This second of Asimov’s three “Galactic Empire” novels is the least interesting of the three, despite the poetic (and gratuitous) title. It’s entirely about circumstance, with no specific science fictional content at all. Presumably this is an example of Asimov writing far future ‘science fiction’ based on historical circumstances — Asimov was an expert on Biblical and Roman history — and indeed there is a bit of intellectual discussion here about the economic cycles of planets and how economic growth might stagnate…
And this one really is about a conspiracy!
The story opens as one Brion Farrill, the son of the influential “Rancher of Widemos” on his home planet Nephelos, is about to graduate from the University of Earth. This is clearly the same Earth as in the previous novel, heavily radiated in parts; but apparently not such the backwater that that book implied, if a high status individual like BF has come here for university. He’s awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call, then the threat of a radiation bomb inside his room. He escapes and his met by his friend Sander Jonti, who warns him that this attempt on his life parallels a threat to his father’s life back on Nephelos, threats from the ruling Tyranni (not a subtle name), a race that dominates over 50 worlds in the Nebula Regions near the Horsehead Nebula.
Urged to return home, BF sets off for Nephelos (leaving Earth behind for the remainder of the book). He discovers evidence the radiation bomb was a hoax—he’s being manipulated.
There is some science-fictional window-dressing here: details of the ship lifting into space; the view; background information about the number of stars in the galaxy, the number of planets, all very basic stuff, and then, p50, some discussion of how small empires emerge. Later we get some reflection on night descending, and how differently nights would look on various planets.
Farrill arrives on Nephelos and claims sanctuary rights with the planet’s Director against a threat, he supposes, from the Tyranni. A dotty uncle of the Director urges Farrill to escape, and take me with you! They escape in a Tyranni ship, and dotty uncle tells a story from years before that has led him to believe that a planet ready to rebel against the Tyranni exists, if only they can find it. Who would know more? The Autarch of Lingane, someone dotty uncle knows. Turns out Farrill knows him too, under another name…
Not only is Farrill victim of a conspiracy against his life and status, somehow this all involves an ancient document that Farrill’s father was working to find. A search ensues for the rebel planet, somewhere in the Horsehead Nebula. There’s a confrontation between Farrill and the bad guy, and then some deduction about the rebel world… a deduction that resembles the conclusion of the Foundation trilogy.
As in the previous book, the protagonist and the only woman in the plot have eyes for each other, and eventually unite.
And the final reveal is about the nature of that ancient document. It’s an eye-rolling revelation that is up there with Star Trek’s “The Omega Glory” and Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Man” – the presumption that something significant in our own time – at least to some people, but of course including the author or his editor – should inevitably be of paramount significance to people centuries from now and far off in the galaxy. A vainglorious conceit.
Though I read this book years ago, I’d forgotten the use of the word autarch, much later made famous by Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN novels.
For that matter, I should have made the connection between this novel and “The Omega Glory,” but if I did, I don’t remember that either. Asimov reveals someplace that the notion was Galaxy magazine editor H.L. Gold’s, who edited the novel for serialization before book publication, and Asimov let the idea stay, if reluctantly, and never removed it from publications of the book. In retrospect, it’s easy to suspect that Gene Roddenberry (author of that episode) lifted his idea from Asimov’s book, published over a decade earlier.
Again, the entire plot is political, and conspiratorial. There are passages about space travel and so on, but they are generic and the story here doesn’t rely on them. (The next book is much better on this point.)
To mention a few other substantial passages – pages from the Tor trade paperback:
Chapter 7, the dotty Uncle Gill ponders how governments kill by their nature, about the economic cycles of planets, how the Kingdoms under the Tyranni will be semi-colonial forever—and how Earth was the only truly mature society. Page 71, Uncle Gill speaking:
You’ve been to school. You’ve learned the economic cycle. A new planet is settled and its first care is to feed itself. It becomes an agricultural world, a herding world. It begins to dig in the ground for crude ore to export, and sends its agricultural surplus abroad to buy luxuries and machinery. That is the second step. Then, as population increases and foreign investments grow, an industrial civilization begins to bud, which is the third step. Eventually, the world becomes mechanized, importing food, exporting machinery, investing in the development of more primitive worlds, and so on. the fourth step.
And page 72:
Consider! All the Galaxy has been in a continuous state of expansion since the first discovery of interstellar travel. We have always been a growing society, therefore, an immature society. It is obvious that human society reached maturity in only one place and at only one time and that this was on Earth immediately prior to its catastrophe. There we had a society which had temporarily lost all possibility for geographical expansion and was therefore faced with such problems as over-population, depletion of resources, and so on; problems that have never faced any other portion of the Galaxy!
Amazingly prescient, or anticipating the obvious, given the long-term perspective a few people have, but which most people don’t?
Ch11, 117b: Asimov goes into detail about how hyperspace jumps are plotted using three coordinates: rho, theta, and phi. (Did Asimov make this up, or is there some basis for this? Apparently so: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_coordinate_system)
Ch12, thoughts about how architecture and windows reflect a culture. Later in this chapter, how to transfer from one ship to another, in deep space, by guideline.
Ch17, essay on how to find planets, when approaching a sun from deep space. Types of stars; types of planets. (Asimov later contributed to a nonfiction book called HABITABLE PLANETS FOR MAN.)