Cover of The Stars, Like Dust
Book 3 Science Fiction Novel 1951
I, Robot Foundation
A mule
Asimov fan
A mule
Target reader

The “Rebellion World” was man’s last outpost for survival…

Half a century before, the Nebular Kingdoms had been conquered by the cruel and domineering Tyranni, the war lords of Tyrann.

Now Biron Farrill’s father had disappeared and Biron himself was marked for murder. He knew that his enemies were backed by the Tyranni. And that they were responsible.

But why had he and his father been singled out for destruction?

The answer takes him through the cosmic reaches of the galaxies. It becomes a quest for the “Rebellion World”—the hidden planet that shelters a conspiracy against the Tyranni and holds the only hope of peace for man’s future.

The quest is a dangerous one.

The stakes are either the end of the Tyranni…or the end of Biron Farril.

Nota bene: Asimov’s preference was for this book’s title to be written with an em-dash, thus: The Stars, Like Dust—. This is unusual and a little awkward. Publishers generally leave the em-dash out, and so will I.

The Stars, Like Dust is Asimov’s third book, his second novel, and the earliest (chronologically) of the three “Empire” novels. It’s generally accounted one of his weaker efforts. He himself disliked it intensely and thought it the worst of his novels. I, myself, tend to agree with this assessment. Why? Well, let’s be like the Good Doctor and start our story at the beginning.

Walter Bradbury, Asimov’s editor at Doubleday, was pleased with Pebble in the Sky even before its publication. He was willing to consider a contract for a second novel by the Good Doctor, but he wanted to see an outline and a couple of sample chapters first. Asimov started work in November 1949, but Bradbury was unimpressed. It seems that Asimov was falling prey to “second novel syndrome”—now that he was a Novelist, Asimov was thinking he needed to write like one and was getting carried away. Rather than his sticking to his usual sparse prose, he was getting distinctly florid, and he needed to tone things down.

(A related problem is that of the writer who is terrified of writing a second novel because they don’t think they can ever approach the first in terms of quality. Margaret Mitchell is probably the best-known of these.)

A second attempt fared no better than the first. It wasn’t until Asimov submitted the third version of the novel’s opening in the spring of 1950 that Bradbury was willing to give him a contract and advance.

Meanwhile, the science fiction landscape was changing in the world of magazines. Through the 1940’s, Astounding Science Fiction under editor John W. Campbell was the place to be published. This was no longer entirely true. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was getting underway even as Asimov started work on The Stars, Like Dust, and writer Horace L. Gold had been hired to start a new magazine, Galaxy Science Fiction, which would eventually begin publication in October 1950. F&SF and Galaxy quickly grew in importance, and through the 1950’s and 1960’s, they formed a triumvirate with Astounding in dominating magazine science fiction. (Galaxy, alas, fell on hard times and folded in 1980. The others are still going strong. Today we know Astounding as Analog, a name Campbell gave it in 1960, and Galaxy’s old place in the triad is now occupied by Asimov’s Science Fiction. Print magazines aren’t nearly as important as they used to be by any means, but these three remain the core of that market.)

Galaxy looked very promising. Asimov, moreover, was concerned that he had become a one-editor author and couldn’t write anything for anybody other than Campbell, so he was more than usually anxious to be published there. There was only one problem, and that problem was Horace L. Gold.

Gold had fought in World War II and, according to Asimov, suffered badly from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It didn’t affect his talents as a writer or editor, but it made a wreck of his social skills. He could barely manage to talk to people face-to-face. For example, Asimov recounts visiting Gold at home only to have him suddenly dash out of the room. Asimov was on the verge of leaving when the phone rang and Gold’s wife handed it to him. He was a bit surprised, since nobody knew he was there. It was, however, Gold calling from a second line in the bedroom to finish the conversation.

Gold was not much easier to work with over the phone—he could be clingy, and conversations with him tended to last forever. Asimov soon dreaded getting his calls. Moreover, as an editor, he could be scathing in his criticisms and more than a little demanding. This doesn’t mean he was a bad editor. To the contrary, he was top-notch, and even Asimov benefited from his critiques in some cases (most notably with “The Ugly Little Boy”). In general, however, authors started to decide they’d prefer never being published in Galaxy to having to deal with Gold, and as time went on he became almost servile with Asimov in order to avoid being abandoned by him, too.

In the summer of 1950, however, when Galaxy was not yet on newsstands, Asimov didn’t know how difficult Gold would prove to be and was thrilled when he offered to serialize The Stars, Like Dust. Not only would this get him into a major new market, but serialization was still an important way to bring a novel to the attention of readers and would hopefully boost the novel’s sales. Gold, however, had one small suggestion: He wanted Asimov to insert a subplot wherein the characters would be scouring the galaxy for a document that described a weapon, a weapon so powerful that they could use it to overthrow their oppressors, the hated Tyranni. In the end, the document would prove to be the Constitution of the United States.

Asimov blanched. Not only was this really corny, but it didn’t even make much sense. He was willing to go along, however, for the sake of getting the novel serialized. He approached Bradbury and explained the situation. He apologized for the problem Gold was creating but offered to take the subplot out for hardback publication. To his horror, Bradbury liked the subplot and insisted he keep it in.

Well, that was it for Asimov. He’d had write an outline (which he hated doing). He was using an agent (which, even though it was his friend Fred Pohl, he strongly disliked). He’d had to rewrite the begining twice—and he hated rewriting anything at all. Now he was saddled with a subplot he detested. He lost all real interest in The Stars, Like Dust and pretty much just went through the motions when finishing it up.

All that explains why Asimov never much cared for the book. What about me?

There are a number of problems the novel has, and I’ll detail some of them below, but I have one very simple reason for not caring for it: it simply does not stick in my memory for any length of time.

With Asimov’s better fiction, even one reading can be enough for much of the plot to stay with me, and the books I’ve read repeatedly have become old friends. I could write up moderately detailed plot summaries from memory alone of even lesser works like the “Lucky” Starr novels. Not so with The Stars, Like Dust. Let me give just one illustration. I most recently read the book in the autumn of 2010. This was far from the first time; by my count, I’ve read it at least seven times before. And yet, despite this, there was a major plot twist halfway through the novel that took me entirely by surprise. I have no trouble remembering that the Second Foundation is on Trantor, that Julius Enderby is the murderer, that the blind guy’s dog is a robot spy, that Noÿs Lambent is really manipulating Andrew Harlan in order to keep Eternity from being founded, that Michaels is the saboteur, that Eto Demerzel is R. Daneel Olivaw, or that Cleon I is killed by his gardener. That Whatshisname Jonti is the Autarch of Ligane? I certainly didn’t see that coming.

Did I remember anything about the plot? Well, yes, bits and pieces, especially after I hit that surprise and sat down to deliberately try to think things through. I’m sorry to say, though, that the thing I remembered most clearly was that we end the novel with Captain Kirk reciting the Ay Plegli Ianectu.

Oh, sorry. Wrong hokey ending.

Actually, the thing that stuck with me most was what a jerk our hero, Biron Farrill, is. He starts out the novel pretty naïve and quite the perfect dupe. By the time he gets to Rhodia, he’s fed up with being pushed around and becomes petty and angry. What I remembered most clearly was that he deliberately alienates his love, Artemisia oth Hinriad, heartlessly manipulates her, and practically throws her at the novel’s villain. (Note that I didn’t remember who that villain was until the end of Chapter Twelve.) My problem with Biron isn’t that he’s not fleshed out, it’s that I really at no point in the novel do I like him or care what happens to him.

As for Artemisia herself, she’s a dishrag, just the latest in a long line of weak and forgettable female characters in Asimov’s writing: Susan Calvin, Bayta Darrell, Arkady Darrell, Gladia Delmarre, Noÿs Lambent, Dua, Bliss, Dors Venabili…

My bad. Wrong list.

Now, granted this is still 1950. Science fiction is still very male-dominated, characterization isn’t Asimov’s strong point, and his experience with women is still pretty limited. Nor are wimpy women entirely missing from Asimov’s fiction elsewhere. Jesse Bailey springs to mind, for instance, and even Pola Shekt is fairly passive. Artemisia, however, comes across as the quintessential doormat. If I were to try to summarize Artemisia in two words, they’d be “Disney princess.” Yeah, she’s pretty, and even though she’s on the spoiled side, she’s got her share of spunk—but once she finds herself a man, she’s so meek and submissive she may as well be on Gor. It doesn’t help that she gets saddled with some fairly insipid dialog: “I will forgive you, Biron, because I couldn’t bear not to. How could I ask you to come back to me unless I forgave you?”

At least Biron never has to tell her, “I hate sand. It’s so sandy.”

(Asimov was aware that his love-dialog was pretty sappy and winks at the fact; he may be poking fun of how silly we all get when we first fall in love, or he may just have not wanted to bother coming up with anything better and is covering his rear by letting us know that he knows how just how bad it is. I’m not sure, but I tend to suspect the latter.)

Artemisia’s male relatives fare a little better. At least they’re given something that approximates a personality, but in each case it’s a little on the one-note side: her father rather overplays his act as an imbicile, and her uncle’s obsession with the word “amusing” gets on one’s nerves after a while. To Uncle Gil’s credit, he gets a good breakdown towards the end of the book and a very nice death scene.

(I did, by the way, remember that the rebellion world is Rhodia and that Artemisia’s father is only pretending to be an idiot to keep the Tyranni from suspecting what he was up to.)

Is there anything else that goes wrong over the course of the The Stars, Like Dust? Well, some of the mechanical details don’t ring quite true, most particularly how you hitch a trailer at the rear a spaceship, where the engines are likely to be, or how you land the whole result on a planet. The prose is still on the overwritten side, unless one is in the habit of using words like “brachycephalic” in everyday conversation. We get some unnecessarily detailed descriptions of things like galactic coordinates or how to find a planet. Some of it verges on being of the “as you well know” variety, and that’s a bad sign, because it’s one of the worst sins a science fiction writer can commit. (As Asimov well knew.)

And yet the book isn’t a total loss by any means. In his review of Nemesis, Orson Scott Card observed that Asimov can’t help but write a page-turner, and that’s true here. Once you get into the story, it moves along at a nice pace. Certainly the political situation underlying the story is well-conceived. The various places we visit along the course of our adventures are genenerally well-realized; one rather regrets that we never get to see Widemos.

Nor are the characters uniformly unlikable. Probably my favorite character in the book is one of the Tyranni, Simok Aratap, the official who is running things on behalf of the Great Kahn in this particular corner of his territories. Aratap certainly good at his job, even if Biron manages to pull the wool over his eyes. Perhaps what I like most is that he’s loyal and patriotic yet still cynical about his country and even his own patriotism. I was still left thinking more highly of him at the book’s end than the young Rancher of Widemos. My second favorite character has to be the loyal Colonel Tedor Rizzett, who is true enough to his principles as to be willing to kill his own Autarch rather than see them betrayed.

And, hey, we get to meet the inventor of the visi-sonor!

Looking over the Internet, there are other reviewers of The Stars, Like Dust who rather like it, and one can’t really altogether fault them. It certainly seems to sit well enough with sf fans in general. After all, it’s been continually available since its fist publication in 1951. Its position as one of the “Empire” novels gives it a leg up in terms of staying in print, of course, since that makes it part of a set, but one notes that the same consideration doesn’t seem to have done the much superior Caves of Steel much good.

Ultimately, the real problems with The Stars, Like Dust lie with the subplot. Its resolution is so painfully chauvinistic that it tends to overwhelm the novel’s virtues. I alluded to the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory” above, and it has the same problem. Up until the American flag is solemly and ceremoniously brought onstage, “The Omega Glory” is actually pretty good, but this misplaced patriotism just derails the whole story. So it is with The Stars, Like Dust. If you can overlook the bit about the Constitution, it’s still weak, but it’s not really bad. Make the hero a little less of a schmuck and the heroine a little less wimpy, and you have the germ of a story in here that could handle its problems the way Pebble in the Sky does, by being so fun to read that you’re willing to let them slide.

More to the point, Asimov couldn’t get over the subplot. He can write pretty well at this point in his career even on autopilot, but the whole feels just a little slipshod. It’s like a great actor doing a movie just because they need the money; the lack of enthusiasm for the project shows in innumerable little ways.

And I share Asimov’s problem. The book’s main flaws are so glaring that they drive everything else out of mind. Perhaps if I read the book again in 2020, I won’t be surprised to find out who it really is that wakes Biron up in the middle of the night on page one. Perhaps I’ll even be able to provide a decent outline of the entire plot before while Biron is still mid-snore. Perhaps not. I can, however, guarantee this: I will never forget the novel’s closing words.

Oh, and unless I forget—note that Simok Aratap is described as being distinctly short. This will become important very soon.

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