–spoilers for the entire Foundation universe–
Genre: Space Opera
Series: Galactic Empire (#2)
Publication Date: 1955
Rik doesn’t remember much. Not his real name, not his old job, and certainly not his past. But he does one importnat fact: that the world is going to be destroyed within a year. he knows he must warn people, but who would belive the world of a simpleton like Rik . . ?
The second Galactic Empire novel is stronger than the first, albeit not by much. As a rereader, I find that the strengths and weakness of these two books are actually reversed. The Currents of Space is, in all brutal honesty, a medicore book, but it does provide a tantalising glimpse at the begins of a recognisable Foundation universe.
As a single book, The Currents of Space is surprisingly formulaic. It’s a formula that will be familiar to anyone who has read the Robot novels. A mystery is set up and investigated, with revelations that it has potentially Galaxy-altering consequences. Several false conclusions are reached along the way, until at the last moment the truth is revealed and the matter resolved. But while the formula worked in Asimov’s other works, here it falls flat. This is largely due to the characters. Rik is no Elijah Baley. In fact, Rik is no anything really. He’s a curiously blank individual. Once a genius scientist, he is subjected to the fearsome Psychic Probe, which renders him an imbecile. The closest comparison I can think of is Lenny from Of Mice and Men. The unfortunate truth is that these ‘imbeciles’ for want of a better word, is that they’re not very interesting to read about.
Where The Currents of Space shines is in its depiction of a settled Galaxy. here is where we get our first mention of Trantor, which is at this point still expanding across the Galaxy. The off-hand references to Trantor in the first half of the book lead nicely into Trantor’s larger role in the second half. The way the growing Empire manipulates surrounding star systems and plays them against each other is wonderfully done. It’s a rare book that has this much of the action taking place off the page, but Asimov makes it work. The shadowy influence of trantor is undoubtedly the strongest point of the novel, even if it’s not quite strong enough to eleveate the book further in my estimation.
In many ways, this is an awkward hybrid of the science-driven mystery of the first half of this reread with the more space operatic social SF that is still to come. It’s not the best at being either, and the two sides don’t fit as neatly together as they do in other Asimov works. That being said, there is a lot to like about The Currents of Space. Aside from the rise of Trantor, we have the appearance of the Psychic Probe. A lot of Asimov’s signatures are at work here, not least of which is the triumph of intellect over force. This is a theme we’ll be seeing a lot more of as we come into the Foundation series proper.
In conclusion, this is far from Asimov’s best work. All the right elements are there, but it’s not quite sticking togther yet.