Asimov books 2: The Empire Series

empire-seriesThe Galactic Empire is the middle series in Isaac Asimov’s connected series of stories.  The three books were all published in the early 1950’s, and include Asimov’s first full novel to be published, Pebble in the Sky.

What I didn’t realize going into this trilogy is that the stories are not connected. The characters from one do not appear in the other.  So each book is its own independent story.

The Stars, Like Dust – 1951

The story begins on an irradiated Earth, and revolves around the conflict of a growing galactic empire (called the Tyranni).  The characters are mostly those whose planets have been or are in danger of being conquered by the Tyranni, and the efforts and plots regarding an eventual uprising.

The story reads as a common space opera, with romance and intrigue, the characters getting their hands dirty in battle and accomplishing their goals themselves.  Deception is rampant, but the story itself is pretty interesting to read.

That being said, the dialogue was not some of Asimov’s best work.  Many of the exchanges feel like this:

  • Character A: BIG REVEAL!
  • Character B: I thought that might be the case, so I did this.
  • Character A: I expected that, so I did this.
  • Character B: I know.

Over and over again.  This was especially annoying after reading through most of the Robot series, which are truly crime novels, where Asimov wonderfully weaves a story of intrigue and investigation.  Here, it just got ridiculous.

I wish this book had a sequel, even some short stories that expand this segment of time, but it looks like a standalone story.  Several thousand years pass before the next story takes place.

The Currents of Space – 1952

There exists a valuable fiber called kyrt, which exists only on the planet Florina.  Florina has been annexed by the planet Sark and treated to horrible oppressive reminiscent of European Imperialism.  Sark uses their monopoly to keep independent from the growing Trantor Empire, which is big enough that its conquest of the galaxy is expected, but not big enough that conquest is assured.

On this planet exists an amnesiac who is slowly regaining his memory after a traumatic attack, a scientist looking for answers, several locals who are in over their heads, and a number of overlords who don’t question their imperialist arrogance.  The story revolves around the amnesiac.  Who is he, and why was he attacked and left as a vegetable?

Currents of Space is a lot better novel than The Stars, Like Dust, but it feels like Asimov was still looking for his novelist legs.  The reveals at the end lack a lot of oomph that I found in the Robot series (which was written after this series, but takes place before it).  That being said, I found the bad guys in this book much easier to dislike, and the heroes much easier to appreciate.  And the end reveals, for all their lack of energy, tied up the story very well.

In another difference between the two books, I didn’t want a sequel to this one.  Not that I didn’t like the characters, but I felt that the story was wrapped up so nicely that adding anything more would have detracted from it.  Let the characters live out the rest of their lives in peace.

Pebble in the Sky – 1950

Asimov’s first published full novel, Pebble in the Sky follows a man named Joseph Schwartz, transported from mid-20th century Earth to a time 11,000 years in the future.  Earth, still an irradiated planet and part of the Galactic Empire (the Trantor Empire, though it’s not named in this book) has a population of some twenty million suspicious, arrogant people.  Seriously, they bug me.

Subjected to an experiment that was supposed to kill him, Schwartz instead develops tremendous mental powers.  However, he get caught up in the pseudo-religious political machinations of the planet, several love-sick scientists, and a series of coincidences that all lead to the story’s culmination.

As a book, Pebble in the Sky is a slow start.  I had to work at getting into the story by trying to read several pages each time I was on the bus.  But the ending was well worth the effort; the first half took a week to read, the second half two days.

The only other thing that bugged me is that an individual from another planet on Earth wouldn’t immediately be identified as such by his accent.  One of the characters is constantly surprising people by saying he’s not from Earth, after long conversations.  Doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering how much accents vary across states, much less across an Empire of millions of planets.

But the book was worth the slow start and the accent issue.  Some of the other aspects might seem like tropes, but Asimov wove them together so well I didn’t mind.  I hated the bad guys and the good guys who were doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.  At the same time, I was glad the protagonists had such a hard time.  They needed the conflict to bring the story to its best end.

I was also okay that there was no sequel to this, as the story wraps up pretty well.  I do wonder what happened to Joseph Schwartz.  I should see if there are any short stories about him.

The Empire Series as a Series

Since the Empire series isn’t connected at all, with several thousand years between stories, it’s hard to think of this as a series and more of a collection.

As a bridge between Robot and Foundation, the Empire series does an adequate job.  Robots and Empire left the reader with the knowledge that Earth was doomed and humanity forced into a galactic diaspora that has been complete by The Stars, Like Dust.  The Trantor empire is mentioned in The Currents of Space and is assumed (but not mentioned by name) to be the Empire in Pebble in the Sky.  And Earth is no longer recognized as the birthplace of humanity, a debate that I remember reading in Foundation.  Pretty much all the high points.

As stories, they’re still decent reads.  Not perfect, not as good as a lot of his other stuff, but worth reading.

The Science Discussion

Accepting that the series is not a connected trilogy, there is one thing that was a disappointment, and that is the lack of serious scientific discussion.  I’ll explain what I mean.

In the Robot books, Asimov writes about positronic brains and the Three Laws of Robotics.  He doesn’t just mention them, he had serious discussions about how they work and the fundamental consequences of those laws.  All four books have these discussions, and they’re fascinating to read.  Asimov really shows off the science, without taking away from the enjoyment of the story.

These books don’t have anything similar.  Pebble in the Sky grazes such a discussion when it talks about the origins of humanity.  Some people argue that humans came from one planet, while others argue humanity is the logical evolution of animals on habitable worlds.  This discussion sets up one character’s presence on Earth, but isn’t followed through to the same intriguing exchanges that I found in the Robot books.

It’s something I look forward to from Asimov, since he does it so well.

Conclusion

The Empire series has proven to be the weakest link of Asimov’s grand story (so far), but by no means are they bad books.  A little shaky, being some of his first novels, but worth the time.

And now, on to Foundation!

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