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.

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[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.)

8 thoughts on “Asimov’s Centennial: The First Nine Stories, June 1938-May 1939

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