Earth – that pale blue dot – planet – home. It’s not the lonely speck Carl Sagan spoke of. In the Other Worlds of Asimov, the universe is home to different creatures, traversing planets in pods and ships, extending the boundaries of space and science. Mars is colonised. Time travel has been achieved. Trade treaties have been established. The all-Galactic council is a reality. Politics and warfare are not behind though. If anything the collection of two novels and 12 short stories, show that base nature and ambitions don’t change much no matter the stars or galaxies or the physical make up.
When a dispute between scientists leads to a energy valve between two worlds, progress follows. However, when the same transfer mechanism is projected, in time, to destroy Earth itself, it is met with denial, mockery and feigned ignorance. No official is ready to upset the masses by letting go of the free energy, even at the risk of annihilation. If it sounds familiar you only have to ponder our response to climate change and plastics for a minute. Not all scientific breakthroughs are a gift to humanity. We see this over and over in this collection. A historian’s desire to see the past leads to an invention that could end privacy. An object found on the Moon could wipe out most of humanity in the wrong hands.
On the other hand, there are expeditions that end up saving lives. A planet, about to be colonised, shows up a historical anomaly – the previous settlers were wiped out due to some mystery illness. When experiments yield nothing, it takes a photographic mind to find the answers. This man gets no meaning, is no subject expert, but just a compendium of facts. Almost like a computer – cold, rational, with little social skills. The mind as a storehouse concept is explored by Asimov in other stories in the series. In one, humans are analysed and segregated into professions they are most suited for. All knowledge pertaining to the field is downloaded into their minds like into the hard drive, barring a few who show deviant behavior. In another, a medicine to enhance memory leads to unforeseen effects.
The aliens, themselves, breathe in cyanide and sulphur, balance themselves on four legs or more, have scaly skin, horns in some cases and are surprisingly vegetarian to name a few traits. Sometimes they are lesser forms, like the amoeba, using the sun to feed themselves. In all cases, they are intelligent life forms – looking for energy sources, planets, biological answers or signing intergalactic treaties. They are no different from us humans, with ambitions of taming the galaxy, albeit with lesser experience of war. Some days the humans are able to thwart their attempts by uniting humanity, other days they themselves turn predators.
Even amongst the humans, infighting and a sort of nationalism or should one call it planetarism prevails. A faction makes political gains by demonising humans settled on Mars for using up water on Earth. In reality, it would take a million years for Earth to lose 1% of its total water supply. Politics and facts are, however, always at opposing ends. Faced with rations and quotas, the Martians are driven to travel further into space, finding an ingenious way to tap a planet with rings, turning the tables on mere Earth folks.
The book delves deep into space travel and colonisation. In one, where humans learn to tweak reality by realising time travel, interstellar travel loses steam. By the time humanity figures out the jump through hyperspace, the universe ends up being colonised by ‘others’. In this scenario, man’s relationship with Earth sours. It becomes a “prison surrounded by an infinity of freedom…” This novel rang hollow and felt halfhearted; not the premise of eternity or Earth as a prison, but the onus on one man and how easy it was to manipulate him. At the other end of this spectrum laid out by Asimov is bookkeeper Mullen, who left the planet for 17 years, hoping to prove a point. “I couldn’t let them stop me from traveling to Earth. It wasn’t the love of woman, or fear or hate or idealism of any sort. It was stranger than any of those…haven’t you ever been homesick?”
The Earth is the centrestage, the backdrop, the setting. Asimov even goes on to examine how superstitions and cults are born. From a mother’s love to a lover’s fallacy, it taps a range of emotions. What sets this book apart, however, is not the science, the breadth of ideas or even the glaring possibilities of us not being alone, but an understanding of what makes us human. Do read this one.
Ps: Forgive the state of the cover, the book is in perfect shape.