“Nemesis” Isaac Asimov

Nemesis is a book by Asimov written late in his career, published only a few years before his death. I think I might’ve bought it new (the edition I have says published in 1990, originally published 1989), and I’m not sure if I ever read it more than once. Certainly I had only the haziest recollection of the plot when I started reading it this time round – “something about a star on the way to the solar system”, which is about as much as the blurb on the back says.

It opens with a slightly bizarre author’s note, bizarre because I don’t know why Asimov felt it necessary to explain the two points he makes. Firstly it’s not part of one of his other series, and is an independent story. Secondly it’s not entirely linear, with two narrative strands one in the “present” of the story and one starting the story-past and advancing to meet the first. And really, couldn’t he have trusted the reader to figure that out? Neither are exactly strange things for a book to do.

Our first protagonist, whose story takes place in the story-present is Marlene Fisher a 15 year old girl who is both extremely plain and extremely intelligent. She’s gifted with an ability to read body language that goes far beyond the human norm (and there are hints here of a “supermen among us” type plot, but much more subtly done than the 1948 stories I’ve just recently re-read (post)). And our second protagonist is her father, Crile Fisher who split up with her mother when Marlene was still an infant. He doesn’t share her plain looks or her body-language reading skills, but she’s very like his long dead sister.

The story is set in a future where Earth is ruled by a single government and is fairly over populated, and there are self-sufficient space station colonies called Settlements orbiting the Earth. For all that this is a standalone universe it reminds me of the later books in the Robots series – where Earth is a dirty crowded place with people of all sorts living cheek by jowl and having to make the most of it, but the colonies (planets in the Robots series) are cleaner and have more living space, and are more homogeneous. And are rather smug about their superiority to Earth people. In this book Asimov is pretty pessimistic about humanity’s ability to get beyond racism. On Earth it’s socially unacceptable, and officially frowned upon, but the text makes the point explicitly that even despite this the Settlements have tended to segregate themselves into sorts. Rotor (the Settlement that Marlene lives on) is all white, all Euro in the parlance of the book. Not by fiat or anything, just that if you manage to get permission to move to a Settlement and you’re not the same as the other people there then you are just made to feel unwelcome and eventually you move out to somewhere more “friendly”. I guess Asimov felt (or rather, wrote into this book) that even if you try and move beyond racism in a society once you get back to a situation where there can be small self-contained groups then people will inevitably tend towards xenophobia.

The plot starts with Rotor using new tech to travel at lightspeed to a nearby star. This star, Nemesis, is actually closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri – Marlene’s mother (an astronomer) discovers it, and its proximity wasn’t discovered before because it’s behind a dust cloud when viewing from Earth. Marlene’s story takes place 14 years later when they’ve been in Nemesis’s solar system for about 12 years. Marlene has become fascinated with Erythro, a planet-sized moon around a gas giant in the system. A moon that they are trying to colonise, but there have been some curious effects on people’s minds. Crile’s story starts from his leaving his wife & child & returning to Earth when Rotor leaves and moves forwards till it meets up with Marlene’s storyline at the end. He didn’t meet Marlene’s mother by chance, he’s actually a spy for the Earth government detailed to figure out what Rotor’s new tech is. He’s then assigned to a new project, persuading another Settlement physicist to come to Earth to help them develop better tech than Rotor has.

I enjoyed reading the book, but it felt just on the edge of being dated. It also felt curiously like a YA book, although I don’t think it was marketed as such. Perhaps that was just because Marlene is a teenager, but also her arc seemed to me to be a coming of age story. Her mother is over-protective & treats her like a child, and Marlene is flexing her wings and taking her first steps as an adult. Marlene is the key to the end of the story, and it’s not just because of what she is but also because of her actions, and because she takes responsibility and does things.

The antagonist is interesting in the light of Asimov’s other work. Janus Pitt, who is the leader of the community that lives in Rotor, is fixated on the idea of isolating them from other human societies and engineering some sort of better society. So he’s picked Nemesis for them to go to hoping that no-one else will realise and follow. His obsession isn’t presented sympathetically, and he’s clearly depicted as not really treating other people as people – they’re game pieces for him to manipulate or get rid of (mostly by exile) as he sees fit. Which I found an interesting contrast to the Foundation books where the engineering of the future of a society & of the future of humanity is something shown as a good thing (I’ve not read the Foundation series for years, I may regret saying this when I get there in my re-read!).

Having read so much 1930s & 1940s fiction over the last two or three months it really jumped out at me that the two foregrounded brilliant scientists are both women (which includes Marlene’s mother who is very much characterised as astronomer who happens to also be a mother, rather than the other way round). And the people who are good with people (including Crile) are men. But having said that, the people who are actually in charge are all men, on Earth, on Rotor & on Erythro. I think that’s actually part of what makes it feel a bit dated – I think a more modern story would’ve had a woman as one of the people in charge given the rest of the society. Personally I’d like to swap out the man in charge of the Terrestrial Board of Inquiry (which is effectively in charge of the Earth, in a power behind the throne style) for a woman, I think. One other nice touch was that Marlene is frustrated about people judging her on her looks (not that great) rather than her personality or intelligence – so far so stereotypical, but the person who sympathises the most is the administrator on Erythro because that’s how he felt treated as a teenager too.

While I was reading the book it seemed a bit slight, but thinking about it afterwards to write about it I think there’s more depth there than first meets the eye. I’m still going to put it away in a box rather than leave it on the shelf, tho. I’ve not read it in over 20 years, and I don’t think I’ll want to re-read it in the next 10 years.