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The end of the world will come when it darn well feels like it, thank you very much
on December 19, 2012
It's actually nice to finally be able to read this novel. I bought the darn thing probably around fifteen years ago when I was a teenager and on an Asimov kick. What I didn't realize at the time was that it was the only novel in the Empire series in print. Being slightly picky about such things (and probably not totally realizing that the novels aren't all that related) I tried to order the other two, failed, and then put this volume aside for quite some time. Eventually due to the magic of the Internet, I was able to find used copies of the other two and I was able to satisfy my strange urge to read them all in a row.
Was it worth it? Actually, it was. I'm glad that I read it after the first two volumes because there's such an uptick in . . . I won't say "quality" because all three are decent but however you want to quantify the elusive factor known as "knowing what you're doing." Inspiration, maybe? That could be it. This one feels more inspired.
After a beginning where a scientist predicts that a planet will be destroyed to someone who not only openly scoffs but then proceeds to drug and mindwipe the poor guy, we're shifted to the world of Florina, ruled by Sark. Upon arriving we discover worker Rik, who was mysteriously found in a field a year ago knowing little more than a baby did and slowly putting himself back together and learning basic skills. Until more than basic science skills come back to him, kicking off a search that threatens to drag every conceivable faction into the mess.
Of all the Empire novels, this one shows off Asimov's sometimes underrated skill at building intensity, something that we only really saw in the early Robot novels. Far from being bound to acting like a SF novel, at times it seems more like a political thriller with SF trappings as everyone seeks to gain the upper hand by finding out who knows what and when, and more importantly, what they don't know. Meanwhile Rik is caught in events without having much idea how he even got involved in this stuff in the first place. A vast stretch of the novel doesn't even involve him, as the faction on Sark and the agents from Trantor all vie to intimidate each other and figure out who the mole might be, almost like Asimov had gotten bored with good ol' Rik (who isn't much of a character beyond the amnesiac scientist type). In fact, when the novel isn't ignoring Rik, it's looking at the Townsman as he goes on a minor killing spree as he tries to evade the authorities, coming as close as Asimov ever did to that slippery beast he called "action." His quirk of staking anything that might quicken your pulse in the periphery is already in full force, with killings being described after the fact, or in such clinical brushed off detail that a friend of a friend of a friend might as well be telling you about it. It becomes maddening after a while, especially when you're waiting for a fight scene to break up all the people talking at each other and the book decides to give you more people talking about the fight scene you just missed. Gah.
But his footing is surer here than the other Empire novels and you finally get a sense that he's figuring this stuff out. The relationship between Sark and Florina is fairly well thought out in its totalitarian complexity and the tangled politics between Sark and Trantor ground the settings with a new urgency, so that it feels like the events that are happening here matter. All the political maneuvering between the Squires and Trantor doesn't quite reach the sophisticated heights of CJ Cherryh but comes close to stuff that Poul Anderson would be doing in his own series of novels. You can see a lot of instances here where other SF writers would take and refine these concepts further (the whole Spatio-analytics concept seems like something Van Vogt would have had fun with). I don't know who did it first, or if this book was influential at all but it's always neat to see the roots.
Still, it's got flaws. As I mentioned, its talky in that Asimov way, where pages and pages go by of people debating things. This would be less of a problem when the central conceptual hook was good enough to justify all that chatter (the Robot novels, mostly, as most of the Foundation stories are shorter) but here it's not quite enough. Rik isn't a very strong character, we're supposed to feel bad that he's being buffeted by events out of his control and thus feel sorry for him but it's hard to get too worked up when his initial warnings are ignored by even the novel. It also seems like Asimov treated romance much the same way as action, handled off screen, which means that anyone who is a woman gets a bit of the shaft in terms of their narrative potential, mostly being around to add some local color. But what's worse is that the idea that is supposed to get us into the novel, the imminent destruction of the world, almost becomes a MacGuffin of sorts, in the background until the plot requires it to be and handled with any sort of sense of urgency or worry.
Which means you stick around for the scenery and the political action. In this case it's strong enough to save the novel. Not enough to make it one of his all time classics but such a cut above the other two that you can definitely see the well from which the actual classics would eventually spring.