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.

7 thoughts on “Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943

    • There is the conversation early in the story between Rodric, Pirenne, and Hardin in which Hardin finds out that Anacreon (and, by tenuous extension, the rest of the Periphery) no longer has atomic power which Hardin is musing on at the end of the story when it’s “obvious as hell” to him so it must have something to do with that but (a) I agree with you that it’s not at all obvious how Terminus will specifically use this to play the other kingdoms off against Anacreon and certainly not obvious (other than perhaps from a historical parallel) that he’ll turn the technology into a religion to gain further power and (b) Asimov admits it wasn’t obvious to himself, either, as he wrote the first story with that cliffhanger just to try to ensure a second sale to Campbell (which he already knew didn’t always work) and almost outsmarted himself since he couldn’t figure out how to write the sequel without whatever Pohl’s advice to him was.

      It’s amazing how well Asimov could write without detailed planning but this is one case where an outline, even if it did get “longer and longer and stupider and stupider,” might have helped him out. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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