A very enjoyable adventure story with some nice links to Asimov’s other works.
This was Asimov’s first full-length novel, and the first of the loose grouping of Empire books. In a spoiler-free nutshell, a retired tailor from the middle of the 20th Century is accidentally blasted forward several thousand years, by which time a huge Empire sprawls across the entire galaxy, and Earth itself is a poorly radioactive mess. An intrepid and low-key group must foil a conspiracy with drastic repercussions for the whole of the galaxy.
Pebble In The Sky is a charming yet mediocre example of golden age sci fi, with a swashbuckling story and an unusually everyday protagonist. The main group of characters are all unlikely heroes – a tailor, an archaeologist, a scientist and his daughter. Part of the charm was Asimov’s recognition in the epilogue that he had misunderstood the nature of radiation when writing, rendering the book largely impossible with hindsight.
Unfortunately, and as usual for books of this era, you have to wade through the rampant gender stereotyping. There is only one significant female character, a very attractive young woman who entices an important male character into contact with other important male characters and spends the rest of the novel getting hysterical whenever the tension is high.
Talking about themes in an Asimov novel is a strange guessing game, as Asimov did not seem to be a fan of spelling things out. I can only speak for what this novel said to me. By and large the themes are similar to themes in other novels and stories from the same part of Asimov’s career.
The book read like a comedy of errors at times, as both main sets of characters wade through the narrative in complete ignorance of the reality of the situation they are facing. Schwartz’s group spend a lot of the novel chasing each other in confusion, while the paranoid rulers of Earth completely misinterpret their foes’ actions at every opportunity. I found that this contributed in a subtle manner to the key theme of the Foundation series, that individuals can have precious little impact upon the general direction of galactic history. However the eventual conclusion of the novel does appear to contradict this idea.
Not for the last time, Asimov used the concept of earthers/spacers to ridicule notions of racial differences between humans. Unique to this novel, however, is the idea of humanity neglecting its place of origin and the people who still dwell there. ‘Earthies’ are colonised, forced under the yoke of the Empire, regarded as savage, dirty and closer to animals than humanity. The wider population of the galaxy is repulsed by the idea that their ancestors might once have been inhabitants of Earth, and rejects this idea despite the evidence in front of it.
In both PITS and Foundation, archaeology is largely concerned with the origin of humanity. In both cases, humanity has lost track of its origin, with one-planet and multi-planet theories that bring to mind debates about the origin of mankind and even about the origin of the universe. It is a terrifying thought, that humanity could evolve to such a point that we are not even aware of the planet that housed us for the first several million years. Yet this is compounded in PITS, where the most prominent archaeologist in the galaxy is able to demonstrate that Earth is humanity’s planet of origin – yet despite this resolution, by Foundation humanity has forgotten for a second time! Perhaps they have ‘forgotten’ due to their revulsion at the idea of being ‘Earthies’ themselves.
Overall, this was not the most though-provoking and mind-blowing work Asimov produced, but it was certainly a very enjoyable adventure story with nice links to the narrative of the Galactic Empire.