, and for those who like their science fiction to have that classic "feel" to it, whatever it is.

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