Pebble in the Sky
by Isaac Asimov
Cover Artist: Photo: Digital Vision/Getty Images
Review by Paul Haggerty
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319128
Date: 08 January 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Pebble in the Sky is a reprint of a classic story from SF's golden years. It's the story of Joseph Schwartz, retired tailor and one man among billions in 1949 Chicago. Walking along the road one day, Joseph is the victim of an experiment gone horribly wrong at the nearby Institute of Nuclear Research. Take some crude uranium, a boringly normal experiment, and a young chemist not watching what he's doing, and Joesph's peaceful walk is shattered midstep when he suddenly steps thousands of years into the future and the First Galactic Empire.
The story of Pebble in the Sky is told with Joseph as the principal observer, since we're most likely to identify with him. But two other characters help to make a triangle for exploring this strange world of the far future: Dr. Bel Arvardan, noted citizen of the Empire, and Pola Shekt, citizen of the lowly, despised, and heavily radioactive Earth.
Nearly a thousand years have passed since the founding of the Galactic Empire, and who knows how many since Joseph's time. The Empire has grown vast and strong, the citizens healthy and intelligent. Mankind's ingenuity has allowed him to span the stars and tame disease and all forms of want. And yet, back on Earth (which still makes the ludicrous claim of being the home of the human race), the population is heavily controlled, resources are scarce and, for the good of the many, all citizens are required to report for termination once they reach the age of 60. Joseph is 62, so he has yet one more thing to worry about.
The Empire maintains a small outpost high up on Mt. Everest, but in general tries to let the Terrans do whatever they want to each other, as long as they don't do anything that could cause a problem for the Empire. Of course, the people of Earth have been nursing their grudges against the Empire and scheming their revenge for a long time, and now is the time for their dark plans to come to light. And if three people who couldn't be more different can't find out what's happening and figure out a way to stop it, the death toll could be truly astronomical.
Pebble in the Sky was originally published in 1950 but, except for a few details, holds up pretty well. The trope of accident with radiation is a bit hard to take after more than a half-century of scientific progress, but once you get over that you get to share in the rare view of the beginning of Asimov's vision of the Galactic Empire, which would serve as the backdrop of many novels, culminating with the Foundation series. I hadn't read Pebble in over 30 years, but even after so long a parting, it was good to catch up on an old friend.