Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A Planet In Space

What do Pebble In The Sky by Isaac Asimov and A Stone In Heaven by Poul Anderson have in common? They invite comparison because both titles mean "a planet in space."

Each is a futuristic sf novel featuring faster than light interstellar travel through hyperspace and a human interstellar empire that parallels the Roman Empire, even to the extent of, literally, an enthroned Emperor;

each is a single volume of a long future history series;

each of these future histories is an amalgamation of two previously independent series;

thus, each features a pre-Imperial period followed by the long rise, decline and eventual Fall of the Empire;

in both series, a theoretician predicts the Fall and an attempt is made to prepare planetary populations for the subsequent chaos and barbarism;

in both cases, we see something of the post-Imperial period.

The differences are far greater than the similarities:

Anderson writes better prose and novels with better characterization;

Asimov presents a humans only galaxy whereas Anderson imaginatively describes many other intelligent species;

Anderson realizes that even terrestroid planets will not necessarily be places where human beings can simply breathe the air and drink the water etc without needing dietary supplements, environmental modifications etc;

Asimov's hyperspace is an unexplained sf cliche whereas Anderson plausibly rationalizes his as millions of quantum jumps per second;

Anderson understands religion and treats it sympathetically whereas the only religion in Asimov's future history is a cynical social manipulation that has not happened in any real history;

Asimov's Hari Seldon is a mathematician who predicts the Fall because sufficiently large populations are predictable in the way that mechanical interactions between macroscopic objects are predictable despite the randomness of individual particles whereas Anderson's Chunderban Desai is, more plausibly, a student of Terrestrial history;

Anderson applies a real, complex theory of history to his fiction and manages to say something substantial and interesting about how societies change and develop;

Seldon schemes to manipulate society in order to reduce the period of the interregnum whereas Anderson's Flandry, again more plausibly, just tries to prolong the Empire.

Why do I keep dumping on Asimov? Would any Asimov fan like to reply?


Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed Asimov's work, especially some of his earlier books and tales, but I agree that Anderson has depths that Asimov does not. Also, Asimov did not believe that psychohistory would be possible, but it's still a fun idea to play with. Other people have done so, including Donald Kingsbury in Psychohistorical Crisis, Poul Anderson in "No Truce With Kings", and Michael Flynn in In the Country of the Blind.

Regards, Nicholas

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Like Nicholas, I too have enjoyed some of Asimov's earlier stories and novels. But by the time I read THE GODS THEMSELVES, I was getting tired of him. Basically, I found his writing more and more too flat, plain, colorless, etc. To say nothing of how most of Asimov's characters are forgetable (two rare exceptions being Bel Riose and the Mule).

One of Asimov's greatest weaknesses was being unwilling speculate about how humans might interact with non humans. I say "unwilling" instead of "unable" because he did write ONE story set early in his Galactic Empire with non humans: "Blind Alley." But all he did in that story was devise a means of spiriting the aliens out of the humans only Galaxy. Rather disappointing and anticlimactic.