“Pebble in the Sky” Isaac Asimov

Pebble in the Sky was Asimov’s first novel, published in 1950, and is one of the few Asimov novels I actually bought. My mother owns most of the ones I’ve read, and J brought copies of the Foundation ones that I’ll be getting to next into the house so I’ve never actually got round to buying many.

Having just read the short story version it grew out of (post) I think this is a much better telling of that story, but it’ll still never be a favourite. There’s still no women, really, although Pola Shekt gets a bit more on-screen time however she’s still very much “the love interest”.

The plot is much the same as the short story. Josef Schwartz, one of our two main characters, is transported from 1949 to the far far future. There he suffers culture shock & gets caught up in the politics & conspiracy of the time. Earth is now radioactive and can only barely support the population which means when you get to the age of 60 you get euthanised. So much time has passed since the 20th Century that no-one knows that Earth was the original planet that mankind came from, and the Galactic Empire treats Earth & Earth people as an insignificant cultural backwater. The Earth government smarts under this, and there are plans afoot to Do Something About This (these are the antagonists). Our other protagonist is a brilliant young Galactic archaeologist, Bel Arvardan, with theories about the origins of humanity – and on his visit to Earth he gets caught up in the political situation along with Schwartz.

However behind the plot, what I think the book is about is colonialism and racism. It’s probably been 15 years since I last read this book and I can’t remember if that struck me before, it surely must’ve done tho as it’s seemed obvious this time. The Procurator of Earth – i.e. the Galactic Empire’s representative/ruler on the planet – reminds me of a British Governor in India during the days of the British Empire. He lives in a palace that’s a little part of the Empire on Earth, and takes pills to reduce his chances of getting local diseases while bemoaning the lack of “civilised” company. Arvardan comes from a planet that’s particularly bigoted against Earthmen and starts with the sort of self-deceit you’d expect – he thinks of himself as enlightened, why he thinks he’d even employ an Earthman in one of his archaeological teams but the other chaps would refuse to work with one so such a shame he can’t. And then reacts poorly to meeting actual Earth people in the actual flesh, going back to his culturally conditioned ways. But he falls in love with an Earthgirl and changes his mind – about her, her Dad & Schwartz at least, we don’t get quite enough time in his head after to believe he’s completely changed. Arvardan’s theories about the origins of humanity are clearly analogues for the debates in archaeology of the time – did Homo sapiens evolve once in Africa and spread, or did we evolve in each region separately. Just switch “in Africa” for “on one planet, that just so happens to be the one that’s looked down on”. And the second hypothesis is used to justify racism as “scientific” in the same way in the book as in real life.

I think it’s painted with too broad brushstrokes, practically hitting you over the head with the analogies. But equally it’s hard for me to see it the way it would’ve been read at the time – in 1950 in the USA segregation of races was still legal (my grasp on this subject is hazy, but poking on wikipedia it seem that the major milestone for the start of desegregation is 1954 and a court decision that ruled that separate schools for blacks & whites was unconstitutional). Prohibition of interracial marriages isn’t declared unconstitutional till 1967 … so in that light hitting the reader over the head with the Bel Avardan/Pola Shekt relationship as being an analogy for an interracial relationship is possibly what was needed to make the point. Would more subtlety have let people ignore the parallels too much? Asimov does a good job of making sure there’s people to sympathise with on both sides of the divide – people are people and some of them are bigots, some of them are not, and all of them are products of their culture. And obviously by putting the whole of Earth as the targets of the racism he puts us on their side at first, but then he counterbalances this by making the way the antagonists plan to rise up against the Empire & fight back be morally wrong. I’m not quite sure if that works or if it ends up too close to “so you should stay in your place”.

Which brings up the way this book definitely doesn’t feel current – it’s so short! Just a couple of hundred pages. And it does feel a little like it’s been kept short by keeping it just a touch too shallow. Everything gets tied up very neatly at the end with an air of “and now they all lived happily ever after” but it clearly can’t be true – you don’t solve millennia of bigotry with one foiled coup & a marriage. I exaggerate a bit, but it definitely feels overly optimistic as an ending to me.

Not a favourite, but there was more to it than I remembered.