Pebble in the Sky
By Isaac Asimov
Published by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress
Read by Marc Overton
Also a Radio Play produced in 1951 on the show, Dimension X by the NBC radio network
Re-released by Radio Spirits.
This story was the first novel by one of SF’s most prolific authors, Isaac Asimov and while it was published in 1950 by Doubleday, it had been written in a shorter form about three years earlier for a magazine that eventually rejected it as not being adventurous enough. Go figure. I guess the characters just weren’t shooting at enough aliens. And yet this has gone on to be one of the most reprinted book in SF history.
This I, in part the story of a retired tailor, Joseph Schwartz, who due to a nuclear laboratory accident is instantly transported into the far future. In one instant he is about to step over a rag doll on the sidewalk in front of him and the next he finds himself in a world so strange to him, he may as well be on the far side of the galaxy. Moral: Step around the rag doll instead!
Schwartz is eventually taken in by a small family of farmers, barely eking out a living and hiding the fact that one of their number is over sixty years of age, the age at which almost all Earthlings are required to report for voluntary euthanasia so as to make room for the next generation on a world of depleted resources. Earth, you see, has become dangerously radioactive so there really is not a lot of area that is habitable.
Earth is also a part of the Galactic Empire, ruled from the planet Trantor, but Earth is a rebellious planet, having rebelled several times already and where now an ultimate weapon, a virus capable of killing by radiation poisoning has been developed. And who has that weapons, a group of religious fanatics who control the world de facto if not entirely de jure.
Meanwhile, there’s an Earth Scientist who has developed a machine that can boost mental powers and uses it on Schwartz who starts develop mental powers. At the same time an archaeologist from another world is running around trying to get access to the radioactive zones (which are considered sacred so he really is not likely to get that permission) and he bumps into the daughter of the guy who built the mental boosting device and… well, really it’s simpler just to read the story than to try to explain it.
The story was a landmark in Science Fiction for its time and despite a predictable plot was one of the few books that treated SF in a mature and professional manner. In many ways this is one of the books that made modern SF what it is today. And while I might not have been able to synopsize it adequately and succinctly, it is really a very good story and well worth reading.
At first, I found Marc Overton’s reading to be barely adequate. I do not expect a recording of the NLS to be as slick and well-produced as the commercially recorded ones. but this one had a quality I could not quite pin down. Gradually I did figure it out, however. I’m not sure how, but somehow he made the recording sound nearly as old as the book itself. I really thought I was listening to one of the early episodes of “Reading Aloud,” from my youth. Well, I think that was the name of the nightly program on WGBH, the Boston-based National Public Radio station. Perhaps I am misremembering, but where so many books these days are acted, this one was read although not in the same style I have noted elsewhere when reviewing the offerings of Librivox.
Once I figured that out I began to enjoy Mister Overton’s style very much and was sorry when the book was finally over. It is a lesson to me that it is important whether considering a review or just listening for pleasure that each performance should be considered for its own merits and only compared to others where appropriate.
The merits of Pebble in the Sky were obviously realized by some early on and an in 1951, just a year after its initial publication, NBC produced a short and modified version for its SF series Dimension X. This adaptation was heavily modified to tell a story in a 25 minute slot. The whole part about Schwartz was cut out and the radio play centers on the archaeologist and the scientist’s daughter. It also has a different ending in which the bad guys win. So I guess you can have it both ways!
My copy came bundled without warning with the audiobook so in looking around for the proper credits I read a few other reviews. A lot of latter day, Internet reviewers did not like this dramatization, but I really enjoyed it.
Okay, so it’s almost an entirely different story from the book, but if reminded me forcibly of an episode of The Twilight Zone. All it was missing was an introduction and epilogue by Rod Serling, which might have sounded like this;
“Bel Arvadan, a man from a distant planet. He came to earth to study our past, but he’s been caught up in a study of something else instead. It is not the distant past he has to learn about, but how things are right now… In the Twilight Zone.”
However that is how it might have sounded several years later. In 1951, it came across without Rod Serling’s classically clipped tones and cigarettes. But even so, I enjoyed listening to the radio play. Taken by its own merits it told a serious SF story in an age when SF was typified in the public mind by alien invasions and giant monsters, and it told it pretty well.
So to sum all this up, Pebble in the Sky is an early work by one of Science Fiction’s all-time masters. It has a few minor flaws but nothing that gets in the way of a good story. A dedicated SF fan should have this on his or her must-read list. Mister Overton’s reading grew on me so that by the second of third chapter I found he fit the book perfectly, so if you can find this recording it should be worth the bother, and finally, I recommend the Dimension X radio play. Don’t expect it to tell a whole novel in a mere 25 minutes, but enjoy it for what it does. I give this a score of Three out of Three!