The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
The Currents of Space, the third entry in Isaac Asimov’s loosely linked GALACTIC EMPIRE trilogy, is a prequel of sorts to book 1, 1950’s Pebble in the Sky, and a sequel of sorts to book 2, 1951’s The Stars, Like Dust, and if you by any chance find that statement a tad confusing, trust me, that is the very least of the complexities that this book dishes out!
The Currents of Space originally appeared serially in the October – December 1952 issues of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction (it did cop the cover illustration for the 35-cent October issue) and then as a $2.75 Doubleday hardcover later that same year.
The book is set in an indeterminate time period in the galaxy’s future, but internal evidence clues us in that this book 3 is actually book 2 of the series; at least, as far as internal chronology is concerned. Book 1 had been definitively set some 50,000 years in the future, when the Trantorian Empire included roughly 200 million worlds, while book 2 had been set the furthest back in time, a mere 10,000 years in the future, when only some 1,100 worlds had been colonized by Man. And The Currents of Space? Well, the author never mentions anything about years here per se, but we do learn that the Trantorian Empire has not been fully established yet, with a mere 500,000 settled worlds under its cosmic belt, out of 1 million settled overall.
As for the story itself, it centers on two of those 1 million worlds, Sark and its neighbor (so close that it can be reached via hyperspace jump in a mere nine hours), Florina. Sark and its nobility of Squires had conquered Florina many decades earlier, and for good reason: Florina is the only world in the galaxy on which kyrt — a highly prized plant capable of being turned into lustrous fabrics, and with dozens of other uses besides — can be grown.
Asimov’s complexly plotted book details the labyrinthine scheme hatched by parties unknown to control the kyrt trade, a scheme with great galactic import, to say the least, with Sark, Florina, and the budding Trantorian Empire moving their human pieces in the game.
The reader meets “Rik” (Florinian for “moron”), a Spatio-analyst from the radioactive pesthole known as Earth, who is “psycho-probed” in the book’s opening pages, with the result that his memories are completely erased, for reasons unknown; Valona March, the Florinian farm girl who takes care of Rik; Myrlyn Terens, the Townman (read: Mayor) of Rik’s village, who attempts to help those other two when Rik’s memories begin to return; the Squire of Fife, leader of Sark’s largest continent, the greatest of the five Great Squires, and the holder of the most extensive kyrt fields on Florina; his daughter, Samia of Fife, an aspiring author who gets involved in the various intrigues; Ludigan Abel, the aged Trantorian ambassador to Sark; and Dr. Selim Junz, another Spatio-analyst, who has been searching for Rik for over a year, after first hearing the young Earthman’s broadcast from space, warning of an imminent catastrophe about to strike Florina and the galaxy as a whole.
Writing in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle calls The Currents of Space “a complex adventure with an anti-racist theme,” and wow, is he ever right about that!
As a matter of fact, this book is so very complexly plotted, with three or four parties vying against one another (the Doubleday edition features cover artwork by George Guisti depicting four hands grasping toward a planet), numerous characters with erroneous suspicions and secret agendas, spies, double agents (Trantorians posing as Sarkites, for example), chesslike political intrigue and so on, that this reader finally reached a point where he didn’t even try to guess who was plotting what against whom, and just trusted that Asimov would explain everything in the end, and tie it all together.
And fortunately, “The Great Explainer” (the nickname he earned following the writing of some 400+ nonfiction books) does indeed. Still, I found it necessary to give this book a thorough perusal after I was finished reading it, just to completely satisfy myself that it all makes perfect sense, and to analyze the characters’ actions with full knowledge of those hidden agendas.
“It’s a rather complicated story,” Abel truthfully declares at one point; “It sounds too complicated,” says one of the Great Squires in another; “This is a detective thriller,” opines still another Great Squire somewhere else. And the reader, just barely keeping up, most likely, will surely be compelled to agree with those three sentiments!
As for the “anti-racist theme” that Pringle mentions, it is surely there, with kyrt standing in for cotton, and the Florinians the slaves to their Sarkite masters. Junz, a black man from the predominantly black planet of Libair (read: Liberia), denounces the Sark/Florina political and cultural situation at several opportunities and, at one point, ponders over this most interesting tidbit:
Now why should there be a special word for a man with dark skin? There was no special word for a man with blue eyes, or large ears, or curly hair…
A pretty right-on attitude from Doc Ike, wouldn’t you say, in those intolerant and benighted days of the early ‘50s?
Then too there is the matter of the Lower City and the Upper City in Rik’s town. While the Lower City houses the poor indigenous populace, the Upper City, 30 feet overhead, features a luxurious wonderland of sorts for the Sark Squires. In other words, complete segregation, which the author castigates time and again.
As usual, Asimov adds pleasing grace notes and futuristic details to lend color to his story. Thus, we have here the “narco-field” skullcaps that can instantaneously carry the wearer off to sleep; locks and keys that are attuned to one’s fingerprints; violet-colored cigarettes that emit green smoke and flash out of existence when they are flicked away; the curious sport known as stratospheric polo; “trimensic personification,” which allows the five Great Squires to appear to be in the same room at once (holographically, I would imagine), though they are all back on their respective continents; that nasty psycho-prober, the use of which, on Rik, sets the book’s events in motion; and, of course, the galactic menace that Rik hinted at, the nature of which no reader will ever suspect.
Asimov’s book is a fast-moving one, perhaps a bit too complexly plotted for its own good, but yet, fascinatingly so, overall. Don’t believe the Squire of Rune, who at one point calls it “a moderately dull story.” The Currents of Space may be difficult to follow at times, but it is never dull. It is a challenging read, and a somewhat flawed one (for example, the Samia character just disappears from the action, and the denouement concerning Rik and Valona comes completely out of left field), but “dull” is one thing that it certainly isn’t…
I enjoyed Blackstone Audio’s 2009 edition which was narrated by Kevin T. Collins. A more recent audiobook version with a different narrator has been released by Random House Audio, but I haven’t tried it.