The Empire Smokes Back : Isaac Asimov – “Pebble in the Sky” (“Galactic Empire #1)

“Pebble in the Sky” was Isaac Asimov’s debut as a novelist in 1950. His reputation as a reliable, prolific writer of science fiction stories had already been set at least as far back as 1941 with the chilly, succinct horror treat that is “Nightfall,” but Asimov was still far from the giant that he would be by a decade and a half late, when his name would be synonymous with sci-fi (along with Arthur C. Clarke’s and Robert Heinlein’s). “Pebble in the Sky” was retroactively made part of the overarching “Foundation” / “Empire”/ “Robot” vision, and it’s a good place to start with Asimov as novelist for those who are curious but not necessarily invested in the grand intellectual reach of something like “Foundation.”

An experiment with concentrated laser beams accidentally sends Joseph Schwartz from 1949 Chicago to a futuristic Earth. Except “futuristic” is more a chronological descriptor than an environmental one. 5,000 years from now, at the height of the Galactic Empire, Earth has a nasty reputation as a radioactive backwoods, and it’s the butt of bigoted jokes all over the galaxy. Only some mad scientists theorize that maybe, just maybe, humanity had its origin on Earth and then spread out to other planets. This theory seems risible to most: everyone knows there’s human life everywhere because of Emergence, which means that when human life was ready to develop on any one planet, it did. How could those barely human denizens of  Earth have developed space travel in some distant past? And what decent citizen of the Empire would want to believe they were descended from EARTHIES? Eeewww!

Architect Bel Ardarvar has grown hearing, and accepting, this kind of talk, and it’s only during a trip to Earth, where small enclaves like Chica still exist, that he begins to wonder if maybe Space-racism is wrong. This, naturally, happens when he falls in love with a sweet “Earthie-squaw.” To Ardarvar’s endless confusion, he learns that it is not as gross to make out with Earth girls as has been universally advertised. Soon, he goes around punching people for using terms like “Earthie-Squaw.”

The girl in question is Pola Shekt, the daughter of a Professor Shekt whose work on a Synapsifier puts him in touch with the confused Joseph Schwartz. Not only does Schwartz catch up with future languages thanks to this cerebral stimulation machine, soon the blast-from-the-past Earthling has developed a telepathic Mind Touch. 

Together, Schwartz, the Shekts, and Ardarvar team up to… Well, I won’t spoil that, since it’s a late book twist. Asimov throws in perhaps too many world-building ideas that sort of simmer radioactively in the background without quite affecting the plot, but “Pebble in the Sky” was written at a time in which a decent sci-fi novel had 70,000 words or so, so there’s no time to get bored with anything. The main conceit about racism still hits.

One comment, though, on an annoying quirk that Asimov shares with Philip K. Dick and endless other visionaries who came of writing-age in the 1950s and 60s. These writers are some of the most brilliant imaginative and creative minds of all time. They can come up with technology we are yet to catch up with, envision fantastical worlds, hypothesize alien races…

But not a-one of them seems capable of imagining a future in which humans, robots, and aliens alike don’t go around chain-smoking cigarettes!

PHOTO] Vintage Robot: Smoke Break |
ABOVE: “Off to Flavor-Planet!”

P.S: Schwartz’ reassuring mantra are lines from “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” a Robert Browning poem he has learned to repeat as a way to stave off loneliness:

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand

Who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

It’s a fitting meditation for a proud planet still in its youth.

The Reading of Pelham, 1, 2, 3: Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton – “Pelham, or Adventures of a Gentleman”

For about half a century or so, people who have never bothered to read Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton have been crapping on him based on one supposedly bad line: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Some nights ARE dark and stormy, though. For the record, both Edgar Allan Poe in “A Bargain Lost” and Madeleine L’Engle in “A Wrinkle in Time” have used the exact same line, without detriment to their literary reputations. Look, if it’s good enough for Snoopy, it’s good enough for me.

Here’s another famous Bulwer-Lytton line you might have heard: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Why not praise him for THAT one? I don’t pretend that we need to resurrect the bulk of Bulwer-Lytton’s work for the masses, in the same way that we don’t need to resurrect Disraeli or George Du Maurier or George Meredith. But I wager there’s plenty of  readable stuff in the Lord’s catalogue (I recall enjoying “Alice, or the Mysteries” years ago.) As a successor to Walter Scott, Bulwer-Lytton’s historical romances are considered some of the best in the English language. “The Last Days of Pompeii” remains a tour-de-force. “Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes” was adapted by Wagner and “Harold, Last of the Saxons” was adapted by Verdi. I’m saying it’s probably absurd to pretend the dude sucked, considering both his success and influence.

Bulwer-Lytton’s first big hit was 1828’s “Pelham” (“Or Adventures of a Gentleman”) a bildungsroman/ roman-a-clef that caused minor societal convulsions: some characters were recognizable, merciless lampoons of Victorian celebs. The novel is cosmopolitan in its frankness, far from the stuffiness one associates with an era in which, the joke goes, people covered those sexy piano “legs” out of prudishness. (If anyone did cover piano legs, it was just for an excessive love of decoration.) 

Still, “Pelham” is pretty out there for the 1820s! It begins with young Henry Pelham matter-of-factly reminiscing on his parents near-divorce:

“The end of the season was unusually dull, and so my mother decided to elope with her new lover.” Lady Pelham’s elopement goes comically awry when, just before getting into her lover’s coach, she remembers to go back for her favorite china and her French poodle… and accidentally runs into Lord Pelham, who is forced to pretend to be upset about the infidelity in front of the servants: “Had they met each other alone, the affair might easily have been settled, and Lady Frances gone off in tranquillity. Those damned servants are always in the way!” Young Pelham has since consoled himself: “I have, however, often thought that it was better for me that the affair ended in this manner, since it is frequently inconvenient to have a divorced mother.”

And a mother like Lady Frances Pelham is priceless, with so much endless wisdom for her son that she might as well have also birthed Oscar Wilde. Some of her lines:

“In marriage a man lowers a woman to his own rank; in an affair, he raises himself to hers.”

“A fool, my dear Henry, flatters himself; a wise man flatters the fool.”

“It is very different with French people than with our countrymen; in France, it is acceptable to seem to have emotions.”

Pelham clearly benefited from his mother’s witticisms.

Of a bleak, desolate, barren seashore, he says: “a spot upon which any creature would have starved, except perhaps a seagull or a Scotsman.” 

Of his (mis) education studying Greek and Roman classics at Eton: “I didn’t learn a syllable of English, but I spent 8 years acquiring a great amount of information which, as you can imagine, I entirely forgot by the age of 25.” 

His rank as nobility earns him an “honorary” degree at Cambridge, “which is the opposite of those honorable degrees obtained by pale people with spectacles after 36 months of exertions.”

Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton

We follow Henry as he travels through France with an acquaintance, the sarcastic Lord Vincent, “one of those writers who are promising young talents well into their seventies, and who are always working on something which is going to be published any day now.” (Attack felt.) Lord Vincent has the habit of following every withering putdown with a Greek or Latin quotation; (here is hard to tell whether Bulwer-Lytton is knowingly mocking himself, or if this is a case of “Potus vocatio Kettleus nigreos” (Horace.)

But it’s Pelham’s friendship with the mysterious Reginald Glanville that gives the novel its shape: Pelham tries to solve the mystery behind his friend’s bizarre behavior, while romancing Reginald’s sister, Ellen. Also, there’s murder afoot; so much so that in “Pelham” earns the distinction of being considered, however loosely, one of the earliest “detective” novels in Stephen Knight’s “Chronology of Crime Fiction.”

“Pelham” is not just a shallow social satire with mystery and romantic elements, though. The young gentleman also gets to witness the more serious intellectual exchanges of the period. Here’s some Parisian salon repartee, which might as well be Bulwer-Lytton’s meditation upon his own novel’s durability:

“Works that treat man in his relation to society, can only be strictly applicable so long as that relation and that society do not change. The play which satirizes a particular class, however deep its reflections, must necessarily be obsolete when the class itself has become so. The political pamphlet admirable for one state, may be absurd in another. The novel which exactly delineates the present age will seem strange and unfamiliar to the next. These works must often confine their popularity to the age and the country in which they were written. But the work that  seizes, discovers, and analyzes the human mind as it is, whether ancient or modern, savage or European, is useful to all times and all nations. He who discovers the origin of ideas must be a philosopher to every person who has ideas; but he who delineates the manners of one country or one age is only the philosopher of that country and that age. Yet Hume holds the contrary opinion to this, and considers a good comedy of manners more durable than a system of philosophy. Hume is right, of course… if a system of philosophy is understood to be a pile of guesses, false but plausible, set up by one age to be destroyed by the next. Ingenuity cannot rescue Error from oblivion; but when Wisdom has discovered Truth, she has obtained Immortality.”

(The punchline, though, is that Pelham almost falls asleep listening to this exchange.)

If the era interests you at all, “Pelham” is a surprisingly fast-paced read, and superior to a lot of more “nutritional” stuff that has been prescribed by joyless literary dieticians. Kind of like a Jane Austen novel, if Jane Austen had been funny or gotten laid.*

*#bookstagram, hold the fatwa.

More Double Oughts: John Gardner’s “Role of Honor” and “Nobody Lives Forever”

John Gardner treats James Bond as the ultimate top-tier influencer. Not only does he know the coolest of cars, the hottest of weapons, and the most shaken of martinis, Bond’s expertise extends to the best shampoo (Dunhill Blend 30), the best jam (Cooper’s Oxford) and the best coffee (De Bry). Bond’s panini at the Antico Vinaio? Grilled, not toasted. Whatever you want Bond to shill, Gardner could make it happen.

In “Role of Honor,” the audacious theft of a Greek magnate’s priceless art collection is accompanied by the shameful resignation of a certain beloved agent. Cause of resignation? Bond has inherited a nice sum from an Australian uncle whose one condition is that Bond spent the first 100,000 immediately in a frivolous manner. That means a new Bentley Mulsanne Turbo in Bond-land, plus some whoring around, which has attracted concern from the House of Commons. REAL cause? Bond is to be bait for any recruiters who might think him bitter and vulnerable. How does this tie to the Kruxator art theft? Because, in his “resignation,” Bond lands in Monaco. Thanks to tourism, mid-80s Monaco is not what it was in “Casino Royale” days; Bond sadly wonders if soon they’ll plant Space Invaders arcade machines in the once classy Salles Privees. There, Bond bumps into his contact, a CIA agent with the euphonious name of Persephone Proud. (She goes by Percy, which beats Phoney.)  Percy is the supposed widow of a computer wiz criminal called Jay Autem Holy, aka “The Holy Terror”- who is behind the Greek art robbery. To get to Holy, James must a) learn how to play video-games, and b) re-befriend an old hook-up, Freddie “Lady” Fortune, “whose slapdash political education places her to the left of Fidel Castro.” Which is why James dumped her; he ain’t dating no Commie! This all leads to Bond infiltrating SPECTRE, which is now led by Tamil Rahani, who uses Holy Terror’s computer simulations to train thugs. Writers, be wary of using too much up-to-the-minute technology, or else you might wind up with lines like: “This is the latest in cyber power! It’s hard to believe, but brace yourself: this small plastic disk is magically capable of holding almost TWO megabytes of information! Our enemies would kill to get their hands on this!”

In “Nobody Lives Forever,” agent 007 is on a cross-European vacation when he runs into a lovely lady called Suki “The Tempest” Tempesta and a lethal mob enforcer named Paul “The Rat” Cordova. These are not coincidences. Soon, bodies start dropping around a befuddled Bond. The reason? SPECTRE’s leader Tamil Rahani, (who escaped at the end of “Role of Honour” but is now a terminal cancer patient) has put out  bounty of 10 Million on Bond’s literal head. The prospective decapitators line up: from petty criminals, to well-connected gangsters, to deranged terrorists, to experienced spies. As part of this Head Hunt, Miss Moneypenny has been kidnapped, along with Bond’s old Scottish maid, May. Saving Bond’s old friends takes the spy from Zalsburg to Key West, Florida, where the dying Rahani awaits in a private island surrounded by shark-infested waters. Although there’s plenty of fun car chases, torture scenes, and double-and-triple crosses, ultimately this will be remembered as the James Bond novel in which 007 takes a hot shower with a vampire bat.

North and South : Jules Verne – “The Fur Country” and “3 Russians and 3 Englishmen in Africa”

Oh, Canada! “The Fur Country” is the 8th of Jules Verne’s official “Incredible Voyages” and deals with an expedition by the Hudson Bay Fur Company as they traverse Canada in an attempt to establish a fort in the Arctic. Verne is clear-eyed about the Company’s horrific “business” practices, particularly when it came to intoxicating Indians in order to rob them while alcohol-blind, which he finds despicable. His work is insanely well-researched, belying its fame as “juvenile literature.” What kid would thrill at extensive lists of a fur company’s assets? Or at leaden updates on cartography or selenography or hydrography or ecology or any other of Verne’s many interests? 

I then let my fancy gravitate to Jules Verne’s “The Adventures of Three Russians and Three Englishmen,” about a scientific expedition attempting to chart Sub-Saharan Africa. There’s also one Afro-European Bushman accompanying the six Europeans, but of course he didn’t make the cut in the title. That said, Verne’s not a racist, and his characters are too rational for such pettiness: the Bushman is admired by both Russians and Englishmen for his contributions to Livingston’s expedition. The tribesmen that the scientist meet along the way are also treated with relative cultural respect; even the tribes that say hello by pinching people’s noses, which the Russians tolerate but the Brits resent. (Of course, we live in woke times, and this is inherently racist and misogynist and colonialist and WHY ISN’T THERE AN AHISTORICAL FEMALE SCIENTIST ON THE CREW etc etc?) Another thing of note is that Verne’s novels typically star men in their 40s and 50s and yet are classified as juvenile. No kid likes to hear about old bachelor doctors, unless those can talk to animals. I think these are juveniles for no other reason than most everyone first reads these classics while young. There’s also the fact that there is no “psychology” of the Henry James variety to be found. There’s also very little sexuality in the Extraordinary Voyages, unless one wants to count the vaguely homoerotic camaraderie of geologists dorking out over maps of sub-Saharan Africa.

Still, it’s understandable if modern adults have no use for Verne’s science, history, or politics, all of which are as outdated as a morning edition of Le Monde from May 12, 1872. Has anyone yet said that Jules Verne is the Michael Crichton of the late 1800s? 

Lost Boys and Girls: Vehlmann and Gazzotti- “Alone” (“Seuls”)

Seuls»: Comment cette série BD est devenue culte avant d'être adaptée au  cinéma

Ivan is privileged and nerdy; his parents are busy and absent, replaced by a maid and videogames. Leila is a tinkerer; she comes from a non-practicing Muslim family. Camille is studious and freckled; she shares a cheap apartment with her single Dad, but wishes she was a princess in a palace, elsewhere. Little Terry’s parents have separated; he’s spoiled beyond belief. Dodji is black, orphaned; he’s been through a lot, we’re told, so he now lives in a center with social workers as parents.

These five children wake up one day to find themselves “Alone,” seemingly the only inhabitants of their diverse European city. What does it all mean? A shared dream? Did the adults get raptured? An elaborate TV show prank? And what’s with the rhinos roaming the city? The kids, pop-savvy already, go through all those possibilities just like theorists on a TV comment thread, but the real answers come tantalizingly slow over a 12 volume saga. Along with an increasingly large number of memorable acquaintances, our little heroes will struggle for survival in a brutal, sometimes incomprehensible universe that lacks adult supervision. Obviously, they will have to learn to work together to survive. But is survival even the point when they all might be- you guessed it- the WALKING DEAD?!?

Yes, elements from “Alone” (“Seuls”) (the popular French series of graphic novels) overlap with said zombie show… and “Lost,” and “The Sixth Sense,” and “The Hunger Games,” and “Lord of the Flies,” and etc… But the formula is mixed to perfection by bande-dessinee superstar Fabien Vehlmann (sometimes lauded as today’s Rene Goscinny) and by artist Bruno Gazzotti. This practically clamors to be turned into a (very daring) Netflix show.

It won’t happen, though. Pity. “Alone” was badly served by a recent, decent French movie that only covered the first volume (that is, ONE-TWELFTH OF THE STORY!). That movie gave the impression that the series relies for effect on a twist that is by no means new… when the graphic novels have more twists than a slinky! Each volume deepens the universe and elicits new gasps. That said, any live-action adaptation was doomed to fail because what makes “Alone” so unique is the mix of cutesy, “Lil Spirou”-ish designs juxtaposed with moments of serious fear and violence. I can’t recommend this enough for fans of YA sci-fi dystopias.

Seuls T9 : Avant l'Enfant-Minuit » par Bruno Gazzotti et Fabien Vehlman |