Some time ago, I wrote about my epic quest to read Isaac Asimov’s most notable works, as well as the first part of what I consider a three part history: the Robot Novels. This week, I would like to move along to the second part of the history, beginning thousands of years after the events of Robots and Empire and continuing for nearly twenty thousand years after that. The conflict between the Spacers and the Earthmen is long over, humanity has spread throughout the stars, and efforts are being made to convert the disorganized smatterings of human civilization into a cohesive Galactic Empire.
As with the Robot Novels, half of the Empire novels are among Asimov’s earliest works, and the other half are among his last. This week, I am writing about the early novels – the next part will feature the newer ones. Although you may, like myself, choose to read these novels in sequence, Asimov was adamant throughout his life that all his novels stand on their own. As I provide my brief summaries of each novel, you may pick and choose from the titles which seem most interesting to you, and the result will still be enjoyable. To understand the grander scheme, though, I encourage you to take the long path.
The earliest book in the chronology, The Stars, Like Dust, takes place in the long period of chaos between the initial settlement of the galaxy and the formation of the Empire. For me, beginning this novel was a bit of a shock – to leave the glittering, high tech settings of the Spacer worlds in the Robot Novels and instead enter a setting full of cattle ranching, agriculture, and feudalism… I’ll be honest, it took me a few pages to readjust myself to the new reality. The central plot of the story, revolving around an exiled nobleman on the run from assassins sent by a rival kingdom, seems inconsequential when compared to the sweeping strokes of his greater novels, and Asimov himself has admitted that he feels this novel to be “his weakest book”. Despite this admission, the plot is engaging enough to carry the reader forward, and it remains the only novel of his which really characterizes and describes the transition period between the time of Earth/Spacers and the time of Galactic Empire. You may groan at the ending (indeed, Asimov groaned at it himself, in later years), but it’s worth the read simply to see the immense transition one society can make, given just a few generations. It makes the significance of Foundation that much greater, when you see what happened in the last Dark Age before that one!
The second novel, called “The Currents of Space”, was my personal favorite of the early Empire Novels. Right from the start, you know that something twisted and conspiratorial has happened, and it’s up to the rest of the book to try and reveal the details. The setting of this novel is a pair of planets – Florina, a beautiful agricultural world which produces “kyrt”, a luxurious fabric which may only be grown on this world, and its tyrannical ruling world, called Sark. On Florina, a man wakes up with no memory of who he is, but gradually gains this feeling of foreboding that something horrible is going to happen… a tragedy only he can prevent, if only he could remember what it was- and who HE is! I loved this one more than the others because, although it is early Asimov, it is one of the earliest of his novels to feature many of the plot elements and tropes I have grown to love in his work. He manages to put mystery, suspense, some serious paranoia, and (my favorite) one of his signature reveal monologues – but not until the very end! It also portrays the Empire right on the cusp of being a true Galactic Empire – it is at a point in history which shows Trantor as a powerful force, but not quite all-powerful, to the extent that a serious crisis could push its entire destiny toward glory or ruin.
Following that, “Pebble in the Sky” (which is actually Asimov’s very first full published novel!) stars Joseph Schwartz, a man shot forward in time due to a laboratory accident, to a dying, radioactive Earth whose people are feeling the generations of neglect tossed upon them by the rest of the Galactic Empire… and perhaps even plotting to lash out in response. Although you can feel the occasional amateur-ness, and it never quite disguises how dated and campy it is, the book is solid, and provides an insight into Asimov’s ability and technique even this early in his career. At this point, Trantor has cemented its control of the galaxy, and Earth has become so inconsequential that almost nobody even remembers (or cares) that it was the original planet of all humanity. Humans started on Earth, but it is Trantor now which is the center of culture and civilization.
If you intend to read the chronology from start to finish, pay attention to these novels! Although Asimov does not return to them in a major way, the Second Foundation Trilogy (there’s another one?! stay tuned, I’ll explain later!) DOES return to it, in delightfully unexpected ways. I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s previews, and I encourage you to come along with me again soon, as I cover the next part of this epic series.