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.