Friday, 16 August 2002

Isaac Asimov: The Stars Like Dust (1955)

Edition: Panther, 1958
Review number: 1114

In retrospect, The Stars Like Dust is one of Asimov's most disappointing and dated science fiction novels. I'm not sure, reading it now, whether or not it was originally explicitly aimed at a young adult audience (the one that many people assume still that all science fiction is written for), but it certainly doesn't really have enough to offer to impress a reader who is not a novice reader of the genre.

The Horsehead Nebula region of the galaxy was divided into a large number of smallish aristocratic nations, until they were all suddenly overrun by the banally named Tyranni about a generation before the story is set. The old royal families have been left in place in a ceremonial role; the hero of The Stars Like Dust is the son and heir of the titular ruler of one of these planets. Biron Farrill is studying on Earth - largely ruined in an ancient nuclear war - when his father dies, executed for treason by the Tyranni. An apparent attempt on his own life leads him to flee back to the Horsehead Nebula, to the palace of the Hinriads on the planet of Rhodia. A series of adventures follow, which even at the time must have seemed derivative (they're a poor imitation of A.E. van Vogt or E.E. "Doc" Smith), ending with a stupendous discovery which should mark the end of the Tyranni.

This stupendous discovery is the main problem with The Stars Like Dust, at least for a non-American. It turns out that this is the long-lost American Declaration of Independence, a document whose explosive power is supposed to doom tyrants. It shows, perhaps, a touchingly naive faith in the power of the admittedly inspiring words about freedom and independence (Asimov's background as a first generation immigrant in the thirties makes the alternative possibility, cynical manipulation of the reader, unlikely.) But it can hardly be argued that the example of the US constitution has made the Earth free of dictators, and even the US cannot be considered the epitome of freedom and equality. (Rodney King can't have thought so, in his final moments.) To use the discovery as the climax of the novel is not only a major weakness, it is the sort of twist which smacks of the inexperienced writer at this length - it is typical of the genre's short stories.

Other problems with The Stars Like Dust include the frankly unbelieveable plot - the base of a rebellion which is being gradually stocked up with men and weapons would be hard to hide economically, let alone be kept a secret by the thousands of people involved. The various conspiracies and plots which fill the book are not very convincing, and the people involved have inconsistent characters - to much insight in some areas, not enough in others. There is a romance subplot, but that is based on exactly the kind of portrayal of a female character that is one of the commonest criticisms of the science fiction genre ("it's written by and for geeks who have no idea what women are like").

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