“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!
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.