What he knew about the future could destroy a solar system…
…so they seared the memory from Rik’s brain, and left him for dead, a whimpering, thumb-sucking half-child.
Then Valona, a young, lonely peasant girl, adopted him. And gently turned him into a man again.
Hunted by kings and spies, caught in a web of interplanetary intrigue, Rik struggles with his own numbed mind and his unknown enemy in a desperate and one-sided race with time.
This is the last-written of the “Empire” books, although it takes place between the other two. In terms of quality, it is also in the middle of the pack. It’s not as delightful a read as Pebble in the Sky, but neither is it as fraught with problems as The Stars, Like Dust—.
The Currents of Space is best seen as Asimov’s take on race relations in the United States as of the early 1950s, before the rise of the Civil Rights movement. Blacks in the South were at this point still slaves for all practical intents and purposes, and much of Southern society was geared towards keeping them that way.
Here we deal primarily with two planets: Florina and Sark. Florina is the only place in the Galaxy to find kyrt, a form of cotton which is unusually strong, unusually versatile, and, when treated properly, incredibly beautiful. The natives of Flornia do not, however, control the riches their planet provides. All economic control is in the hands of the Sarkites, and every Sarkite to a man has one goal above all others: keep the Florinians in their place.
Naturally, the Sarkites are not alone in this. They manipulate life on Florina to make sure the most intelligent and capable Florinians have a motive to side with the Sarkites. Among these are the Townmen, who act as appointed mayors of the individual Florinian villages. Florinians such as the Townmen are given minor privileges, and those few privileges are guarded jealously. In one exceptionally bitter passage, Asimov writes:
“Jacof’s eyes brightened and his shoulders lifted a trifle. ‘I’m a clerk in the food-processing center. I’ve had mathematics, long division. I can do logarithms.’
“Yes, the Townman thought, they’ve shown you how to use a table of logarithms and taught you how to pronounce the word.
“He knew the type. The man would be prouder of his logarithms than a Squireling of his yacht. The polaroid in his windows was the consequence of his logarithms and the tinted briquets advertised his long division. His contempt for the uneducated native would be equal to that of the average Squire for all natives and his hatred would be more intense since he had to live among them and was taken for one of them by his betters.”
Into this volatile situation comes a Spatio-analyst from Earth. His job has been to comb through the scraps of matter in interstellar space around Florina, studying their composition and their movements (the “currents of space” of the title). He’s discovered something which means that a catastrophe is about to happen which will mean the end of all life on Florina. When he tries to warn the Sarkite government, he’s captured and, in a botched psycho-probe, his memory is completely wiped.
The novel per se starts a year later. Our Spatio-analyst has been found, helpless, in a kyrt field and has been “raised” by a lonely native girl named Valona. He’s called Rik (meaning “moron”) because he can’t remember his own name. And, as the story begins, his memory is starting to return.
Asimov doesn’t really bother to hide his reliance on history here, any more than he did in the Foundation series. He even calls our attention to it by making the inhabitants of Florina fair-skinned and red-haired—paler by far than the inhabitants of most other planets, including Sark. To drive home the point, an official of the Interstellar Bureau of Spatio-analysis (IBS) who is trying to locate the missing Spatio-analyst is noted as being from the planet in the galaxy with the darkest average skin color and wooly hair.
Much of the story deals with the social, racial, and political dynamics in which Rik finds himself immersed. Florina and Sark aren’t the only planets involved, either, since Trantor controls most (but not yet all) of the Galaxy, and Trantor is more than willing to use any excuse it can trump up (such as the need to keep the kyrt flowing) to snatch up more.
Asimov, by the way, is firmly on the side of unity. He never portrays the Trantorian government as completely benign; but a single power controlling the Galaxy is seen as being infinitely preferable to a patchwork of chaos.
Our three main characters are Rik, Valona, and the Townman of the village where Rik is found. We also spend a fair amount of time with the Trantorian ambassador, the IBS official anxious to find the missing Spatio-analyst, and the Great Squires of Sark, most notably the greatest and most powerful of them all, the Squire of Fife, as well as Fife’s willful and idealistic daughter. Interestingly enough, Asimov draws them all sympathetically, even though no two of them really have the same agenda, and some of them are very much at cross-purposes. In general, even though the control of Florina by Sark is consistently condemned as brutal and dehumanizing, the actual people involved are very, very human and understandable. They are shown to be at least trying to be good by their own lights, if not seriously trying to improve things for people outside of their immediate circle. Fife, in particular, is a rich combination of heartless cruelty and deep love. At the same time, Rik’s transition from helpless man-child to confident adult is handled well and interesting to watch.
The plot for this novel is particularly complicated, and we have up to four narrative strands going at once in some places. Asimov juggles them neatly, and, in particular, repeatedly uses a dramatic revelation about one plotline in another to help build the suspense. As is usual for Asimov, the story starts briskly and keeps moving until the last few pages of quiet catharsis.
I’ve rated this novel pretty low in the past. In part, that’s because of one extended scene which happens to push the wrong buttons in my own idiosyncratic psyche. That’s my problem, however, not the novel’s, and I shouldn’t penalize it for that. It does, however, have one minor and one very serious flaw.
The minor flaw has to do with the Squire of Fife’s daughter. She figures prominently in several chapters and then is simply dropped from the story. She doesn’t just fade into the background, she vanishes, and only one mention later on even acknowledges that she ever existed. Of course an author has to drop characters every so often, or the end of the novel will be impossibly crowded, and of course this is true even for named characters who play a significant role. Her final exit, however, feels a little clumsy and (under the circumstances) like an unresolved strand of the plot. She makes a mistake, her father is blackmailed for it, and we never are shown how that affects her idealism or long-term goal of writing a book about the lives of Florinians, or even her short-term goal of being an amateur detective. It almost seems like her father sends her to her room with her tail between her legs, and that’s an end of everything so far as she’s concerned.
As for the major flaw, it has to do with the novel’s MacGuffin—the thing that drives the plot without being actually terribly involved in it. The term was introduced by Alfred Hitchcock, who used it to describe something he often does in his films. A prototypical MacGuffin would be the $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane at the start of Psycho. The money itself doesn’t matter—the theft just gets Marion on the road and to the Bates motel, and that’s where things really start happening.
Here, the MacGuffin is kyrt, and the kyrt trade is all-important. It’s making at least some of the Sarkites incredibly wealthy, and they want to keep that. The rest of the Galaxy will be willing to do almost anything (even war) to keep such scraps of kyrt as they can afford. And it can only be grown on Florina. Kyrt seeds grown elsewhere are just cotton. Efforts to reproduce conditions on Florina, no matter how exact, fail to produce anything other than cotton.
That’s a bit of an extreme set-up, perhaps, but it does manage neatly to create the social and political background that Asimov wants.
The difficulty with kyrt comes at the novel’s end. It turns out that Florina’s sun is in a pre-nova stage. (Asimov uses a theory about the formation of novae which was plausible in the 1950s but is wholly implausible now.) Rik, in his examinations of space around Florina, has determined that Florina’s sun might go at any moment.
Naturally, this comes up when Rik has recovered large chunks of his memory at novel’s climax. Now, on the one hand, Asimov very plausibly shows Sark (and Trantor) not really caring if Florina’s sun is about to go nova. Sure, it might blow up tomorrow—but it might last a long, long time yet. Asimov is cynical enough to realize that given the choice between making a few hundred million people miserable (and maybe vaporizing them along the way), or making rich women across the Galaxy do without their one pair of kyrt gloves, well, most people would take the kyrt.
Unfortunately, Asimov also wants to end on a happy note, and so he presses things. Flornia’s sun being pre-nova must be the key! Now scientists will be able to figure out what makes kyrt kyrt and not cotton! They just didn’t have that one last piece of the puzzle before!
Already he’s lost me. Yes, yes, I know that sometimes one tiny piece of evidence can make all the difference in science. We are, however, developing a process that would make the inventor wealthier than Croesus and Midas combined. In a galaxy of available resources, I tend to feel that somebody, somewhere, would try by chance alone the right combination of radiation, magnetism, soil, and whatever. At the very least, I would expect them to get something that’s a step in the direction of kyrt, even if not all the way there. It’s particularly problematic that Asimov lamely suggests that people had tried reproducing the spectrum of Florina’s sun via artificial lights—but they just hadn’t tried enough of the spectrum.
Even worse, on the mere possibility of kyrt being reproduced elsewhere—not the acutal accomplishment, mind you, just the possibility—the Squires sell out their control of Florina to Trantor and Florina is evacuated.
This simply does not work. Finding a way to produce gasoline without requiring petroleum would make anybody who can do it on a commercial scale very rich. Suppose a line of research opens up tomorrow that suggests that such a thing is around the corner. Does anybody think that any oil company would sell out as soon as the news hit? Anybody?
No, neither do I.
We are talking here about the complete collpse of the Sarkite economy (even if buoyed up for a while with cash from Trantor), and the sudden removal from the market of luxury items which the rich and powerful the Galaxy over would literally rather kill than do without, with a vague promise that they’ll be for sale again in the undefined future. The short-term consequences would be huge, the long-term benefits ill-defined, and yet everyone in the novel goes along with it. I’m sorry, Dr. A., but people simply don’t behave that way.
Yes, Asimov tries to hand-wave his way through it, but he doesn’t quite succeed. I’m speaking with the benefit of Epimetheus at my shoulder, of course, but a better resolution would have been the addition a couple of extra paragraphs in the epilogue telling us that a cheap way of producing kyrt had been worked out and the evacuation of Florina started once that was done.
The epilogue is not aided by the fact that we’re told that Rik and Valona are going to spend the rest of their lives making Earth a better place. Yes, we’d had some talk about how awful it is on Earth (you know, with the radiation and all), but solving the problems on Earth is something of a non sequetur when introduced in the last couple of pages, and, in any event, since we’ve all got Pebble in the Sky practically memorized, we know that their efforts didn’t amount to much, and that undermines the hope that is supposed to permeate the end of the novel.
(I also tend to think that the efforts to reproduce kyrt ultimatley failed, because it’s never mentioned in any of Asimov’s other books. Maybe they just call it something different on Terminus.
(Oh, and while I’m off on a tangent: am I the only one who isn’t convinced that a marriage between Rik and Valona is a good idea?)
This isn’t as nearly as lame as dragging in the Constitution of the United States, but it struck me as far-fetched at age twelve and it strikes me as far-fetched now. It doesn’t make the novel a total disaster, but it does steal from it that one last spaceship-and-sun.
A final note, not really germane to the novel, but something of a curiosity nonetheless:
In The Stars, Like Dust—, we’re told that the Tyranni are as a rule small and compact. In David Starr: Space Ranger, we’re introduced to John Bigman Jones, who gets to be the butt of a lot of short jokes. And now, in The Currents of Space, the fact that the Squire of Fife is only about 150 cm tall or so (that’s five feet to us barbarians living in the United States)—well, that’s a major plot point.
In three successive Asimov novels, we have characters short enough to be worth mentioning, and the importance of that diminutive stature only increases with each successive novel.
Now, Asimov would meet Harlan Ellison in 1953, and that meeting would prove to be the stuff of legends. (Well, Asimov liked telling the story of their meeting because it makes Ellison look like an obnoxious jerk, although Ellison disputes Asimov’s version of events.) Moreover, Ellison is known to be somewhat below average in height. If nothing else, Asimov spent a lot of time at various science fiction conventions telling short jokes at Ellison’s expense—but fair’s fair, and Ellison spent an equal amount of time telling fat jokes at Asimov’s expense.
Might the Great Will of the Macrocosm have been trying to warn Asimov of what was coming? Might those warnings have come with increasing urgency as time went on? Might Asimov have been aware of these warnings but only on a subconscious level? Might that awareness be manifesting itself as an increasing obsession with shortness in Asimov’s writing?
Or might, perhaps, there be such a thing as pure coincidence in the Universe? You decide.