By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Isaac Asimov
Narrated by: Kevin T. Collins
Isaac Asimov’s story in “The Currents of Space” seems too contrived to be a fan favorite. Science fiction holds a fascination for many. To fans, Asimov’s science fiction is the bee’s knees, where all the honey is kept. To some critics, “The Currents of Space” is a sly slap in the face of American South’s King Cotton; to others, it is a criticism of European colonization. Today, one might interpret it as a swipe at oil, coal, and gas industries; i.e. the carbon based industries that exacerbate global warming, and earthquakes.
This story is about a galaxy populated by descendants of earth. Just as earth’s 21st century nation-states are defined by wealth, world-states in Asimov’s galaxy are populated by upper, middle, and lower economic classes. Some world-state leaders exploit natural resources; others organize for power, but each has their own ruling class, middle class, and poor.
Asimov creates a mystery. An earthling space analyst who studies “nothing” (at least before science discovered dark matter and energy) is convinced one of the populated worlds is doomed to destruction because of its sun’s collapse in a supernova.
Billions of people are at risk. The space analyst is captured by a citizen with a plan to extort money from the upper-class of the doomed planet. The upper-class exploiters of this world own most of this world’s natural resources. They are the richest of the rich in the galaxy. Some might conclude they are like the .1% of 1% in America.
The extortionist’s plot is to notify upper class multi-billionaires to tell them–if they do not give him most of their wealth, their planet will be destroyed. The extortionist’s argument is that he will allow them to continue living a good life but not as luxuriously. Because the multi-billionaires are already aware of the missing space analyst (alleged to have evidence for the world’s destruction), they are unsure of the extortionist’s credibility.
Only one of the multi-billionaires takes the extortionist’s threat seriously; the others argue that the extortionist is a crank and the world is not at risk. However, the extortionist’s threat creates a climate of distrust among the multi-billionaires because they believe one of them is scheming to take control of all the wealth of the planet. They see the story of the space analyst as a plant, a spy, working for one of the multi-billionaires to take over the source of their wealth. They are thinking that one of them is trying to scare the others into selling their properties at fire-sale prices because of an unfounded threat of destruction.
The mystery is what has happened to the space analyst who believes the world is at risk. The reader/listener wonders about his evidence. The multi-billionaires want to know what the space analyst has found, so they can deal directly (rather than through an extortionist) with the risk. After all, to the wealthy, it is only a question of risk and reward.
However, the extortionist “mind probed” the space analyst to erase specific parts of his memory. The extortionist does not know whether the analyst is right or wrong. He only sees an opportunity to create doubt and distrust among the multi-billionaires. He does not want to murder the space analyst because he does not consider himself a murderer. However, he hates the rich and privileged. Which is somewhat ironic because it seems he desires to become one of the rich, privileged, and powerful.
By hiding the existence and knowledge of the space analyst, a climate of fear and distrust is created among the multi-billionaires. In spite of the extortionist use of the mind probe, the space analyst’s lost memory partially recovers. Enough memory returns to suggest the analyst may be correct and the planet is doomed. An irony of that recognition by the multi-billionaires is that they are reluctant to evacuate the planet because it is the source of their wealth, power, and prestige. They have no concern about the billions of at-risk people on the planet.
In the end, the planet is evacuated but only with the recognition that the planet’s material resource can be produced in other places because of technological advance in manufacture. Though the planet may be doomed, another planet is willing to take a risk and buy the planet’s resources before its speculated destruction. An irony is that the extortionist chooses to remain on the planet in spite of the probability of its destruction.
Didn’t he become an extortionist, and a murderer to become a multi-billionaire? He chooses to help the citizens to evacuate but remains on his home planet. Why? Is this guilt? Is this repentance? Is this self-imposed punishment for greed and murder? Asimov leads one to believe it is out of love for his home planet. Maybe that explains why global warming is no concern of many today.
Science and space are humanity’s future in Asimov’s stories. This is not Asimov’s best writing but a listener is likely to be curious enough to finish “The Currents of Space” to know the identity of the extortionist and the fate of the space analyst. One may draw other conclusions from the tale but its telling is too abstracted and disjointed to be fully engaging.