Monday, April 14, 2014

Pebble In the Sky - Isaac Asimov

This was the one book out of all the ones I've read so far this year, I actually requested this one. I wanted to save it for last, but the books just kept coming. So here we are, 4 months after Christmas, and I finally got to it.

A middle-aged tailor from Chicago abruptly finds himself thousands of years in the future. He's still on Earth, but Earth is now just one planet among millions of the Galactic Empire, and what's more, it's an almost universally looked down upon and discriminated against backwater with radioactive soil. Which breeds a people hostile and resentful of the Empire, proud of how it's different from every other world, and determined to reclaim what it believes to be its proper place at the head of the Empire. Which leaves Mr. Schwartz in the middle of a determined Society of Ancients, a tired and frightened scientist, and an Imperial archeologist that actually wanted to prove Earth was the origin of humanity.

One of things I enjoyed about this was how Balkis (the Secretary and a major member of the Ancients) concocts this elaborate scenario of deception an intrigue among the scientist, the archeologist, and Schwartz, because it seems too fantastic to be a coincidence. But it actually was just a coincidence. Even so, the way he lays it out, his explanation makes sense, especially if one has his suspicious and scheming mind. And of course Schwartz' appearance looks suspicious. How could Balkis know, or even suspect Schwartz' lack of identification and apparent inability to speak the language are a result of being from the past? Much more likely he's a otherworld spy trying to pass himself off as feeble-minded.

One thing I find kind of interesting is how it often comes down to a clever individual. That's hardly unique to Asimov's stories, obviously, but when viewed in contrast to the idea of pyschohistory he uses in his Foundation series, it stands out. The idea that history is predictable because large masses of people are predictable suggests it's large groups that set the course of history. But time and again it's an individual in the right place at the right time, that sways things. I guess the key is that the individual is rarely some special chosen one. Frequently it's someone like Schwartz, an average person who finds himself mixed up in something by chance, and tries his best to make sense of it and do what thinks is right.

'Ennius smiled without conviction. "Don't you think you're being ridiculously overdramatic?"

"Oh yes. I'm a dead man and you're a corpse. But let's be devilishly cool and Imperial about it, don't y'know?"'

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