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Nemesis by Isaac Asimov. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1989. 364 pp. $18.95.
A reviewer naturally wants to say only nice things about Isaac Asimov's Nemesis, if only to encourage its author to write more original works like it and to stop devoting his energies to endless sequels, prequels, and etcetera-quels to his previous novels. Indeed, Asimov has been so energetic in extending and consolidating his own personal monomyth that in introducing Nemesis, he feels obliged to apologize for the fact that it is completely unrelated to any of his own novels. (Is this the state that science fiction publishing has now reached? That sequels and series are seen as the desirable norm and original works the unfortunate exception?) And as if to mitigate the anticipated outrage from his regular readers, Asimov contritely hints that at some future date, he will get down to business and connect Nemesis to his other creations. (Fantastic Voyage III: Destination Nemesis? Robots and Nemesis? Or—to get everything out of the way at once—Nemesis, Robots, Foundation, and Empire?)

A reviewer would also like to report that Asimov, now free from the onerous burden of relating and rationalizing stories he wrote forty years ago, would soar to new imaginative heights in crafting an entirely new world of the future, where a defiant space colony leaves the Solar System to orbit near Nemesis, the Sun's hitherto unknown—and now threatening—companion star.

However, reviewers also need to face facts; and Nemesis is in fact nothing more than an average Isaac Asimov novel. On the positive side, that means that it has intelligent and thoughtful ideas, a carefully crafted plot, and a well-maintained sense of suspense. On the negative side, that means that it offers generally perfunctory characterization, an undistinguished prose style, and an excessive emphasis on endless conversation—as in a soap opera, Asimov's characters spend far more time talking about what they are doing than actually doing anything.

Still, even average Asimov outshines most writers' best, and there is at least one feature of Nemesis which demands attention and respect. Asimov has lamented in print that science fiction writers of his era did not anticipate space stations and space habitats as natural future homes for humanity, displaying what he calls "planetary chauvinism" in envisioning only colonies on other worlds. And with the universes of Robots, Empire, and Foundation firmly established as habitat-less, Asimov had no opportunity to correct this deficiency in his own recent novels. Now, finally able to address this subject, Asimov discovers something worthwhile to say about it.

Other novels of space habitats are typically romantic, seeing these structures as attractive homes for the oppressed peoples of Earth; various writers have envisioned happy habitats for blacks, Jews, Rastafarians, the Amish, the Japanese, and so forth. And these stories are usually focused on virtuous space colonists struggling to liberate themselves from the oppressive control of evil planet-dwellers. Asimov, however, announces what is wrong with all of these little utopias: "What all the [space colonies] fear and hate most is variety. They don't want differences in appearance, tastes, ways, and life. They select themselves for uniformity and despise everything else .....We're talking about Earth's long struggle to find a way of living together, all cultures, all appearances. It isn't perfect yet, but compare it to how it was even a century ago, and it's heaven. Then, when we get a chance to move into space, we shuck it all off and move right back into the Dark Ages" (118-119). And that is the problem: while science fiction typically celebrates the coming of a new and improved civilization, space habitat stories atypically function as calls for a return to an old and un-improved civilization—a reactionary trend also seen in the imagery of the American West that so often permeates these tales of the "High Frontier." Thus, Nemesis exposes a major new tradition in science fiction as a kind of anti-science fiction, where new technology is employed to reestablish a life style that predates the Industrial Revolution.

Yet, Asimov does not go to the other extreme and condemn these new societies; rather, in developing sympathetic characters from both worlds, he suggests that both forms of civilization have virtues and flaws, and that both can and should work together. In contrast, the one character in the novel who embodies an us-versus-them mentality—the leader of the rebellious space colony—is thoroughly discredited. In simultaneously emulating and commenting on recent novels about space habitats, then, Nemesis suggests that Isaac Asimov, for all his devotion to self-imitation and repetition, still has a surprise or two up his well-worn sleeves.


Originally written in 1989; unpublished until posted here in 2006.

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