For August, my book club is reading The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov. It was serialized under the title Tyrann in the first three months of 1951 in Galaxy Science Fiction and later published in hardback from Doubleday that same year. I was born in 1951, so I was delighted to examine a work of science fiction from back then.
I listened to The Stars, Like Dust on an audiobook from Audible.com played on an iPhone. Now that would have been a great prediction to add to a science fiction story for 1951. It’s fun to read old science fiction and think about all the science and technology it missed in hindsight. I always assume the future would be everything we failed to imagine.
The story was mildly compelling, but the finale hokey. The ending struck me funny because I kept wondering the whole story why galactic empires are governed by aristocracies. And why empires? The U.S., E.U., and U.S.S.R. have trouble keeping states and nations together in a cooperative union, how can we expect thousands of planets separated by countless light-years to form a unified government? We can’t scale up to a planetary government here on Earth, so is there any reason to think humans could form a pan-galactic political structure? In the story Nebula Kingdoms are imagined. That name has a nice ring to it, but wasn’t it rather unimaginative of Asimov? Nebula Kingdoms is colorful sounding for a fairy tale, but isn’t it boring to think every planet will be a kingdom thousands of years in the future? Reading this book I got the feeling that George Lucas was a big fan of Isaac Asimov.
The plot of The Stars, Like Dust, is rather simple. Biron Farrill is graduating college on Earth when an attempt is made on his life. He spends the rest of the novel escaping from one planet to the next to find out why. Along the way, he falls in love with the beautiful princess Artimesia of Rhodia, and under the guidance of her cousin, Gillbreth oth Hinriad convinces Biron to seek out the secret rebel planet. Everything is based on foiling the political intrigue of the Tyranni, who are trying to take over the entire galaxy.
I’ve been watching a lot of old pirate movies from the 1940s and they feel very similar to this story and Star Wars. I wondered if Asimov was swayed by the romance of Lords and Ladies because of the swashbuckler flicks he was seeing at the theater? Asimov does come up with a number of different aristocratic titles from various Earth eras that have been used in SF stories ever since. Why do pulp fiction and historical romances love characters with titles so much? Isn’t plain old first names not sense-of-wonder enough for people hyper-jumping across the galaxy?
Also, why would the far future have methods of rule that have fallen out of favor long before Asimov’s own time? Did Asimov and George Lucas feel that thousands of inhabitable planets in a galaxy organized by constitutions would lack grandeur so they spice up their stories with archaic human hierarchies? Is democracy or socialism just too dishwater gray for 3582 ACE?
What I liked about the story was Asimov’s descriptions of space travel. There is one scene on an interstellar liner where passengers observe going into hyperspace via a large glass wall. That reminded me of the first Star Wars movie when the audience was shown Luke’s first jump through hyperspace.
Asimov spent a fair amount of time trying to describe space navigation, but I doubt his three coordinate systems could work. Although I got the feeling Asimov spent time thinking about it. He tried, that’s more than most SF novelists do. At one point he said it was more complicated than just the three coordinates because they’d have to calculate the motion of the stars. Even if all the stars in the galaxy had the same relationship to each other for an X, Y, Z location, the galaxy would have to have an exact time and date system, and even that assumes the orbits of the stars around the galaxy were perfect and each had a single orbital motion.
The Stars, Like Dust, was a mildly fun escape into the science fiction of 1951, but its science is closer to flying to the moon powered by bottles of dew than real science. (A SF story from a couple centuries ago used that method of escaping Earth.)
It was a fun part of the book when Biron has to fly up to orbit and then make a hyperjump. He’s had a bit of training in college. This gives Asimov a chance to explain how it’s done for the reader. Just how hard could it be for one person with practically no training to pilot a spaceship on the run? Asimov tries, and for me its the highlight of the story, but really it was too simple. I assume Asimov figured readers would only sit still for the tiniest of science lessons. Of course, it shoots down the idea fans learned science from science fiction.
It sure would have been fun in 1966 when Captain Kirk tells Sulu to plot a course to Vulcan if Mr. Spock would have stopped the plot to explain how it was done. I’d like to claim the SF I grew up with 15 years later was more realistic, but I can’t.
“Set a course to Vulcan Mr. Sulu” “Aye, captain.” Sulu turns around. “Which way is that?” “Ask Spock, he should know.” Sulu turns to Spock “When and where are we now? What are our orbital motions?” “I don’t know,” Sulu looks annoyed. Spock raises one eyebrow. “Just ask the computer, it knows everything and we can keep this script simple.”
NASA has been able to hit asteroids, moons, and planets with precise accuracy, but have you ever wondered how it’s done?
Thus The Stars, Like Dust leaves me thinking about two things. How will interstellar astrogation work, and what kind of governments will develop across star systems. I think Asimov who was a very smart guy but went for gobbledegook political intrigue and romance inspired by Errol Flynn and Oliva De Havilland movies instead of writing about the hard science he was studying at the university.
I’m not sure who to recommend this book to. Asimov fans should enjoy reading one of his early novels. Star Wars fans might get a kick out of it. But readers of modern space opera will find it simplistic compared to current works like The Culture series by Iain M. Banks.
I collected some old reviews of The Stars, Like Dust and put them in a pdf file. It shows that Asimov’s book didn’t impress many even when it came out. But every reviewer saw something different. One long review by Ted White in 1970 gives his perspective of remembering reading it when he was 13 in 1951, and then rereading it years later as an adult.
Nowadays I often find reading about science fiction more interesting than reading science fiction. The Stars, Like Dust, fits on an evolutionary branch of science fiction where movies like Star Wars and books of Lois McMaster Bujold appear later on in its evolution.
James Wallace Harris