The Stars, Like Dust
Dust-jacket from the first edition
|Cover artist||Whitney Bender|
|Genre||Science fiction, Whodunit|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover/Paperback)|
|Preceded by||Robots and Empire|
|Followed by||The Currents of Space|
The Stars, Like Dust is a 1951 science fiction mystery book by writer Isaac Asimov.
The book is part of Asimov's Galactic Empire series. It takes place before the actual founding of the Galactic Empire, and even before Trantor has become important. It starts with a young man attending the University of Earth. Biron Farrill is the son of the greatest nobleman on the planet Nephelos, one of the Nebula Kingdoms. The story starts with the news that his father has been caught conspiring against the Tyranni.
The Tyranni (who come from planet Tyrann) are a minor empire that rule fifty planets near the Horsehead Nebula. Tyrann suppressed science and space navigation training in the Kingdoms, to help maintain control over its subject worlds. The ruler of Tyrann in the story is called the "Khan". Asimov obviously took the Mongol dominion over the Russian principalities as a model, much as he used the declining Roman Empire for his Foundation series. (See the "Golden Horde" for the real-world history that Asimov drew upon, and adapted.)
The story's in-universe historical context is generally regarded as quite interesting, during the long period between the initial expansion and the rise of the Empire of Trantor. But the main action in the novel revolves around one small intrigue that really resolves nothing. It is occasionally considered to be one of Asimov's somewhat lesser novels, and Asimov himself once called it his "least favorite novel." 
The novel was originally serialized as Tyrann, and its first paperback edition was retitled The Rebellious Stars.
The story is set long before Pebble in the Sky, though it was written one year later. The Trantorian Empire is not directly mentioned — it would be located far away, having been settled not long beforehand, and before its first great wave of territorial expansion. Earth's radioactivity is explained here as the result of an unspecified nuclear war. This contradicts what Asimov later wrote in Robots and Empire. One could suppose that history has become muddled over the intervening centuries since the final Robot novel — "many of the inhabitants of the planets near the Horsehead Nebula now believe it was named after an explorer called Horace Hedd." Other theories exist. And when Biron pretends on Rhodia that he comes from Earth, the Earth is not recognized, and he has to identify it as "a small planet of the Sirian Sector".
In contemporary terms, however, Asimov wrote the Empire series in the early years of the Cold War, when a nuclear World War 3 seemed a realistic future; one whose widespread and enduring radioactive contamination might be remembered, at least in folklore, for thousands of years. By the time he wrote Robots and Empire, this was no longer so. However, in the intervening years he had mentioned the contamination, and the resulting abandonment of Earth, in many stories. He therefore retained both of these elements but gave a different cause than nuclear war.
Biron Farrill, about to complete studies at the University of Earth, is told by Sander Jonti that his father, a rich planetary leader known as Lord Rancher of Widemos, has been arrested and killed by the Tyranni and his own life may be in danger. On Jonti's advice, he travels to Rhodia, the strongest of the conquered planets. There he hears rumours of a world where rebellion against the Tyranni is secretly being plotted.
Escaping with Artemisia oth Hinriad, the daughter of the Director of Rhodia and the Director's cousin Gillbret in a Tyranni spaceship, they travel to the planet Lingane. It is not a part of the Tyranni conquests, but maintains "peaceful" relations with them.
There, they meet the Autarch of Lingane (who is revealed to be Sander Jonti, the man who sent Farrill to Rhodia from Earth), who seems to possess knowledge of a rebellion world. With him and his followers, the group travel to the heart of the Horsehead Nebula — they believe that for any rebellion world to exist and not be known to the Tyranni, it must be located in a place like the Horsehead Nebula.
The Tyranni spaceship stolen by Farrill is being tracked by a fleet of Tyranni vessels led by Simok Aratap, the Tyrannian Commissioner. With him is the Director, who is shown to be nervous about his daughter's and brother's well-being. They keep themselves at a distance for fear of Farrill discovering them until Farrill lands on one planet in the heart of the nebula.
The Autarch believes that the planet is the rebellion world. However, there is no sign of life anywhere. When the Autarch and Farrill leave the spaceship to apparently set up a radio transmitter, Farrill faces the Autarch and accuses him of getting his father killed at the hands of the Tyranni. The Autarch affirms the accusation, to which Farrill adds that the Autarch feared his father's growing reputation. That is why he arranged Farrill's father's death.
In a fight, Farrill subdues the Autarch with help from the Autarch's closest secretary, who reveals that he is ashamed of the Autarch for killing a great man like Farrill's father. Later, as Farrill and the Autarch's secretary try to explain everything to the rest of the crew they picked up from Lingane, the Tyranni fleet arrives and takes them prisoner. Aratap interrogates Farrill, Artemisia, Gillbret and the Autarch's secretary in order to ascertain the coordinates of the rebellion world but they do not know where it is. However, the Autarch reveals the coordinates to Aratap. The Autarch's secretary kills the Autarch with a blaster in anger.
While Aratap interrogates Farrill, Gillbret manages to escape to the engine room of the spaceship and short the hyperatomics. Farrill, realising the danger, manages to contact Aratap. The engines are repaired, but Gillbret is injured and later dies.
The space jump is made with the coordinates given to them by the late Autarch. However, they find a planetless system consisting only of a white-dwarf star. Aratap lets Farrill and the others go, believing that there is no rebellion world. Aratap makes it clear that he will never to be chosen as Director. Biron and Artemisia are allowed to marry.
It is eventually revealed that there is indeed a rebellion in the making, located on Rhodia itself. The Director is its leader; he deliberately took on the persona of a nervous and timid old man to throw off suspicion from himself and his planet.
It is further revealed that the Director, who possesses a collection of ancient documents, has searched for, and found, a document that will help a future empire-yet-to-be (likely Trantor) govern the galaxy. This document is ultimately revealed to be the United States Constitution.
Asimov noted in his autobiography that the genesis of the Constitution subplot lay with H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy magazine. Asimov felt that Gold's judgment was at fault by attributing too much power to the Constitution as a document. Asimov later considered the premise highly improbable, and became annoyed at Gold for having persuaded him to insert the subplot into the novel. Whatever Asimov's opinion of the novel, he never actually withdrew it from publication.
On its initial book publication, reviewer Groff Conklin termed the novel "a first-rate piece of imaginative story-telling." In Astounding Science Fiction, Villiers Gerson declared the novel successful, despite its "unidimensional" characters, due to "Asimov's skill as a story-teller of suspense." The New York Times found the novel "a rousing adventure story of the remote future."
Reviewer Jane Fowler noted that "Making the re-discovery of the United States Constitution into the climax of the plot implies that the space civilization depicted is going to take up this Constitution as a model for building a new political structure, that the "space feudalism" which dominates the political system depicted in the book will be transformed into some kind of a federal, representative democracy. That could have worked fine if this was a stand-alone novel. As part of a series, it does not work because we know that galactic civilization is not going to develop in this way. Trantor will expand and expand, until the entire galaxy is included in its empire. Trantor and its empire have many points in their favor, but it is not a democratic federation. So, the re-discovery of the US Constitution led nowhere, it did not shape a new political reality, and in the end probably ended up right back in a collection of old documents. Of course, the fact is that when Asimov wrote this he probably did not yet fully realize that this was going to be an integral part of a comprehensive long series."
|Isaac Asimov's Utopia
by Roger MacBride Allen
|The Currents of Space
- Asimov, Isaac. In Memory Yet Green. Avon, 1979, p. 600.
- "Galaxy's Five Star Shelf," Galaxy Science Fiction, May 1951, p.84.
- "Book Reviews", Astounding Science Fiction, July 1951, p.156
- "In The Realm of the Spacemen", The New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1951
- Jane B. Fowler, "Predicting the Politics, Sociology and Religion of the Future", p. 26, 31