The Stars, Like Dust

by Isaac Asimov

Cover image

Series: Galactic Empire #2
Publisher: Fawcett Crest
Copyright: 1950, 1951
Printing: June 1972
Format: Mass market
Pages: 192

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The Stars, Like Dust is usually listed as the first book in Asimov's lesser-known Galactic Empire Trilogy since it takes place before Pebble in the Sky. Pebble in the Sky was published first, though, so I count it as the second book. It is very early science fiction with a few mystery overtones.

Buying books produces about 5% of the pleasure of reading them while taking much less than 5% of the time. There was a time in my life when I thoroughly enjoyed methodically working through a used book store, list in hand, tracking down cheap copies to fill in holes in series. This means that I own a lot of books that I thought at some point that I would want to read but never got around to, often because, at the time, I was feeling completionist about some series or piece of world-building. From time to time, I get the urge to try to read some of them.

Sometimes this is a poor use of my time.

The Galactic Empire series is from Asimov's first science fiction period, after the Foundation series but contemporaneous with their collection into novels. They're set long, long before Foundation, but after humans have inhabited numerous star systems and Earth has become something of a backwater. That process is just starting in The Stars, Like Dust: Earth is still somewhere where an upper-class son might be sent for an education, but it has been devastated by nuclear wars and is well on its way to becoming an inward-looking relic on the edge of galactic society.

Biron Farrill is the son of the Lord Rancher of Widemos, a wealthy noble whose world is one of those conquered by the Tyranni. In many other SF novels, the Tyranni would be an alien race; here, it's a hierarchical and authoritarian human civilization. The book opens with Biron discovering a radiation bomb planted in his dorm room. Shortly after, he learns that his father had been arrested. One of his fellow students claims to be on Biron's side against the Tyranni and gives him false papers to travel to Rhodia, a wealthy world run by a Tyranni sycophant.

Like most books of this era, The Stars, Like Dust is a short novel full of plot twists. Unlike some of its contemporaries, it's not devoid of characterization, but I might have liked it better if it were. Biron behaves like an obnoxious teenager when he's not being an arrogant ass. There is a female character who does a few plot-relevant things and at no point is sexually assaulted, so I'll give Asimov that much, but the gender stereotypes are ironclad and there is an entire subplot focused on what I can only describe as seduction via petty jealousy.

The writing... well, let me quote a typical passage:

There was no way of telling when the threshold would be reached. Perhaps not for hours, and perhaps the next moment. Biron remained standing helplessly, flashlight held loosely in his damp hands. Half an hour before, the visiphone had awakened him, and he had been at peace then. Now he knew he was going to die.

Biron didn't want to die, but he was penned in hopelessly, and there was no place to hide.

Needless to say, Biron doesn't die. Even if your tolerance for pulp melodrama is high, 192 small-print pages of this sort of thing is wearying.

Like a lot of Asimov plots, The Stars, Like Dust has some of the shape of a mystery novel. Biron, with the aid of some newfound companions on Rhodia, learns of a secret rebellion against the Tyranni and attempts to track down its base to join them. There are false leads, disguised identities, clues that are difficult to interpret, and similar classic mystery trappings, all covered with a patina of early 1950s imaginary science. To me, it felt constructed and artificial in ways that made the strings Asimov was pulling obvious. I don't know if someone who likes mystery construction would feel differently about it.

The worst part of the plot thankfully doesn't come up much. We learn early in the story that Biron was on Earth to search for a long-lost document believed to be vital to defeating the Tyranni. The nature of that document is revealed on the final page, so I won't spoil it, but if you try to think of the stupidest possible document someone could have built this plot around, I suspect you will only need one guess. (In Asimov's defense, he blamed Galaxy editor H.L. Gold for persuading him to include this plot, and disavowed it a few years later.)

The Stars, Like Dust is one of the worst books I have ever read. The characters are overwrought, the politics are slapdash and build on broad stereotypes, the romantic subplot is dire and plays out mainly via Biron egregiously manipulating his petulant love interest, and the writing is annoying. Sometimes pulp fiction makes up for those common flaws through larger-than-life feats of daring, sweeping visions of future societies, and ever-escalating stakes. There is little to none of that here. Asimov instead provides tedious political maneuvering among a class of elitist bankers and land owners who consider themselves natural leaders. The only places where the power structures of this future government make sense are where Asimov blatantly steals them from either the Roman Empire or the Doge of Venice.

The one thing this book has going for it — the thing, apart from bloody-minded completionism, that kept me reading — is that the technology is hilariously weird in that way that only 1940s and 1950s science fiction can be. The characters have access to communication via some sort of interstellar telepathy (messages coded to a specific person's "brain waves") and can travel between stars through hyperspace jumps, but each jump is manually calculated by referring to the pilot's (paper!) volumes of the Standard Galactic Ephemeris. Communication between ships (via "etheric radio") requires manually aiming a radio beam at the area in space where one thinks the other ship is. It's an unintentionally entertaining combination of technology that now looks absurdly primitive and science that is so advanced and hand-waved that it's obviously made up.

I also have to give Asimov some points for using spherical coordinates. It's a small thing, but the coordinate systems in most SF novels and TV shows are obviously not fit for purpose.

I spent about a month and a half of this year barely reading, and while some of that is because I finally tackled a few projects I'd been putting off for years, a lot of it was because of this book. It was only 192 pages, and I'm still curious about the glue between Asimov's Foundation and Robot series, both of which I devoured as a teenager. But every time I picked it up to finally finish it and start another book, I made it about ten pages and then couldn't take any more. Learn from my error: don't try this at home, or at least give up if the same thing starts happening to you.

Followed by The Currents of Space.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Reviewed: 2024-04-21

Last modified and spun 2024-04-25