Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
The classic hardcover is my favorite
The line between science-fiction and fantasy is a fuzzy one. There is one subgenre that straddles that line almost perfectly: the "space opera," which is roughly defined as a straight-forward fantasy story set in a science-fiction universe. Somewhere between the most well-known cinematic space operas, Flash Gordon and Star Wars, rests The Stars, Like Dust, the closest I've thus encountered to Isaac Asimov writing pure fantasy.
Loosely tied to the Galactic Empire phase of his grand chronology, this novel is about Biron Farrill, a young farmboy in the outskirts of the civilized galaxy who is thrust into a generational struggle between an oppressive authoritarian government and a scattered, grassroots rebellion. Farrill is chasing rumors of a secret rebel base and a long-lost document that purports to outline a super-weapon. He is joined in his adventure by a princess, a wise but eccentric old man, and a dashing rogue that can't be trusted, all while being chased by an evil madman and his seemingly endless military resources.
Looked at purely as a space opera, it's not a bad book by any means. The characters, while a bit flat, are at least entertaining, and Asimov injects plenty of drama and suspense to make the whole thing work. I think the twist reveal at the end effectively ties it all together, and his ability to write great villains continues to impress me. The first half can be a bit of a slog to get through, and some of the plot beats occur before they're earned. However, it's easy to forgive the novel's flaws if all you're looking for is a pulpy space adventure. It's not as endearing as Star Wars or as thematically dense as Dune--both of which came after it--and yet I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it Asimov's worst novel, as the writer himself considered it.
I have no idea what I'm looking at here
Probably its biggest problem is that it doesn't really fit into his grand chronology. It doesn't even seem to take place within the Galactic Empire, which hasn't yet been formed and isn't affected by the final paragraphs' promise. Granted, this book was written well before Asimov had plans to tie everything together, but whereas most of his other pre-chronology novels can be squeezed into a bigger story suprisingly well, The Stars, Like Dust practically demands to be set apart, to be treated as its own, standalone story. If it had remained as such, it would probably be a little better regarded today.
Don't get me wrong, though. It is a deeply flawed novel. Asimov puts a lot of effort into making the romantic subplot between Farrill and the princess Artemisia make sense, but it comes across as rushed and needlessly melodramatic. It's not as bad as the romantic subplot of Pebble in the Sky, but it's only a marginal improvement. A lot of the plot also hangs on the machinations of the enigmatic Autarch Sander Jonti, whose motivations are never made clear and whose logic falls apart upon retrospective examination. Ultimately, the novel's greatest sin is that it feels flat, needlessly bound by conventional fantasy tropes and a conclusion that doesn't resolve much of anything.
It feels more like a first novel than Asimov's actual first novel does, and it demonstrates that the grandmaster hasn't quite found his voice yet. His writing style remains excellent and mature, but the story itself is lackluster and far more predictable than normal. Even the clever twist at the end--which isn't hard to see coming--is hokey enough to turn off a fair number of readers. There's also the problem that the protagonist is a passenger in his own story for most of the book--driven against his will from points A to B--until he suddenly becomes a genius mastermind who figured everything out a few chapters ago, which certainly feels inconsistent.
Was the Monolith in this book?
On the other hand, I appreciate what Asimov is trying to do in terms of echoing world history, in rewriting the Mongol invasion of Russia as a space opera and using it to advocate for representative democracy. I'm a sucker for a good historical allegory, and that's the best light I can shine on The Stars, Like Dust. He's not terribly subtle about it--the ruler of the blatantly-named Tyranni is named "Khan," for example--but then again, Asimov doesn't do much more to obscure his Roman Empire parallels in the much more beloved Foundation, either.
So ultimately, as you can probably tell by the above vascillations, I'm not sure how I feel about The Stars, Like Dust. There are things I love about it, and it's entertaining as a generic space opera. Unfortunately, though, I have to concede it's a pretty weak Asimov novel that lacks the pinache and polish of almost everything else I've read from him, including the David Starr series, which was explicitly written to be The Lone Ranger in space. I've certainly encountered better space operas and better sci-fi historical allegories, but at the same time, I find myself rooting for this novel, maybe just because it's an underdog, unloved even by its creator.
Next week, we'll finish up the loosely-tied Empire trilogy with The Currents of Space, and we'll see if the third time was a charm for Asimov, if his third novel set in this period of his grand chronology is better than its two bookending predecessors.
-e. magill 7/30/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: