Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

Pebble in the Sky book cover

The book opens up in 1949 on the day of a mysterious accident at Chicago’s Institute of Nuclear Research. Joseph Schwartz, while walking around on the other side of Chicago is somehow caught in an expanding beam of energy that transports him into an unfamiliar place. Actually, he has not traveled to another place but another time. Earth’s land is largely covered in radioactive soil, so that it can only support 20 million people. The result of this is the common practice of terminating anyone that cannot work or when they reach the age of sixty as a form of strict population control. Most people don’t resent this practice but rather look at as a way for making room for the young.

Joseph Schwartz knows none of this yet because all he sees is a dark empty world with a glimmering horizon with no cars or houses to be seen where there once was a thriving city. Initially he thinks he is on another world because everyone speaks a very odd language. As it turns out, he was transported thousands of years to a future Earth at a time that a Galactic Empire reigned and Earth was only one of 200 million planets. Schwartz wanders around and eventually finds the house of a family of three that takes him in. The young husband and wife have been working extra hard secretly supporting their father which isn’t yet sixty but can’t contribute working the farm because he can’t walk.

They seize the opportunity to use Schwartz, seemingly an idiot to them due to the language barrier, to take up some of the slack for work. They take Schwartz to Chica (Chicago in the future) to volunteer for a procedure which should increase his intelligence. The only problem is that the “Synapsifier” device invented by Dr. Shekt could end up killing the patient. In a somewhat cold statement, the husband assures the wife that if Schwartz dies they won’t be any worse off than before.

In the meantime, Dr. Bel Arvardan is embarking on an archaeological expedition in an attempt to verify the claims that Earth is the original world, the cradle of humanity. At the time the official theory is that groups of humans evolved separately and eventually converged after independently discovering interstellar travel. The Galactic Empire can’t bear to admit that humanity originated from this small dying world.

Dr. Arvardan is anxious to see the people of earth in their native environment, so he schedules a tour of the major cities of Earth, travelling to Chica first. By chance, while eating lunch he encounters a girl named Pola which is searching for a man, Schwartz, which has escaped the lab she works for (which happens to be where Dr. Shekt’s used the Synapsifier on Schwartz although Arvardan doesn’t know this yet). She describes an older man which he just saw at the same place he was eating lunch at. He helps her track down Schwartz, but they find themselves caught in a “Radiation Fever” scare. During the chase Dr. Arvardan finds himself strangely attracted to this Earthgirl. Arvardan sticks up for Pola when an Imperial officer treats her badly and finds himself on the wrong end of a neuronic whip. From this point forward the plotlines of Arvardan and Schwartz become intertwined.

One of the main themes in this book is the general distain that “Galactic Citizens” have for “Earthers”. While Earthers are not slaves of any sort, they are considered inferior and poisonous due to the radiation which is spread across most of Earth. Bel Arvardan likes to think of himself as progressive and tolerant of Earthers, but deep down he still has some problems coping with his romantic feelings for Pola Shekt throughout the novel. I think that Asimov handles Arvadan’s transformation quite well.

Earth, although part of the Empire, has a group of citizens called the Ancients which serve as rulers. Ancients enforce the various customs such as the “Sixty” harbor and avoiding the highly radioactive areas. Most Earthers, especially the “Ancients” harbor as much if not more hatred toward the rest of the Galaxy. They are resentful of their place in the Empire, isolated on a dying world with limited resources, resulting in three previous attempts to revolt. This hatred drives a new plot to revolt, but this time they might have the power to exterminate the rest of the galaxy. Dr. Arvardan, Dr. Shekt, Pola Shekt, and Joseph Schwartz must all work together to stop this plot.

Asimov does a good job of building up the main plot lines then intertwining them at just the right moment. The way he does this seems to pack quite a bit of events into just 230 pages. Most of the dialog is philosophical and engaging while moving the plot forward. One of the more amusing plots was the suspicion of the Ancients that Arvardan and Schwartz were working under Imperial direction while they were actually innocently associated (initially) with Dr. Schwartz. In the end their motives turned out to be the same, but the means was far from it. I found it a bit interesting that Joseph Schwartz is prominent on the back cover synopsis. Schwartz’s part isn’t insignificant by far, but the novel seems to be more about Dr. Bel Arvardan and his transformation.

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Isaac Asimov’s Robot City Book 4: Prodigy by Byron CoverIsaac Asimov’s Robot City Book 4: Prodigy by Byron Cover

Robot City 4: Prodigy book cover

This review will most likely contain spoilers for any previous books in the series, read at your own risk.

Derec and Ariel (previously known as Katherine) finally were able to track down the cyborg known as Jeff Leong. The Human Medical Team of robots was able to repair Jeff’s body and place his brain back inside. They let Jeff use the escape pod Mandlebrot and Wolruf landed with to fly home and send for help if possible. Until then, they are all still stuck in Robot City.

This book revolves around a robotic renaissance that has emerged in Robot City. Derec and Ariel spot a huge new building that looks more like artwork than anything else. During their investigation they find robots that wonder what it is like to be human, comedians, artists, etc. In the midst of all this a robot is murdered and Derec must find the killer and figure out why these robots acting so differently. I’d say out of the series this is one of my favorite books because it reminds me a bit of the Bicentennial Man short story by Asimov.

1984 by George Orwell1984 by George Orwell

Book Cover
I’m not sure why, but I have just got around to reading 1984. For some reason it was never required reading for me in high school. I was familiar with the “Big Brother” concept as it is a very common reference. Recently, the Patriot Act of 2001 and subsequent reauthorization in 2005 has been criticized by many. For me, 1984 was a very interesting read, because a lot of George Orwell’s concepts seem very plausible today.

I can’t really emphasize enough how important it is to read the Appendix of 1984 first. It covers the official government language of Oceana. This is called “Newspeak,” and is designed to simplify the English language and control human thought. As a quick example, there is no word for bad, just ungood. Excellent would be replaced by something like doubleplusgood. Another important word central to the plot is doublethink, or the ability to hold two contradicting ideas in one’s mind and truly believe both.

The story takes place in Oceana, one of three superpowers that is always at war with either Eastasia or Eurasia. The Party controls all information and feeds political propaganda to the public and keeps the public under constant surveillance through telescreens which act as both televisions and video cameras. The main character, Winston Smith, works for the Party in the Ministry of Truth.

The description of the Ministry of Truth was very scary. Essentially it is responsible for storing all information and knowledge, and subsequently can modify any of it to suit its own purpose. For example, Oceana can swith alliances with one of the other two superpowers, and all of historical information would be changed. Winston’s job is to modify records to match Party policy whenever changes or errors are made. He secretly despises Big Brother and the Party, and is eventually approached by a woman named Julia who shares his feelings. They eventually become lovers, but Winston is a bit concerned. She does not seem to be as aware of the political brainwashing as he is.

It was rather more of a shock to him when he discovered from some chance remark that she did not remember that Oceania, four years ago, had been at war with Eastasia and at peace with Eurasia. It was true that she regarded the whole war as a sham: but apparently she had not even noticed that the name of the enemy had changed. ‘I thought we’d always been at war with Eurasia,’ she said vaguely. It frightened him a little.

They eventually make contact with O’Brien, a secret member of an underground resistance. He warns them that they will get caught eventually, and they will confess (under torture), and for that reason their knowledge of who are members will be kept to the absolute minimum. They are given “THE BOOK” which contains the musings of Goldstein, the leader of the resistance. The excerpts that Winston reads describe some very morbid ideas about war, which are very interesting. There are quite a few other tidbits in there as well.

Orwell’s 1984 is very deep and thought provoking. If anything, it is more relevant today, than when it was published in 1949. Technology is advancing at an alarming rate. Within the last few years, the FBI obtained warrants to wiretap cell phones of mobsters under investigation. This might seem innocuous, but the technique they used was able to activate the microphone on the phones remotely without a call being placed, and might have been possible to record conversations near the phone while it was turned off! Just recently, in The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne develops a technology that ties into cell phones to create a much more elaborate surveillance system. How long it will be until something like that is possible?

I’m partial to reading physical books, but if you like to read ebooks, 1984 is available at Project Gutenberg.

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The Diamond Age Book Cover

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