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.
Just draw a spaceship and somebody who looks really confused
On the provincial farming planet of Florina, on the outskirts of the Galactic Empire, a seemingly unremarkable man is slowly starting to remember something important: that he is not the half-wit he has been for nearly a year, that he was once a scientist working in the depths of outer space, and that he had uncovered a terrible secret involving the death of everyone and everything on Florina. Before long, this recovering amnesiac, his caregiver, and their friend are trapped in a web of conspiracy with incredible stakes, unaware of who is pulling the strings and what they are trying to hide.
In the third book Asimov wrote for the Empire trilogy, The Currents of Space, he finally delivers a worthwhile space opera. While still not Asimov at his best, this perfects the formula established in the two previous novels, morphing it into a sci-fi-tinged political thriller full of intrigue, mystery, and excitement. It also finds a way to integrate Asimov's most enduring themes of humanism, tolerance, and social equality in intelligent ways that reflect not only the world of the 1950's in which he was writing but also the modern world of the early Twenty-First Century, where such messages are no less important.
On the negative side, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, with some of them drifting in and out of the story only to serve as minor plot points. The most egregious example of this is the Lady Samia, who is developed over three or four chapters before being used as a cheap device to hold over her father during the climax. Asimov juggles these characters better than he does in the other two Empire novels--even though there are significantly more of them this time around--but it still gets cumbersome, especially when the plot seems to come to a screeching halt in order to introduce brand new political interests halfway through the novel.
You gotta love the pulpy Signet paperback covers
Another negative involves a massive spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you don't want the ultimate villain unveiled. While it does makes sense, even on a second reading, that Myrlyn Terens was responsible for wiping Rik's mind and attempting to blackmail the Squires of Sark, the morality of his fate is a bit problematic. Asimov doesn't usually deal in enough moral ambiguity to let his villains' crimes go unpunished, but by the end, Terens is reponsible for multiple murders, the brainwashing of the erstwhile hero, the potential thwarting of Rik's attempts to save the lives of everybody on the planet, and more, but then, in the end, Terens faces no consequences for any of it. If this were Heinlein--or even Clarke--I might be able to accept this, but it feels deeply out of character for Asimov, whose morality tends to be pretty black-and-white.
However, the positives far outweigh the negatives in The Currents of Space. It's an intricate story with a lot of moving parts, but it all boils down to a rather simple truth about human nature that surpasses the fantasy/sci-fi trappings of the book. (And there is a bit more actual science in this one than I'd come to expect from the trilogy.) Why it works better here than in the other two Empire novels can be attributed to the strength of the characters. There is no real protagonist, but as the logical choice for one would be the amnesiac, that's for the best. Instead, there are a bunch of characters with competing outlooks on life and the worlds around them, all driven by their own, complex motives and prejudices. When these characters conflict, it is for character-driven reasons, not the necessities of the plot.
The story still climaxes in true Asimov fashion with a group of people standing around, one-upping each other with dramatic reveals that unravel the mysteries of the plot one twist at a time, but for once, there isn't a single character possessed of superhuman deductive powers. Instead, these people each remain in character, arguing from their unique perspectives and their own previously established knowledge of events. I daresay this might be the best classic-mystery-style climax I've covered thus far this summer, and it is deeply satisfying, even when it winds down to just three people exhaustedly debating the economic realities of what's just been revealed (which, if I'm honest, I find riveting, especially how Asimov is able to resolve things in a way that feels neither naïve nor depressing).
That's a snazzy outfit
I also want to give Asimov points for the romantic subplot this time around. While Rik isn't a terribly deep character (by virtue of amnesia), his love interest, Valona, is one of Asimov's better female characters. He seems to write women better when they don't act like the stereotypical fifties conception of women, and Valona is an awkward tomboy who's repressed her feminity her whole life only to rediscover it after using her maternal instincts on Rik when he was broken. Their attraction also feels more organic and believable, no doubt because they have a year's worth of intimate history together before the story really begins. It's also possible that this romance works because it happens in the background and isn't thrust upon the characters for the sake of the plot.
The politics, also, are more fleshed out this time around, with the overarching story being that of the apparent necessity and inevitability of the Galactic Empire. The deep class division between the worlds of Sark and Florina is explained thoroughly without ever being dry, and the economics that put Trantor into the equation drive the Empire's motivations in an understandable way. The book also contains a little exploration of race--with one of the characters coming from a planet where everyone has dark skin and the Florinian population always described as unusually pale--along with a persistent notion that treating anyone else as more or less than human is the biggest error a fellow human being can make.
I can understand why Asimov largely abandoned the Empire series after this, but it would have been interesting to see where he could have gone from here had he written more novels in the post-robots, pre-Foundation time period. There is potential here, and Asimov finally found his groove with The Currents of Space. That said, next week, I'm going to finish off this summer's exploration of Asimov with a truly stand-alone novel, one not beholden to his grand chronology, because it's important to remember that there is more to the grandmaster than his famous series.
-e. magill 8/5/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: