Birthday Reviews: Hamilton, Resnick, Webb

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

Peter F. Hamilton (1960-03-02)

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

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

Mike Resnick (1942-03-05–2020-01-09)

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

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

Sharon Webb (1936-02-29–2010-04-29)

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

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

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

Sporadic Book Haul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robot Stories and Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foundation Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For previous stories, see:

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

Birthday Reviews: Barnes, Pangborn, Sturgeon

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

John Barnes (1957-02-28)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Earlier chapters were covered in:

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

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

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

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

Birthday Reviews: Norton, Phillips, Rocklynne

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

Andre Norton (1912-02-17–2005-03-17)

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

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

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

Rog Phillips (1909-02-20–1966-03-02)

“The Yellow Pill” (Astounding, October 1958)

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

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

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

“Into the Darkness” (Astonishing, June 1939)

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

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


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

Links: 2020-02-12

Science Fiction

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

Science

Other

README

History

Humor

Music

Continue reading

Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943

This post covers the eight stories Asimov wrote between September 1941 and April 1943 which include the first two Foundation stories and three more Robot stories. Half appeared in the March-June 1942 issues of Astounding and the rest appeared at various times in various places. [1]

Foundation

The first two Foundation stories Asimov wrote were “Foundation” and “Bridle and Saddle” which form a tightly connected narrative centered around Salvor Hardin, Mayor of Terminus City, the only city on the newly settled world of Terminus, home of the Foundation of Encyclopedists. The Foundation was created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon and tasked with the creation of a compendium of all human knowledge for preservation through the collapse of the Galactic Empire in order to shorten the Dark Ages which will follow. However, Terminus is a growing city with much of its population only indirectly involved with the Foundation, which ultimately rules them. Hardin is their representative and, while he supports the Foundation, he represents forward thinking and hands-on creation of a living civilization and takes issue with an excessive reverence of the past with only dusty Alexandrian scholarship. In fact, Hardin diagnoses this as the problem with the “whole galaxy.” Lewis Pirenne, Chairman of the Board of Trustees (and thus true ruler of Terminus) represents the other side of the coin. They come into conflict with each other and with, first, Anselm haut Rodric, Sub-prefect of Pluema and Envoy Extraordinary of his Highness of Anacreon (formerly a ruler of the Imperial Prefect of Anacreon, who has declared independence) and, then, Lord Dorwin, Chancellor of the Empire and an apparently foolish dandy. The envoy visits and demands the establishment of an Anacreonian military base on Terminus (to protect them, of course, so they don’t fall into the hands of that awful Kingdom of Smyrno, for instance). Neither Pirenne nor Hardin want this but Pirenne is fairly clueless about the issue. He sees Dorwin’s arrival as salvation and believes the Empire stands behind Terminus, so delivers an impolitic rejection to Anacreon. Hardin knows better and has had Dorwin’s stay recorded and then logically analyzed, presenting the Board with what he really said: hours of words amounting to nothing at all. The Anacreonians know what the true situation is and move in to take over. How Hardin deals with this comes in two stages – the first coincides with a holographic appearance of Hari Seldon in the time vault which provides a dramatic conclusion and the second is elided between stories, but will be revealed in the open of the second story.

After writing a Robot tale, Asimov picks up the story in “Bridle and Saddle,” which is set thirty years later and eighty years into Seldon’s Plan to traverse the Dark Ages. In it, Hardin is an aged, but vigorous ruler, and the surrounding kingdoms send citizens to Terminus for “religious” training in which they learn by rote how to use Terminus’ technologies. The kingdom of Anacreon contains 25 systems ruled by a regent who still harbors a grudge against Terminus, which is one small world plus this spiritual power. The bulk of the tale deals with the positioning over the coming Seldon crisis (or unavoidable moment of conflict). On Terminus, Hardin has become the old guard as Pirenne once was, being challenged by a young upstart politician because his giving Terminus’ technology to Anacreon is seen as weakness. The final straw comes when Anacreon finds an Imperial cruiser, orders Terminus to repair it, and Hardin agrees. At Anacreon, the regent spars with the heir apparent (son of the brother he killed). Shuttling between the worlds are priests in both true believer and cynical forms. When the cruiser is presented and the heir-apparent has come of age, Anacreon attacks and Terminus must somehow defend itself.

Of the many things these stories have made me think of, two very different ones are uppermost now. One is that these stories are like dramatic plays. There is a bit of narrative akin to scene settings or stage directions and much dialog between vivid actors in which the drama comes from the conflicting ideas conveyed through their concise speech. (“Foundation” contains the oft-quoted saying of Hardin’s, that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”) On the other hand, I think about how this won an award for best all-time series out of a group of nominees which included The Lord of the Rings. Obviously, it’s a bit of apples and watermelons to compare an eleven-hundred-page fantasy novel of dense narrative which was the tip of an iceberg of scholarship and imagination complete with invented languages to these pieces of short, drama-like, science fiction but Asimov mentions a key thing here and an evocative thing there which produces the sense of vast and complex kingdoms which used to be prefects which formed provinces which formed sectors which formed quadrants which formed the galaxy-spanning Galactic Empire which had endured for eons but which is now falling into decay, presenting us with a thousand-year plan toward a new empire of progress. The scope in time and space has something of the Lord of the Rings backstory but is painted much more economically and, underneath its religious covering and faith in Seldon’s Plan (eventually to be shaken), it is a logical and technological story.

As far as the specific construction of the stories, the first, as I say, has an arc brought to completion in a sense, but also ends on a cliffhanger. While Asimov was making it up as he went along, with no idea what the second story would be, he did properly prepare the cliffhanger by making, not just the end, but several prior sections end with something on Hardin’s mind without immediately saying what it was. Equally importantly, he gives the reader satisfaction in building up to Seldon’s first appearance as a hologram, which does occur before the brief denouement. The modern reader doesn’t even have to wait for the next issue, but can move to the next tale without pause. [2]

Asimov doesn’t take much credit for characterization and is rarely given any, but Seldon is downright mythical, Hardin is a vivid and credible character, and even Lord Dorwin, who seems to be a “funny hat” character with his unforgettable lisping speech, is shown to have depths of diplomatic prowess which his mannerisms are intentionally constructed to hide.

The parallels to history are pervasive but not overly literal or slavish. The whole thing is clearly modeled on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Anacreon’s struggle with Terminus is akin to, for example, the so-called Holy Roman Empire’s struggle with the Papacy. (As Gibbon said, it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”) Terminus sometimes plays the role of Switzerland. In other words, these are parallels of the most general or most specific sorts and don’t straight-jacket the stories or require any knowledge of history to appreciate on at least a dramatic level.

My only real problems with these two stories are background (such as how the Empire fell so fast, even on the periphery, in a mere eighty years and how technology was forgotten and a religion so quickly and firmly entrenched) or minor (such as how the anti-gravity on a ship continues working when everything else is disabled). Generally, they are remarkably tight.

Finally, on a personal note, I have to confess (no secret to regular readers of this blog) that I’m an Asimov fanatic generally and a Foundation fanatic specifically. It was these stories that turned me into the SF fan I am. I’ve read them a few times but not for years and was worried that they would no longer exercise the same power they once did but they do. As I came to the end of “Bridle and Saddle” I even remembered the main events of the closing sequence, though I enjoyed it like it was the first time. With rare and often mixed exceptions I’ve enjoyed so little of my reading of current science fiction the past few years that I’d almost fallen out of love with science fiction. While I’ve found interest in most of the Asimov stories I’ve read through this project, especially some of the Robot stories and “Nightfall,” these stories bring it all rushing back, not from nostalgia but from the joy of their enduring clarity, economy, ideas, and drama.

Robots and Others

It’s odd that Asimov found such a superb concept in the Foundation stories and executed them so well from the start given that the Robot stories are still finding their way. “Runaround” is a second Donovan and Powell story which does a fair job of combining a comically “drunk” robot and a serious struggle for survival on Mercury, hinging on the tension between the second and third laws [3]. After a failed First Expedition, the pair are determining whether the mining station should be reopened with modern equipment. However, they need power for protection from the sun and need selenium for that, so give SPD-1 (Speedy) the simple task of getting some. Naturally, it turns out to be anything but simple and they end up having to resurrect some of the old First Expedition robots (which are gigantic and very basic machines that require human riders to even be able to function) in order to make a dangerous journey to find out what’s wrong with Speedy. When they figure that out, they have to try a few increasingly desperate solutions in order to avoid horrible deaths. It seems to me that there’s a massive flaw in this story (if you don’t mind spoilers, see below) but, otherwise, this is a cleverly arranged and fun tale.

One of the two very minor Robot stories is “Victory Unintentional” which is a sequel to the non-Robot story, “Not Final!” It is an overlong story which aims to humorously describe the Jovian superiority complex colliding with indestructible robots of vast powers which is demonstrated in a string of incidents and was famously rejected by Campbell with a note which said only “CH3CH2CH2CH2SH” which is the chemical formula for butyl mercaptan, which is what gives the skunk its smell.

Before that story, Asimov tried three times to satisfy Campbell’s request that he write something for the new “Probability Zero” department of short-shorts in which ridiculously impossible ideas would be written convincingly. The second of those was “First Law” which is a bar story with Donovan (but without Powell) involving a breaking of the First Law which tries to be funny in a “so bad it’s good” way but is only so bad, it’s bad. This was rejected and wouldn’t appear for nearly fifteen years. Before that, he tried “Big Game,” which was also a bar story about two men talking about early steps in time travel when a third starts talking about how he’d already invented a time machine. It ends on a misanthropic note which causes me to wonder why Asimov submitted it to Campbell and was surprised when he rejected it. It wasn’t to appear for thirty-three years in an Asimov anthology. Finally, he wrote “Time Pussy” which was accepted but Campbell asked him to use a pseudonym, ostensibly to look like a new author so other new authors would be encouraged to try. Asimov unhappily chose “George E. Dale” as the name under which arguably the worst of the three stories would appear. (In defense of Campbell, the first was un-Campbellian and the second could be seen as damaging to a series on the cusp of being very important.) I hate to even describe it, but it’s about cat-like aliens, who have a strange relation to cause and effect and time, accidentally being killed by humans who try to preserve the corpses for a reward but fail with a terrible joke. (Bizarrely, this anticipates the immensely more successful Thiotimoline stories and all these come on the heels of the superb “Bridle and Saddle.”)

Having taken three tries to produce a Probability Zero, Asimov took his sixth crack at Unknown but that came after fourteen months of not writing anything due to engaging in his chemistry research, then engaging and marrying his first wife, Gertrude, and finally joining Bob Heinlein and Sprague de Camp at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia for war work. But then Fred Pohl sent him a letter about rewriting “Legal Rites” which reminded Asimov of his thwarted ambition, so he felt compelled to try again. In “Author! Author!,” Graham Dorne is a mystery writer who dreams of bigger things but his plan to quit writing mysteries is complicated when his detective, Reginald de Meister, becomes real and tries to coerce him into writing more mysteries (as does Dorn’s editor). However, when de Meister (who has been written as being irresistible to women) meets Dorn’s girlfriend (who was the inspiration for de Meister’s fictional love) de Meister changes his mind about returning to the world of books and, of course, Dorne changes his mind about not writing the mysteries that would put him there. The rest of the plot involves their maneuvering to attain their desires. It’s too long but, allowing for some old-fashioned humor, it is pretty funny (“‘Why don’t you go to hell?’ Graham asked curiously”) and plotted fairly well. An odd aspect is that several details show the author and editor are modeled on Asimov and Campbell but several details show they aren’t, not least of which is their extremely adversarial relationship. But Campbell apparently liked it, not only buying it, but paying a bonus. So Asimov had finally achieved his dream of appearing in Unknown. Except that he never did. Wartime paper shortages caused the death of Unknown before Asimov’s story could appear. Fortunately, he’d already written and sold his next story before he got the news, so his hiatus had safely passed. Further, when a book editor discovered that it existed, “Author! Author!” was finally freed from the Street and Smith vaults and published in the 1964 anthology The Unknown 5.


[1] The stories in order of composition, with their first magazine appearances and major book appearances are:

  • “Foundation” (Astounding (May 1942), Foundation (1951))
  • “Runaround” (Astounding (March 1942), I, Robot (1950))
  • “Bridle and Saddle” (Astounding (June 1942), Foundation (1951))
  • “Big Game” (no magazine, Before the Golden Age (1974 anthology))
  • “First Law” (Fantastic Universe (October 1956), The Rest of the Robots (1964))
  • “Time Pussy” (Astounding (April 1942), The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Victory Unintentional” (Super Science Stories (August 1942), The Rest of the Robots (1964))
  • “Author! Author!” (no magazine, The Early Asimov (1972))

For previous stories, see:

[2] Though a paragraph explaining why Hardin believes Anacreon has no atomic power is expanded quite a bit and references to praesodymium are replaced with plutonium, the only significant change between the original versions and the book versions of these two stories is that Hari Seldon, at the end of his life, appears in a very brief opening segment of “Foundation” which was removed from the book version (called “The Encyclopedists”) and inserted in modified form at the end of the “prequel” story (called “The Psychohistorians”). This is very unlike most early Robot stories which are often tinkered with quite a bit.

[3] Though all three Laws are finally given here, they are called the “Rules of Robotics” and given in a loose way before being revised in I, Robot (though, even in the book, they are still called “Rules” in this story). Other changes include shrinking the time between the First Expedition and Donovan and Powell’s arrival from fifty to ten years (setting the story in 2015), replacing a reference to Frankenstein with an explanation of the Earth-ban along with a similar tweak when they find out they have to ride the big bots, and changing the ending to make a much longer segue into the next story in the book.

Spoilers for “Runaround”: The reason Donovan and Powell are in trouble is simply that Speedy was given a weak order amounting to almost a suggestion to acquire the selenium which turns out to be in a region that could destroy Speedy, setting up a conflict between the law of obedience and that of self-preservation which results in his circling the selenium in an increasingly mentally confused state. When they initially come near to Speedy, they don’t know what the problem is but they later communicate with him when they do know what the problem is. It seems to me that they could simply either rescind the original order or repeat it more emphatically which should break the “Buridan’s Ass” problem without the desperate measures they do take.

Birthday Reviews: Schenck, Shirley, Szilard

There seems to be something serendipitously similar to these selections.

Hilbert Schenck (1926-02-12–2013-12-02)

“The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck” (F&SF, September 1978)

On the dark and stormy night of January 19, 1892, the schooner H.P. Kirkham runs aground on a shoal and will shortly break up, taking the lives of the sailors aboard her if Keeper Walter Chase can’t lead his crew in their surfboat to the rescue and a safe return, defying the storm and massive waves and… entities from another “time-using” continuum which Chase enters as his will leads him to break the shackles of his “energy-using” continuum and cause modifications to all of existence in his efforts to save the crews. The beings are conservative sorts and Chase is having the effect of creating radical change.

The mainstream parts of this tale are very exciting and effective. The “speculative” (fantasy) parts, which move in and out of foreground focus like someone turning the knobs on binoculars, have a sort of conceptual appeal but also teeter at the abyss of pretentiousness. Still, it’s a lively and thought-provoking tale.

John Shirley (1953-02-10)

“The Incorporated” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1985)

Jim Kessler is wandering around, feeling like something is missing. It turns out that he had an idea that would be dangerous to his wife’s corporation, so she turned him in and they erased it from his mind. This is set after a terrorist attack which destroyed the economy and most people view the corporations in which they live, move, and have their being as their family and even their god. Kessler talks to a lawyer about getting his memory or at least his idea back but the lawyer is also tampered with. Later, when he realizes she’s contacted the corporation again and it’s going to happen to him again, he leaves her. When he goes to a “techniki” (hacker) friend and the wife tracks (or is led to) him there, the story ends with a bang.

I’ve read this story several times over several years and it (alas) always rings true. It may speak of Japanese business models and of “cassettes and compact discs” but the terrorist attacks, the corporate control and the media manipulation (which Kessler had invented a way to circumvent) all speak to today. It’s very effective at depicting a mixture of the ordinary (people just trying to get by) and of things that shouldn’t be ordinary (tyranny and mind control). This is far more effective than most more monochrome dystopias and it’s not just frighteningly plausible but actually frighteningly accurate. It’s less science fiction and more a rendering of reality which strips away the comforting “Hey, at least the trains are running on time” normalization of authoritarianism. The ending (which is sort of a double-jointed bit of action and a suspended denouement) is perhaps not as effective as the establishment of the milieu and the characters’ conflicts, but it’s sufficient. [1] Among the many arresting lines (for either stylistic or conceptual reasons or both) there are dark lines such as “She said lose my job the way Kessler would have said, lose my life” and those wonderful cognitive dissonance lines such as after the lawyer has explained how Kessler’s memory was edited and how that toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube when Kessler says, “Okay, so maybe it can’t be put back in by direct feed-in to the memory. But it could be relearned through ordinary induction. Reading.” So I strongly recommend you ordinarily induct this story.

Leo Szilard (1898-02-11–1964-05-30)

“The Mark Gable Foundation” (The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 1961)

[Reprinted from my review of The Expert Dreamers.]

This opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans.


[1] It is also, fittingly enough, “incorporated” into Shirley’s superb Eclipse (volume one of the Eclipse/A Song Called Youth trilogy) which makes its ending more of a middle.

Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 28-34

Chapters 28-34 of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, cover June 28, 1941 to June 20, 1943, and maintain the interest and humor of the previous chapters. [1]

During this time, Germany continued its invasion of Russia but the initial progress of the invasion slowed and finally reversed. Countering that, of course, the Japanese also attacked Pearl Harbor, which brought the U. S. fully into the war. Asimov says he was willing, but not eager, to fight and the issue of being drafted was to hang over him for some time. Later in this period, the Japanese were halted at the Battle of Midway and Asimov became confident that the Allies would be victorious in both the European and Pacific theaters. (Not to mention that the African theater also took a turn for the better in late 1942.) The early, dark days did cause him to briefly lose interest in writing–the first of two hiatuses in this period.

Meanwhile, Asimov was invited to L. Sprague de Camp’s apartment, the first time he’d visited a major SF writer in this way. Among other SF contacts, Frederik Pohl had been a friend of Asimov’s and purchased many stories as editor of some shoestring-budget magazines but lost his job in a shakeup so became a sort of half-agent to Asimov for a short time but Asimov was really his own agent. Later, at Campbell’s house, he met Robert A. Heinlein who was apparently informally interviewing Asimov, including testing his reaction to alcohol (after Asimov, who had been noisily jovial prior to drinking, went to sit down and recover from the drink, Heinlein decided alcohol “sobered him up”), and eventually recruited him to work in the U. S. Navy Yard at Philadelphia where he would also recruit de Camp. (Asimov’s employment there is a frequently cited biographical item but he makes it come alive with great detail.) In further social matters, Asimov tried and failed to learn to dance and continued his initially not particularly successful encounters with women, but he did start attending meetings of “the Brooklyn Authors Club” which led to a double date (which was a blind date for him) in which he met Gertrude Blugerman and, after an imperfectly smooth early relationship, they were married July 26, 1942. (As Asimov puts it, they became “man and wife (or, with equal validity, woman and husband).”) [2]

In school, Asimov continued to try to advance in chemistry until he left temporarily for the Navy Yard work. One of the more amusing anecdotes is one in which he tried to win over a professor with “a calculated ploy. I don’t often calculate a ploy, alas; I talk first and think afterward, or not at all, as a general rule.”

The most important science fictional thing to occur to Asimov in this period was the Foundation series. Free-association from a Gilbert and Sullivan play led to Gibbon and then to the idea of a story about a Galactic Empire. He’d been frustrated about the many revisions “Pilgrimage” had taken (the last time he would do more than one substantial revision on a piece) and its lack of success (“considered by knowledgeable fans to be the worst story of mine ever to see print” though Asimov thinks he wrote worse [3]), so was interested in taking a fresh crack at the general idea and hoped Campbell would be interested in the idea, too. Campbell was so interested that, to Asimov’s dismay, Campbell immediately wanted to make it a vast far future history of numerous connected tales in a sort of counterpart to Heinlein’s Future History series. He even told Asimov to go outline it as Heinlein had his. Asimov relates that, he “dutifully” tried: “Heinlein, however, was Heinlein–and Asimov was not Heinlein.” The outline “got longer and longer and stupider and stupider until I finally tore it up.” He was to continue writing by the seat of his pants for the next fifty-some years. This nearly resulted in immediate disaster, as he couldn’t even figure out how to do the second story but something Pohl said to him in conversation [4] saved him and the series.

Though he’d written it in the previous chapters, another important SF event was the publication of “Nightfall,” which made him a major SF star, though he didn’t realize its importance at the time. Asimov’s initial reaction was focused more on a change Campbell made which, as helpful as he usually was, didn’t suit Asimov this time. “Nightfall” was told wholly from the perspective of the people of Lagash but Campbell had inserted a short paragraph near the end which referred to Earth, which Asimov “had carefully refrained from doing… all through the story.” He felt that making such an inconsistent reference was “a serious literary flaw.” More significantly, he refers to how the paragraph had been “praised as proof that I could write ‘poetically,’ which gravels me, since I don’t want to write poetically; I only want to write clearly.”

Another important aspect of this section of the book, for the collector, is that it contains the only book appearance of “The Weapon,” which was a story Asimov had written in 1938 but which didn’t appear until 1942 and, inexplicably, under the name “H. B. Ogden.” As a result, he didn’t keep a copy and forgot about it until he came across information about it in his diary while doing research for this book. After it, he fairly says, “There; not exactly a very good story, but not bad for an eighteen-year-old.”

Between going for his doctorate, getting a job, and getting married and moving out of his parents’ place and into various apartments (during which he lost essentially all his prior worldly possessions), he didn’t complete a story for fourteen months between February 1942 and April 1943. Yet again, it was Pohl who saved Asimov for posterity, sending word that he’d like to revise their collaborative “Last Rites” (Asimov’s fifth try at getting into Unknown) and try to sell it to another market. This prompted Asimov to try for a sixth time, this time with “Author! Author!” and almost successfully. The story was accepted but, before it could appear, Unknown died due to war-time paper shortages. But Asimov had already sold another science fiction story before he received the bad news and was safely back to writing.


[1] Earlier chapters were covered in:

[2] An odd note: in both the meeting with Heinlein and once with Gertrude, Asimov couldn’t make it all the way to his destination by train or subway and hiked the long remainder, deeply puzzling the others, who wondered why he didn’t call them to come pick him up or take a cab. Asimov explains that it didn’t occur to him because “cars were strange animals” to him.

[3] He did.

[4] Many people, if they had a time machine, would check on major religious events or visit battlefields or things of the sort, and I’d probably do something similar but, since Asimov’s usually powerful memory and diary both fail him with details here, I’d almost rather go back in time to that conversation on the Brooklyn Bridge to find out exactly what Pohl said.