Birthday Reviews: Hamilton, Resnick, Webb

Purely by accident, the stories from this week’s birthday crew have the theme of immortality.

Peter F. Hamilton (1960-03-02)

“The Forever Kitten” (Nature, July 28, 2005)

Hamilton is known for galaxy-spanning doorstops but this is a short-short set fairly close to home in which a rich man is pressing a scientist to develop an immortality treatment as his youngest daughter plays with what seems to be a kitten. The treatment has worked on the feline but not yet on humans. When the hellion of an older daughter shows up, it initially seems to be a non-sequitur but isn’t and results in a minor, but economical and clever piece.

Mike Resnick (1942-03-05–2020-01-09)

“Death Is an Acquired Trait” (Argos, Winter 1988)

Resnick is probably most known for his great African-flavored stories but this one goes farther afield. A member of a species that has shed its corporeal bodies and become immortal shares their and his experiences in what turns out to be a very funny cautionary tale. Immortality is fun for awhile but forever really is a long time. One of the more notable things about this tale is how quickly it traverses infinite multiverses of time and space in such a throwaway manner.

Sharon Webb (1936-02-29–2010-04-29)

“Variation on a Theme from Beethoven” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, February 1980)

I recall reading one of Webb’s novels long ago but no longer clearly recall its contents. Still, I suspect this novelette is fairly representative. In it, humanity has become immortal but has lost the ability to be creative, so selects some of their young people as candidates to be mortal artists (or immortals through their art) and these people have a day of choosing when they decide whether to continue their art as mortals, or to become immortal after all. David and Liss come from very different backgrounds and places in the solar system but both have artistic inclinations with his focus on music and hers on writing. They bond and we follow their time on Earth as they try to develop their arts and make their decisions.

It could be argued that the art/mortality equation is both familiar and forced and that this reads like it might have been written at a writers’ workshop, with that setting transposed into the story, but the theme is at least interesting and debatable, and the story is very well written. Both main characters (as well as David’s elderly music teacher) are quirky and breathe, the experiences feel real, and the conclusion is neither a contrived tragedy nor an unconvincing comedy, but a satisfyingly realistic mix of disappointment and hope.

Sporadic Book Haul

Here’s a mid-size (non-library-book-sale) haul. The Cambias was new and the rest were used. Some of the used ones cost up to four bucks but most went for a dollar, a quarter, or even a dime. The thumbnails can be clicked for bigger images.

Spine shot of all:
01-bkhaul-spine-tn

Covers of trade papers/hard covers:
02-bkhaul-lg-tn

Covers of paperbacks (and one small hardcover):
03-bkhaul-sm-tn

Edit (2020-02-26): Not sure how the Bova and Burroughs got backwards. Sorry about that.

Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, June 1943-May 1945 (Foundation and Empire)

During the war, especially in its later phases, many science fiction writers were unable to continue writing or at least were unable to write as much. Even Asimov’s productivity declined, partly due to his own war work. However, Campbell’s need, combined with Asimov’s increasing proficiency, resulted in Asimov selling everything he wrote [1] from this point through the end of the 40s to Astounding.

Robot Stories and Others

This timespan also demonstrates the growing success of Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series, as only the first story has nothing to do with either, though even it features protoplasmic “robots.” In “Death Sentence,” Theor Realo is an albino misfit given to a sort of archaeological monomania which results in his uncovering evidence that the civilization he currently lives in was preceded by an even greater one. He has visited a world of that civilization and discovered that it is populated by artificial people who are part of a planet-wide psychology experiment that has continued after the demise of its creators. When he finally gets professional scientists (and government officials) to pay attention to him and they discover how much the experiment has been contaminated by Realo’s actions and how dangerous the subjects of the experiment may be, matters come to a head.

The main conflict in this story is between discovering an unknown quantity of knowledge versus unleashing an unknown quantity of danger and the efforts of the scientists to attain the former and the government official to avoid the latter. Oddly, this story focuses most on the notion of avoiding danger. It’s especially odd as Realo’s amateur archaeology reminded me of Schliemann’s discovery of Troy which, all things considered, was a great discovery. Either way, this tale is a fair example of “the early Asimov” despite a weak “surprise” ending.

The second and seventh stories were Robot stories. “Catch That Rabbit” is another Donovan and Powell adventure. They are on an asteroid with DV-5 (“Dave”), who is an asteroid mining bot in control of several subsidiary semi-autonomous robots or “digits.” Since Dave is both experimental and supposed to be autonomous, Donovan and Powell are tasked with overseeing him without overseeing him, so to speak. But, when he doesn’t bring home the asteroidal bacon, the humans have to explicitly watch him after all. He performs properly when they do, but not when they don’t. Most of the story involves the humans insulting each other and proposing solutions without knowing what the problem is (unable to make rabbit stew because they haven’t caught the rabbit) other than that Dave sometimes goes into a weird fugue with his sub-bots marching about oddly. Finally, after deciding it has something to do with crisis situations and the “personal initiative factor,” they try to create a crisis by causing a roof-collapse near the bots but this backfires, putting them in a desperate situation.

This one ends with a groaner and has some plotting conveniences in which some things come too easily and some things not easily enough. but is otherwise a pretty standard robot story – more of an album track than a hit single.

Escape” puts Susan Calvin and the gang at U.S. Robots in the same story with Donovan and Powell but with only a stationary robot (computer) rather than a mobile computer (or proper robot). It begins when Consolidated Robots comes to U. S. Robots with a profit-sharing deal based on U. S. Robots’ “Brain” being given some information and developing an interstellar drive. However, U. S. Robots figures out that it’s a trick because Consolidated has already blown up their own “brain” trying to develop the stardrive themselves. Consolidated’s brain apparently decided the stardrive would be fatal to humans, which triggered the First Law. Susan Calvin believes their Brain, with its advanced, but child-like, personality will be able to succeed so U. S. Robots takes the deal. Things seem to be going well enough and the Brain even has other robots build the starship, so Donovan and Powell are brought in to look it over. Then everyone finds out that things are not going so well, after all, and Susan Calvin fights desperately to fix the situation while Donovan and Powell have an amazing experience.

This is a momentous Robot tale (combining two subseries and foreshadowing the transition from the solar milieu of the stories to the interstellar milieu of the Robot novels and beyond) and is fun, funny, and exciting. At the same time, major underpinnings of the plot aren’t really sensible and, despite all that happens to them, the characters don’t actually do much. In a highly critical sense, this isn’t particularly good but, in a way, it’s the best Robot story yet in terms of being an imaginative and enjoyable creation.

Blind Alley” was the sixth story of this group, In it, Asimov combined the familiarity with bureaucracy gained by working at the Navy Yard with an early Empire setting. Despite the Imperial setting, he included an alien race in its otherwise “all-human galaxy.” These aliens had been on the verge of star travel when humanity met them. Learning that the whole galaxy has been occupied, they cease reproducing and begin to die off. This tale applies Newton’s laws of motion regarding inertia and mass to bureaucracy and shows how powerful that can be, whether for hindrance or help.

This is too long in that, along the middle, you have time to think “this is too long” and part of that is probably due to the segments of bureaucrat-ese which alternate with each section of narrative–however apt, they’re actually hard to read. Still, it’s an interesting story with a great ending and shouldn’t have had to wait until The Early Asimov to be collected. I only wish that, because of issues it creates in the continuity, it had been a generic bureaucracy rather than specifically that of the Trantorian Empire.

Foundation Stories

The Foundation stories took up the third through fifth and the eighth stories in this group. The first three were written from October 11, 1943 to August 21, 1944 and focused on the Traders, who foreshadow Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League. Briefly, in “The Big and the Little,” it is seventy-five years after “Bridle and Saddle” and the Four Kingdoms have been brought to heel by the Foundation’s technological, religious, and, now, commercial power. This relationship is codified in the Foundation Convention. Still, three Foundation ships have gone missing which implies that someone has Foundation-level technology or that someone is a traitor. Jorane Sutt, the power behind an incompetent mayor, sends Master Trader Hober Mallow on a trading (spying) mission to Korell. Once there, Mallow is kept waiting by the dictator and the tedium is broken only when a mob chases a Foundation priest to the ship. He is brought aboard by some of the crew even though his presence on Korell violates the law. Smelling a trap, Mallow throws him back to the mob and is almost immediately invited to meet the dictator. These meetings reveal no evidence of Korell directly having atomic power but he does see guards armed with Imperial blasters. This leads him towards the remnants of the Empire and Siwenna, which used to be the capital of the Empire’s Normanic sector but which has been crushed by various political upheavals. Now a would-be dictator with designs on the Imperial throne rules the sector from Orsha II and may be interfering with the Foundation. If the Foundation responds too strongly, they may attract Imperial ire and, if they react too weakly, they may face further problems from Orsha II. Complicating matters still further, Mallow returns with his findings and becomes embroiled in an internal political fight with Sutt and others, which culminates with Mallow being put on trial for sacrificing the priest. With unavoidable existential threats from within and without the Foundation, it’s a true Seldon Crisis which is worked out by story’s end.

The one bad thing about this story is that (somewhat as in “Legal Rites”) I’m not entirely convinced by the logic of the trial scene and its direct aftermath. Among the vast number of good things about this story, it is his longest yet (and only his second novella after “Bridle and Saddle”) and the length is handled well. More importantly, it is an excellent example of Asimov’s stories not having villains, as such. Sutt is initially the focus and has some effective traits. Even if he is seeking power, he also cares about the Foundation’s safety though, by the point of this story, he’s on the wrong side of history. Mallow takes the position of the hero, or at least one moving with the flow of the times, but isn’t exactly all sweetness and light. The worst characters (the dictators of Korell and the Normanic sector) are secondary or off-stage. So it isn’t a simplistic “good vs. evil” story but a case of complex people having contradictory goals which bring them into conflict. This treatment of these people also leads to a prime question which exercises real historians: the “great man” theory vs. the “forces of history” theory. Mallow, himself, says, “This is a Seldon Crisis we’re facing, Sutt, and Seldon Crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.” However, while this may indeed be a story of forces, and history might have produced any actor to take Mallow’s place had he not been who he was, he did risk life and liberty to defend the Foundation (or gain power for himself, as the case may be). Hardin has joined Seldon as a name to conjure with, being frequently quoted almost a century later. And Seldon, himself, is a “Great Man.” So the stories constantly speak of forces but constantly embody them in individuals of peculiar character. It produces an interesting ambiguity.

While the Foundation is producing its own mythic symbols, it still faces some. As it grows in power, some star systems see the Foundation as a magical place of mysterious wizards but, at the same time, it encounters more and more powerful enemies, including the weakened but still immensely powerful vestiges of the Empire, itself. When Mallow sees the Spaceship-and-Sun symbol of the Empire on the blasters of the Korellian guards, he’s powerfully affected by it and so is the reader.

I’d also like to emphasize the magnificent scene when Mallow arrives on Siwenna and meets elderly Onum Barr who tells him the tale of Stanell VI, the last good Emperor, and of Siwenna’s agonies in the decay of the Empire and his own fall from comfort. Mallow, though a trader and not given to welfare, did get something for nothing (Barr’s information), so secretly leaves rations for Barr. I love the closing line after he finds the rations which taste strange to him: “But they were good, and lasted long.”

Finally, I’d like to end with this excellent quote:

Korell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal “honor,” and court etiquette.

(Not that classic science fiction can tell us anything about the present, of course.)

The Traders so captured John Campbell’s interest that he asked Asimov to do another story focusing on them, which resulted in the very short “The Wedge,” which is the first Foundation story which doesn’t deal with a Seldon crisis. In it, a trader must attempt to rescue another “trader” (actually, a Foundation agent, who also happens to be a friend) who was trying to drive a wedge into the religious society and gold-based economy of Askone with his forbidden atomic technology before being arrested. The true trader shows the agent how it’s really done.

This is a fine tale but, in Foundation terms, is obviously minor, even to the point of being flipped around in the book order, presumably because it wasn’t tied tightly to the chronology and because “The Big and the Little” made a more powerful closing tale to the first volume of the books.

Speaking of the books, the final Trader tale,”Dead Hand,” is separated from its fellows, leading off the second volume of Foundation tales and bringing the Foundation fully into contact with the Empire. It deals with the efforts of Bel Riose, the Military Governor of Siwenna, to reinvigorate the Empire and conquer the Foundation in the name of Cleon II as well as the efforts of Ducem Barr (son of Onum Barr from “The Big and the Little”) and Trader Lathan Devers (both of whom are his prisoners) to stop him. When Ammel Brodrig, an Imperial sycophant and reprobate, is sent to observe Riose’s activities, Devers tries to convince Brodrig that Riose is bent on making himself Emperor. Unfortunately, Brodrig believes this a little too thoroughly and gets more men and material for Riose in an effort to make this so. As powerful as the Foundation is, the Empire is still powerful when it turns its focus to something and things are not going well for the Foundation. Barr and Devers give up on trying to deal with things as prisoners and escape with the aim of reaching Trantor and turning Cleon against his agents. Their efforts, which even include gunplay, take up most of the remainder of the story.

This stage of the Empire (c. 200 F.E.) is much like the Byzantine Empire in the period of Emperor Justinian and his general, Belisarius (whose name is even very similar to Bel Riose). In this, the tensions between combinations of weak and strong emperors and generals make the Empire a fitful beast and Seldon’s “dead hand” (which makes one think of the “invisible hand” attributed to Adam Smith) is the real actor vs. Riose’s “living will.” This gives the story something of the feeling of Raiders of the Lost Ark in that the sound and fury from our hero or heroes actually signifies little though the two levels of the story (surface action and background themes) each work well even if, by design, they aren’t integrated. Bel Riose is also a very interesting character. He’s nominally the enemy but is an honorable man with the interests of his Empire at heart which, ironically, leads to his being shunned by the court and suspected by all. (Again, not that the vicious being honored and the virtuous being condemned could tell us anything about the present.)

“Dead Hand” was Asimov’s 48th and longest story at 25,000 words but he doubled that at a stroke with his 51st story and first novel, “The Mule,” which was originally serialized in two parts in Astounding and makes up the final two-thirds of Foundation and Empire. The thumbnail sketch [2] is that the Seldon Plan predicts how the Foundation will create a new galactic empire after 1,000 years of misery, rather than 30,000, so long as human nature remains about the same, but the Foundation has no way to deal with the inhuman, or a mutant of unknown powers. This, 310 years into the Plan, is the Mule, a powerful warlord with some sort of psychic strength which enables him to conquer the previous warlord of Kalgan and make war on the Foundation itself. Where all the might of the remnants of the Trantorian Empire failed a century before, the Mule succeeds in conquering the Foundation by the shattering midpoint of the story. That Foundation had become a tyranny with the Mayoralty becoming hereditary. The Traders had been forced into hiding in hollowed out worlds and the like. Each has been seeking to dominate the other, but both come to be dominated equally. Standing against the Mule are Toran, of a Trader world, and Bayta, of the Foundation and its democratic underground, who have just gotten married. Along the way, they acquire Magnifico Giganticus, the small, spindly, beak-nosed, runaway jester of the Mule’s (whose “abduction” by Toran and Bayta actually gives the Mule his pretext for war on the Foundation); Ebling Mis, the famed scientist and closest thing to a psychohistorian the Foundation currently has; and, sometimes, Captain Han Pritcher, of Foundation Intelligence and also of the democratic underground. Their journeys will take them across half the galaxy, from Haven to Kalgan to Terminus to Neotrantor, to the ruins of Trantor itself. There, while seeking knowledge of and help from the mysterious Second Foundation, they will learn shocking things and fail to learn others and not all will survive.

This novel is packed to bursting with both ideas and action. Bayta is convinced that the Empire fell apart from “the triple disease of inertia, despotism, and maldistribution of the goods of the universe” and fears the Foundation is doing the same. (Ebling Mis is characterized as having said at one time that “the only people who inherited anything by right of birth were the congenital idiots.”) She also contemplates aspects of psychohistory:

The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more.

Some things which struck me include Mis thinking that the Mule can be defeated “the only way anyone can be licked–by attacking in strength at weakness.” I don’t actually agree with this–we see evidence of America currently being successfully attacked at points of strength, for instance, but it’s a stimulating thought. Similarly, “There are people on Haven itself who would not be unhappy over the Mule’s domination. It’s apparently an insurmountable temptation to give up endangered political power, if that will maintain your hold over economic affairs,” which may give insight into some current events.

In terms of style, Asimov is as clear as usual but wields an increasingly subtle instrument. He textures Magnifico’s character with a sort of Spenserian lilt and rises to psychedelic heights when describing the clown’s playing of the Visi-Sonor, which is a sort of “musical” instrument that operates on the visual center of the brain. Though a very few things like the introduction of the planet Radole are a little overwritten, many things, including the description of the Mayor and his lineage and the fall of Kalgan, have an almost Ciceronian (or, perhaps more directly, a Gibbonesque) structure and elegance.

If, from a distance of seven thousand parsecs, the fall of Kalgan to the armies of the Mule had produced reverberations that had excited the curiosity of an old Trader, the apprehension of a dogged captain, and the annoyance of a meticulous mayor–to those on Kalgan itself, it produced nothing and excited no one.

Speaking of falls, Foundation’s Fall is more effective to me than “Nightfall.” I don’t want to describe it and blunt its impact for those who haven’t experienced it but it takes what has been built up over several stories and internal centuries and produces a cataclysmic scene using almost pure cognition to powerfully affect emotions.

The characterization is also quite strong once again. The Mule is another example of an Asimovian villain who isn’t quite like other villains. While all the main characters suffer at his hands, they do so in unusual and poignant ways. The real hero of this story is Bayta, who is Princess Leia’s ancestor: active and smart, ultimately armed and decisive. As an example of how she seems, a disapproving peasant of fallen Trantor observes that “There were three men, varied, old, young, thin and beaked. And a woman striding among them like an equal.” But Han (Pritcher, rather than Solo, in this case) and Mis are both given their very powerful scenes as well.

This is not a flawless tale. I really wish someone could make me believe in Trantor again, but the ecology of an all-metal planet and the farming of it once again after its partial destruction is impossible for me to explain. I’m also not clear on how Mis was able to determine all of Seldon’s past appearances in the Time Vault and predict his next one, nor why the Vault isn’t generally being recorded and/or guarded. The nature and conclusion of what was supposed to be the Seldon crisis is thought-provoking, but troubling. One of the two most important problems probably comes from Asimov’s “pantsing”: given the nature of the Second Foundation, why was its existence ever disclosed? And the other is that the finale is shocking and tremendous, but threads a very narrow eye of a credibility needle and the denouement is overlong. But these are minor blemishes or nitpicks in what is–still!–one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction. These stories, and this among the foremost, have concepts that engage the mind, people and events that engage the heart, and plots and counterplots with twists and revelations that raise the pulse.


[1] (With the exception of the story which became his first book-length novel and which didn’t appear until 1950.) The stories in order of composition, with the issues of Astounding they appeared in and their major book appearances are:

  • “Death Sentence” (November 1943, The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Catch That Rabbit” (February 1944, I, Robot (1950))
  • “The Big and the Little” (August 1944, Foundation (1951))
  • “The Wedge” (October 1944, Foundation (1951))
  • “Dead Hand” (April 1945, Foundation and Empire (1952))
  • “Blind Alley” (March 1945, The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Escape” (August 1945 as “Paradoxical Escape”, I, Robot (1950))
  • “The Mule” (November 1945/December 1945, Foundation and Empire (1952))

For previous stories, see:

[2] Obviously, from the mess that is this post, these stories are hard for me to discuss because a short synopsis doesn’t do them justice while justice requires thousands of words because almost everything about them is fascinating. (I emitted almost 5,000 words of notes on this 50,000 word novel which would balloon far beyond that if I could manage to put them into coherent sentences.)

Birthday Reviews: Barnes, Pangborn, Sturgeon

In terms of authors, “Happy birthday!” In terms of their stories, “Happy doomsday!” Here’s an apocalyptic triptych (though only one features full frontal nullity).

John Barnes (1957-02-28)

“My Advice to the Civilized” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1990)

In the near future, a few years after civilization has collapsed, a former historian and current sergeant in a Company gets ready for battle with an invading, sadistic, murderous, barbarian Horde and writes a letter to the future. Through this letter, we learn something of what happened, what is happening, and what will happen while we mostly get a half-dozen bits of advice which the historian expands upon in a reflective and heartfelt way, thinking heavily upon the loves of his life.

The relatively minor flaw in this story, for me, is its present-tense narration which is rarely a good idea and especially not here. If I’ve been writing a letter, get interrupted, and have returned to the letter afterward, I don’t write “I sit down to write more.” The far more important strengths are the strange believability of a strangely inexplicable collapse of civilization, how the civilized grow more barbaric in response to barbarism, the complex attitude toward both civilization and barbarism (with civilization clearly the favorite), and an interesting effect from its incomplete ending which can be read as completely tragic or somewhat hopeful depending on where you stop in your own continuation of the story. This is also (as it would often be) a timely story.

Edgar Pangborn (1909-02-25–1976-02-01)

“The Red Hills of Summer” (F&SF, September 1959)

After humanity has wrecked Earth, three hundred humans have fled in a spaceship (possibly one of a few) and has found a new world to attempt to colonize. Four people are chosen to go down and test its suitability before the rest may join them. A quiet religious woman, a high-strung and odd political theorist, a fairly ordinary guy (our narrator) and his wife descend to the planet’s surface. What follows is quite a bit of action as the group establishes a landing site, deals with the native life (none sentient but some quite dangerous), and with each other, mixed with some contemplation on why Earth went wrong and whether this world will, too.

There is often a divide between the usually sharp, pragmatic, literal, but sometimes thin “hard SF” and the sometimes deep, philosophical, metaphorical but usually fuzzy “literary SF” that I wish were bridged more often and better. I don’t recall having read Pangborn before (though I’ve certainly heard of him because Gardner Dozois was such a fan [1]) and I’d assumed he was pretty far into the literary territory but this story, at least, is a very nice blend. I do think the story has a couple of flaws (it obtains some of its conflict by having an implausibly poorly planned and executed mission and there is a moment of great tension for the characters at the end which depends on what immediately feels like overreaction so that the tension feels forced for the reader) and I wish “literary SF” didn’t so often depend on ruined Earths but this was generally a very good story which a variety of readers are likely to appreciate.

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-02-26–1985-05-08)

“The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (F&SF, October 1949)

On the planet Lihrt, a gwik creates a disturbance which causes a lab to be deserted which allows a young hurkle (a gwik pet) to unwittingly modify a gizmo and then accidentally fall into it, which results in the hurkle materializing on Earth. It disturbs a classroom, causing a very level-headed (but inexpert) teacher to try to deal with it, which results in a great change for both humanity and the hurkle.

This is told in an almost fairy-tale way which usually annoys me. In this case, it doesn’t, because this is a very funny (though also dark) story in which the “mimsy were the borogroves” methodology is put to great (and sometimes risque) use as we’re told how life went on after the disturbance at Lihrt and the gwik still “fardled, funted and fupped.” Sturgeon was one of the best and could do all sorts of stories from hard SF to fantasy to mainstream and from comedy to tragedy to horror. This particular one may not be his most momentous, but it’s entertaining.


[1] And I’ve got a couple of Pangborn’s books in the Pile, mostly on the strength of that.

Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 35-41

These chapters of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography [1] fall into two groups. While most of the book has been fascinating and entertaining, I did mention that a section in which he was constantly moving and changing schools suffered from a bit of “sameness” and most of the first three chapters of this group have a problem with being a collection of isolated anecdotes with many interesting facts and opinions but not a lot of narrative thrust or anything to really settle into.

He spent most of this time continuing his work at the Navy Yard. One of his major projects was to chemically test seam-sealers for aircraft and he learned how to write specs in the convoluted, impenetrable “Navy style.” Being Asimov, he wrote one as satirically as he could manage but, as he says, the joke was on him as his superiors were thrilled with his wonderful work. During this time, he lunched with Heinlein and Heinlein’s then-wife, Leslyn. Despite Gertrude being a smoker, it was Leslyn and lunch that triggered Asimov’s abhorrence of smoking (while she didn’t like the way he inhaled his food). In addition to that regular practice, there was also a memorable dinner with Sgt. Jack Williamson and the Heinleins hosting the Asimovs, the de Camps, and a tale-telling, guitar-playing L. Ron Hubbard.

Of the many anecdotes, a couple are notably odd. He was thrilled to be able to vote for FDR and describes literally “screaming like a teen-age girl” when Roosevelt drove by on a tour of the Navy Yard. In another case, he was donating blood (something he could never really manage to do again and which reads oddly given his ultimate fate) when another donor was asked why there was special interest in his type O blood and answered that it was because of how “rich and wholesome” it was (when it’s because it’s the universal donor type). Asimov (type B), rather than finding this unremarkably silly or remarkably funny, was actually enraged by it, taking it very personally even though the other donor wasn’t even talking to him.

It’s odd that these chapters aren’t more enjoyable because he was writing almost nothing but peak Foundation and Robot stories but those are given relatively short shrift. He does say that, in addition to Gibbon, a series called The Historian’s History of the World was also something he enjoyed [2] and which influenced the Foundation series. While some see Toynbee as an influence, he says that only “Dead Hand” was really influenced by it before he decided Toynbee wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. (Asimov would have written more but he got involved in his own attempt to write a history of WWII which went nowhere.) By the fifth story, Asimov was tiring of the series (mainly from writing three in a row and also from the labor of doing a series by the seat of his pants). He relates that it was Campbell’s idea to upset the Seldon Plan, which Asimov resisted forcefully in horror, but he eventually gave in and, in the sixth story, created The Mule, whose physical appearance was partly modeled on a friend. Similarly, Gertrude was a partial model for Bayta (and not just in appearance) while he put some of himself into Torin. In August of 1943, he borrowed a trick to save space from Sprague de Camp and dismembered all his magazines, storing all his own stories in bound volumes (except for some that didn’t fit because of Astounding‘s brief experiment with a larger size, until he had those bound in their own separate volume).

The blurb from the Washington Post on the cover of this book says it is “surprisingly candid” but I don’t think it’s generally “surprising” at all, as I’d expect Asimov to almost always be candid. However, I’m not sure he was always aware just how candid he was being. I think the worst part of these chapters involves Asimov getting more and more worried about the draft and doing everything legal he possibly could to avoid it even though the war was ending and even when it ended. By definition, few people want to be drafted and trying to do scientific work or other forms of alternative service is admirable but one is left with the image of Asimov with his fingernails gouging out strips of the floor, screaming “Noooo!!” as the draft finally drags him away. The most salient example of this may be when he says that his reaction to hearing the A-bomb had been dropped on Japan was to wonder what effect that would have on his chances of being drafted. [3]

The four chapters of Army service making up the second group are much better although, even here, he spent almost his entire time (only nine months from November 1, 1945 to July 26, 1946 rather than the full two years) trying to get discharged early (and writing one Robot story). Just four days prior to being shipped out to observe atomic bomb testing on Bikini Atoll (there to probably get leukemia), a SNAFU caused checks to stop going to Gertrude with the explanation that Asimov had been discharged. Seizing the opportunity, he got his superior to transfer him back to the States to get his situation sorted out and, in the end, he was, in fact, given an honorable discharge after attaining the rank of corporal. It is in these four chapters, though, that the narrative becomes more sustained and Asimov’s mockery of military intelligence and the Kafkaesque world of a post-war army drafting chemists to be typists and sending them to islands to be exposed to atomic bombs because they are “critically needed specialists” is deployed to great effect. Aside from deriding the more bizarre aspects of military life, he also depicts some of its camaraderie, both seriously and comically. For instance, the rarely drunk Asimov relates a time he did get drunk and came back to the barracks and accidentally woke Stash (“the diminutive of his first name, in Polish”):

“Stash,” I said, spreading my arms wide, “I love you.”

Whereupon he jumped up tensely, threw himself into a posture of self-defense, and said, “You try to hug me and I knock you down.”

I was helped into my cot and someone pulled some of my clothes off me and I lay giggling there all night. It was the only day in the Army I was truly happy. I guess that’s why people drink.

I had no reason to be proud of this experience of drunkenness. The others easily outstripped me. On April 27, the other specialists all got drunk for some reason or other. Upton, who had the bed next to mine, lay there hiccuping and slowly and repetitively protesting his love for me.

“Yes, Ed,” I kept saying, soothingly, and then I recited for him, dramatically:

The love of a man for his brother
And the love of a child for its mother
Are nothing at all compared to the love
Of one drunken bum for another. [4]

Upton listened carefully and nodded and said, “That’s right. That’s right.” Then he leaned over the side of the bed (the far side, thank goodness) threw up, and went to sleep.


[1] Earlier chapters were covered in:

[2] In another context, he also mentions reading each volume of Durant’s Story of Civilization as it came out, which is a series I’ve also enjoyed.

[3] My point here is that, while I’m not one of those who thinks dropping the bomb was necessarily evil (I recognize there are arguments about this both ways and think (a) it may have saved lives in the near-term and (b) the visceral, rather than intellectual, knowledge of the horrific destructive power of the weapon in the backs of peoples’ minds may have helped save the world in 1962 and at other times), I feel like the event almost has to be talked about as either a mistake or the most painful of necessities and was surprised that there wasn’t a word about tens of thousands of civilians being obliterated. A possible excuse is that (a) I’m sure he’s expressed more heartfelt reactions elsewhere and (b) the full magnitude of the event might not have been immediately apparent but, even so, he was writing this in the late 1970s and could have added his current thoughts to his original ones.

[4] This reminds me of Asimov earlier quoting “a bit of doggerel”:

The rain, it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust fella
But more upon the just, because
The unjust has the just’s umbrella

Birthday Reviews: Norton, Phillips, Rocklynne

There are a lot of birthdays of interest in the coming week and, if I’m still doing this next year, I’ll get to more of them, but here are three.

Andre Norton (1912-02-17–2005-03-17)

“All Cats Are Gray” (Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953)

Steena is a wallflower of mysterious knowledge who often helps spacers in need at the local bar and has acquired a cat in exchange for doing so. When one spacer is in desperate financial need and the rich derelict, The Empress of Mars, is coming around again, the spacer and – unusually – Steena herself (and her cat) go out to try to conquer the ship despite many having tried and none having come back. A very brief and exciting adventure follows.

While this story has many predecessors and successors in its familiar general type, it’s good stuff whose particulars are infused with great imagination and style. Steena, the Empress, and related things are memorable and it makes a good point about not judging books by their covers or assuming differences are deficits without making it a morality play. Most people should enjoy this, especially if they like Jack McDevitt’s “space wreck” mysteries or Mike Resnick’s “larger-than-life heroes of the spaceways” tales. Or cats.

Rog Phillips (1909-02-20–1966-03-02)

“The Yellow Pill” (Astounding, October 1958)

Psychiatric doctor Cedric Elton is interviewing Gerald Bocek who is accused of killing several people. The two men engage in a battle of worldviews while a yellow pill, which heightens sense perception to break down delusion, hangs over them like a sword of Damocles.

I really can’t say more about the characterization and plot of this story but will say that the psychological edginess as both men wrestle with sanity, insanity, and each other, is a powerful subject which is handled well, generally, and the ending is certainly traumatic. It reads somewhat like a good episode of the Twilight Zone (which began airing the next year) and my only real complaint is that the characters and worldviews aren’t given equal weight. Still, definitely worth a read.

Ross Rocklynne (1913-02-21–1988-10-29)

“Into the Darkness” (Astonishing, June 1939)

This is a literally astonishing story which was written in 1934 but couldn’t find a publisher until Fred Pohl bought it. It deals with energy creatures who take five million years to grow into babies ten million miles across, eventually growing to thirty million miles or more. They play with stars and planets, creating and destroying them at whim. The hero of our story is a being who is not like other beings. Darkness, whose name has three meanings, has three questions which set him apart from his fellows who carelessly play and he goes to Oldster for answers. What is the purpose of life? What is beyond the darkness at the edge of the universe? What is this colored energy within me? Dissatisfied, and still filled with the yearning he’s had since birth to go into that darkness and seek anything beyond, he eats a gigantic sun for energy and heads out. What he finds goes some way towards answering his questions which have some bearing on our own.

In a way, this is to SF as free verse is to a sonnet but, either way, this is one of the more remarkable stories around. It is wildly imaginative and tackles an important theme. It (and another Rocklynne tale) inspired me to seek out both his books [1], so I obviously highly recommend it.


[1] Rocklynne’s books are The Sun Destroyers and The Men and the Mirror. My To Be Read pile is as vast as Darkness and, even after years, I still have yet to read them – but I’m once again inspired to move them up in the Pile.

Links: 2019-02-12

Science Fiction

  • Opinion | The Darkness Where the Future Should Be – The New York Times. This article is about how hard it is to envision positive futures when the present is so dark. The Golden Age of SF was created by the Greatest Generation when we were in the dregs of the Depression which made our recent “Great Recession” look like a boom and when Hitler was blitzkrieging Europe with an initially unbroken string of smashing successes. The casualties to humanity in those years numbered in the millions. And then we went to the Moon just like we had in SF. What’s the present time’s excuse? What’s our problem? Buck up and get back that “vision thing.” We may all die tomorrow and there is much in the world driving us that way, from the corporations to Russia to China to aspects of the United States, itself. Without vision, hope, ideals, and appreciation for what is good in us and those who came before us, we would be doomed. But, with creativity, we may get over the oppression, hate, fear, and unreason after all. Mars, here we come. And then, per aspera ad astra!

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