Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

“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.

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“The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 2” reviewed

9 February 2009

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. 360 pp.

This is the second of five volumes in the Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick series, which, as a whole, contains virtually all of his short writings.  This book contains 27 short stories, all of which were originally published between October 1952 and May 1954 with one exception: the title story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, which appeared in 1965.

“Wholesale” is certainly the best known story from this collection, largely since it inspired the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall. Plus, it is a really good story, albeit one considerably different from the movie that it inspired.  A small difference is the name of the main character: in the story he is Douglas Quail, not Douglas Quaid, as in the movie.  A large difference is that Quail never gets his ass to Mars, as does Quaid in the film.  Any fan of the movie should greatly appreciate the short story and will enjoy the many direct similarities, such as the quirky robot cabbie  and that most of the characters, like the director of Rekall, Quail’s wife, Kristen, and the Rekall secretary, are all straight out of the short story.

Speaking of the secretary, in an early draft of the movie’s screenplay that I read about a decade ago while home sick from school, she was either topless or wore a transparent top (I forget which).  I was surprised to see that this was faithfully adapted from “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” in which the secretary is “bare from the waist up” with her breasts spray-painted blue (42).  Later, “her melon-shaped breasts” are painted “an incandescent orange” and are “bobbing with agitation” (50).  I mention this, of course, simply to warn readers who may be offended or bothered by such descriptions; two or three others appear in this volume—including a mention of a “slim blonde [wearing a sideglance robe [which is] invisible out of the corner of the eye, but an opaque fountain when looked at directly” (192), which would perhaps alter people’s behavior at parties in interesting ways.  Again, these details are mentioned simply to produce a complete review of the work.

“Wholesale” is definitely the best story in the volume, which is why they subtitled the collection after it and they put “the story that inspired the hit motion picture TOTAL RECALL” on the cover.  (They further play off the movie’s popularity by making the guy on the cover look a lot like Schwarzenegger, whereas Quail in the story isn’t described as being very muscular.)

Many of the other stories are also quite worthwhile, such as “Jon’s World”, which takes place in the same fictional universe as “Second Variety”, a rare repeat setting in the Dickian ouerve.  The story involves a pair of men going back in time to try to alter history, which included a devastating war in which man-made machines ended up taking over and almost killing off humanity.  They end up meeting the scientist who invented the machine AI, which may remind other readers, as it did me, of Terminator 2 where the heroes meet up with Miles Dyson, inventer of the terminator’s AI chip.  “The Hood Maker” is another of the book’s best stories; it reminds me of both Dick’s story”Minority Report” (which is in Volume 1 of the series) and “The Mule” by Isaac Asimov, and, as most of Dick’s stories seem to, involves a main character who is always on the verge of being arrested.

Speaking of things that happen frequently in Dick’s stories, I hope you enjoy stories with a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting; if not, avoid, inter alia, “A Surface Raid” and “Breakfast At Twilight.”  Others take place during a wartime, such as “Some Kinds of Life”, which is a pointed critique of rampant consumerism for those with ears to hear, and “Imposter,” which is the second best story in the collection on account of its skillful use of misdirection.

Philip K. Dick (1928–1982)

Philip K. Dick (1928–1982)

Unfortunately, many of the stories have predictable twists at their conclusions.   For instance,  in “The Cosmic Poachers”, it was immediately apparent to me that what the humans thought were jewels being hoarded by the arachnid-like aliens were actually the aliens’ eggs (the story isn’t that good; this isn’t ruining anything for you).  As short fiction is really about the concept, as opposed to character development or setting, these stories aren’t as good as they would be if the endings weren’t so predictable.  A good conclusion or plot twist is one that (1) the reader didn’t see coming but (2) seems totally inevitable in retrospect.  Dick often fails at concealing his twists, but perhaps this is just due to my familiarity with his work and the conventions of the genre.

Another problem with many of Dick’s stories is the way the characters act; they rarely plan things out like they would in real life—even when they’re taking part in a massive government-led mission to travel through time or explore a distant star system—and they made odd decisions off the cuff even when the problems faced should have been easily foreseen and planned for.

Characters also act quite oddly, given their motivations.  The best examples of this occur in the story “A Present For Pat” in which Eric Blake comes back from Ganymede with what appears to be an alien idol but is actually the god itself (this is explained in a science fiction, not supernatural way).  His wife and friend act recklessly around it, even after the thing proves its great power, and are turned into stone and into a frog, respectively. Blake’s response?  He complains to the god: “This is the thanks I get for taking you off Ganymede.  Ruin my household and my social life.  Fine god you are!”  And later, he asks a robot cab driver, “What would you do if your wife had turned to stone, your best friend were a toad, and you had lost your job?”  Equally oddly, Blake’s boss accepts that this frog is his employee after just a few minutes—and no proof—and wants to rig up some equipment so it can keep working by spelling out words to communicate with them!  When the god asks if Blake wants him to restore his wife and friend his response is “Gosh, I sure would appreciate it!”  Despite all this, it’s a decent story—just don’t take it too seriously.

Note that several of the stories in the collection are fantasy, and not science fiction.  This includes stories where a man is killed by a cuckoo clock and another where a woman is killed by an elderly apple tree.  I am not a particular fan of such fantasy stories; they never seem to have any rules that guide what can happen.

Readers will also probably note many influences from the 1950s era they were written, such as the idea of apocalyptic war between super powers and the role of the good, June Cleaver-type housewife who lives just to wait for her husband to come home from the office to cook him dinner.  This collection is definitely pre-women’s lib and includes only one or two female characters of any strength or real interest.  Just recall that not too many women wrote for or read science fiction magazines circa 1953, which perhaps explains the mention of “full, rounded breasts” (141) and bare breasts that glow via some unspecified technology (96).

Being an author involves wearing two hats: being a good writer and being a good storyteller.  Dick is not a good writer—all of his characters speak in basically the same voice, among his other enumerated deficiencies—but he is often a good storyteller.  However, while the payoff for many of these stories is high, the setup for them is frequently awkward and gives too much away; if he were better at misdirection almost all of these tales would rank considerably higher in my estimation.  Almost all of them need more editing work; it’s a shame that Dick was always so close to financial insolvency and had to keep churning out work as quickly as possible just to stay ahead.

If you have something of a libertarian bent and you can overlook the lack of literary polish, you’ll probably like Dick. If you like the surreal and don’t mind paranoid stories where characters are often unsure if they themselves are even real, or if the world is real, then by all means check out Dick. If you don’t mind critiques of mob violence, government sponsored violence, and of people who are controlled by propaganda and materialism, this is a book you’ll like. I do recommend the collection, and am looking forward to volumes 3, 4, and 5.  Kudos to my friend who got me interested in Dick’s corpus.