Monday, October 22, 2007

The Stars, Like Dust (Isaac Asimov)

The Stars, Like Dust
Fawcett Crest :: 1950 :: 192 pp. :: paperback (out of print)

In Isaac Asimov's first novel, a part of what I can only imagine must be the painfully boring Empire trilogy, a young man named Biron Farrell wakes up to discover a plot on his life and, his father having been assassinated, jumps on a spaceship with a beautiful, spirited young woman and her caustic uncle to overthrow an intergalactic empire run by the Tyranni, who mostly just collect taxes and assassinate insurgents and wield a "neuron whip" that sounds kind of cool but doesn't exactly save the book.

Apart from an overly simplistic plot riddled with facile moral judgments and a lack of real interest or engagement with the social issues inherent in the fictional world, one of the novel's major flaws is in its characterization. The protagonist, in particular, is a sort of spineless, shapeless reactor to events around him, whose only major characteristic is an unconscious male chauvinism mirrored by the narrative itself.

Artemesia, the protagonist, fatefully sharing a name with a painter famous for being a victim of rape and torture, is introduced like a rather one-note imitation of a Katherine Hepburn heroine. She is spirited and not quite willing to stay within the bounds of propriety in her oddly old-fashioned yet space-travelling culture (a place where she wears skirts and makeup, premarital sex is somewhat frowned upon for women, and she is in danger of being essentially forced into an unwanted marriage). But, of course, rather like Hepburn, she is tamed by a good kiss from a decent man, even retracting her oh-so-bitchy opinions about the quality of food aboard her spaceship as a peace offering. (Though with Hepburn, there was arguably a disconnect between textual tamings of the shrew and the sense that her spirit was never defeated and would resurrect itself, if not by the end of the film, by the beginning of the next. Artemesia sort of just lies down and dies.)

There is little of political interest in this fairly straightforward parable, as one would expect when the villains are actually named "Tyranni." It's a thin novel, a pale, pasty story, with no real conclusion but also no real need to read to the next installment, and the only real interest it had for me was in the blatant misogyny. I know it was 1951, but come on!

In Summary: Graceless and backwards, Asimov's earliest novel is deeply underwhelming.

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