Commentary Magazine


Pebble in the Sky, by Isaac Asimov

Earth People vs. the Galaxy
Pebble in the Sky.
by Isaac Asimov.
Doubleday. 223 pp. $2.50.

 

Science fiction is one aspect of the romanticism of a technological society. Within the idiom and ideology of an industrial culture, and without importing foreign or archaic mythologies, it answers the desire for fantasy and escape. It also necessarily projects the author’s unstated preconceptions about human destiny, human nature, and his sense of his own place in the world. In fact, the science fiction writer, in freeing his characters and situations from the specific implications of a historical present or of a known past culture and social background, enjoys greater freedom to portray what he regards as the basic or eternal in human behavior and in human relations—and to expose how he stands in the face of them.

So it is that one section of science fiction reveals an easy optimism about the continuity of human progress and the perpetuity of some kind of capitalist democracy; another pessimistically predicts the enslavement of the solar system or the galaxy under varieties of totalitarian empire; and still another section shares with much of contemporary literature a general cynicism, a contempt for man as hopelessly irremediable, and a total despair in the face of astronomical time.

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In Pbble in the Sky, Isaac Asimov draws upon Jewish history to provide the “social” framework of his plot. In a remote future time, the earth is ruled tyrannically by a Galactic Empire, through representatives who resemble the procurator of Judea and the Roman legions. Local affairs are under the partial control of a kind of Sanhedrin and a theocracy. A party of rebellion is even called the Zealots. That Asimov knowingly used Jewish history is proved conclusively by an episode in which the Zealots incite young Earth patriots to tear down the standards of the Empire mounted in the Earth capital, as Judean patriots did in the time of Pontius Pilate. Finally, an elderly sage, a research biochemist, plays the role of Jochanan ben Zakkai in resisting the powerful Zealot conspiracy in order to save Earth culture, at the cost of betraying his people to the master-race.

In this context Isaac Asimov portrays the clash of “national” pride, and of “national” hatreds, between the Earth people and the Empire people—the disparity of values and the gulf of misunderstanding between the rulers and the oppressed. What is disturbing is that in this portrayal, for all the arrogance and inhumanity of some of the rulers, the author presents the Empire people as scientific, wise, urbane, even benevolent and contemptuously tolerant. It is the Earth people (read Judeans) who are superstitious, inflexible, bitterly chauvinistic. It is the Zealots who are sinister, devious, bloodthirsty. It is the subjected and the conquered whom we are invited to scorn and to fear. It is the Earth Elders who are determined to achieve, not independence, but the extermination, literally, of the other inhabitants of the Galactic Empire, so that this leadership group of the oppressed takes on the nightmare dimensions of the Elders of Zion.

I do not wish to be understood as saying that Isaac Asimov is echoing anti-Semitism. On the contrary: his science fiction stories are among the small number in the field which have genuine emotional and intellectual depth and which are imbued with a humanistic and liberal philosophy. In this novel, he seeks honestly to expose the corrosion of the spirit which subjection produces in the conquered and equally fairly to acknowledge that magnanimity may grow in an established master-race. But he finds himself betrayed into excesses in both of these efforts, as though an unconscious impulse dictated a perverse reversal of emphasis; he makes the oppressed bear the guilt for their oppression, those discriminated against the guilt for the injustice they suffer. In so doing, he unintentionally tells us much about the moral and intellectual atmosphere (not stratosphere) of our planet, here and now.


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