As I am in a rather science-fiction mood, I must now return to the 50s with what is one of the seminal works in the field. I’m sure, or at least, I hope, that you know Isaac Asimov; you may not know that he is considered one of the ‘fathers’ of science-fiction, but now you do. Thus, I thought it was appropriate to return to his first novel, and his first experiment in the setting that was to become the background for Asimov’s later classic, the Foundation series. And so, Pebble in the Sky.
The novel follows the exploits of a man in his 60s, thrust, by some freak accident of a nuclear experiment, countless millenia into the future, where the galaxy is ruled by the Galactic Empire from the city-world of Trantor. Joseph Schwartz, for that is the protagonist’s name, is confused and wanders a irradiated, backwater Earth. Eventually he is experimented on, and thus gains psychic powers. There is also an evil plot to solve, which he does with the help of a radical Imperial archaeologist (who proposes that humanity originally might have come from Earth, as the Earthlings claim, instead of having evolved separately on each world).
The cover of Foundation and Empire; not the same book, but I like the picture anyway. Plus, it’s Empire, so very relevant.
Plot-wise, Pebble in the Sky isn’t the most exciting book you’ll ever read. That being said, Asimov must be given some credit – it was one of the early major and, more else, true space opera novels, and not planetary romance or philosophical science-fiction, and so the plot might have been more exciting back then. The ending isn’t a let-down, as it is not quite deus ex machina, since the book has, essentially, been building up to such a climax throughout. It does feel not very satisfactory, however, at least to me. It is, though, still quite a fun read.
The novel does, however, shine in two interesting ways: the setting, and the interactions of the Earthlings with the other humans of the galaxy. Setting-wise, Asimov was very cunning: he took the Jewish-Roman wars, from the first war in 66 AD through to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, modified them for his setting, and done! I shall explain. The Galactic Empire, made entirely of humans, as aliens are non-existent, believes that humanity evolved independently from a variety of worlds. Earthlings, their home being an irradiated, backwater nothing, contend that humanity evolved on Earth and colonised the galaxy. The rest of the Empire disbelieve the Earthlings, thinking them stupid backwater people, while the Earthlings despise the ‘Outsiders.’ When Schwartz arrives in the future, Earth has revolted numerous times against the Imperial forces, most noticeably when the Mad Emperor ordered the governor to place the Imperial Seal in the Earth main building. The whole history is drawn completely from the Jewish wars, the last part from when Caligula, reinterpreted as the Mad Emperor, ordered a statue of himself to be placed in the Temple of Solomon, leading to a bloody conflict. As a fan of Roman history, I thoroughly enjoyed the setting, especially as it helps give the world a deeper sense of reality than if Asimov were to pull it out of his hat.
The other interesting part of the book is the interactions of the Earthlings with the Imperials. Asimov did a fascinating job in depicting the hostile relations between an oppressed, or unprivileged group, and their oppressors. Although I’m often wary of many such discussions in real life, I found it well done in Pebble in the Sky; one gains an understanding of the wounds the Earthlings have suffered, living in a harsh, dying world, which could be saved if the Empire bothered, and priding themselves on a thing which is dismissed by the Empire. That being said, I more support the Empire, but it does help put one in a sympathetic and understanding place. Well done, Asimov.
So, there you have it. Pebble in the Sky is not an amazing book; the writing is fun, and well done, but nothing brilliant. The plot is also entertaining, but there are more interesting plots out there. However, the setting is remarkably done, and the way Asimov makes one sympathetic to the Earthlings is interesting. Although it may not be the best science fiction work ever done, it is definitely an important novel in its field, and enjoyable enough to be read for some light entertainment.