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To the rest of the galaxy, if they are aware of us at all, Earth is but a pebble in the sky.
It's a running theme in a great deal of Asimov's novels a refreshing view of a galaxy that does not centre around Earth and a writing-style that is not necessarily shackled to the sole portrayal of our own planet's (usually dominant) position in humankind. Though Pebble In The Sky, his first published novel, is set on Earth, it defies convention by portraying the birthplace of humankind as something of a pariah-planet amongst millions of worlds and riddled with radioactivity as a symbol of the damage caused by man.
Pretty progressive for 1950, isn't it? Smolensk-born Isaac Asimov produced a huge amount of non-fiction work in his lifetime, and only a small portion of his life's work was spent (mores the pity) on what he was arguably best-loved for his science-fiction novels. Despite the relative success of the film re-imaginings of The Bicentennial Man and I, Robot; some of the great man's earlier books are still relatively scarce...
...Which is why I was pleased to find a paperback copy of Pebble In The Sky (PITS) on eBay for only £3-4 though as a consequence of seeing little or no major reprints down the years even in the wake of Foundation series popularity (the last minor reprint coming after his death in 1993), my copy of the book is around fifty years old, and is unlikely to be available to buy new in any great numbers.
Pebble In The Sky was the first of three books that would comprise the Galactic Empire trilogy (along with The Stars Like Dust and The Currents Of Space), and is rather annoyingly sighted in Asimov's Prelude To Foundation as the last one chronologically-speaking to be read in the series. But I figured reading them in the order he wrote them wouldn't do any harm either. If you have read any of Asimov's other works you'll be on familiar ground with his début effort the same positives and negatives usually attributed to his Foundation series are largely relevant here, though Pebble In The Sky is another romantically-retro view of the future, and a fine starting point for those willing to immerse themselves in a small slice of Asimov's grand vision.
PITS is very briefly set in Chicago of 1949, where 62 year-old retired tailor Joseph Schwarz is out for a walk minding his own business, only to be thrust through time several thousands of years instantaneously due to a nuclear laboratory accident, to a time measured as 827 Galactic Era. Chicago is now known as Chica; the people speak an entirely different language; the galaxy is firmly under the grip of the all-encompassing 'Galactic Empire'; Earth, now ruled over by its own dictatorship, has become an outcast planet amongst a galaxy of Empire-supporting colonies and unknown to Schwarz, Earth 'tradition' permits that nobody is allowed to live past sixty. Tough times lie ahead.
As luck would have it, ageing scientist Dr. Shekt has been quietly perfecting a machine known as the 'Synapsifier' a risky process thought possible of increasing the brain proficiency of its subject. Meanwhile, renowned Archaeologist Bel Arvardan travels to Earth in an attempt to confirm his suspicions that the planet was the sole birthplace of the human race a theory lost in the passage of time. Through a sequence of coincidences, the individuals meet and in doing so, uncover some audacious and potentially calamitous plots that could all but wipe out the Empire.
As is par for the course with Asimov, PITS is a beautifully written story. Rather than opting for the more conventional 'actions speak louder than words' train of thought for his science-fiction, Asimov's strengths lie in his ability to create detailed dialogues and philosophical debate, in which one way or another, all sides are at some point allowed to voice their views. Somewhat understandably given PITS age, the more well-spoken manner of the characters of the future seem out of place and distinctly dated, though at the same time it is also quite charming; there's no shouting 'n' swearing or brain-on-hold gunfights, and this gives it a rather superior distinction.
The technologies represented in the story are amalgamated very smoothly into the futuristic setting and narrative Asimov introduces us to a number of unusual devices that were, for its time at least, very forward-thinking. And yet, he never dwells too long on individual details; the reader is able to picture something without it being overblown the commodities too advanced for our own society become part of the normal fabric of PITS's storyline and rarely focused on individually thus the illusion of the reader being something of an informed voyeur are retained.
Pebble In The Sky's depiction of Earth doesn't quite match the unique, visionary-vistas of the Terminus and Trantor planets the reader is treated to in Foundation, and nor does its story reach such heady, galactic-scale highs in terms of ambition. However, a definite plus-point when compared to the aforementioned saga, is that there is a greater focus on characterization.
Whilst Foundation was like a collage of historically-relevant scenes with less emphasis placed on the figures within them; PITS sees a single, focused storyline from the perspective or four or five main protagonists, with each interlinking. Asimov explores inter-planetary prejudices and psychological effects on his characters surprisingly adeptly I say surprisingly as the wasn't always the case in some of his other works, but there is genuine depth to the characters, especially Bel Arvardan. A man highly respected within the planets of the Empire (he is referred to as a folk hero in Foundation's Edge) for his groundbreaking ideas and theses, Arvardan has to come to terms with being a branded an 'outsider', as well as examining his feelings for Earth-girl Pola Shekt; a pleasant character who further challenges the view that humans born on Earth were somehow inferior to those of the rest of the galaxy. Joseph Schwarz deserves a mention also as a man placed utterly out of his comfort zone in the future the unwillingly burden of his colleagues as well as his struggle to decide whether to help save Earth or the Empire (neither of which he knows much about in the forms in which he finds them), leads to an intriguing development of character perhaps more than any other in the book. These figures are all quite accomplished, especially considering Asimov became more renowned for his events than the characters that shaped them.
Many of Asimov's fictional works of the 1950s were more cerebrally-challenging than action-orientated and here is no exception. Despite this, it's still a very fluid book to read and builds a noticeable sense of urgency and atmosphere prior to the final scenes, although the ending perhaps needed fleshing out just a touch. Very rarely do you get the impression that the dialogue really slows things down all that much, and at 223 pages, it is just about the right length.
All-in-all, Pebble In The Sky is another great, eloquently-crafted science-fiction novel whilst its characters and linguistics are firmly rooted in the fifties, the broader view of a galaxy colonized by humans and the sheer cleverness of Asimov's 'outcast Earth' concept means the story is equally as alluring fifty-plus years after its original conception. And in this respect, Asimov is certainly a match for H.G. Wells. Well worth a read.