The Stars, Like Dust
Many of Isaac Asimov's novels and short stories were actually mystery tales dressed up in the veneer of science fiction. But THE STARS LIKE DUST reminded me of a genre that I had not yet come across in his fiction: the thriller. The influences aren't enormous, but they're present. There's a hunt for a secret document, a political power struggle, and a puppet master directing the action from behind the scenes. And as successful as Asimov had been at incorporating the fundamentals of the detective novel into his own, he is similarly triumphant here. While there are definitely some rough spots, they come more from the pulp origins of this kind of story than from any other genre it incorporated.
First of all, this is a typically engaging and engrossing story. It's not Asimov at the absolute top of his game, but it's easy enough for the reader to keep turning these pages. Even when he's running on autopilot (as one suspects during part of the plot's introduction and some of the later, quieter moments), it's nothing short of fun and enjoyable.
Asimov's plotting is again quite good. Indeed, there are some elements of it that reminded me of portions of his other books (for example, there's a character who makes bold and logical predictions about the movement of individual important people -- a very small scale version of the psychohistory that would appear later in his FOUNDATION series). But as with most of Asimov's work, while I did find it to contain a lot of familiar touchstones, it still felt very fresh.
There were a few points that prevented me from placing this among the very top of Asimov's novels. Characterization is something that Asimov himself said he didn't always get right (though I will sometimes give him more credit than he gave himself) and, unfortunately, it's difficult to believe in the romance between the male and female leads. He usually stayed away from this kind of coupling, and it seemed clear that he seemed a lot less confident writing about male/female relationships than he did about molecules, planetary movements and other science facts.
Speaking of science, it's also easy to see why Asimov's non-fiction writing was so effortless to read. He's quite good at making potentially intimidating science speeches seem clear and simple. Of course, what he isn't always quite so good at is incorporating them seamlessly into his plots. This book more so than most of his that I've read seemed to have a bit too many places where the characters suddenly deliver science lectures to other characters for no real overriding reason (yes, they related to the plot, but could easily have been removed with no loss of reader understand occurring). It's not that they're confusing -- far from it. It just made me think that they were included mostly because Asimov liked talking about science more than for any other reason.
On the other hand, I did like the fact that the science was important to the story. Oftentimes in science fiction novels, the actual mechanics of life in the future is hand-waved away. While that is sometimes desirable (if the author is more interested in plot and character than scientific speculation), I do occasionally enjoy the type of conjectures on display here. During the story's chase/traveling sequences we get some fun thinking from Asimov about how future space travel will work. It's fascinating, if only to see what the cutting edge of thought was in the early 1950s. Asimov puts a lot of thought into how faster-than-light travel will take place. But, amusingly from a modern standpoint, he missed out on computers completely, having the mathematical calculations of interstellar travel taking place by hand using libraries of reference books!
At the time of writing this review, THE STARS LIKE DUST would appear to be out-of-print. Which is a shame because it's a nice, enjoyable story that doesn't deserve relegation to hard-to-find status. This isn't top-tier Asimov, so I cannding a lot of money. But if you find a good, cheap, used copy, it's well worth purchasing. I read the bulk of it while airplane traveling and it made for a very happy, undemanding companion.