The Stars, Like Dust
Isaac Asimov
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Buy *The Stars, Like Dust* by Isaac Asimov

The Stars, Like Dust
Isaac Asimov
Orb Books
240 pages
September 2009
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Action, murder and intrigue abound on an interstellar scale in Isaac Asimov’s classic The Stars, Like Dust. Biron Farrill is an innocent student at the University of Earth when he is suddenly and inexplicably ripped from his idle life near the end of his last semester to become a puppet of both the tyrannical despots called the Tyranni and those trying to overthrow them. Despite his best efforts to avoid being a pawn, everything he does to try to act on his own plays into the hands of one or the other of the two sides engaged in a massive power struggle. The Stars, Like Dust is the second of Asimov’s books that comprise his Galactic Empire trilogy, the first one being Pebble in the Sky and the third The Currents of Space. They set up his Foundation series to come and, along with his other novels such as I, Robot, established Isaac Asimov as arguably the best-known science fiction author in the world.

Biron Farrill reminded me at first of a befuddled Cary Grant-type character in a futuristic version of North by Northwest. He’s caught up in a plot largely beyond his control, the target of an assassination attempt when a small but deadly radiation bomb planted in his room explodes and he barely escapes in time. He has become the target of an unknown assassin and also a potential recruit of a group fighting the Tyranni. While arranging for his own flight for his life, he discovers that his father, the highly-respected Rancher of Widemos, has been captured by the Tyranni, tried for treason, and murdered by them.

Sander Jonti saves Farrill’s life by alerting him via a call on visiphone that something is up. A sleepy Farrill realizes that everything is not as it should be. The electricity isn’t working right, the ventilation system is off, and while he can hear people calling him on his visiphone, he can’t call out. Then he notices that the murmuring sounds of his bedroom have changed, and he locates the source of the “chuckling conversation it was holding with itself” in his closet:

To be exact, it was the sound of a radiation counter, ticking off the charged particles and the hard gamma waves that came its way, the soft clicking electronic surges melting into a low murmur. It was the sound of a counter, counting the only thing it could count -- death!
Biron can tell by the white strap of his wristwatch that the radiation is not at a harmful level yet (the strap would turn blue if there were too much radiation, and then he would die). Trapped inside his own room, he tries to warn the occupants below him by banging on the floor with a chair, but he can’t do anything about the people above him. Eventually, someone hears him and comes to his rescue, breaking the door down. It’s Jonti and the building’s superintendent, Esbak. They manage to get the building evacuated. Jonti tells Farrill: “You’re a marked man, and I may have already endangered myself as well.”

This is just the beginning of the novel. Jonti is one of those who don’t like how the Tyranni are running their vast empire, and he assists Farrill’s escape from Earth. But Jonti has plans of his own and actually considers Farrill expendable. If Farrill can somehow live and avenge his father’s death, fine; if not, that’s also fine, as long as Jonti isn’t implicated. Farrill doesn’t really entirely trust or like Jonti, but he doesn’t have much choice other than to go along with whatever Jonti tells him to do. Jonti’s lands have been confiscated by the Tyranni, and he argues with Farrill that, although he might be able to find better men to do the job,

“If your father was killed, you will be Rancher of Widemos, and as such you would be valuable to me if you were only twelve and an idiot besides. I need you for the same reason that Tyranni must be rid of you. And if my necessity is unconvincing to you, surely theirs cannot be. There was a radiation bomb in your room. It could only have been meant to kill you. Who else would want to kill you?”
Farrill wants to return to his home planet of Nephelos to seek vengeance, but it’s too dangerous. Jonti suggests he goes to see Hinrik V, Director of Rhodia. Jonti says that he is “an imbecile” but that he “has influence with the Tyranni, as much influence as a lickspittle puppet may have” and that he “may arrange to have you reinstated.” That doesn’t do much to fill Farrill’s breast with hope, but he heads to Rhodia. Everyone has his own agenda. Whom, if anyone, can Farrill trust? The wristwatch’s strap, when he gets it returned to him, is still white. It never turned blue; the radiation bomb, if there was one, never went off.

Even when he manages to steal the spaceship of Aratap, the Tyrannian Commisioner, and leaves Rhodia with Hinrik’s daughter, Artemisia, and her uncle Gillbret, Biron unwittingly plays into Aratap’s plans. Aratap is able to makes sense of Biron’s actions, where before they had been unclear to him and didn’t seem to follow a pattern. Aratap allows Biron to escape, at least temporarily, to try to find out more about who are the people behind Farrill’s actions.

The Stars, Like Dust showcases Isaac Asimov at the height of his skills and career. The chapters have titles that are humorous and draw you into the plot - “Chance and the Wrist Watch,” “Musician of the Mind” and “The Hole In Space.” If you enjoy great science fiction and haven’t yet experienced The Stars, Like Dust and Asimov’s other two Galactic Empire novels, you owe it to yourself to check out some of the best science fiction ever written by a master of the genre.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Douglas R. Cobb, 2011

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