Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky. 1950. North Kingstown, RI: BBC Audio, 2009. MP3.
Genre: science fiction
Summary: Robert Fass narrates Asimov’s first novel, and the story that kicks off the Foundation series in book form. Thanks to an accident in a nearby chemistry lab, unsuspecting Joseph Schwartz steps through a wrinkle in time. The retired tailor finds himself catapulted 50,000 years into the future. He doesn’t speak the language, he doesn’t know anyone, and he’s well over the age of “retirement.” Retirement here being a word that means the age when you are euthanized in order to preserve Earth’s precious few resources. Joseph begs a farming family for help and they take him to see a doctor. The doctor is really a brilliant scientist experimenting with neuron-boosting technology. He successfully accelerates the neurons in Joseph’s brain, effectively turning the tailor into a super-cognitive-being. He’s telekinetic, physic, learns languages mega-fast. And he can kill with a thought. Joseph is quickly entangled in a sinister plot that could destroy countless quadrillions of lives across the Galactic Empire. Earth will transition from a lowly pebble in the sky to the ruling intergalactic powerhouse.
Critique: A tremendous first novel. Ambitious ideas skillfully executed. Asimov employs deft omniscience — a point of view increasingly misused or neglected these days. What’s more, he masters omniscient narration with a psychic character who can see the future. And not a single drop of tension is spilled or wasted for the reader! Writer’s studying dialogue should not reference this work. Much of what Asimov puts down is corny, on-the-nose, and reminiscent of stuff Errol Flynn might say while clad in bright colored tights. (And no, I will not excuse the dialogue being a product of its time! The 40s and 50s were still part of the Golden Age of noir and hard boiled films with some of the sharpest dialogue ever to ring in the human ear!)
However, Asimov’s world building techniques are worth noting. In some ways, he barrages the reader with brute force science. In his “other life,” Asimov was a scientist. A fluent speaker of the language of physics and chemistry, he accosts the reader from the start in a sit-down-and-shut-up way. The reader does, like a student in a pass/fail high-stakes lecture. Asimov then establishes the molecular mechanics of accidental time travel and we go happily along for the ride, so pleased that our capable narrator knows it all.
Asimov also puts science fiction to its proper use, which is to show that which does not change easily in human nature. Tens of thousands of years in the future, we still deal with prejudice. We still have bigots. No matter how fast and far technology goes, we exert the same inertia to change. Perhaps that realization is as demoralizing as it is inspiring.