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Literature / Pebble in the Sky

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2019 Harper Voyager cover

First published in January 1950 by Isaac Asimov at Doubleday, this is the firstnote  book in what would later be published as The Empire Novels. The first Novel that Isaac Asimov ever published, this Science Fiction speculative novel is about a contemporary man being flung into the far future by accident.

Joseph Schwartz, a retired and uneducated tailor, suddenly finds himself in the year 827 of the Galactic Era. It's a strange world; the Galaxy is inhabited, but the people of Earth are social outcasts, discriminated against because the planet is largely radioactive wasteland.

Joseph Schwartz is drawn into an ongoing web of intrigue, as Earth-born terrorists prepare a biological weapon against the Galactic Empire. Simultaneously, Bel Arvardan, a young Galactic archeologist who wishes to prove that Earth is the original homeworld of humanity, stumbles into the same conspiracy after meeting Pola Shekt, the daughter of an Earth scientist who has been pressed into the conspiracy's service. With hatred between all factions the question is if galactic catastrophe can be averted.

Pebble in the Sky was republished in Two Complete Science Fiction Adventure Books (Winter 1950 issue), Urania (issue #442, 1966 August), and several Omnibuses. An early draft of this story, called Grow Old With Me, is published in The Alternate Asimovs.

Pebble in the Sky provides examples of:

  • 90% of Your Brain: The Institute for Nuclear Research in Chica is developing a device they call a "Synapsifier", which is intended to increase the human learning capacity. It is explained as making people think faster. It does that and more, with two of its subjects gaining telepathic powers. It is also extremely dangerous and almost uniformly fatal, as the human brain breaks down under the strain.
  • Accidental Time Travel: Joseph Schwartz is a fairly average man from the mid-twentieth century, when an accident at a local university sends him into the distant future. The lack of transition initially gives Schwartz the impression that he's an amnesiac, and he's unable to speak the future language. After being experimented on, he begins to adjust to the strange future, learning that he's currently in the year 827, Galactic Era.
  • Agony Beam: The neuronic whip has several degrees of power, but Dr Arvardan gets to experience the highest levels, which cause every nerve in the body to react in pain, overstimulating him into unconsciousness.
  • all lowercase letters: the 1950 Doubleday cover has the title and asimov's name all in lowercase.
  • Alternative Calendar: Every planet in the galaxy now uses the Galactic Era calendar, which starts from the coronation of Frankenn the First, 827 years before the main setting of the work. Exactly how far in the future this is from the modern day is not clear, with estimates placing it 50,000 to 100,000 years in our future.
    "It's 827 years since the foundation of the Galactic Empire; 827 years since the coronation of Frankenn the First.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Joseph Schwartz has a Hebrew first name and a stereotypically Jewish occupation. There are two Old Testament references; Earthers are a "stubborn and stiff-necked people", and "making the desert bloom" (most of the Earth had become a radioactive wasteland in earlier centuries). Dr Asimov admitted to basing the conditions of Earth on the conditions in ancient Judea (now Israel) under the Romans. Procurator Ennius even gets to use Pontius Pilate's line: "I find no fault in this man..." These factors add up to reinforce the notion of Schwartz as a Jewish man. However there are no explicit references to Schwartz's religion, and when questioned Asimov himself says he gave no thought to it.
  • Apocalypse How: Once the setting shifts to Earth in the far future, it's established that Earth now has large areas of nuclear wasteland, and visitors from off-world wear lead-lined clothing. The radioactive planet is slowly becoming completely uninhabitable.
  • As the Good Book Says...: In chapter 20, "The Deadline That Was Reached", Procurator Ennius is the representative of the Galactic Empire for Earth (which evokes an allusion to Rome's rule over Judea), and he uses Pontius Pilate's line, "I find no fault in this man...", when describing the main villain. In-Universe, the allusion is not recognized.
  • Book Ends: In both the first and last chapters, Joseph Schwartz is quoting Robert Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra";
    "Grow old along with me!
    The best is yet to be,
    The last of life, for which the first was made..."
  • Cruel Mercy: Balkis begins his interrogation of the protagonists by claiming that they are scheduled for a quick death, but if they don't agree to help them, he will guarantee that they will experience a very unpleasant death. It is at this moment when Schwartz claims to be able to kill Balkis with a thought. He's decided instead that Balkis should live, promising a terrible retribution. Schwartz begins by puppeting Balkis, leading them to escape their imprisonment.
    "Or perhaps you, Schwartz. You killed our agent. It was you, was it not? Perhaps you think you can kill me?"
    For the first time Schwartz looked at Balkis. He said coldly, "I can, but I won't."
    "That is kind of you."
    "Not at all. It is very cruel of me. You say yourself that there are things worse than simple death."
  • Dedication: Dr Asimov dedicated this book to his father for having introduced him to Science Fiction.
    To my father, who
    first introduced me to science fiction.
  • Deadly Upgrade: The Synapsifier is able to greatly increase the learning capacity of a subject, and in some it even grants Psychic Powers. However it is fatal to almost all of its subjects, and many also become delusional as they degenerate.
  • Domed Hometown:
    • The 1983 Del Rey/Ballantine cover shows the Procurator's Mt Everest palace enclosed under a dome to protect it from Earth's inhospitable environment.
    • The 1987 Grafton cover shows an asteroid with a dome to hold buildings and trees at the edge of an atmosphere.
  • Doorstopper:
  • Dystopian Edict: A slowly dying future Earth has the Society of Ancients as their local government. Any rule called a "custom" is enforced by the death penalty, including euthanasia for those who are sixty years old.
  • Earth Is the Center of the Universe: The Society of Ancients is founded upon the idea that Earth used to be the only world with human beings on it, and therefore the most important world in the galaxy. They also teach that Earth will be the most important world again. In recent centuries, Earth has tried to revolt against the Galactic Empire three times, and rebel elements are currently attempting a mass genocide of other worlds.
  • Earth That Used to Be Better: The Society of Ancients rules the local government, and is founded upon the idea that Earth was the origin world of humanity. Part of their teachings is that Earth will again be the most important world in the galaxy. Meanwhile, they mandate euthanasia at sixty, large areas of the planet are completely uninhabitable, and rebel elements are plotting a mass viral genocide of other worlds.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The High Minister isn't given a name in this story, because Secretary Balkis is the true villain and the High Minister is just a pawn.
  • Explosive Overclocking: The Synapsifier increases the human learning capacity, and is explained as making the subject think faster. However this is also extremely dangerous, and the majority of the subjects die under the strain, some even becoming delusional as they degenerate.
  • Fake-Out Make-Out: When Bel Arvardan is secretly meeting with Pola in chapter 14, "Second Meeting", she tells him that he should try to kiss her if he hears any noise to disguise their meeting. During their discussion, she lies that someone is coming, to trick him into kissing her.
    "First-I don't think anyone followed us, but if you hear any noise at all, would you-would you"-her eyes dropped-"put your arms about me, and-and-you know."
    He nodded his head and said dryly, "I believe I can improvise without any trouble. Is it necessary to wait for noise?"
  • Fantastic Racism: There is near-universal mutual hate between the Galaxy at large and the inhabitants of Earth.
    • Earth believes itself to be the ancestral home of humanity and therefore the rightful ruler of the galaxy, and resents the Galactic Empire's harsh rule over the planet and its military oppression. The zealots who control the planet don't simply want an end to oppression, they want to change places and become the oppressors themselves.
    • The citizens of the Empire in turn hate Earthmen for their arrogance at thinking themselves better than the rest of the galaxy, and regard the people as 'dirty' and 'diseased'. The Sirian sector is particularly noted for its virulent anti-Terrestrial sentiments. Bel Arvardan is from Baronn in the Sirian sector, and though he makes an effort to present a non-judgemental face he has his own deep-seated prejudices.
  • Fictional Document:
    • The newspaper that Grew reads is called the Tribune. It provides information about Bel Arvardan, the archeologist, visiting Earth and Affret Shekt's search for volunteers to test his Synapsifier.
    • Journal of the Galactic Archaeological Society is a prestigious science magazine, which has published Bel Arvardan's research.
    • Physical Reviews, a less-popular scientific magazine but still with galactic circulation, has published an article about Affret Shekt's invention of the Synapsifier.
  • Fictional Field of Science: The mapping and demographics of Galactography is mentioned, due to having a Galactic Superpower.
  • First-Name Basis: Grew, Arbin Maren's father-in-law, is never referred to by his family name, just by the name Grew, which is probably his first name, since his daughter, Loa Maren, simply calls him Father.
  • Fishbowl Helmet:
    • The cover of Two Complete Science Fiction Adventure Books (Winter 1950 issue), which includes Pebble in the Sky, has a man and woman in spacesuits, who are wearing bell-shaped glass helmets with metal near the ears and on the top of the bulb.
    • In the novel itself, the Empire soldiers that respond to the report of Radiation Fever are wearing disease-protective equipment, including glass 'globe' helmets.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Joseph Schwartz, a tailor from contemporary Chicago, is inadvertently and permanently displaced into The Future some several thousand years due to a scientific experiment gone strangely wrong. He cannot speak the local language, and even after he learns the words he has no idea about any local customs or culture. Because of this, he is believed to be an Outsider sent by the Galactic Empire to spy on Earth.
  • Forbidden Zone: In Earth's future, it is covered with uninhabitable nuclear wastelands, and the Society of Ancients, religious fanatics ruling the planet, have decreed that nobody enters the radioactive areas. Bel Arvardan's archeological project would require him to investigate one of these wastelands for ancient human artifacts, so they naturally refuse permission.
    "Do you know what it means to enter the radioactive areas? They're Forbidden. It's one of the strongest Customs these Earthmen have. No one can enter the Forbidden Areas, and all radioactive areas are Forbidden." — Procurator Ennius, to his wife
  • For Want of a Nail: During Chapter 8, "Confluence at Chica", the narration takes a moment to point out where Dr Arvardan could have innocently left Pola Shekt, which would have caused a completely different course of events, ending in disaster.
    Looking back on it later, Arvardan realized that at this point he could have left the girl. Left her! Never seen her again! Have nothing to reproach himself with!...And all would have been different. The great Galactic Empire would have dissolved in chaos and destruction.
  • Galactic Superpower: The Galactic Empire, ruled from the planet Trantor, which has conquered or absorbed all rivals. The local calendar sets the coronation of the first emperor as year 1, and it's so powerful that the idea of a successful revolution on Earth is laughable.
  • Generican Empire: The only galactic nation is simply called the Galactic Empire.
  • Goal-Oriented Evolution: The Merger Theory of human evolution proposes that the human species is the inevitable product of evolution on all planets that have a suitable biosphere to support human life. Proponents of the Radiation Theory point out that this is fundamentally improbable.
  • Green Rocks: Subcritical uranium is used to excuse Accidental Time Travel, kicking off the plot of the story with Schwartz. Radioactivity does not work like is described in the book, which was first published during the 1950s, soon after nuclear fission was discovered.
  • Hollywood Evolution: The origin and evolution of humanity is discussed throughout the novel, and plays a key role in the competing social dynamics. The discussions are loosely based on the then-current debates about the evolution of humanity in Africa before migrating to the rest of the world, which recognized humanity as a single species and denied pseudoscience theories that Africans (And other races) were sub-species.
    • The majority of archaeologists in the galaxy are supporters of the Merger Theory of human evolution, which proposes that humanity evolved on multiple different planets simultaneously and interbred when the different species attained spaceflight. Some even propose that humanity is the eventual endpoint of evolution on all planets with a suitable biosphere. They point to Earth as an example of a world where humanity evolved differently, explaining how Earthmen are 'inferior' and not related to the rest of humanity.
    • The primary opposition to the Merger Theory is the Radiation Theory, which posits that humanity evolved on a single planet in the distant past and radiated out to settle the rest of the galaxy. Earth is one of the proposed candidates of the homeworld of humanity, and their local traditions also maintain that they are the originator of the species. This is scientifically probable, but the inhabitants of the galaxy so despise Earthmen that they refuse to consider them their ancestors, or even distant relations.
  • Identity Amnesia: When Joseph Schwartz realizes he's in a strange land, his first conclusion is that he forgot who he is and he spent several years wandering the Earth in this state. He even questions if his memories of wife and children are accurate. However, it isn't memory loss; he's been flung into the far future.
  • I'm Having Soul Pains: The neuronic whip has several degrees of power, but Dr Arvardan gets to experience the highest levels, which cause every nerve in the body to react in pain, overstimulating him into unconsciousness.
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): Earth has changed in the tens of thousands of years since "present day". Washington has become "Washenn", Chicago has become "Chica", St Louis has become "Senloo", San Francisco has become "Senfran", and Buenos Aires has become "Bonair".
    "Chica first stop, he thought. Largest collection of Earthmen on the planet. Washenn next; local capital. Senloo! Senfran! Bonair!...He had plotted an itinerary all over the western continents[.]"
    "In my time," said Schwartz, "there was a city called St. Louis. It was at the junction of two great rivers...We found Senloo."
  • King Bob the Nth:
    • Stannell II is established as a short-lived emperor who was assassinated about fifty years ago (his immediate successor was Emperor Edard and the current monarch is unnamed). This name is taken from the earlier Foundation story, "The Merchant Princes", which mentions an Emperor Stannell VI, a distant successor.
    • The first ruler of the Galactic Empire is named emperor Frankenn the First, and their rule forms the basis of the Galactic Era calendar.
  • Language Drift: The protagonist, Joseph Schwartz, inadvertently steps into the future, where his 20th century English is so different (he says Chicago, they say Chica) that it is unintelligible to all except a few historical linguists. Bel Arvardan recognizes Schwartz's English due to his specialty as a prehistory archeologist.
  • Mistaken for Spies: In chapter 10, "Interpretation Of Events", Secretary Balkis is explaining to the High Minister of the Society of Ancients why Schwartz and Dr. Bel Arvardan must be spies from the Galactic Empire. Overlaps with Time-Travelers Are Spies in Schwartz's case.
  • My Significance Sense Is Tingling: The Mind Touch, part of Schwartz's Psychic Powers, gives him the ability to sense the location and intentions of the people around him, up to a great distance and through solid walls. It doesn't exactly give him the ability to predict their actions, but to know what they've decided to do before they're able to do it.
  • Naming Your Colony World: The planet Ophiuchus takes its name from the constellation of Ophiuchus, rather than just one star.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Published in 1950, Joseph Swartz is originally from the year 1957, and we see him Time Travel to the distant future. Our brief look at 1957 America is not substantially detailed, making it a plausible future for several years, even after 1957.
  • Omnibus:
  • Our Time Travel Is Different: Part of the Inciting Incident causing Joseph Schwartz to be inadvertently and permanently displaced many thousands of years into the future is a local University crucible with subcritical uranium that creates a cone of destruction as it sends only things within the cone into the future. The lack of transition initially gives Schwartz the impression that he's an amnesiac.
  • Portal Cut: The effect that transports Joseph Schwartz into the far-future is expanding out from its source in a straight line. Anything caught in the cone is sent forward, while anything outside is left behind. He loses the toe of a shoe, and half of a doll that was lying on the ground is carried along with him.
  • Psychic Powers: After the Synapsifier is applied to him, Schwartz develops what he calls the "Mind Touch". This initially allows him to sense the location and intentions of those around him, and eventually individual thoughts. He also learns to control the bodies and minds of others, and even kills once.
  • Puppet King: The High Minister, leader of the Society of Ancients, is a pawn in the schemes of his own Secretary. The High Minister is, in theory, an absolute dictator with the power to dismiss Secretary Balkis and assign the post to someone else. However, they rely on Balkis for just about everything related to their job.
    It was the High Minister, of course, who had the semblance of power; the Secretary who had the reality. And in the privacy of the High Minister's office that circumstance was quite plain.
    For the High Minister was pettishly puzzled and the Secretary coolly indifferent.
  • Radiation-Immune Mutants: Earth has become radioactive and the humans still there are slightly more resistant to radiation than the rest of the Galactic Empire, but it's not statistically significant. However, due to exposure and adaptation they are resistant to radiation-mutated diseases that are lethal to off-worlders.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Deconstructed Trope with Ennius, Imperial Procurator of Earth. Arvardin, Shekt, Pola, and Schwartz warn him about the Zealots' plot. Unfortunately, due to his reasonableness, he doesn't simply take their word for it, and can't act with no real evidence. Unfortunately, his inaction nearly dooms the Empire, but Schwartz resorts to exploiting a hatemonger's bigotry to thwart the Zealots' plan.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Space Romans: This story's Galactic Empire (which is later merged into the same one from the Foundation Series) is playing the role of Space Rome to Earth's Judea. Made obvious by Procurator Ennius (inadvertently) using Pontius Pilate's line: "I find no fault in this man..." Also confirmed by Dr Asimov that the allusion between Rome and Israel was intentional.
  • Space Sector: Earth is described as being in the Sirius Sector (or the Sirian Sector). The Rigel Sector is also mentioned.
  • Stupidity-Inducing Attack: Discussed when the villain threatens to Reverse Polarity on the "synapsifier", an intelligence-boosting machine, causing it to reduce the heroes to vegetables.
  • Synthetic Plague: In chapter 15, "The Odds That Vanished", Dr Shekt explains how the Society of Ancients has developed a variation of the Common Fever which will be incredibly virulent and as far as Outsiders are concerned, incredibly deadly.
  • The Theocracy: Earth is ruled by the Society of Ancients, a theological group who utilize Secret Police and Dystopian Edicts to enforce their rule and belief in the superiority of the Earth.
  • Time-Travelers Are Spies: Schwartz, who has inadvertently travelled to the far future, is assumed by the Society of Ancients to be a spy from the Galactic Empire. Ironically it is not because Schwartz has any advanced technology or superior capabilities, but because he is so out of place that the Society thinks he is pretending to be an unintelligible fool to not attract attention.
  • Translation Convention: When Joseph Schwartz travels tens of thousands of years into the future, he finds that English has changed far too much to be comprehensible. The narration from Schwartz's perspective maintains this obfuscation until he learns their modern English, at which point everyone is speaking in English as we know it.
  • Variant Chess: Set thousands of years into The Future, this story mentions 3d and other variants of chess existing, though the game that features as a plot point during chapter 11 is of the common sort, with glowing pieces.
    Grew told him of variations of chess. There was fourhanded chess, in which each player had a board, touching each other at the corners, with a fifth board filling the hollow in the center as a common No Man's Land. There were three-dimensional chess games in which eight transparent boards were placed one over the other and in which each piece moved in three dimensions as they formerly moved in two, and in which the number of pieces and pawns were doubled, the win coming only when a simultaneous check of both enemy kings occurred. There were even the popular varieties, in which the original position of the chessmen were decided by throws of the dice, or where certain squares conferred advantages or disadvantages to the pieces upon them, or where new pieces with strange properties were introduced.
    But chess itself, the original and unchangeable, was the same-and the tournament between Schwartz and Grew had completed its first fifty games.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: The natives of a backwater, slowly dying future Earth have a rule that citizens must die on their sixtieth birthday. It is referred to euphemistically only as "The Sixty". Anyone who is unable to work is also euthanized. People who try to cheat the system are almost universally reviled.
  • We Will Not Have Appendixes in the Future: Imperial officials realize Joseph Schwartz is a time traveler by the fact he has wisdom teeth and an unusually large appendix. Justified by Earth is now covered in radiation after a nuclear war, which would increase mutation rates vastly. How much time passed between the "present" and the "future" is disputed by the fanbase due to inconsistencies within the series (One character estimates between fifty thousand to a hundred thousand years since humanity only existed on a single planet, even assuming that humans didn't evolve simultaneously on multiple planets).
  • World War III: Schwartz assumes that Earth's radioactive crust is due to a war fought with atomic bombs.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: In chapter 20, "The Deadline That Was Reached", the colonel of the Galactic Empire is unashamedly racist against Earthmen, but as Balkis (an Earthman) manipulates him by claiming that long imprisonment is acceptable as long as the truth of treason against the Galactic Empire is uncovered, the colonel sees him as doing his duty for the Galactic Superpower and gives Balkis the greatest compliment that he can.
    The colonel said stiffly, "I admire your feelings, sir, and freely admit that were I in your place my attitude would be quite different. You are a credit to your race, sir. I will attempt contact with the Procurator."