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Isaac Asimov’s First Actual Novel: 1950’s Pebble in the Sky

Thursday, May 21st, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov; First Edition: Doubleday 1950.
Cover by Richard Powers (click to enlarge)

Pebble in the Sky
by Isaac Asimov
Doubleday (223 pages, $2.50 in hardcover, 1950)

Isaac Asimov’s most famous works are likely the Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot, but these are story cycles, not novels. Concurrently with the publication of those books, Asimov published his first three actual novels: Pebble in the Sky; The Stars, Like Dust; and The Currents of Space, from Doubleday in 1950, 1951, and 1952. They share a common future history background (presaged by earlier short fiction like “Black Friar of the Flame” and “Mother Earth”), in which humanity has colonized many planets across the galaxy, while Earth, for reasons of apparently having suffered a nuclear war, is a backwater, despised by the outer worlds. Yet the books vary in the degree to which they are science fiction, and not merely space opera (that is, melodramas with good guys and bad guys fighting for dominance) or historical incidents translated into future settings. Asimov was a sophisticated writer, and all three of these early novels offer complex mysteries in which problems must be solved and villains identified. But in terms of their speculative content, they vary: the middle book, The Stars, Like Dust, is the weakest; the third, The Currents of Space, the strongest; and this first, Pebble in the Sky, somewhere in between.

Gist

A contemporary Chicago man is transported 50,000 years to a future radiation-ravaged Earth, in a galaxy where thousands of other (human-settled) planets look down on Earth as disease-ridden. An archaeologist, whose controversial thesis is that Earth is the source of all humanity, comes to Earth, just as forces on Earth prepare a wide attack on the rest of the galaxy to reassert its dominance. The Chicago man gains the ability to use a “Mind Touch” to read others’ minds, and with this skill helps head off the launch of that attack.

Take

This is as complex a story as Asimov had written to then, full of scene and incident and characters working at cross-purposes, and also full of coincidences and contrivances of plot, and zealots who think such coincidences are evidence of conspiracies. There are some SF ideas here — the idea that humanity has forgotten its origins on Earth, the Rule of Sixty, the Mind Touch — but the plot is driven by circumstance without much science-fictional payoff.

Summary and Comments

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Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov. Orb, 2010.
Cover by Digital Vision/Getty Images (click to enlarge)

Page references are to the most recently available edition, the Tor/Orb trade paperback edition, published in May 2010, shown here.

The most memorable scene from all three books is the opening one of this.

  • Chapter One opens as Joseph Schwartz, a retired tailor, is walking down the street in contemporary [1950 or so] Chicago, thinking of a poem by Robert Browning, reciting its lines to himself — “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, / The last of life, for which the first was made…” — when he steps over a doll on the sidewalk and finds himself transported to what he discovers is a far future Earth.
  • Because, an experiment at the nearby Institute for Nuclear Research with crude uranium has created a beam that creates a hole in the wall to the outside… a hole gradually widening the farther away… and which must have intercepted Schwartz walking down the street.

The scene shifts to far-future Earth.

  • Joseph Schwartz comes down in a grassy field. There are no houses in sight. The doll is sliced neatly through. He wonders if he has amnesia. He finds a road, walks along it until he sees a house, and pounds on the door. A woman answers, speaking in an unknown language.
  • In Chapter Two, the POV switches to that of Loa Maren, her husband Arbin, and her father Grew, who live in the house. Grew is preoccupied with news in the paper about an Imperial archaeologist from Sirius coming to Earth’s “freak culture”.
    • The situation, we gather, is that Grew is 62, living in a wheelchair, is in violation of this culture’s “Rule of the Sixty,” whereby people voluntarily go to their deaths at age 60 to keep the population down… because this future Earth is heavily radioactive in many areas and only capable of supporting a few million people worldwide. Special people like valuable scientists are sometimes allowed exemption.
  • Then a man pounds at the door and they let him in; this is Joseph Schwartz. He doesn’t speak and has no papers. Is he an Outsider? A spy to discover Grew? Or simply mentally deficient? Grew suggests they take him to Chica (clearly a corrupted of Chicago), where the Institute for Nuclear Research (but this name hasn’t changed in 50,000 years!) needs volunteers to test a special device to make learning easier.

The scene in Chapter 3 shifts to that archaeologist visiting Earth.

  • Bel Arvardan is an archaeologist who promotes a radical thesis: that, despite common belief that people arose on various planets across the galaxy simultaneous and then intermarried, in fact humans arose on a single planet and then spread outward. The Merge theory vs the Radiation theory. Now he’s coming to Earth to search for evidence for this idea, though the problem is the radioactive areas of Earth are sealed off by custom and risk of blasphemy.
    • Some background about Arvardan, page 33: “For instance, he had written a monograph on the mechanistic civilization of the Rigel Sector, where the development or robots created a separate culture that persisted for centuries…” Asimov famously kept separated his robot universe and his Foundation universe (in which there were no aliens, or robots), until he resumed heavy-duty science fiction novel writing in the 1980s, when he cleverly managed to merge them.
  • It’s the year of the Galactic Era 827. The Procurator of Earth [the galactic emperor’s representative] lives in a lavish estate on a plateau near Everest, sealed off with artificial weather and landscapes. This is Lord Ennius, who doesn’t think much of this rathole world. Arvardan has arrived and explains his thesis. There’s a long infodump about proteins and radioactivity, pp38-9, suggesting that life must have emerged on Earth before the radiation. The idea reminds Ennius of another scientist, Shekt… and of the Book of the Ancients, the text of a radical sect of Earthmen who believe the same thing. Shekt is working on something called a Synapsifier, which Arvardan has read about. Has he tried it on humans? Apparently not. Intrigued, Ennius flies to Chica to consult with Shekt…just as Schwartz is dropped off as a volunteer. (Coincidence!)
  • Arbin has come to the institute to drop off Schwartz, without leaving his own name. Shekt has been talking with Ennius, talking about attitudes of Earthmen to Outsiders, who think Earthmen are feeble and disease-ridden. To the rest of the galaxy, earth is just a “pebble in the sky” page 50.6. Shekt explains how his device is supposed to work. Ennius floats the idea of gaining advantage if the Synapsifier were made available to the empire. His daughter, Pola, announces that a volunteer has arrived.
  • Arbin tells a phony story of why he is bringing this volunteer. Schwartz is brought in and cleaned up — he has a beard! — and submitted to the machine. And lives! (We get some background about how Shekt has been watched over by the Brotherhood, the Society of Ancients, who prevent him from publishing his successes. And how Earth has rebelled three times in the past.) Schwartz wakes and gradually recovers… and learns to speak the local language, a bit. And on the sixth day his door is left ajar — and he escapes.

Chapter 6 switches to the Procurator of Earth’s palace.

  • The sky from the Procurator’s palace (high in the mountains near Everest) is described — with a mention of Trantor, page 72.2 (signaling that Asimov intended this novel, at least, to be consistent with the Foundation stories, written earlier). Ennius talks with his wife Flora, about the locals who might rebel, and Arvardan’s idea and plan to enter the radioactive areas, and his worry that if Earthman do rebel, they’d win.
    • Descriptions here of the doctrine and faith of the Society of Ancients:
    • Page 73 middle: “Do you know that it is the doctrine of the Society of Ancients that Earth was at one time the sole home of Humanity, that it is the appointed center of the race, the true representation of Man?”
    • Page 73 bottom: “They are but poor creatures, these men of Earth. What should they have, if not their Faith? They are certainly robbed of everything else — of a decent world, of a decent life. They are even robbed of the dignity of acceptance on a basis of equality by the rest of the Galaxy. So they retire to their dreams. Can you blame them?”

In Chapter 7 the archaeologist takes a trip.

  • Arvardan, unescorted, travels to Washenn (clearly a corruption of Washington), on a plane full of Earthmen, very conscious of overcoming his prejudice against them. He hears passengers chatter about the Sixty, and shocks them by cautiously asking it — “I take it they’re referring to euthanasia. I mean, you’re put out of the way when you reach your sixtieth birthday, aren’t you?” — and then reveals he’s from Sirius, to excuse his gaucherie. One man doesn’t mind, and approaches him; this is Creen (who smokes a long cigarette), but Arvardan is impatient with him. Upon landing, Creen, a spy for the Brotherhood, goes to report.

Meanwhile, back in Chica, in Chapters 8 and 9, Joseph Schwartz has escaped.

  • Shekt and his daughter Pola discover Schwartz missing. Schwartz wanders the street, entering a Foodomat, but is confused how to order; two cabbies think he’s a bum and help him out. Just then Arvardan comes along (coincidence!), sees Pola, and offers to help — they spot Schwartz, entering a store, but panic ensues with rumors of Radiation Fever and the store is evacuated. The three stay together, and are approached by another man…
  • Lt. Claudy of the Chica garrison, an imperial police official, gets notice about possible Radiation Fever and has the building surrounded. He’s contemptuous of the local Earthies. The three can’t escape the building legally since Schwartz has no papers. Arvardan resents Claudy’s attitude and resists, breaking Claudy’s arm, before he is neuronic whipped. They are taken to the garrison, and released. A running subtext is that Pola thinks Arvardan is contemptuous of her… but both are attracted to one another. She manages to get his local address.

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Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov. Bantam Pathfinder, 5th printing of October 1964 edition.
Cover uncredited (click to enlarge)

In Chapter 10 we meet the High Minister and his Secretary

  • The High Minister confers with his Secretary Balkis; the HM has the semblance of power, but Balkis the reality of power — he pulls all the strings. Balkis reveals what he has learned about Arvardan, about the strange outsider, about Shekt and his device, and doesn’t believe they can all be coincidences — it must be evidence of a conspiracy. Their agent Natter ran a fruit stand across the street from Shekt’s Institute, and he stepped in at the right time to rescue Schwartz from the department store.

In Chapters 11 and 12 Schwartz is again on his own…

  • Schwartz has returned to the household who found him. He mulls. Within a few days he learns to speak well, and then read. He learns about the forbidden (radioactive) zones. And then he experiences something he calls a “Mind Touch” — an awareness of another’s proximity, of what they are thinking, presumably an effect of the Synapsifier. He’s even aware of someone in the woods he can’t see. He gets smarter, plays chess with Grew, and asks questions about what year this is… Grew is impatient. But asks about the Sixty. Schwarz lies, saying he is 55. But he is really 62.
  • Worried he’s in danger, Schwartz leaves—he just walks down the highway toward the city. The person in the woods — Natter — approaches, and when Schwartz feels threatened, he realizes he can kill Natter with his mind. And does.
  • He walks to Chica, looks for a job in a mill, but flees when he can’t answer questions. He’s cornered and hit by a neuro-whip.

Chapter 13, what does the High Minister think about this?

  • The High Minister fumes about Schwartz’s escape from the Institute — but the secretary wonders why he was caught so easily. (More conspiracy thinking.)
  • Arvardan visits, discussing his theories about Earth, the Merger and Radiation theories, and why he wants to visit the radiation zones. He’d also like to see Shekt… and his daughter. The narrative foreshadows some terrible attack, in days, 161 top: “Days! And then the most incredibly one-sided battle in the history of the Galaxy would be joined and Earth would attack all the Galaxy.”

Chapters 14 and 15, back to that Institute scientist Shekt:

  • Shekt worries that he knows too much and won’t be granted pardon from the Sixty — he knows something terrible: page 164 middle “I know too much, Pola, and they don’t trust me.” And p167 top: “Undoubtedly, if he had had one single thing to do that evening other than what the scrawl suggested, that would have been the end of it, and, perhaps, of several trillions of people. But, as it turned out, he had nothing to do.”
  • The archaeologist Arvardan comes to visit, but Shekt rather rudely turns him away — but passes him a note. The note instructs Arvardan to attend a play at 8pm. At the playhouse he’s met by Pola, who drives him to their home; inside is Shekt, who reveals the plan, how Earth thinks it can conquer the rest of the galaxy — all life. (Meanwhile, Arvardan and Pola have been admitting they like each other and, despite him being Sirian, are in love.)
  • Shekt and Arvardan talk, about how Earth hates the Galactic citizens and vice versa…
    • Page 176 bottom: “Give us but a chance, and a new generation of Earthmen would grow to maturity, lacking insularity and believing wholeheartedly in the oneness of Man. The Assimilationists, with their tolerance and belief in wholesome compromise, have more than once been a power on Earth. I am one. Or, at least, I was one once. But the Zealots rule all Earth now. They are the extreme nationalists, with their dreams of past rule and future rule. It is against them that the Empire must be protected.”
  • Shekt’s success with the Synapsifiser has been suppressed by the extremists, the Zealots. He explains about mutated genes, the effects of Earth’s radiation, and what Radiation Fever is. And how a virus has been developed, that Earthmen are immune to, but which will quickly wipe out any other planet. But security shows up and arrests them.

Chapters 16 and 17 and 18: Schwartz in jail.

  • Schwartz, in jail, can probe minds, and knows he is condemned to die. He is put on a table in a room next to three other prisoners — Shekt, daughter Pola, and Arvardan. They discuss the situation and whose side everyone is on. Pola will side with Arvardan — they’re in love.
  • Schwartz explains who he really is — a man from the ancient past — and Arvardan questions him, and realizes he’s speaking a 50,000 year old language. Arvardan has proof of his thesis! But no one will believe him; “They don’t want the truth; they want their traditions.” Schwartz sides with Earth.
  • Arvardan pleads with him, and Schwartz senses his latent bigotry, how he grew up. Arvardan persuades him not to support the Earth plan. JS senses the High Minister’s secretary’s, Balkis’, mind and perceives how missiles will soon launch the virus to other worlds.
  • Balkis comes in and announces that war has been declared. Thinking these prisoners part of a conspiracy by the Empire, he demands to know what the Empire already knows. And threatens them with various kinds of death.
  • Using his “Mind Touch” power, Schwartz engages Balkis’ mind and they duel — JS paralyzes Balkis, enabling Shekt to get his blaster. JS controls Balkis’ body so they can walk out and escape in his car.

Chapters 19 to 21: Finale at Ford Dibburn

  • At Fort Dibburn, where missiles containing that virus are to be launched outward into the galaxy, their car arrives, and as an imperial, Arvardan demands to see the commanding office. The officer he meets is Lt Claudy — the one he tangled with at the department store, breaking his arm. Arvardan demands to see the Procurator to explain the nature of the Earthman’s threat.
  • Procurator Ennis is summoned, and after hours, arrives. Arvardan and JS make their case, but Ennis is unconvinced. (At some point they learn that the missiles are to launch by 6am the next morning.) Ennis wonders who Schwartz really is; perhaps he manipulated them into believing this conspiracy? Arvardan is enraged by his inaction and strikes — and is whipped again.
  • Arvardan wakes hours later, after the deadline. Ennius didn’t act. But we learn, indirectly, that off stage, Schwartz had himself taken out of the room, found Claudy, and manipulated him to flying over the missile base and bombing it. And so Earth’s strike against the galaxy is foiled.

Chapter 22, Epilogue

  • Three days later, the book ends on a happy note as Schwartz has been invited to travel with Arvardan, and Pola, to see Trantor, and then tour the galaxy.

Conclusion

The novel is complicated and compelling, but is it science fiction? Or just a translation into a future setting of the history of Judea and the Romans? (Per Wikipedia.) This novel, and the one following, are almost entirely circumstantial. They’re clever in the way Asimov sets up the characters and has them interact in various coincidental ways. There are a couple interesting ideas here: the question, as in one of the first Foundation stories, of whether Earth is really the original home of all humans. (But how could this be forgotten? When the name of the Institute in Chica hasn’t changed in thousands of years?) And how it is that Earth came to be so reviled by the rest of the galaxy. The Synapsifier, on the other hand, is merely a convenient gizmo to solve the language problem and enable our ordinary man hero Joseph Schwartz to save the day. There’s no problem to the novel that’s solved in a truly science fictional way.

It’s amusing in this book how the plot is driven by no fewer than four arbitrarily aligned events: Schwartz arriving from the past; Shekt perfecting his Synapsifier machine; the archaeologist arriving from Sirius; and Earth about to launch its attack. At the same time, Asimov almost seems to mock his own coincidence plotting by having the bad guy, the High Minister’s Secretary, disbelieve that these events could all be coincidence and therefore it must be a conspiracy! This type of thinking — especially among nationalistic zealots — never seems to go away.


Mark R. Kelly’s last review for us was Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud. Mark wrote short fiction reviews for Locus Magazine from 1987 to 2001, and is the founder of the Locus Online website, for which he won a Hugo Award in 2002. He established the Science Fiction Awards Database at sfadb.com. He is a retired aerospace software engineer who lived for decades in Southern California before moving to the Bay Area in 2015. Find more of his thoughts at Views from Crestmont Drive.

5 Comments »

  1. Wow, love that 1964 cover!

    I agree with your placement of the three novels as far as weakest to strongest. That said, I do actually enjoy all three.

    The Stars, Like Dust was a book that haunted me for years because I remembered this specific book cover (the Paul Lehr cover, I know now) that was on my uncle’s bookshelf when I would borrow his SF books as a child, but couldn’t remember the author or book title…just that I wanted to find that book cover and read that book.

    Years later I was telling friends that story while we shopped in a very cool used bookstore on a trip to Chicago and while I was telling the story I pulled a book off the shelf and lo and behold, there was the Lehr cover for The Stars, Like Dust. I was so blown away by the serendipity of it all.

    One of the many books I have in my reading rotation right now is The Currents of Space. It is one of my favorite Asimov novels.

    Comment by Carl V Anderson - May 21, 2020 4:37 pm

  2. I usually like your reviews, but can’t agree this time.

    As a very long time reader of both SF and Asimov, I can’t agree with your definitions of science fiction vs. space opera (they’re the same thing!) nor your idea that science fiction is just a retelling, with a future setting of old stories. If that were the case, all novels and stories, including the Bible, would be just retellings, regardless of genre. Genre labels are specifically made to describe the differences which it seems you are trying to erase.

    Also, your detailed plot description offers complete spoilers for anyone who may not have read the book, which in my opinion is a no-no.

    Comment by R.K. Robinson - May 21, 2020 6:45 pm

  3. R.K. Robinson — I don’t agree that science fiction is the same as space opera; DYING INSIDE and TIMESCAPE are science fiction and in no way space opera. And I didn’t mean to say science fiction is a retelling of old stories; my point is that it should be more than that. Finally, all my “summary/reviews” are walkthroughs with commentary, that of course involves spoilers. That’s my style, in all my reviews.

    Comment by Mark R. Kelly - May 21, 2020 8:26 pm

  4. Carl V Anderson — I have that same edition of THE STARS, LIKE DUST, Fawcett Crest, June 1972, with the very purple Paul Lehr cover!

    Comment by Mark R. Kelly - May 21, 2020 8:28 pm

  5. Mark, I guess I was trying to say that science fiction is a genre, and hard sf, time travel, space opera, urban sf, etc. are sub-genres of it.

    The same way mystery is a genre, and legal mystery, cozy, hardboiled, historical, etc. are sub-genres.

    Comment by R.K. Robinson - May 22, 2020 12:24 pm


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