Archive for March, 2009

“Pebble in the Sky” by Isaac Asimov reviewed

22 March 2009

Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky. Del Ray Books. 1950. 230 pp.

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Pebble in the Sky is the first written of Isaac Asimov’s three “Empire novels,” though chronologically it takes place last, long after the events of The Stars, Like Dust and The Currents of Space, books which are only very loosely connected. I had originally read Pebble about nine years ago and was looking forward to experiencing it again. Unfortunatly, it doesn’t hold up well.

The basic plot is that a retired tailor from Chicago in 1949, Joseph Schwartz, is accidentally sent into a distant future (“hundred of thousands of years” are alluded to) when the Earth is a backwater planet in the Galactic Empire. And he helps to save the galaxy along with a native Earth scientist, his daughter, and a visiting archaeologist. Structural problems arise from the fact that Asimov can’t decide wether Schwartz or Arvardan is his main character and the book’s hero, so one or the other spends large portions of the book with nothing to do even when they are on the page to remind the reader of their existence. Pacing is further disrupted when two months is skipped over without any reason, relieving valuable tension.

There are several points in the story that require one or more characters to act contrary to reason. For instance, the farmers that find Schwartz—who, of course, can’t speak the language and has no idea where he is—decide to take him to Dr. Shekt, the aforementioned scientist, who they heard is experimenting with a device that can educate people instantly. The fact that it’d never been used on a person and that 90% of the rats that were so educated died doesn’t deter them from “volunteering” Schwartz to undergo treatment. (Things are actually not as they appear, but the farmers don’t know that, so their actions are still ridiculous—and immoral.) The good guys then rely several times on a deus ex machina to elude the bad guys: said brain experiments give Schwartz psychic powers, so he can conveniently read minds, kill people, and control people as needed. Asimov usually doesn’t usually rely on such clumsy, ad hoc story devices to solve his problems.

The characters are two dimensional, so they don’t rescue the book. Arvardan is “tall and craggily, calm and self-confident … like an ancient marble statue.” Arvardan’s love interest, Dr. Shekt’s 20ish daughter, Pola, is “devastatingly desireable” (more on her in a moment). Their relationship has no real basis and obviously exists only so that the hero—or one of them—can “get the girl.” It’s hardly a surprise that they’re married in the epilog.  It’s forgiveable if you recall who the audience was for most 1940s-era science fiction.  Eventually, Asimov figured out how to write sensibly about romantic relationships, but much later in his career—long after Pebble in the Sky.

Isaac Asimov in 1956, shortly after writing Pebble in the Sky

Isaac Asimov in 1956, a few years after writing Pebble in the Sky

Pola’s character is typical of females the early Asimov corpus—she’s pretty, so she has to be silly and frivolous. She breaks down in tears five times in novel’s 230 pages, sometimes for trivial reasons, and constantly needs rescuing. She is seen as “weak” and “hysterical” by the other characters, and she spends most of the book with a “look of fear and exhaustion on her face” and experiencing “deep and pathetic disappointment” or “horror and fright.” Obviously, Asimov was a product of his time, but all of the attractive women in his early works are like this.  The ones who are intelligent, self-assured, and take the initiative (consider Bayta in “The Mule” or Arcadia in “—And Now You Don’t”) are deliberately described as being plain looking. For me, these attitudes date the story far more than the idea that they’d be smoking tobacco or reading paper newspapers in 100,000 CE—we aren’t even reading our news on papers now!

One thing that I completely missed nine years ago but enjoyed on my second reading were the numerous allussions to Jewish history in the book. Asimov was a big fan of the Bible—witness his 1300-page Guide to the Bible (an excellent book, by the way)—and took inspiration for Pebble’s setting from Roman-occupied first century Palastine. The novel’s powerful Society of Ancients were like the Jewish religious elite and the Zealots; their High Minister corresponds to the chief priest; and “the customs” are equivalent to “the Law” (Torah). They proclaim “the Second Kingdom of Earth is at hand” (cf. “the Kingdom of God is at hand”), are described as “extreme nationalists” and dream of past and future glory—just like Jewish nationalists in the first century CE.

Of course, the Galactic Empire stands in for its inspiration, the Roman Empire, and Earth’s governor, Procurator Ennius, is inspired by Procurator Pontius Pilate—and he even quotes him, declaring “I find no fault in this man”! (A direct quote from Luke 23:4 in the King James translation.) It is no accident that Earth was said to have rebelled against the empire three times over 200 years; the Jews revolted against the Romans three times: in 66–73, 115–117, and 132–135, and Ennius, like Pilate, is concerned with not crossing the elites, who control the mob and could stir up a rebellion. That almost happened to a prior procurator, when the insane Emperor Stannell II tried to put the imperial insignia in Earth’s Council Chamber. If you recall either your Roman or Jewish history (and Asimov loved both—see his two volumes on the Romans), you know that he’s referring to Caligula’s attempt to put a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple in 40 CE. The book is full of such references.  Even Ennius’s conversation with his wife, Flora, reminds me of Pilate’s exchange with his wife (Matthew 27:19). I’ve spent too much space on this, but I found discovering the allusions to be quite pleasant, and most people probably don’t even know they’re there.

Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend Pebble in the Sky to anyone except an Asimov fan; it’s far from his best work. Some of the structural and plotting problems may be due to its history—the 70,000 word novel started as a 40,000 word novella which was later expanded at his publisher’s request—but they’re there nonetheless. Check out The Foundation Trilogy, The Gods Themselves, or The Caves of Steel instead.

“Bush at War” by Bob Woodward reviewed

17 March 2009

Woodward, Bob. Bush at War. Simon & Schuster. 2002. 355 pp.

Published just 14 months after the September 11th attacks, Bush at War by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward covers the Bush administration on that infamous day and during the three-months following during which the Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan.  This was one of the first books out covering the War on Terror, and certainly isn’t the best out there now; like most such works by journalists—as opposed to historians—it is long on the who, what, where, and when and very short on the why: don’t look for a lot of analysis in this book.  Bush at War lacks a thesis, what it does is give an inside look at how top government officials, including the president, reacted to the attacks and how they planned and executed the war in Afghanistan.  The epilogue covers about a year and the lead up to the Iraq war (which hadn’t been launched yet when the book went to press).

Seeing things that we all saw from the outside from the inside view that Woodward provides is very interesting.  At just 9:44 am Bush told Cheney “We’re at war.”  “That’s what we’re paid for boys,” he told his staff.  “We’re going to take care of this.  And when we find out who did this, they’re not going to like me as president.  Somebody is going to pay.” (17)  He used slightly cruder language with the Vice President: “We’re going to find out who did this, and we’re going to kick their asses.” (18)

He wanted to be decisive and bold in his response to the attacks, not like the Clinton administration which limited it’s military response to terror attacks to air strikes.  Bush said “I don’t want to put a million-dollar missile on a five-dollar tent.” (I’d elsewhere heard that quote expanded to “I’m not going to fire a million-dollar missile at a ten-dollar empty tent, and hit a camel in the butt.”)  However, Bush told his communications director (Karen Hughes) to remove the phrase “this is not just an act of terrorism.  This is an act of war,” from the Oval Office address he gave that evening.  He wanted that speech to be reassuring, to be tough, and to show resolve, not to add to the country’s angst.  A speech that he gave to the UN the next year went through 24 drafts (and they displayed the wrong one on the teleprompter).

Bush at War gives in sight into its eponym’s leadership philosophy and style.  “I do not need to explain why I say things.  That’s the interesting thing about being the president.  Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”  Elsewhere, Bush says

First of all, a president has got to be the calcium in the backbone.  If I weaken, the whole team weakens.  If I’m doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt.  If my confidence level in our ability declines, it will send ripples throughout the whole organization.  I mean, it’s essential that we be confident and determined and united.

Woodward reports that, in interviews, Bush made frequent reference to his “instincts” or “instinctive” reaction, saying “I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player.”  The author said that “[Bush’s] instincts are almost his second religion.”  These themes are demonstrated in much of what Bush does and says as recorded in the book.

Once the war gets going the book becomes much more interesting and faster-paced.  The president et al quickly realized that the War on Terror would be a different sort of war, and scrambled to adjust to fighting a guerrila organization in Afghanistan and a terror network around the globe.  During the 1991 Gulf War the military already had Operations Plan 90-1002 that they could dust off and follow.  But there was no plan in place for the situation in Afghanistan.  Much diplomatic wrangling with Pakistan and other countries for overflight and basing rights also had to take place.  The need for bases for search and rescue teams held up the air war, due to unwillingness to risk pilots being captured by the Taliban.

Several anecdotes are interesting, including an offer they made to an Afghan tribal leader that he couldn’t refuse:

$50,000 was offered to a commander to defect. Let me think about it, the commander said. So the Special Forces A-team directed a J-DAM precision bomg right outside the commander’s headquarters.  The next day they called the commander back.  How about $40,000? He accepted. (299)

Then there is the account of how Dick and Lynne Cheney spent Halloween at an undisclosed location with their three grandchildren, ages 2, 3, and 7.  The kids dressed up and went trick-or-treating in the bunker, knocking on the office doors of the staffers who were hiding out with them.  And who knew that Dick Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, could bench 330 lbs. six times (Bush was only benching 205 lbs.).

The most colorful figure in the book is Cofer Black, the Director of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center, who, as Woodward says, “had a penchant for dramatizing.”  He emphasized in early briefings that military action would be bloody, for both American and al Qaeda. “When we’re through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs.”  (Other staffers subsequently referred to him as “the flies on the eyeballs guy.”)  Later, in reference to al Qaeda, he said that “we’re going to kill them. We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” (103) But he didn’t want all of their heads put on sticks; he told a CIA team “You have one mission. Go find the al Qaeda and kill them.  We’re going to eliminate them.  Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box.”  Once said box was occupied by bin Laden’s head, he wanted “to take it down and show the president.” (141)

The information about Iraq—the invasion of which Paul Wolfowitz starting pushing on September 12th—is interesting, albeit incomplete, the book having been published before the invasion was launched.  Cheney also pushed for toppling Saddam, which Powell opposed.  Watching those dynamics play out in the epilog was informative, but much more research is needed on the lead up to the Iraq war—which hadn’t been launched as of press time—and historians will have their hands full with those events for decades as more information becomes available about what went right and wrong.

The book is okay, but is probably already dated as more scholarly books come out.  And if you want analysis of the Afghanistan war, check out Imperial Hubris by Anonymous (a.k.a. Michael Scheuer).  And if you want more details on the September 11th attacks themselves, see the 9/11 Commission Report (published July 2004).  Still, Bush at War holds some interest for it’s view of the administration’s decision-making process after the attacks and during the war in Afghanistan.