Sunday, April 17, 2016
An Amusing Universe: The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov
"Why not? As an attitude toward life, it's an amusing one. It's the only adjective that will fit. Observe the universe, young man. If you can't force amusement out of it, you might as well cut your throat, since there's damned little good in it."
- Isaac Asimov, The Stars, Like Dust (p. 51)
I try to read some classic science fiction now and then. Of the Big Three (Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein), I've always considered Asimov the cleverest and most fun to read. Clarke is actually my favorite for his Big Ideas (see my review of Childhood's End). I've never really warmed to Heinlein (maybe it's his politics, but he just doesn't click for me, as I explained in my review of Starship Troopers).
The Stars, Like Dust is one of Asimov's earlier novels. It's not on par with the Foundation Trilogy (one of my all time favorites), but there are hints of Asimov's greatness. Also, this, along with the other Galactic Empire novels, takes place in the same universe as the Foundation books, although this one is quite a bit earlier, long before the establishment of the Galactic Empire, which is in its waning days in Foundation.
For such a short novel the plot is fairly complex, at least insofar as there are numerous players involved who are wrapped up in some occasionally dizzying machinations. The story starts with Biron, the son of the ruler of far off planet who is a university student on Earth. There's an attempt on Biron's life and he goes on the run, eventually getting entangled in various plots, the main one involving the search for a mysterious planet that houses the headquarters of the resistance to the Tyrannian Empire (a smaller precursor to the later Galactic Empire). Along the way we meet Arta, the daughter of another ruler and, annoyingly and predictably, Biron's eventual love interest (this was published in 1951 and it shows). The plot seems at times chaotic or meandering and might try your patience for awhile, but you can always trust Asimov to wrap things up nicely. Also, the descriptions of the interstellar Jumps are kind of cool in a weirdly retro-futuristic way (it involves paper manuals and hand calculators perhaps similar to the sea and air navigation methods of 1951).
The Philosophy Report: The Serious Importance of Humor and the (In)evitability of Galactic Empires
By far my favorite character is Arta's uncle, Gillbret, whose philosophy of amusement (described in the quote at the beginning of this review) I consider to be both amusing and philosophically astute. Being able to laugh at oneself and the universe is a serious matter as I've discussed in my post, "The Doof Warrior and the Value of Subtle Humor" and in my contribution to the recent book, Louis C.K. and Philosophy.
The other major philosophical issue here is whether interstellar travel would necessarily create undemocratic interstellar empires. Would political power among the stars collect in a hierarchical imperial structure? Or might it be a more loosely affiliated conglomeration like the Culture of Iain M. Banks (which he describes as "socialism within, anarchy without")? The end of The Stars, Like Dust seems to be hinting at one direction; the fact that the Empire eventually arises may be hinting at an answer as well. Perhaps the answer depends on the vastness of space, the economic feasibility and speed of interstellar travel, and deeper facets of human nature.
(See also my Goodreads review)