Fiction Reviews

Pebble in the Sky

(1950/2010) Isaac Asimov, Orb Books, £9.99, trdpbk, 256pp, ISBN 978-0-765-31913-5


In 1949 in a bright summer day Joseph Schwartz unwittingly crossed the path of a stray beam emanating from an Institute for Nuclear Research. In mid-step the world around him changed. No longer was there the familiar Chicago skyline but an expanse of ragged grass. What's more, it was no longer summer but autumn.

Eventually, Schwartz encounters people, simple farmers, whom he could not understand; their language was peculiar. But they took him in and then later, the farmers thinking Schwartz was mentally retarded, took him to the nearby city of Chica to see a psychiatric doctor…

Meanwhile, on a temperate climate in the shadow of Everest, Bel Arvardan, an archaeologist from Arcturus, had arrived to meet the Procurator of Earth. The Procurator was the representative of the Galactic Empire which itself was governed by the city-covered world of Trantor. Arvardan was on Earth to gather evidence to support his hypothesis that humanity originated on Earth as opposed to some other world, or even as a species had evolved separately in a co-evolutionary way, on multiple worlds and then interbred. Arvardan's theory was considered by his academic peers as wild for the Earth is but a 'pebble in the sky'.

Back in Chica, Schwartz was to become the subject of a prototype device that in theory boosted people's minds. He was also to soon discern that he must have somehow been transported to the far future where: humanity on Earth was greatly reduced in numbers living in island pockets amidst a radioactive landscape; humans were euthanased at 60 to conserve resources; and where those from elsewhere in the Galaxy were despised rulers.

Ultimately, a psionically-enhanced Schwartz and Arvardan, where to be thrown together to combat a secret rebellion of Earth using biological warfare against the rest of the Galaxy…

Now, if you are over 40 (in the 2010s) and an SF reader, you will have undoubtedly heard of Isaac Asimov. Nonetheless, I am increasingly coming across younger readers (even at SF conventions) who have never heard of the man! As this trend – though embryonic at the moment – is likely to increase with the years, it is worth a few lines of explanation as to who he was.

Asimov, along with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, was one of the principal giants of post-World War II SF in the 20th century. He began having his first tranche of short stories published when he was in his 20s and he continued to write shorts prolifically throughout his career that in turn spawned over a dozen collections. Pebble in the Sky was his first novel and it introduces a series of novels set in the universe of the Trantor Galactic Empire which in turn includes the famous 'Foundation' trilogy (though further books expanded this, along with those by others much later).

Pebble in the Sky, though first published in N. America in 1950, only first appeared here in Britain in 1958. However it was subsequently reprinted here around half a dozen times through to the beginning of the 1980s and then more sporadically subsequently.

A reading of Pebble in the Sky might suggest first-novel flaws: the writing is stilted, characters are not fleshed out and, despite numerous reprints, it actually could do with a copy edit. (For example, one new paragraph heralds a complete change of setting yet what one would normally have expected, a blank line and then a new paragraph.) But actually Asimov's novels nearly all feature outline characters, cardboard cut-outs, that simplistically play out an equally black-and-white plot. As such Asimov's novels never gained any credence with mainstream (mundane) literary critics and so were largely dismissed by them. Now, it should be said that Asimov was, and is, not the only SF writer to which such a criticism can be levelled. So why was did he become regarded as a giant of the genre?

The answer to Asimov's SF success is, arguably, because his characters indeed were cut-outs and his plots simple wire-frame constructs! To what mundane critics considered a weakness was in fact a strength. Asimov's stripping down a novel's characters to the bare essentials and lending the least detail to plot elements meant that he could do two things. First, he could focus his writing, and readers, onto his novels' sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) and, second, he had the room to include many SF elements.

In the case of Pebble in the Sky we get:-
          - time travel
          - a surviving post-apocalyptic Earth complete with…
          - post-atomic war radioactive wastelands
          - a resource-scarce world with customary euthanasia
          - mind-enhancing technology
          - interstellar passenger travel
          - a Galactic-wide empire
          - an Earth whose important heritage has been forgotten
          - people discrimination by star system of origin
          - naturally radioactive planets
          - psionic, second person mind control
          - future language and cultural evolution
          - biological warfare
          - faster-than-light space travel (presumably through unsaid wormholes given the short time it takes to get to other star systems)
… to cite just the principal ones. For many other authors, just two or three of these sensawunda elements would be enough on which to base a novel. Asimov crams them in. Some of these elements are tropes of the genre and common ones of the mid-second-half of the 20th century. For example, my own 1978 edition of Pebble in the Sky has teasers for ten other SF novels from the publisher in the back and two of these have radioactive wastelands as core to their respective plots: one needs to remember that the 1950s to the 1990s were times of nuclear tension and the fear of thermonuclear strikes were genuine. But the important thing is that reading such works with such a high density of SFnal elements does enable one to almost taste the essence of raw science fiction: this was Asimov's gift and what gave him standing in the genre community.

True, to a 21st century reader, Pebble in the Sky sees a number of outmoded perspectives, including that women do not appear to have much equal opportunities: no female character holds a position of responsibility but instead relegated to the role of assistant or subject of romantic interest. And then there are giveaways for the scientist readers, even though Asimov himself had a degree in chemistry and a second career as a popular science writer (at which he excelled writing scores of popular science books and hundreds of articles). And so we get told, for instance, that viruses are self-replicating proteins. But this problem of SF being a product of the time in which it is written is one faced by all writers and so should not at all be taken as a criticism of the author who, as said, was a scientist himself; it is just that scientific understanding of the day was not as advanced as it is now (and so if goes that the science today itself will be inferior to that of the future).

Pebble in the Sky, being the first novel, and indeed first novel of a sequence, by a respected and prolific author, is therefore something of a genre landmark work that younger, but dedicated, SF readers might well want to contemplate reading. And even if somewhat dated SF novels are a stretch for a few genre aficionados, I would certainly recommend checking out the collection of Asimov's shorts I, Robot as well as any collection of his containing the short story 'Nightfall'. Asimov's 20th century works represent one part – indeed a significant part – of the substantive foundations on which 21st century SF was constructed.

Jonathan Cowie

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