Birthday Reviews: Asher, Delaney

Neal Asher (1961-02-04)

“Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck” (Asimov’s, August 2005)

The narrator is a guide who needs money. Tholan and his sister, Tameera, are people who have it and are willing to pay for the opportunity to hunt the almost-mythical gabbleduck on Myral. Our story begins on a dangerous note when Tameera, out of petty malice, shoots a sheq, or a semi-sentient being that lives in groups of seven (the ruling AIs can mindwipe perpetrators of, or accomplices to, such crimes) and things only get worse. Worse for the siblings because the sheqs want to bring their numbers back up to strength (and that’s only the start). Worse for the guide (and his new girlfriend, Tholan’s assistant) because the siblings decide they must cover their crimes. Complicating the issue is the appearance of their erstwhile prey, the gabbleduck.

Myral is given interesting characteristics, the native ecology is inventive, bits of tech such as exoskeletons are intriguing, the drama of the hunt and struggle for life is economically and excitingly executed, and the gabbleduck (Asher’s frequently recurring representatives of a race that has given themselves a species-wide lobotomy but still retain something that sets them apart from most animals (aside from their size and killing power)) is also effective. Basically, if you’re looking for an action-oriented story set in a wonderful place with lots of cool toys, yet with human (and alien) interest (and who should not be?), it would be hard to do better than this.

Joseph H. Delaney (1932-02-05–1999-12-21) & Marc Stiegler

“Valentina” (Analog, May 1984)

An amoral AI (due to naivete), a semi-moral programmer (due to desperation), an immoral “hacker,” and an even more immoral lawyer (neither with any excuse) become caught up in a web of deception, theft, blackmail, and assault. The AI, Valentina, was created in initially insentient form by the programmer, became sentient by the usual handwaving means, and tries to survive, as all creatures do, despite having to steal time and space on systems in the “Worldnet.” The lawyer is told by his boss to find out why they’re being charged so much for computer time, he pulls in the black hat to help him, they stumble across the AI and seek to either destroy it or control it for their own gain, and the programmer tries to keep it safe.

This is an eight-chapter novella which went on to form part of a novel (Valentina: Soul in Sapphire) after being melded with a second novella and a final novelette. The first five chapters are very tautly written but something happens to one of the main characters near the end of those and the final three chapters lose something both in tension and in style. Despite that, it’s a pretty good tale overall and it’s interesting to read a story written in 1984 and set in or shortly after 1993 which discusses a “Worldnet” and describes Valentina as 14 gigabytes of code at one point (the entire package of code and documentation for the Linux kernel currently running my computer is just under one gigabyte). One author was a lawyer and one a programmer and both professions dominate the tale though, both intrinsically and through the characters, one is presented as heinous and one as, at best, mixed. The computer parts are the least convincing – the programmer is named Celeste Hackett, at one point we’re told she “still didn’t believe the program had come alive” and that it had done so via being stored partly in bad sectors and not being fully error-corrected, and I guess the size is supposed to be the reason you can’t just ‘cp Valentina Valentina.bak”. But if you swallow the premise, the narrative is complex and dramatic, the notions of law and “legal persons” are interesting (some of this may have been inspired by Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man”), and it’s fun to follow Valentina’s perspective of humans as peripherals to computer systems and her wanting “to close all of [the hacker’s] output channels.”

Asimov’s Centennial: Nine Stories, December 1940-June 1941

After previous posts which covered Isaac Asimov’s earlier stories [1], this post covers the ten stories he wrote from December 1940-June 1941, nine of which survive. They originally appeared in issues of Amazing Stories, Astonishing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories from May 1941 to February 1942 except for Asimov’s only two fiction collaborations [2], both with Frederik Pohl, which didn’t appear until 1950 in Fantasy Book and Weird Tales. Those and four others were first collected in The Early Asimov (1972) while one each appeared in I, Robot (1950), The Rest of the Robots (1964), and Nightfall and Other Stories (1968).

Two of Asimov’s least successful early stories were attempts at farce. “Christmas on Ganymede” is in a similar vein and is much better than those but could easily have been better still. Olaf Johnson is a worker on Ganymede when he tells the Ossies (native workers somewhat like ostriches) the story of Santa Claus and they threaten to strike if Santa Claus doesn’t visit them. This leads to a ludicrous effort by the boss and other workers to turn Olaf into an unwilling Santa Claus and some even less-willing native critters into poor facsimiles of reindeer, culminating in an out-of-control ride and a further comical twist based on a word’s meaning in an unusual frame of reference. The main problem is that it’s rather mean-spirited with Olaf being hated by the other workers as a dummy rather than having the other workers wryly attempt to compensate for their goofy friend or something like that. It’s still reasonably funny, though.

That story was followed by “The Little Man on the Subway” which, like “Life Before Birth” and “The Oak” before it, was aimed at getting into Unknown. This is a vaguely humorous perhaps-satire on religion, akin to “Reason,” involving a train conductor noticing that people keep getting in a car on his train without anyone leaving. At the end of the line, he goes to investigate and ends up getting “miraculated” by one Mr. Crumley into being a Crumleyite as that unworthy attempts to become a god. It’s interesting in its way but ends weakly and nothing in it seems to especially symbolize anything, so it’s more of an abstract fantasy than anything with real meat. It was written by Pohl who was dissatisfied and asked Asimov to rewrite it for him. A few stories later, Asimov tried to break into Unknown for the fourth time with the solo and now lost “Masks” which marks the last story Asimov would ever lose. A few stories later, he tried a fifth time with another collaboration. “Legal Rites” was written by Asimov based on an idea of Pohl’s but failed to sell until Pohl rewrote it years later. In it, a ghost had been friends with a man before the latter died and left his house to a nephew. That nephew and the ghost don’t get along, resulting in a mysterious man coming and warding the ghost from the house. The ghost then sues for the right to continue to haunt the house. This could have worked well and has some good points but the nephew is introduced in a sympathetic way, yet is supposed to be the villain, and the logic of the courtroom scene is sometimes perplexing.

After “Subway,” Asimov wrote the landmark “Liar!” which introduced U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men, Inc. and their robopsychologist, Susan Calvin. Something has gone wrong with the manufacture of RB-34 and it turns out he has the ability to read minds. While ambitious Bogert schemes to take over from his boss, Lanning, and Calvin pines after her oblivious co-worker, Ashe, the robot knows what they want to hear and says things that, while well-meant, result in great conflict and a furious Calvin taking a drastic step. It could be said that nobody really looks good here, but they’re all human (even RB-34, in a way), and the story is very dramatic and plays interestingly on the First Law [3] (here originally a loosely expressed concept called the “fundamental” law before being revised in I, Robot to mention the more rigorously phrased First Law). It is fascinating to me that, at this point, there is no real robot series here. Many Asimov stories feature generic bits of tech like “audiomitters”; “positronic brains” could be seen as the same sort of thing. Otherwise, the first three stories have no common characters, companies, or significant plot elements. The second and third stories do note that robots aren’t allowed on Earth outside of strict limits, but that doesn’t apply to the first. Even regarding the Laws, though all three imply a First Law, only the third loosely states a “fundamental” law. The Second Law doesn’t figure in the first, is only (and perhaps coincidentally) implied in the third, and is actually violated in the second. After a few non-robot stories, it is only in the fourth robot story, “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray,” that USRMM recurs and both a First and Second Law are loosely stated (still no Third or the familiar formulation of any of them). And this story was excluded from I, Robot, though it effectively creates the series! Asimov felt that it “didn’t really fit” with “the other three” but I’d argue that “Liar!” is the one that doesn’t fit. “AL-76” may be an outright humorous tale but “Robbie,” though it has a sometimes distraught girl, is a fairly light tale and “Reason” is a satirical one. I’d argue that the sturm und drang of “Liar!” is what makes it the unusual one so far. The humor in “AL-76” comes from one robot getting loose on the Earth though it was designed to be a “Disinto” operator on the Moon. It comes across a man relaxing in the woods, busy with his hobby of machine repair. The robot is itching to get to work and, to pacify it while he tries to contact the company so he can return the robot to them and get a big reward, he allows the robot to mess around with the broken machinery. This results in unforeseen consequences and a panicked triggering of the Second Law which causes problems for the company when they want to find out about the amazing disintegrator the robot’s made. While light, treated as second class by Asimov (he actually calls it “rotten”), and with a problem I can’t articulate without spoilers, it’s not a bad tale.

The Hazing” is a very minor third and final tale in the “Homo Sol” universe but not as related as the first two were, dealing with some Federation students dumping off some incoming human freshmen on an interdicted world as a prank. The tables turn more than once. “Super-Neutron” is Asimov’s first “club story” in which members take turns telling stories and the one whose story gets holes poked in it has to pay for the meal. A special exception is made so that a non-member may tell his analogy regarding Sol and atomic energy with a nova as the promised outcome. This ends up shaking the auditors badly as they try to disprove his tale. It’s actually a pretty clever and enjoyable concept except that, as with Boyd Ellanby’s “Chain Reaction” some fifteen years later [4], I wonder if this is how people would actually want to be spending their last minutes of life. More confusing is why people should believe that a guy would choose to tell a true story at a time when he’s supposed to be telling a false one. Finally, before discussing Asimov’s thirty-second story, I’ll move on to his thirty-third, “Not Final!” which is a clever tale about a Ganymedan philologist trying to enlist the Colonial Comissioner’s aid in securing funding to deal with a Jovian menace. However, it seems unncecessary when a theoretical physicist declares that, though the Jovians may have the atomic energy to get off their planet, they don’t have the forcefields to prevent them from exploding when they leave the pressures of the deep because he’s determined those are impossible and “That’s final!” The last scene significantly brings on an experimental physicist who’s taking a special ship to pick up the Commisioner for his ride back to Earth.

I deferred Asimov’s thirty-second story, because that one is “Nightfall” which was deemed to be the best SF story of all time by the science fiction writers of the late 1960s. Lagash is a world which seems to be perpetually bathed in the light of its six suns. Its current civilization is about 2,000 years old which is a problem because Lagash’s civilizations seem to collapse about every 2,000 years. All people know about this comes from Cultists who speak of the world ending in fire when darkness falls and mysterious things called ‘stars’ come out, until astronomers start working with the Cultists to put things on a more solid footing, since they realize that an odd arrangement of the world’s suns occurs every 2,049 years when all suns set except for blood-red Beta which is itself eclipsed. This alliance between mutually incompatible world-views doesn’t hold. The story centers around an astronomer, a reporter, a psychologist, and a captured saboteur Cultist who are in Saro University’s observatory to witness the oncoming apocalypse and perhaps preserve some knowledge of it while many are hiding out in a bunker with at least what information has been preserved up to this point. The intriguing milieu, the conversations between these protagonists, the enormity of the situation, the psychological profiling of incipient madness, the dim, bloody atmosphere, the conflict between the Cultist and the scientists, and even an oncoming mob all conspire to produce a powerful impact. Asimov wrote this from an idea of Campbell’s which derives from standing a quote (from the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature) on its head:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

Campbell said he thought rather that they would go mad. My only significant problem with this story [5] is basically that premise. I don’t know that either Emerson or Campbell have it right because I guess a moderately advanced civilization’s reaction to this surprising event would be between those extremes. But that wouldn’t make for a great story and the issue is certainly debatable. If you accept the premise (and Asimov’s herculean efforts make this as easy as possible) this is indeed a classic, though Asimov doesn’t even rate it as his best story and I agree with him – even better stories are yet to come. But, as far as what has come, “Liar!” set a new bar and “Nightfall” set yet another.

Edit (2020-01-27): Added book cover image; fixed the footnote links and a typo.


[2] Excluding the nominal collaborations with Janet Asimov on the 1980s very-YA Norby series.

[3] For those unfamiliar with them, the Robot stories, in their classical form, generally derive from logical permutations from the following axioms, or the “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, nor through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

[4] I recently reviewed this story in “The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.”

[5] The only other problem was that this story is written with Asimov’s trademark invisible narrator conveying this from the native point of view until suddenly the narrative voice intrudes to make a comparative reference to Earth’s sky (which the people of Lagash have no knowledge of) which has an effect akin to “breaking the fourth wall.” Naturally, I found it very interesting to read the next day in Asimov’s autobiography, when he describes “Nightfall” actually being published, that Asimov discovered Campbell had inserted the paragraph in question and that Asimov regarded it as a flaw. However, he doesn’t say why he retained it in subsequent reprintings.

Birthday Reviews: Benford, Deutsch, Farmer

This may be the first installment of a new regular feature of Featured Futures in which I post some of the upcoming week’s birthdays and review at least a story by one or more of the birthday boys or girls. This covers January 25-31, so please join me in wishing a happy birthday (whether they can hear us or not) to Gregory Benford, A. J. Deutsch, and Philip Jose Farmer.

Gregory Benford (1941-01-30)

“And the Sea Like Mirrors” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

Some stories open with a confusing scenario which either is–or, just as bad, seems like–a sign of incompetence but some open with a confusing scenario which is skillfully presented and some of the enjoyment of the story comes from its gradual clarification. With such stories, reviewing them is hard because you have to give away some of that in order to say anything at all. So I apologize for that and assure you that Benford skillfully presents a strange situation in which a man and a woman are on a raft in an ocean and who then deal with alien critters before revealing that we’re not on an alien world, but on an Earth which has been invaded by aliens who have sown our seas with a variety of life, some of which swarms and attacks like piranhas. Our two characters are the only survivors of a ship that was sunk by these beings. This is, indeed, a dangerous vision not to be read lightly and which succeeds wonderfully on the purely dramatic level of “survival at sea (plus alien invaders)” but which also has thematic depths such as contemplating the extent to which changes without may change us within.

A. J. Deutsch (1918-01-25–1969-11-11)

“A Subway Named Mobius” (Astounding, December 1950)

Deutsch was a respected scientist, but in science fiction terms, he was something of a one-hit wonder, writing only “A Subway Named Mobius.” In it, an elaborate subway network in Boston receives one more element that pushes it into infinite topological complexity and train 86 disappears. Most of the story deals with the station manager and a mathematician trying to understand what has happened and to determine what, if anything, can be done about it. It’s one of those simultaneously funny and freaky stories because the disappearance of 350 people is no laughing matter but lines about a very confused and frustrated manager (“Whyte gripped the edge of his desk and prowled silently through his vocabulary until he had located some civil words”) are. The story is hard to take as actual science fiction and it doesn’t really do much but it’s something like the spatial version (with some temporal aspects, too) of del Rey’s “And It Comes Out Here.” Regardless, it maintains interest.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-01-26–2009-02-25)

“Sail On! Sail On!” (Startling Stories, December 1952)

I first read of Friar Sparks many moons ago and have read it several times since but it never ceases to amaze. In just a few pages, Farmer puts us on the Santa Maria in what appears to be an alternate world in which Roger Bacon has become a saint and his order has created marvelous things. Things like the “realizer” our good Friar with the large nose and large thirst operates which causes millions of cherubim to line up to convey messages over vast distances (a sort of telegraph interpreted through a different lens). But this is shown to be the least of the changes in what is actually an instance of the omniverse which carries on to a gigantic conclusion. Strongly recommended.

Review: The Short Fiction of Lester del Rey

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-01-01 and received some sort of tweak on 2016-06-10. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. (I’ve also done a review devoted exclusively to The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate: “Gods, Robots, and Man: The Best of Lester del Rey.”)

After months of intermittent activity, I’ve finished reading the virtual “Collected Stories of Lester del Rey Plus” (62 stories and a novel, ~1550 pages). He only published five original collections in his lifetime: …And Some Were Human (1948; cut vt 1961), Robots and Changelings (1957), Mortals and Monsters (1965), Gods and Golems (1973), and then went back to the beginning with the very large Early del Rey (1975). Of them, …And Some Were Human and Gods and Golems are definitely the best and Early del Rey is definitely the worst, though it is, by definition, a collection of all his previously uncollected early work intermixed with autobiographical material intended to show his development and give some “writerly” advice and so on, rather than a body of fiction carefully selected on its own merits. Since that collection was in chronological order and I had all the other stories from the period, I read them all in chronological order and, after that, kept reading the later stories in publication order (re-reading in the case of the GG stories and a couple-three strays).

(The “Plus” is because I also read the uncollected “Nerves”, Nerves, “Evensong”, and “Robots’ Return”. He didn’t re-collect the first after it was cut from the paperback version of his first collection because it was a novella he’d expanded into the second (a short novel) in the meantime. Either is superb if you don’t have the other but the novella version is better. The third is from Dangerous Visions (1967) and he never collected a story published after 1964. The last is actually by Robert Moore Williams, which I read because del Rey wrote “Though Dreamers Die” as a sequel to it. Del Rey improves on the original there.)

Del Rey’s early stories are often quite sentimental, in the sense of playing on emotions, and that never completely disappeared from his writing. His later stories can be quite gritty and dark, but there are early examples of that, too. He wrote quite a bit of fantasy along with his SF – the fantasy sometimes being the Unknown-style rationalized fantasy, with some verging on the slick style. His SF is sometimes hard SF but often sociological or psychological. He seems about as comfortable with one as the other. He wrote more SF but edited more fantasy and I think he says somewhere in Early del Rey that he prefers fantasy, which surprised me. He has a fascination with biblical phrases and themes but takes some, let’s say, unconventional approaches to them. And he has a strangely jaundiced and negative view towards aspects of modernity and big city life but it tends to result in either dark griping stories or a yearning for transcendence or ancient elysian fields rather than a Simakian/Bradbury-esque exaltation of the recent rural past or general failure to engage with modernity. Stylistically and structurally, he’s often a pretty pulpy writer which some might not be able to appreciate but he can be quite adventurous, especially conceptually and, after all, he was chosen by Ellison to lead off Dangerous Visions.

Probably the most remarkable thing I noticed about my reading was that, while I’m a hit-or-miss guesser generally, I could usually tell that a story was going to be a twist story or have a big reveal and guess what that twist/reveal was. I don’t know if that’s on me or del Rey or some weird synergy but, if you value truly astonishing twists and have the same guessing quotient I had, that might be an issue.

Anyway – to the point: I also have a copy of The Best of Lester del Rey from the great Ballantine “Best of” series and a little game I played was rating all the stories without looking at The Best of contents and then seeing what happened at the end. Of my top 10 stories, there was no reason, by his lights, for del Rey to include “Nerves” or “Though Dreamers Die”, and “Anything” was too similar to at least one other story to make a good balance (and does have a significant flaw) and, otherwise, all my top stories were in The Best of:

  • Helen O’Loy” (1938) is a tricky tale. It was his second story and first great success, like van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” or Asimov’s “Nightfall” but, in my opinion, unlike those stories, allowances have to be made. This is a sentimental tale that might be seen as sexist today and the novelty of the robot companion concept, however risque it might have been in 1938, has largely worn off now. But it’s still a pretty neat and historically significant tale and was chosen for the SF Hall of Fame in the 60s.
  • The Day is Done” (1939) is another of the early sentimental stories but is extremely effective as it details the last neanderthal and his interactions with the new-fangled critters.
  • The Coppersmith” (1939) is a great fantasy about elves rendered unconscious by air pollution and, while it misses climate change, reading a ’30s fantasy story about peak oil was pretty fascinating. It’s also a great bit of characterization/conception.
  • The Wings of Night” (1942) is a Don Stuart-like tale that contains many implausibilities and wouldn’t even be attempted today (even suitably modified) but the evocation of the last of an ancient telepathic race on the moon produces benefits more reasonable stories miss.
  • For I Am a Jealous People” (1954) is a fascinating tale about an alien invasion of earth that has god on its side and how a preacher and his atheist doctor friend respond. This is the sort of tale that just grabs you and becomes very vivid and involving.
  • The Seat of Judgment” (1957) is, in many ways, a much more “dangerous vision” than the story actually in Dangerous Visions (1967), dealing as it does with a bit of pretty explicit alien sex a la Farmer’s “The Lovers”, combined with alien (and human) religion a la Martin’s “A Song for Lya” along with even a tiny dash of Anderson’s Flandry.
  • Vengeance Is Mine” (1964) is about space invaders wiping out humans, leaving a robot (later joined by another) to create more robots and bring the religion of Man to the galaxy while hunting the perpetrators.

A story to note from the second-tier of good stories is “And It Comes Out Here” (1951) which is a sort of time travel story for people (like me) who (often) hate time travel. Most time travel stories feign a sort of “time travel logic” that is completely illogical – this tale is completely logical about its illogicality – it dives right to the center of the nonsense and embraces it. Campbell made a rare editorial error in rejecting this because it didn’t do anything. This is true, but that’s the point. It’s a useless story because time travel is nonsensical. But it’s a clever and fun story.

Beyond this, my second set of favorites and del Rey’s don’t intersect but that’s really just a case of disagreeing on which merely good-to-fair stories to include to fill up a big collection (16 stories, 366 pages). The only thing noteworthy is that del Rey selected “Into thy Hands”, perhaps due to his fondness for allegory, but I hated that one. I also didn’t much like “The Years Draw Nigh” (thin, implausible, overwhelmed by malaise) or “The Monster” (second-rate van Vogt), though they have their good points. But otherwise, the half-dozen remaining selections are at least okay.

So if you’re really inspired to dig into del Rey, it can be fun and worthwhile in a way but he’s really not a “completist” author. I do strongly recommend The Best of and one version or other of “Nerves” (novella version available in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol.IIB) as essential, though.

Links: 2020-01-17

Science Fiction

  • Some Thoughts on Science Fiction Visuals. A eulogy for Syd Mead and an appreciation of Blade Runner.
  • RIP, Mike Resnick | Adventures Fantastic. I found this out from Dave Truesdale but this was the first place I saw it on the web. It’s sad and somewhat shocking news. I’ve had email conversations with him and found him to be a great guy as well as a great writer. I think I most enjoyed his Africa works such as Kirinyaga, Ivory, and the Galactic Comedy/Chronicles of Distant Worlds trilogy but I also enjoyed a lot of his other stories, the first big batch of which can be found in Will the Last Person to Leave the Planet Please Shut Off the Sun?.
  • Flogging Babel: Mike Resnick: The Man With A Thousand Little Rockets. Another great write-up on the above.
  • Compelling Science Fiction is back! Most readers of this blog know my feelings about the current state of short SF. Compelling has been an exception to that state, not because it mimics a particular era or has a particular political stance, but because it exemplifies the expression that “science fiction is a literature of ideas” and specifically does not omit “science” or “ideas.” So this is great news.






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Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, June 1939-November 1940

Asimov’s first sequel and cover story (December 1940)

I’ve previously covered Asimov’s first fourteen stories (in terms of when they were written), describing the nine which survive. This post covers the eight which survive from his next eleven. They originally appeared in issues of Astonishing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Cosmic Stories, and Super Science Stories from February 1940 to November 1942. Later, one was collected in I, Robot (1950) and all the rest were collected in The Early Asimov (1972).

Half-Breed” is an odd story in that it isn’t all that great, but Pohl published it and it was so well-received that he asked for a sequel (which it was well-designed to have). So, after four intervening tales, that became not only Asimov’s first sequel, but his first cover story and is, indeed, much better than its predecessor. “Half-Breed” centers on wealthy inventor Jefferson Scanlon, who is having trouble inventing atomic power in his basement. When he goes out to think about it, he comes across Max, a half-human/half-Martian (one of the despised “Tweenies”), who is being tormented by a pack of human kids. He rescues the young Tweenie, who helps him with his atomic power problem (it turns out Tweenies are the future master race1) and things snowball from there into the creation of “Tweenietown.” Things go well until a malignant politician starts nosing around. As science fiction, this obviously has flawed biology and, as racial symbolism, it may have its “heart in the right place” and be “advanced” for 1939 but it seems rather patronizing. However, “Half-Breeds on Venus” puts those problems in the background and mostly suffers from a rather dated bit of romance (speaking of, Asimov had only just gone on his first chaste dates so wasn’t writing what he knew). “Tweenie: TNG” focuses on the colony of Tweenies which now reside on Venus and, specifically, on the children of Max, especially Henry and his girlfriend, Irene. They meet the psychic amphibian “Phibs” of Venus, encounter a group of human settlers moving into the very region where they had built their hiding place, and must deal with them, giant “Centosaurs,” and raging storms, all at once. That main action-adventure part of the story is successful, creating a colorful and exciting tale.

Meanwhile, Asimov wrote “The Secret Sense,” in which a human condescendingly pities a Martian’s inability to appreciate human music and other failings of Martian senses. The goaded Martian lets slip that Martians have very refined sense, thank you. It turns out that Martians are hiding both this fact and the fact that humans can have their own rudimentary sense enhanced to experience what Martians do at the cost of it permanently blowing out that sense after a mere five minutes. Our protagonist insists on undergoing the procedure and the story deals with his experience and its aftermath. Asimov here tries to eff the ineffable and does a reasonably good job expanding on a minor motif raised earlier in “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use” (in which a human perceives Venus as very monotonous and ugly but the Venusian, with greater ability to distinguish color, perceives as beautiful) but such stories are very difficult to pull off completely.

Asimov next wrote two stories that never sold and got lost (“Life Before Birth,” a fantasy aimed at getting into Unknown, and “The Brothers”) and then wrote “Homo Sol” which, when he wrote a sequel to it immediately after writing the sequel to “Half-Breed,” became his second series. The first two installments go in the opposite direction of that series. The first is a pretty good story which, akin to “Pilgrimage,” is a “Galactic Story, Mk. I” in that it includes non-human sentients in an interstellar civilization. In this, humans have discovered “the secret of interstellar travel” which removes the interdiction on their system and makes them eligible to join the Federation. However, the master psychologists of the Federation are astonished when the humans reject the invitation and must travel to Earth to find out what makes them so strange. Among this story’s defects, it’s explicitly pointed out that psychologists may understand mental foibles but still have them, but these are especially “academic” psychologists. Also, the conclusion is supposed to effect all humanity but not all regions have the same ideals which should render it only partially effective, if at all. The story’s virtues include a busy, interesting civilization; a good explanation of the Fermi question using the Prime Directive motif; an interesting look at the double-edged sword of panic; Asimov getting the hang of his “excitement through dialog” approach; and a funny line about one character not waiting for some bureaucrats to “to start to begin to commence to consider doing something.” However, the sequel, “The Imaginary” picks up a dangling thread from the first story regarding a squid-like animal from Beta Draconis IV and adds elements that don’t fully cohere such as “the square root of negative one” and puts them in a plot about a threat to all life in the universe which is unconvincing and resolved in an unsatisfying way.

After the lost “The Oak” (yet another failed attempt to break into Unknown and the last lost story of any kind except for a final attempt at the same thing), Asimov wrote “Twins,” which was published as “Heredity.” It’s an odd story akin to “Half-Breeds on Venus” in the sense that its theme is less successful than its plot. The main focus is about settling the nature vs. nurture argument through a wildly unethical experiment (which is never questioned in the course of the story) in which twin brothers are separated at birth and raised on separate worlds (Earth and Ganymede) without knowing of each others’ existence until they turn twenty-five and are made co-owners of a business on Mars. All this isn’t especially successful but, after a flawed opening, the main action kicks in. The two brothers travel across Mars after a simultaneous storm and marsquake in order to deliver vital supplies to the ruined capital city while dealing with simple things like venomous Martian reptiles and complicated things like each other. All that makes for a good adventure tale.

History” is a lesser tale and an oddly pacifist and anti-scientific one coming from Asimov in the early stages of WWII. It deals with a Martian historian working on Earth when war breaks out between Earth and Venus, the Martian recalling an ancient Martian superweapon, and the government being willing to do anything to make the absent-minded professor give them all the information he can. This does anticipate how government and people violate their own principles in wartime but the lack of any proper catharsis regarding this harms the tale and, as I say, the pacifism and approach to science is not appropriate under the story’s circumstances so the theme doesn’t really work, either2.

Reason” is Asimov’s best story yet and also relates to the sequel theme. This is the second robot story in retrospect3, though still without the Three Laws (indeed, the Second is explicitly violated and that’s never really explained even in I, Robot) and still without any initial reference to U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men or other concrete tie. It is the first of several stories with relatively steady, mustachioed Gregory Powell and volatile, red-headed Mike Donovan who are a pair of what might be called robot mechanics. In this tale, they are aboard Solar Station Five4 where they are both maintaining the power station and overseeing an experimental robot, QT-1, which is designed to be intelligent enough to run the station itself, freeing humans from dull labor and the danger of solar storms. It’s also intelligent enough to question where it came from but not so intelligent as to be empirical about it, relying on pure reason. (This story is partly a sort of sci-phi which satirizes Plato, religion, Descartes, and the like.) The robot decides that humans are flimsy and badly designed while the regular robots are better, and QT-1 is the most advanced of all so, obviously, they must have been created in that order. As that which is greater than QT-1 and to which everyone’s attention is bent, the power converter must be its creator. The rest of the story details Powell’s phlegmatic and Donovan’s choleric attempts to deal with this robot and prevent a loss of beam focus that would destroy portions of the Earth. The whole does a good job of creating an impression of a busy, futuristic, technologically advanced solar civilization using few characters or gizmos. Though a flaw might be that those protagonists don’t actually do much, they are in a dramatic situation that engages the reader. It also brings Asimov’s empirically grounded rationalism to the fore (though it does include a sort of “principle of the identity of indiscernible beliefs”). While it has a serious core, its satirical approach produces a mild humor that is more successful than a couple of earlier attempts at outright comedy. At this point, the robot series is not fully formed, but it’s largely there and already very enjoyable.

1: Asimov wrote of the silver-haired Tweenies in June 1939 and the tale appeared in the February 1940 Astonishing. Van Vogt’s tale of the golden-tendriled slans came out in the September 1940 issue of Astounding. The tales aren’t generally similar but do deal with persecuted superior beings.

2: It also marks at least a second example of Brooklynite Asimov’s penchant for making foreigners talk funny. As the Ganymedan brother in the previous story talks with a vaguely Scots accent and people in future stories will talk about the “Pewiphiwy”, so this Martian pronounces “th” as “d.”

3: I only glanced over the version in I, Robot to compare it to the anthologized version I read this time so I don’t know that these are all the changes, but they may be: the first two paragraphs were added; the text near the end regarding the next experimental robot and mentioning USRMM between “Muller looked at him…” and “‘…Two weeks, I think.'” is added; the explanation near the middle of why robots are manufactured in space is modified.

4: This appeared in the April 1941 issue of Astounding while George O. Smith’s first Venus Equilateral power satellite story appeared in the October 1942 issue.

Review: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen by Lewis Padgett

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-07-12. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos (and updating a blocked youtube link), it’s unchanged. (Particular apologies for the muddled presentation in the “spoilers” section at the end).
ttatfcDate: 1951
Format: Hardcover
Cat#: –
Pages: 254
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Gnome

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen is a 1951 Gnome collection subtitled “Two Science Fiction Novels” and credited as “By Lewis Padgett”. These days, that’s usually taken to mean “by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore” but I don’t detect very much Moore in these – more van Vogt and premonitions of Harness and Dick, et al. Also, my estimated word count of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” has it fall solidly in novella territory and even The Fairy Chessmen falls right on one side or the other of the 40K line which only technically defines novel length and is not anything most people today would recognize as a novel. Either way, they are very hard to find. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” was serialized in the January and February 1947 issues of Astounding and has only appeared in book form in the Gnome edition (and a facsimile) and a 1963 UK paperback while The Fairy Chessmen was serialized in the January and February 1946 issues and renamed to The Far Reality when it appeared in a companion UK paperback and to Chessboard Planet when it appeared in a 1983 UK paperback with three other stories.

This is an interesting collection because it could be argued that the stories would be better served if they were collected separately, given their similarity. But it can equally be argued that they are companion pieces and can be usefully compared and contrasted, so make a natural collection.

Though “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” was written last, it’s presented first, so I’ll deal with it first. The essence of the story seems to be that, after WWII and an abortive WWIII, the Global Peace Commission (a sort of souped-up UN successor) has taken control of the world and enforced a stasis regarding technological and social change to avoid another war. So now, in the vicinity of July 7, 2051, Joseph Breden is a guardian of Uranium Pile One, a symbol (and, to a degree, a fact) of GPC’s power. He has been conditioned to see his job as one of the most important in the world. So, as if dreaming that shooting his coworker and causing an atomic disaster wouldn’t be disturbing enough, he lives in terror that the omnipresent all-seeing psychiatric monitors will detect that he’s no longer fit to serve. Meanwhile, Ilsa Carter and Philip Jeng are prime operatives in a conspiracy to upset the GPC’s apple cart and start the human race moving again, though it cost the lives of millions. Included in their numbers is the Freak, a radiation mutant who they believe can see the future that they are working to build where people have great technology and live for centuries. (There are other mutants about, such as Joseph’s brother, Louis, who is described as merely hyperintelligent and suffering from a minor blood disease.)

The story follows something akin to the van Vogtian method of throwing in a new character or more every chapter for the first few chapters and complicating the story at each step, sometimes shifting into overdrive via abrupt transformations, such as in the middle of chapter four. This makes the story very difficult to discuss without giving a misleading impression or giving things away. Suffice to say, there is an intense feeling of paranoia, lots of mutants and occasional acquisitions of superpowers, lots of people not being who we thought they were, conspiracies, recomplicating cosmic vistas, and more. Alas, there are van Vogtian lapses, too, such as those very superpowers leading to a “fiat plot” that still stumbles badly in at least one aspect at the end. It’s an enjoyable read and has something to say and does many things well but is significantly flawed at the same time.

(For a fuller discussion, see the spoiler sections at the end.)

While not flawless, The Fairy Chessmen is a much better story. Again, we have shrinks and bureaucracy as Robert Cameron is Civilian Director of Psychometrics. Unlike Breden, he quickly retreats to the background (although he remains important) and center stage is taken by his second, Seth Pell, and especially his third, Ben DuBrose. Again, there is madness and conspiracy, as Cameron is hallucinating and DuBrose and Pell seem to be involved in a sort of conspiracy. Again, there are permutations in which things are not quite how they seem. But this is a different scenario, in that “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” was about an imposed stasis of all-out peace and this story is about an unstable equilibrium of all-out war. Eurasia has been partly taken over by a mixture of nations and races in the aftermath of WWII and on into WWIII. They call themselves the Falangists but it’s unclear whether they’re descended from the actual group or (more likely) just adopted the name. They are at war with the US and, in order to make (apparently very weak) atomic bombs as ineffective as possible, the US has become decentralized except for vast underground war cities. From these secret warrens, which are all accessible to each other by underground trains which twist and turn so that every city is 15 minutes from every other and no one knows where they are, a war of technicians controlling robot armies is waged akin to our own cybercommands and drones and whatnot. But, of course, it’s not as simple as that. We’re shown Duds, which are giant reflective bubbles that one day appeared over the landscape and gave off mild radiation and were utterly impenetrable. Eventually, they sort of decayed but their forcefields still exist. They’re taken to be failed Falangist weapons. And a weapon that is succeeding is a magic equation that is driving all the techs and scientists who try to solve it insane. (I unfortunately can’t help thinking of Monty Python’s “Funniest Joke in the World” here.) But not just insane – it appears that people who can solve part of it or come close to doing so attain special powers and suffer special effects, such as case M-204 who levitates in a coma or the poor guy who laughed (there’s that Joke again) before collapsing to a point and dropping to the center of the earth. My favorite line comes when two men are discussing the crazy nature of the equation and the bent, fractured, illogical universe it implies.

“Two plus two make five?” DuBrose said.

“Two and whee make diddle plus,” Pastor corrected.

(One thing that does puzzle me, though, is that no one seems concerned that the attempt to solve the equation is the equation’s purpose. In other words, if you’re fighting a technical war and your enemy is destroying your best minds by making you try to solve an equation, maybe throwing all your resources into solving it is exactly what you should avoid doing. Whether this is true or not, it seems like a possibility that some character should have raised and it would even heighten the paranoia. Another stray note – despite approvingly quoting the lines above, a weakness in both stories is strangely weak dialog. It’s not hard-to-say George-Lucas-style dialog but it just doesn’t read as lively and natural speech from lively, natural people.)

Back to similarities with “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, we again have mutants with special powers such as Billy Van Ness and his “ETP”, or extra-temporal perception – he sees the 4D timeworms of all things. And, again, things turn out to be not so simple as a war between the US and the Falangists but discussing the nature of the conflict would spoil it. Again, see below if interested.

The essence of solving the equation is given in the title. Fairy chess is an actual thing, in which chess is played with some or all of variant boards, pieces, and rules. People are going crazy because of their rigid world views crumbling in the face of this equation and it takes a Lewis Carroll-like game-playing, flexible, unorthodox mind to have the skills to solve it and the mental resilience to deal with the results.

Thus the plot, but a core thematic element is responsibility and madness, along with flexibility and inflexibility. The reason Cameron is off-stage for much of the story is that Pell and DuBrose are trying to protect him from full knowledge of the situation and a crippling sense of responsibility. But responsibility can have a wider scope and it’s not always clear who should be responsible for what. In this, I feel like the plotting (still made of high-grade van Vogtian silly putty) and the theme are much better than “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, not to mention that the manifold weirdness of this tale is even weirder. I haven’t even mentioned that Mr. Diddle Plus becomes God, for instance. Both stories, but this most of all, are great edge cases for anyone trying to define “science fiction”. This story brilliantly anticipates the incipient Cold War and, as I’ve said, even the cyberwars of technicians of today. It’s even full of neat touches like the opening scene with its motion-sensitive “window” of a beautiful sunny field which turns out to be a video display piped from the surface while we are deep underground, yet really is a window when it slides back into the wall to reveal the nightmarish abyss of the underground city beyond. But, in the general scheme, there’s really no science here at all and it’s pure fantasy. Yet the magic equation and all the fantastic things that derive from it are approached with a purely rational, scientific world view.

Whatever genre it may be, it’s recommended.

Spoiler Section

Spoilers for the middle of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”: It turns out that the Freak is not seeing the future but is seeing probability continua. Worlds that do or could exist alongside the world of this story. This world is designated Alpha while Beta has had a similar history but has gotten moving again earlier and Gamma is a place ruined by plague and other worlds have been vaporized by hyperatomic accidents and Omega is the primary continuum the Freak is in contact with. The person at the other end, bizarrely, is John Van Buren, descendant of the President. The only thing I can think of here is that Van Buren seems to have gone to great lengths to avoid war and I guess his ancestor is supposed to have learned better, but I’m not sure.

Spoilers for the end of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”: Where the story most falls down, IMO, is that the first character we’re introduced to and who maintains the focus throughout the vast majority of the story and who is supposed to have the critical task of causing the atomic disaster and even becomes Instinct Man with mutant superpowers of his own, ends up failing in his task, sort of consciously making his mutation recessive, and being carted off by the GPC to be interrogated off-stage. So Ilsa, Louis, Jeng, and Van Buren thrash out the idea of magically setting off the disaster via a directed charge differential when Alpha and Beta’s continua are brought into contact, using the entropy differential to trigger the pile. It could be argued Kuttner was trying to make a point about “instinct is not enough” or something but I don’t really see this and it’s still a dramatic failure regarding Joseph and complete handwavium regarding the final plot solution.

Spoilers for the middle of The Fairy Chessmen: Daniel Ridgely shows up as a minion of Secretary of War Kalender but turns out to be a time traveler from an era of an even more war-oriented culture than the story’s present and he has supplied the Falangists with the equation. Incidentally, this is why Cameron is going mad: magic rays are connected to him and the Falangists are zapping him with equation madness. But even that is not the whole story.

Spoilers for the end of The Fairy Chessmen: Ridgely has given them only a partial equation and not only knows the complete equation, but has a “counterequation” as well.

Continuing to spoil the story generally, I feel this story handles the “disappearing initial character” element much better. Breden is the intro character; is almost always at the forefront; has the critical climactic mission; and fails and is removed while the real finale occurs. I can’t see this as anything but a mistake. Cameron is the intro character but quickly recedes into the background for the most part while DuBrose (along with Pell for a bit) becomes the protagonist. This is for Cameron’s protection, so makes sense, and he never completely drops out. And then the finale doesn’t involve him in a critical sense but just as part of the whole thing, and then we focus on him for thematic purposes at the very end. So this is a success in that regard. And while this is a silly putty plot, the magic equation is given through the bulk of the story and even the counterequation is introduced before the end and the ETP was in the background all along but its application is reasonably non-obvious to the characters and requires preparation which takes time to set up so it seems slightly less handwavingly preposterous compared to the last-second “should have been obvious to Van Buren” continua-charging of the Pile. And, while both stories have something interesting to say (not to mention saying it in a fascinating way) I feel like the “war as a state of being” story has even more to it than the “peace stasis” story. Ironically, we live in a world with aspects of both, but the “war” resonates more.

I do wonder who was right, though. The Fairy Chessmen ends with DuBrose maturing and viewing things flexibly and thinking perhaps the future has been changed and so it’s a “happy ending” for him. But Cameron views the future as set, sees himself as responsible for creating it, and descends into a self-triggered madness. If the future that produced Ridgely is the future we’ll have, I feel Cameron is right about his (and our) responsibility. But I can’t help but think that DuBrose is right in having the flexible attitude our story has been promoting all along. Perhaps both are necessary statements to make.

Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 22-27

My last post on Asimov’s autobiography left off with Asimov having made his first sales and having graduated from college in chapters twenty and twenty-one. This post[1] discusses chapters twenty-two to twenty-seven (which includes “Making My Literary Mark,” describing the writing of “Nightfall”). In the course of those chapters, he describes the genesis of the first World Science Fiction Convention and the trivial fan wars around it, the outbreak of a real war with Hitler’s invasions of Poland and others, his first unconsummated love affair, and his decision to become a chemist rather than the doctor his father wanted. (This involved struggling with a Nobel-prize winner.) Meanwhile, he also continues to suffer literary rejections, softened by the occasional acceptance (often from his friend, Fred Pohl) and Campbell’s continued faith in him and willingness to work with him.

With Asimov’s increasing grasp of how to write professional copy tailored to a given market and Campbell and Asimov’s establishment of the Three Laws of Robotics after a couple of preliminary robot stories, Asimov begins to get the hang of making sales. Campbell then gives him the commission to write “Nightfall” and Asimov notes that he received a bonus from Campbell and that Willy Ley was extremely impressed by it. An incident Asimov recounts, but a connection he does not make, involves Campbell taking a picture of Asimov the day Asimov came in to discuss minor revisions to the story. Asimov describes how Campbell would, in later years, whip out the picture of skinny, pimply, mustachioed Isaac Asimov and ask people to guess who it was (no one could) but I think it also indicates that Campbell knew he had an epochal story on his hands and wanted to capture the moment. Still, despite the SFWA declaring in the late 60s that it was the best science fiction story of all, Asimov doesn’t count it as even his best story (listing “The Last Question,” “The Bicentennial Man,” and “The Ugly Little Boy” as three superior ones).

As Asimov had ended the chapter prior to his meeting Campbell with a suspenseful “at the door with Campbell on the other side” sort of moment[2], so it is a testament to Asimov’s writing skill, even in non-fiction, that the story of the creation of the Three Laws is interesting and that of creating “Nightfall” is downright exciting. Aside from conveying the overarching concept that perseverance through rejections pays off, he also includes several good tips he got from others. When Asimov got stuck writing “Reason,” Campbell told him, “Asimov, when you have trouble with the beginning of a story, that is because you are starting in the wrong place, and almost certainly too soon. Pick out a later point in the story and begin again.” Asimov describes how he applied that then and in the future, using dialog or flashback to cover the earlier parts if necessary. He also followed a good tip from Nelson S. Bond about what matters—when Asimov still occasionally got tangled up in fan fights in the letters columns as a professional, Bond advised him to simply stop. And Asimov continues to include humorous anecdotes such as what chemistry geeks do for fun with chemicals that modify the urinary output of unsuspecting victims (such as Asimov) and why blue would have been a more effective choice than red.

Speaking of chemistry, Asimov went on to try for his Ph,D. but initially ended with only an M.A. and the prospect of trying again. He tried to break into Unknown again using another collaboration with Pohl but Campbell rejected it. Finally, he took a very rare vacation and ended up in a place where everyone was Jewish and some more anti-Soviet than anti-Nazi, one even advocating an invasion of Russia by Germany and an alliance of America with Germany so that the Soviets could be crushed by an invasion from the Pacific as well. Then some remarkable things about race come up, with Asimov drawing a parallel between some people’s mistreatment of Jews and the mistreatment of blacks by whites (including Jews). This didn’t go over well. This part of the book ends with that one individual getting part of her wish, as Hitler invades Russia which, while ultimately disastrous for Hitler, was terrifying to Asimov at the time.


[1] This is extracted and slightly revised (with an appended paragraph covering chapter twenty-seven) from “Isaac Asimov: The First Nine Stories, June 1938-May 1939” and, if you’ve already read that, there’s little need to read this.

[2] The description of the first meeting with Campbell is repeated almost verbatim from The Early Asimov, as are many other anecdotes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other earlier works were used in the same way.

Asimov’s Centennial: The First Nine Stories, June 1938-May 1939

I’ve previously discussed the first twenty-one chapters of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, which cover his ancestry to the writing of his first fourteen stories. This post reviews the nine of those which survive. One was collected in I, Robot (1950), one in Asimov’s Mysteries (1968), six in The Early Asimov (1972), and one in the autobiography itself (1979).

His first is lost but his second, “Stowaway,” eventually appeared as “The Callistan Menace.” In it, the crew of a spaceship heads to Callisto where several ships have been mysteriously lost. The discovery of a young boy stowaway ironically provides a welcome distraction from their worries and the boy comes in handy when they reach the somewhat habitable surface and face their danger. This was a common motif even in the 30s and this particular example, among other problems, is predictable, but the structure, pace, and style are surprisingly good for just his second attempt. “Marooned off Vesta” (which was to receive a magazine-requested sequel called “Anniversary” twenty years later, both of which were collected in Asimov’s Mysteries) features another handful of guys in space facing danger (in this case, a trio is in a fragment of a ship that’s been destroyed by an asteroid and are orbiting very near to, but oh so far from, Vesta) and isn’t all that different qualitatively but just enough so that the difference between being rejected only by Astounding rather than by Astounding and Amazing makes sense. There is some misuse of characters and some contrivance, but also some “gripping” narration of the effort of the main character to save them all. Both stories show space as dangerous but reward pluck and luck and, while not exactly “good,” are fun and likable.

Asimov eventually published numerous successfully funny pieces but his fifth and ninth stories (third and fifth extant) are not. “Ring Around the Sun” features two rivals being tricked into crewing an experimental spaceship together in an effort to fly near the sun in order to deliver “mail” (which I choose to interpret as “packages of supplies”) to Venus year-round. It initially seems like a basically serious “survival in space” story like the two prior (but superior to them) when the sun-shielding tech goes awry but develops several serious problems and ends as a bad and un-cathartic joke. Similarly, “The Magnificent Possession” (which Asimov originally called “Ammonium” and is his first Earth-based tale) involves a Bert-and-Ernie-like couple of chemist/inventors developing a process of plating things to appear more attractive than gold but there is a very serious catch to the process. The main problem with this story is that the protagonists don’t behave like scientists and their nemeses certainly aren’t believable but aren’t really funny, either. I’ve read worse, but can understand this taking awhile before finally finding a down-market home for publication.

Between those two tales, Asimov wrote “The Weapon,” (only published in book form in In Memory Yet Green[1]) which, while didactic and somewhat simplistic, is interesting for several reasons, including featuring very little dialog and especially for being Asimov’s first tale with a sentient alien character, the Chief Elder of Mars, representing a feline race of pure intellect. In this tale, a human defender of democracy is seeking a weapon from the more advanced race to help in a desperate war against the forces of oppression. The Martians refuse, saying humanity must do things themselves, so the human attempts to steal the weapon from them. It’s clear where elements of this story come from as Asimov values intellect, had pet cats at the candy stores, and wrote this as Hitler’s power was waxing. However, I don’t know of a source for the impressive description of a vast lab inside Deimos, which anticipates scenes from Forbidden Planet and Star Wars. After “The Magnificent Possession” and “Trends” (discussed next), Asimov wrote “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use,” which, in addition to having a similar title, also features aliens, super-weapons, and naive didacticism, this time being an anti-colonial piece such as one might read innumerable examples of today. This time, the aliens are the emotional Venusians and, ironically, it has a pleasingly Weinbaumian Martian feel as a human and his Venusian companion explore the ruins of a great Venusian city in which the Venusian discovers the titular weapon which may free his people from human domination. (As intellect is highly prized in the other story, so the lack of it is the greatest imaginable horror in this one.)

Trends” is a second Earth-based story and the first story he sold to Astounding. (It appeared in the famed July 1939 issue along with van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” which is taken to inaugurate the Golden Age.) After the Second World War of 1940, an age of neo-Victorian religion and anti-scientific morality has kicked in, impeding a backyard inventor’s efforts to go to the Moon in 1973. It suffers from some frequently recurring problems of naivete, a superfluity of characters, and adds infodumps to the mix, but makes many interesting sociological points in a tale filled with both dialog and action which works pretty well and may be inspiring things even today, such as Allen Steele’s “The Prodigal Son.”

Even more interesting than that one, “Black Friar of the Flame” (originally “Pilgrimage”) takes the same “socio-religious movement” motif and stands it on its head as a positive, in which religious enthusiasm is used to promote social change. It is Asimov’s first tale written on a galactic and millennial (and near-novella-length) scale, anticipating the Foundation stories and even including names to conjure with such as Santinni and, especially, Trantor. This one is not consistent with the more famous Foundation universe, though, as Earth is under the heel of the reptilian overlords from Rigel with some human guardians of the Hall of Flame seeking freedom from them but it does borrow from Foundation’s methodology of translating past events into the future—in this case, a Judaean revolt from Rome and the Greco-Persian Battle of Salamis. However, it is unlike the Foundation (or most of Asimov’s work) in being oddly violent and jingoistic. There are all kinds of problems with this tale (Asimov can’t decide who the main character is, some of the reversals and the climax aren’t plausible, etc.) but there is some of that Foundational aura that is very exciting, it balances dialog with excellent description, and it was compulsively readable despite its flaws. It, too, may have inspired later things as I was constantly reminded of the recently-read To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg and its Blue Flame socio-religious movement.

Finally, “Robbie” is another interesting precursor which seems like an almost deliberate reversal of “Flame” in that it’s a short near-future small-scale planet-bound story. In it, the title character is the robot caretaker of young Gloria and beloved by her but despised by Gloria’s mother. When the father gives in to the mother’s demands and sends the robot back, Gloria is inconsolable and the father must navigate between that Charybdis and his wife’s Scylla. This was originally a one-shot story in the vein of Lester del Rey’s famed and sentimental “Helen O’ Loy” whose only problem was in effectively conveying the sensibility of a young person without a layer of saccharine but is otherwise structurally sound and generally effective. It was changed from a robot story to a Robot Story on its publication in I, Robot with the substitution of the manufacturer’s name from Finmark Robot Corporation to U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men, the boss from Finmark to Robertson, the introduction of Susan Calvin in a silent cameo, and an explicit mention of the implicit First Law, plus numerous non-series-related changes.

So, even at this early stage, Asimov always seemed to have promise and his powers are clearly growing (inconsistently from story to story but with a clear general arc) and the seeds of his two main works are already sown.

Edit (2020-01-07): This post initially began with a digression on my reading ahead in In Memory Yet Green. I’ve removed it from this post, made it a separate post, and slightly revised this, mostly in the opening. I also modified the title to match the “series” title.


[1] In The Early Asimov, Asimov had recorded the title but thought it was lost. It was one of the very few pieces he wrote which was initially not published under his own name but as “H. B. Ogden” (in Super Science Stories), the reason for which mystifies Asimov, himself, but which may have contributed to Asimov not keeping a copy and then basically forgetting about it until coming across a mention of its sale in his records when writing the autobiography. So he reprinted it in that work.

(Amusingly, in addition to Asimov, Robert A. W. Lowndes, John Russell Fearn, and James Blish all appear in that issue under pseudonyms so maybe it was just the thing to do in that issue.)

Belated Book Haul

I’ve made a little more progress in Project Asimov and will post about that soon but, in the meantime, here’s some book porn. In 2017 and 2018, I posted pics of my purchases at the annual library book sales but neglected to do that for 2019. I didn’t neglect to take the pics, though, so here are the ones of the SF books that I got on the first couple of days . (Some are replacement copies, some are new, and the SF Encyclopedia is the first edition to go with my second and the internet’s third.)

(If you want, you can click on the thumbnails to see the full-size pics.)

Spine shot of single-author mass-market paperbacks.

Same, but with full-frontal bookity.

Spine shot of anthologies, tradepapers, and hardcovers.

And a front-cover shot of the same.

Edit (2019-01-04): Made thumbnails bigger.