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.