The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov’s very first novel, Pebble in the Sky (1950), was the opening salvo in what would later be known as his GALACTIC EMPIRE trilogy, and was set some 50,000 years in Earth’s future.
It may surprise some potential readers to learn, then, that book 2 in the series, The Stars, Like Dust (the use of a comma after the word “Stars” is not present anywhere in my 1963 Lancer paperback, but Asimov’s later autobiography, I. Asimov, does present the book title with the comma, so don’t ask me!), takes place a mere 10,000 years in the future, or a good 40,000 years prior to the events in book 1! Thus, the book can be viewed as a very loose prequel of sorts, although the galactic backdrop is the only story element that the two books share.
This second novel of Asimov’s originally appeared in the January – March ’51 issues of Horace L. Gold’s Galaxy Science Fiction (a 25-cent, digest-sized periodical) with a different title, Tyrann, and was then released in book form later that same year. It is another highly readable, fast-moving space adventure from this beloved and, ultimately, superhumanly prodigious author, but one with a number of problems, as will be seen.
In the book, the Galactic Empire consists of only some 1,100 settled planets, as opposed to the 200 million colonized worlds of book 1. Some 50 years prior to book 2’s commencement, the short and stocky human colonists of the planet Tyrann had conquered 50 other worlds in the neighborhood of the Horsehead Nebula, and if there were ever any doubt as to how the author felt about those space conquerors, let’s just say that he calls their race the Tyranni.
At the beginning of The Stars, Like Dust, a 23-year-old resident of the Nebula world Nephelos, Biron Farrill, who is about to graduate from an Earth university, awakens in his dorm only to find that a radiation bomb has been planted near his bed. He survives this murder attempt and later learns that his nobleman father, the so-called Rancher of Widemos, has just been put to death for his participation in an insurrection plot against the Tyranni. Urged by a mysterious benefactor, Sander Jonti, to go to the subject world of Rhodia and speak to that planet’s Director, Hinrik V, Biron travels by starship to seek an audience there.
Hinrik, as it turns out, is something of a mentally deficient imbecile, but Farrill is soon aided by the Director’s brother, Gillbret oth Hinriad, and by Rhodia’s princess herself, the beautiful Artemisia. The three steal a Tyranni armored cruiser and set off in search of the “rebellion world” that Gillbret claims to have once visited, all the time playing cat and mouse with the Tyranni commissioner of Rhodia, the dangerously perceptive Simok Aratap.
But the discovery of that legendary rebellion world is not the only thing on Biron’s and Aratap’s minds. A mysterious ancient document containing the details of a highly powerful weapon of some sort has vanished from Earth, and the discovery of that relic is of vital concern to them both, as well…
Writing in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle calls The Stars, Like Dust “a minor Asimov space yarn,” and that does indeed seem to be the general consensus. As a matter of fact, Asimov himself would later call it the least favorite of all his 40 novels, 38 of which had been in the sci-fi realm.
This, it seems, was largely due to the number of rewrites the publisher demanded of him (Doc Ike hated doing rewrites, apparently), as well as the fact that Asimov loathed the subplot revolving around the ancient document that editor Gold compelled him to put in. To be fair, that subplot is a relatively minor thread in the story’s weave, and the revelation of its exact nature is one that very few readers will predict. That big reveal does come as something of a surprise ending, akin to the one revealing the First Speaker’s identity in the author’s classic 1953 novel Second Foundation. In both books, that surprise is reserved for the very last paragraph; do not peek ahead!
As for the rest of it, I will confess that this reader was a tad confused during the book’s first half, and that was undoubtedly deliberate on the author’s part. This is the sort of book in which most of the characters have hidden agendas (“Am I too complicated for you?” Aratap asks at one point), and few are what he/she seems at first blush. Thus, it is difficult to discern many of our main characters’ motivations. Fortunately, things begin to clarify around the book’s midpoint — “It all hangs together,” as Jonti declares around that halfway section — but Asimov still reserves many surprises for his final chapters.
In hindsight, the book is very clearly written (not for nothing was Asimov later dubbed “The Great Explainer,” after penning over 400 books of nonfiction), but purposefully ambiguous in spots. You may feel the need to read the book over again once you’re through with it, to admire how deftly the author has written both honestly and misleadingly at the same time.
Asimov, of course, was also known for his books that combined both sci-fi and mystery (I am thinking most especially of 1954’s The Caves of Steel and 1957’s The Naked Sun, as well as his two unalloyed mystery novels, 1958’s The Death Dealers and 1976’s Murder at the ABA), and The Stars, Like Dust can almost be seen as a warm-up of sorts to those. It is not just a whodunit, but also a whydunit, and the complexity of the plot here is perhaps the novel’s single greatest selling point.
Asimov also throws in many little grace-note touches to please his readers, including a long-distance communication beam attuned only to the intended receiver’s mind; the haunting image of how the radioactive Earth appears from far off in space; the monorail elevators that cover the surface of Hinrik’s palace; Gillbret’s uncanny invention, the visisonor, which creates both images and music in the wearer’s brain; and those nasty neuronic whips, which would still be in use 40,000 years later, in book 1.
Another interesting touch for this reader: the fact that the Tyranni nemesis Aratap (actually, he might be the most likeable character, strangely enough, in the entire book!) wears contact lenses. Now ubiquitous, contacts, as we know them today, only became generally available to the public in 1949, and thus were still fairly cutting edge when Asimov wrote his story.
The Stars, Like Dust, naturally, is hardly a perfect affair, with characters who are somewhat unfleshed out and a princess who is kinda lame/wishy-washy/namby-pamby.
Asimov even seems to make some slight goofs in this, his second novel. For example, at one point, he tells us that the Tyranni have conquered two dozen planets in the Horsehead Nebula; later, that figure is given as 50. He tells us that our Milky Way galaxy has a diameter of some 30,000 light-years, whereas today, we know that it is more like 100,000 to 180,000 light-years. And in one section, Artemisia quotes from an old poem that turns out to be from English poet Richard Lovelace, circa 1649. But once the reader learns the nature of that secret document at the book’s end, the likelihood of anyone being able to quote by heart a 17th century Earth poet becomes highly minute.
But these are quibbles. The Stars, Like Dust remains a hugely pleasing page-turner, despite everything. For this reader, it would appear, even minor Asimov is preferable to so much of the dross being churned out today. And now, I think it’s high time for me to be heading on to book 3, 1952’s The Currents of Space. Stay tuned…
This is, indeed, a fun SF yarn.
I guessed the nature of the secret document immediately and, like Asimov apparently (as I learned from Sandy’s review), thought it was cringingly cheesy instead of goosebumpy as the editor must have intended.
I enjoyed Blackstone Audio’s 2008 edition which was narrated by Stephen Thorne. A more recent audiobook version with a different narrator has been released by Random House Audio, but I haven’t tried it.