Pebble In The Sky by Isaac Asimov
In a now-famous interview, sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov once revealed how he avoided getting stuck with writer’s block. The hugely prodigious author would often be working at four or five books at the same time, with five typewriters arrayed side by side, and when he would get inextricably bogged down with one book, he’d simply move to the neighboring typewriter, and recommence work on that one! Thus, one can almost understand how it was possible for Asimov — who claimed, in his later years, to do nothing but write, eat, sleep, and talk to his wife — to rack up the almost superhuman tally of just over 500 books written before his death in 1992, in every subject category of the Dewey Decimal System (does anybody here even remember the Dewey Decimal System, or am I just aging myself uselessly?) except, I believe, philosophy.
Yes, over 500 books, 38 of them sci-fi novels, not to mention 213 (by my count) short stories, and around 1,600 essays! (I urge you to go to the author’s official website at asimovonline.com to check for yourself!) But every great novelist’s career must begin somewhere, and for Doc Ike, that beginning was his very first sci-fi novel, Pebble in the Sky, which was initially released in 1950, when Isaac was 30 years old. Asimov had already come out with 37 short stories at that point since his very first, “Marooned Off Vesta,” had appeared in the 3/39 issue of Amazing Stories … including several that would soon be collected to form his FOUNDATION trilogy. But Pebble In The Sky was his first genuine book. I had not had the pleasure of reading this one in almost 30 years, but a recent perusal has served to remind me of what a terrific, exciting and genuinely fun first novel this is.
In the book, the reader encounters a 62-year-old, retired ex-tailor, Joseph Schwartz, who is walking down the street in modern-day (i.e., 1949) Chicago when he is hit by an energy beam of some sort and instantaneously whisked far into the future. (Internal evidence would seem to suggest that Schwartz winds up at least some 50,000 years hence, in the year G.E. 827.) In this age, Earth is a largely radioactive pariah planet; the lowliest member of a Galactic Empire that comprises some 200 million worlds! Schwartz is taken in by a farming family and later brought to the local government laboratory, where volunteers are needed to test a new device, the Synapsifier. Schwartz is treated by the gizmo’s inventor, Dr. Affret Shekt, with the result that Schwartz’ mental abilities are greatly enhanced, to the point where he can read minds, control the movements of others, and even slay a human being using his mind alone!
But what Schwartz is unaware of is that Earth’s Society of Ancients, fed up with centuries of second-class Galactic status, is fomenting a revolution against the Empire, and has acquired a weapon that might just enable them to lay waste to 200 million other worlds. And through a series of wild coincidences and unlikely misreadings, the Ancients soon come to believe that Schwartz, as well as visiting Sirian archeologist Bel Arvardan, not to mention Shekt and his young daughter Pola, are all Galactic spies out to stop them. Arvardan, who has really come to Earth to prove his pet theory that this lowly planet is the actual cradle of mankind, falls in love with Pola at their first chance meeting. But can this love-struck pair (Asimov describes their first kiss as “limitless seas of sweetness”!), her aged physicist father, and the befuddled Schwartz, even with his newly acquired powers of rapid learning and mind control, avail against the massed might of the Ancients and their superweapon?
At one point toward the end of this complexly plotted narrative, an Earth colonel, apprised of recent events by Arvardan, replies “A very confusing story, all this,” and indeed, one of the principal virtues of Pebble in the Sky is its complicated story line. The capsule description that I have just offered here does not even begin to suggest the many twists and turns, the labyrinthine machinations, that the book dishes out. Fortunately for the reader, we have Isaac Asimov at the controls, an author who would later admit that clarity in writing — as opposed to such authorial tools as elegant purple prose, experiments in technique, symbolism and suchlike — was the ability he most hoped to achieve. Thus, even in his first novel, Asimov maintains a firm grasp on the book’s constantly shifting developments.
Schwartz, obviously a Jewish character close to the author’s Jewish heart, is a hugely sympathetic fellow for the reader to identify with, as is Arvardan, a Galactic citizen who is liberal enough to accept the low-grade Earthfolk as equals, and even fall in love with an Earthwoman. At times, the people of Earth almost seem like stand-ins for the blacks and other minorities of Earth’s mid-20th century. Thus, we have a despicable Galactic lieutenant telling Arvardan “…what I can’t understand is the working of the mind of an Earthie-lover. When a man … can get so low in filth as to crawl in among them and go nosing after their womenfolk, I have no respect for him. He’s worse than they are … You’ve got a black Earthman’s heart…” By the same token, it is clear that the relationship between the Jews here (Schwartz, the Shekts) and the Galactic Empire is meant to suggest a tip of the hat to the Jews and the Roman Empire back in Earth’s ancient times, and if that analogy isn’t apparent enough, Asimov tells us that the title of the Empire’s resident chief representative in the radiation-free Himalayas is … Procurator!
Interestingly, in Asimov’s first book, it is the rulers of Earth who are the bad guys (indeed, the Secretary of Earth’s High Minister is a villain in the hissable classic mold), while a pudgy, 20th century tailor — two years over the limit for mandatory euthanasia — and a scholarly Galactic citizen are our heroes. The Ancients completely and repeatedly misconstrue Schwartz’ presence and all subsequent actions, in a series of events that might be comic, if they were not so dire for the galaxy at large.
Pebble In The Sky enjoys a very solid reputation today, almost 70 years since its release. Writing in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle calls it “good fun,” although he has elsewhere admitted to having little enthusiasm for the author. Sci-fi writer L. Sprague de Camp, however, has said that the “suspense is almost unbearable” in Pebble In The Sky, and indeed, the ticking-clock finale in the book really is kind of harrowing. Personally, I found the novel to be absolutely unputdownable, and tore through this one over the course of three very pleasant evenings.
All of which is not to say, of course, that Pebble is a perfect creation. Its story line is a little too dependent on multiple coincidences to move things along, and the reason why Schwartz is zapped into the future is never satisfactorily explained … at least, for this reader. Indeed, the lab accident in the 20th century physics lab — something to do with a flask of crude uranium — that seems to precipitate Schwartz (walking in the city many miles away) 50,000 years into the future is of so vague a nature that Asimov can only tell us “nuclear physics had queer and dangerous crannies left in it.” Almost as unconvincing is this business of the Earthfolk of G.E. 827 being able to live in the radioactive pesthole that Earth has become with few ill effects by dint of a heightened immunity. As a matter of fact, in his introduction to Pebble In The Sky’s 1982 edition, Asimov would admit that he had indeed underestimated the potential lethal nature of radiation when he had written his novel 33 years earlier.
But these are quibbles. The bottom line is that Pebble in the Sky is a most impressive debut novel, both exciting and highly imaginative. As it turned out, the book was just Part 1 in what would eventually become Asimov’s loosely linked GALACTIC EMPIRE trilogy. Part 2, The Stars Like Dust, was released the following year, and that book is where this reader will be heading next…
In Isaac Asimov’s very first published novel, Joseph Schwartz, a retired Jewish tailor, is instantly transported from 1949 Brooklyn to a time many thousands of years in the future, through an odd nuclear accident (scientific unlikelihood, but we’ll let it pass). He finds himself on an Earth marred by high levels of radiation, presumably from past nuclear wars, that (scientific impossibility) apparently hasn’t resulted in any physical ill effects to Earth’s population, but has resulted in Earthmen being completely ostracized from humanity’s galactic society as third-class citizens. Fan’s of Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy will recognize references to Trantor here.
And although this future Earth has a far lower population than now, The Powers That Be believe that there are not enough resources to go around, so this is an Earth where everyone over age 60 is euthanized, unless you’re a government bigwig or some such. Bad luck for Schwartz, since he’s already 62.
Schwartz ends up getting treated by a local scientist’s brain-enhancing machine (more unlikely science) and gets major powers. Meanwhile, the scientist and his (of course) beautiful daughter are caught in the middle of a deadly plot that could have galaxy-wide consequences, which draws in a handsome (of course) galactic archeologist.
Pebble in the Sky is a little rough around the edges and shows its 1940s roots, with the outdated science and social attitudes. Other than the love interest, who is occasionally awesome but too often of the hand-wringing variety, and a cameo appearance by a farmer’s wife, no women grace the pages of this book. But there are also some creative and intense parts where you see what would make Asimov such a great SF writer.
It’s kind of corny but it has its charms, if you like very old-fashioned, Golden Age science fiction and are okay with some major disbelief suspension.
My least favorite of the GALACTIC EMPIRE novels, but it’s Asimov’s first and it shows so much promise. I enjoyed Blackstone Audio’s 2009 edition which was narrated by Robert Fass. A more recent audiobook version with a different narrator has been released by Random House Audio, but I haven’t tried it.