Isaac Asimov: Pebble in the Sky
For starters, apropos of nothing, the picture to the left does not show the cover of the 1986 Grafton reprint of Asimov’s first novel length publication that I own, but it does share with it a depiction of a city in a bubble on a rocky asteroid. Neither illustration bears any relation to the story.
I must admit that I wasn’t expecting a great deal from Pebble in the Sky, and it does indeed start somewhat strangely. The ‘between two steps’ conceit doesn’t really add anything to the book other than an easy way in to the novel for the author, and the bubbly, fizzy, funny coloured science experiment that shoots Schwartz forward in time is a little hokey, but the mechanics of setting up Asimov’s situation can safely be discarded as an irritating necessity.
The concept is a wonderful one, set in the far future on an Earth that has become a member of a vast Galactic Empire, but whose ecosystem is hopelessly contaminated by the fallout from a nuclear war. Because of this its residents are shunned and regarded as unhealthy mutants by the rest of the Galaxy. Asimov’s vision for this novel is vast, and the four protagonists play out their adventure against a truly immense backdrop, although the short novel does not suffer for this as Asimov drops in just enough detail and character for the rest of the empire, such as a short description of life on Trantor, the ruling planet of the Empire, and a discussion of why people from Sirius are such bigots, that one feels that the background is all there and is fully fleshed out, but we are only being given the snippets of it that we need.
The book is wonderfully assured for a first novel, and Asimov shows off a mature and well rounded authorial style. His characters are engaging, from the representative of the Galactic Empire who is the putative ruler of Earth, to the ageing cripple who is angry because he can no longer work, all ring true. My only criticism of this aspect is the females. The Planetary governers wife is a bauble for a powerful man, the farmers’ wifes’ role is to worry, and even Pola Shekt is rather one dimensional in her portrayal as love-interest and help-meet to her father. She does occasionally offer up an interesting point of view that is more rational than the ones offered by the men, but usually then blows her moment by bursting into tears at its conclusion.
The story is engaging and well paced, with an ending that takes its leisurely time and does not feel rushed, instead it keeps one hanging just on the edge of resolution for a pleasantly long time. Again, I have only one criticism here, and that would be that Asimov briefly flashes forward more than once to assure the reader that this or that character survives and that they succeed in their mission, very effectively undercutting the tension. A shame really, because apart from this tendency towards self-mutilation and the masculine bias, this book is an amazing debut showing not just a good enough grasp of science to come up with some fascinating ideas and base a complex story around them, but also a genuine gift for storytelling.