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The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

01/02/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Stars Like Dust in the USA - or Buy The Stars Like Dust in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 235 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.99 (US), $18.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1915-9.

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Written in 1951, 'The Stars, Like Dust' is the first part of Isaac Asimov's Novels of the Galactic Empire trilogy, the other two titles being 'The Currents of Space' and 'Pebble in the Sky'. Given what a central figure Asimov is to the Science Fiction genre, I was looking forward to reading this newly reset edition of a book I'd not read before. I'm sad to say that it did not live up to my expectations.

The story revolves around the adventures of Biron Farrill, the young heir to the well-respected Rancher of Widemos. Biron is in his last week at university on Earth when a radiation bomb is planted in his bedroom. Overnight, he is turned from complacent student to a man on the run from unknown assassins. When he hears that his father has been executed by the Tyranni, despotic overlords of fifty worlds including his own, Biron pledges to get to the bottom of the political intrigue and seek revenge.

In the process of doing so, Biron meets the Lady Artemisia, daughter of the man who may have condemned his own father to death. She is, inevitably, very pretty and just as inevitably, they don't hit it off at first, both feeling that the other is arrogant and thoughtless. The subsequent ups and downs in their relationship mirror the changes in Biron's wider fortunes as he comes ever closer to the truth. Meanwhile, he travels between several worlds trying to find out who was part of his father's rebellion against the Tyranni and who is collaborating with them. Nothing is as it seems and the plot switches get ever more frequent and ever more difficult to follow, as the climax approaches.

There are certainly some things to admire in this book. The first, perhaps to be expected from a polymath of Asimov's abilities, is the prescience of many of the technological advances he invents. These include the visisonor, a box that induces a state of virtual reality, and the various spaceships we encounter which, a decade before Yuri Gagarin's first orbital spaceflight, anticipate many of the practical necessities of interplanetary travel. The second is the complexity of the political machinations of the leaders across the Tyranni's empire. This is the one aspect of the story that felt truly real to me.

Unfortunately, these limited strengths cannot begin to outweigh the multitude of faults with the story. First, characterisation. Asimov's stories may generally be driven more by plot than by character, but 'The Stars, Like Dust' takes this preference to absurd lengths. None of the main characters struck me as three-dimensional. Biron is at some times a spoiled brat and at others a brilliant tactician. However, we only ever see what is on the surface. If he has any depths of character, they are not revealed to us in the text. Similarly, Biron's love interest, the Lady Artemisia, switches from arrogant princess to weak and feeble victim with alarming regularity. Yet by the end of the book we still do not know what really makes her tick. Very few of the characters demonstrate any evidence of an inner life and I consequently found it hard to empathise with any of them.

As with character, so with plot. The storyline is a mash-up of standard plot devices: part space opera, part thriller and part political drama. These are not, however, integrated into a coherent whole. As twist was piled upon turn, I became first confused and then irritated. By the time all the threads were pulled together again, I'd pretty much lost the will to live.

My third gripe concerns the style of the writing, which is highly over-dramatised. For example, fully one-third of the chapter titles end with an exclamation mark. This approach is repeated throughout the text itself. For me, this made the book look more like some beginner's effort in the pulp magazines than a serious novel.

Finally, the book has not aged particularly well. There is only one female character in the entire book and she is largely incapable of doing anything herself. Not only that but every male character who meets her feels honour-bound to note to himself how pretty she is. Of course, it is important to recognise that this novel was originally published in 1951 when very different social mores applied. We should therefore forgive much of the low-level gender stereotyping as being part and parcel of its time.

Even so, I found 'The Stars, Like Dust' a lightweight and disappointing read. If you want to see what Asimov can do, I suggest you get hold of something from the Robot or Foundation series instead. I would recommend this book only to Asimov completists.

Patrick Mahon

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