Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 48-55 (conclusion)

The first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography concludes with Part VI which contains Chapters 48-55. These cover the span from the summer of 1949 to early 1954. Personal events move rapidly for him in several domains. First, he and Gertrude move into an apartment which was a converted attic and was, unsurprisingly, extremely hot. This is followed by a nicer one which is followed yet again by their first house. Part of the reason for this is that, after eleven years of marriage and giving up hope, and shortly after Isaac began giving birth to kidney stones, Gertrude gave birth to their first child, David. And part of what makes it possible is that Asimov struggles with the university hierarchy to get raises and promotions (becoming Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the end of 1951) and also has his writing career gather steam, moving from magazines to books (in addition to learning to drive and buying a Plymouth so that he could travel between home and work without mass transit). The birth of his first child also got him to thinking about and getting life insurance and making a will.

In terms of university work, Asimov was originally doing research into nucleic acids with paper chromatography to aid in studying cancer tissue but, looking back on it, thought it wouldn’t have come to anything. His take on his work varied: he had allies and at least one enemy on the staff; didn’t mind grading objective answers but hated grading essay questions; and enjoyed lecturing but came to hate research and writing scientific papers and books. Nonetheless, he loved other writing so much that he increasingly focused on his “hobby” over his “job,” especially as the former became increasingly competitive with and then far superseded the latter as a source of income. All in all, he seems to have been only slightly better suited to being a professor than a soldier.

Though slow to see it, he believes he was really destined to be a writer but even this was not a road without bumps. After a long period of hassle-free sales to Campbell through much of the 1940s, he began branching out and selling many things to many places but also acquiring an astonishing number of rejections, including from Campbell, despite sending Campbell relatively little. As Asimov says:

For twelve years, nearly, Campbell had been the center of my literary existence. He had nurtured me, protected me, fostered me, and made me what I was, and there is no way in which I can be sufficiently grateful to him.

By 1950, however, I had grown beyond him.

This was partly due to Campbell’s infatuation with L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics (“out of which Hubbard was to make his fortune and gain his godhead”) which may have helped end Campbell’s marriage, and did strain his relationship with many other writers, including Asimov. Though the infatuation was brief (from September 1949 to no later than May 1951), Campbell merely moved from it to other far-out things [1]. Further, Asimov thought Campbell’s right-wing nature was intensifying and affecting the magazine, which also put him off.

Whether cause or effect, the appearance of F&SF in late 1949 and Galaxy in early 1950 gave writers like Asimov other high-paying and widely-read options and the success of those magazines led to a boom of lesser magazines as well. Even there, editors could be idiosyncratic. While Boucher at F&SF seemed to be mild and mainly concerned with style, Gold at Galaxy could be peculiar and cantankerous. He seemed unable to resist changing the titles of the stories he published, usually for the worse, and could be very demanding with revisions and cruel with rejections. Asimov once responded in his usual fashion when Gold said one of Asimov’s submissions was “meretricious.” Asimov got him to repeat the word and said, “And a Happy New Year to you!” which annoyed Gold still further.

In addition to the widening magazine market, Asimov had found a new protector and mentor in Walter I. Bradbury. (He was called “Brad” by most and I’ll repeat that here to avoid any confusions with “Ray.”) Brad was looking to start publishing science fiction and encouraged Asimov. He wasn’t initially interested in reprinting Asimov’s stories but wanted new novels, so they worked out the publication of Asimov’s first book, Pebble in the Sky (1950), expanded from a recent and unpublished shorter novel [2]. Initially, with the all-new The Stars, Like Dust– (1951), Asimov had to follow the usual “two chapters plus outline” routine but he hated outlines and never kept to them and, with each early novel, the approval process got simpler and smoother until Asimov could basically announce his next project and would shortly receive an advance. In the meantime, Stars became his least favorite novel, partly due to the outlining and mostly due to the changes Gold introduced for its serialization. Obviously, he changed the title to “Tyrann” but, more bothersome for Asimov, he insisted on adding a gimmick involving the U. S. Constitution, which Brad also wanted. (Asimov seems to usually base his judgments of his own works on how easy they were, how little they were interfered with, and other extrinsic factors rather than necessarily on aesthetics.)

Stars was quickly followed by a third Empire novel, The Currents of Space (1952), as well as the first of the Lucky Starr juveniles, which came about during a meeting between Brad, Frederik Pohl, and Asimov. The idea was that series on the newly popular television would be much like radio serials, running forever and making everyone rich, so Asimov could write a novel which would be adapted into a TV series. While Asimov loved Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, he found television to be generally awful and wondered what would happen if he hated the thing his name was associated with. Brad told him to use a pseudonym so, inspired by Cornell Woolrich’s “William Irish,” Asimov selected “Paul French.” Though nothing ever came of the TV series, Brad still wanted more Starr novels, so Asimov obliged. Other novels completed or begun in this period included The Caves of Steel and The End of Eternity. The core of the former essentially came from Gold, who wanted a serial. Asimov cites it as the first perfect blend of SF and mystery (though, in my opinion, he’d very nearly done this in many earlier stories, if indirectly). The latter was originally written as a novelette [3] but, after a couple of rejections, Asimov pitched it to Brad as a book and it was accepted.

All this was the early part of a long and mutually loyal relationship between Doubleday and Asimov which lasted as long as Doubleday’s independence (which ended in Asimov’s last years). For instance, Asimov had an opportunity to jump to Ballantine which had a plan to make all its authors extremely wealthy and Asimov was tempted but stuck with Doubleday. And once Asimov says he unwisely made a business deal with another publisher for the paperback rights to one of his Doubleday hardcovers and Brad honored the deal because Asimov had given his word, despite it costing Doubleday money. While Asimov doesn’t exactly say this, I think it’s fair to say both Doubleday and Asimov were immeasurably enriched in the long run by this human connection which superseded short term advantage.

Meanwhile, Asimov had a less cheerful relationship with the publisher of Gnome, Martin Greenberg (not to be confused with Martin H. Greenberg). This firm published Asimov’s classic story series in the form of I, Robot (1950), and the three Foundation volumes, but Greenberg never gave proper income statements and only paid what little he did under repeated pressure. After these books, Asimov stopped dealing with him and, while he doesn’t note this, at least yet, Gnome went out of business in 1962. Asimov originally called his robot collection “Mind and Iron,” for which he selected all his Astounding robot stories up to that point (plus a revised “Robbie”), skipping “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” and “Victory Unintentional” (as well as “First Law,” which he doesn’t even mention in this context). All the Foundation stories went into the trilogy, plus a prequel story written to provide a less abrupt introduction to the stories and to pad out the otherwise small first volume [4].

For most of this period, Pohl was Asimov’s agent and also sometimes his debtor, as he borrowed money from Asimov to buy the Dirk Wylie Literary Agency, but it folded and, after Asimov forgave some debt for rights-reversion, Pohl got out of the business and Asimov was never represented by an agent again, which he underscores by telling what I think of as the “$50,000 Shrimp Story.” After hearing Asimov was unrepresented, Heinlein tried to get Asimov to sign up with his own agent, telling Asimov he could quintuple his earnings. Asimov struggled mightily with his principles and the notion of $50,000 a year. When they all got together for dinner, the wife of the agent tried to drive him crazy with her chatter and then commented on his shrimp and speared one from his plate. This upset Asimov so much that his principles suddenly firmed up and he was able to resist, never being tempted again.

One interesting note about the mechanics of composition is that Gertrude re-typed some of Asimov’s old stories for publication and actually enjoyed this, wanting to be more involved in Asimov’s work. He bought a dictating machine and, in the fashion of Algis Budrys, performed the (to me, unfathomable) task of writing by talking. He “wrote” “Hostess,” “What If–?” and “In a Good Cause–” in this way. Though they both felt it was a rousing success, the experiment ended when she had to take it easy after a miscarriage scare with David. There is a funny story to go with this too, as Gertrude complained that she couldn’t transcribe what he’d dictated on one occasion. When he asked why, she told him to listen to it for himself and he heard himself speaking in his character’s voices as they argued, finally snarling unintelligibly and, in this way, learned “how closely I mimicked the emotions of my characters.”

Speaking of Budrys, in this period, at various places, Asimov met him, Poul Anderson, Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch, Arthur C. Clarke, Groff Conklin, Randall Garrett, James Gunn, Harlan Ellison, Phil Farmer, and Robert Sheckley for the first time [5]. Speaking of Ellison, he also relates the story (without making the comparison) of how editor Bea Mahaffy asked for a story from him and, perhaps dazzled by her beauty, he called for a typewriter, as a joke. When she actually brought him one, he actually wrote “Everest” up on the spur of the moment, Ellison-style, and she bought it when he was done.

In even more social doings, the science fiction community sometimes really seemed like a nest of rabbits. As mentioned, John Campbell and Dona Campbell split up and she took up with George O. Smith. Evelyn Harrison moved from Harry to Lester del Rey. And Judith Merril split from Pohl and produced one of the funnier anecdotes, which Asimov inserted as a “[foot]note from Judith Merril.” She relates that, despite then being a virtuous husband, Asimov was also known as “the man with a hundred hands” and there seemed no way to clue him in to the problem when it occasionally went “beyond purely social enjoyability.” Despite being potentially agreeable herself at unattached times, she decided to clue him in, herself. On one occasion

…the third or fourth time his hand patted my rear end, I reached out to clutch his crotch. He never manhandled me in vain again.

(Times really are different but I admire Merril more than some of today’s women.)

Despite his husbandly virtue through many temptations, he does relate his first infidelity (which was not with an SF writer) which he feels is necessary to explain some of his psychology of (in)security.

Science fiction wasn’t all of his career or social life at this point, though (and was to diminish further). A short version of his dissertation appeared in the February 1950 Journal of the American Chemical Society, which was his first scientific publication. His first non-fiction sale came when Writer requested a piece from him and he supplied “Other Worlds to Conquer” for their February 1951 issue. He collaborated on a textbook with his Boston colleagues, Walker and Boyd, which became Biochemistry and Human Metabolism (1952). Though he found this a frustrating experience and the book was a failure (and he was still roped into doing a second), he became more interested in doing solo-written popular science books and did his first (for teens) with The Chemicals of Life (1954). While he didn’t like that one (being told not to include sentences of over twenty-five words, which he ignored ever after) this also marked the start of many. He even composed his first limerick for a private audience and published his first poem, a self-satire called “The Foundation of S.F. Success” which appeared in the October 1954 issue of F&SF.

His 1950 earnings trounced those of previous years and nearly equaled his salary which gave him the first serious thought that he might actually “make a living as a writer” and those earnings continued to grow through the period. It is this which forms the segue from the first volume to the second, as he asserts that most people find the peak of his SF to be the 1940s, but he holds that it is the 1950s but, either way, the ’50s also marked a transition in the kind of writer he was.

Before leaving this volume, I should note that, in addition to personal or science fictional items, events in the world at large are often covered by way of footnotes and include the Korean War, Castro’s takeover of Cuba, and McCarthyism but one thing is in the main body which I’ll repeat here. In speaking of McCarthyism, he paraphrases something Ted Sturgeon had said at a science fiction convention.

…science fiction was the last bastion of freedom of speech. The censor minds did not read science fiction, could not understand science fiction, and would not know what to suppress if they did read it. If censorship ever got so sophisticated that even science fiction fell prey to it, then all was over. Every vestige of democracy would be gone.

Generally, this section has all the virtues of the others. Its only problem is that, while he had carefully noted in a detailed fashion all his publications in earlier sections, with the transition to books and the transition to reporting annual earnings, his citation of stories (if not novels and other books) becomes much less complete and clear and I assume that will be the case from now on. Otherwise, I enjoyed this section immensely and look forward to the next volume (which I will discuss far more concisely) [6].

[1] Campbell had long been interested in psychic phenomena which initially had an apparently respectable pedigree from Rhine’s studies at Duke and Asimov has plenty of “psi powers” in his earlier stories, but he saw Campbell as getting carried away with it and this probably helped create one of the three pieces in The Alternate Asimov as Campbell asked Asimov to write the idea which became “Belief” but wanted a revision because it didn’t have enough psi for him. Asimov grudgingly, partially complied. On the one hand, much of this is the increasingly bad side of the coin of Campbell’s contrarian nature, which has its good purposes and results but I also wonder how much of the dianetics and Dean drives and all else was Campbell’s version of the Shaver mysteries and came in response to the increasing competition he faced from 1949-50 and on. Still, there’s no doubt it didn’t work for the better, either way.

[2] The shorter version eventually appeared in The Alternate Asimovs.

[3] The novelette version also made its way into The Alternate Asimovs.

[4] There may be some very valuable copies of Foundation out there if they’re specifically identifiable, as Asimov mentions signing some for Gnome and then going to a less-than-overwhelming autographing party where he signed about ten copies.

[5] He also met John Ciardi at this time who has science fiction connections but who I know most as a poet and, most specifically as translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite being philosophically opposed to almost every speck of that work, it almost aesthetically justifies the Middle Ages by being a staggering artistic creation. And, for the bathos, while Asimov doesn’t jump ahead to this, he and Ciardi became friends and were to collaborate on many books of limericks.

[6] Earlier chapters were covered in:


Asimov’s Centennial: Pebble in the Sky (Two Versions)


The first of Isaac Asimov’s hundreds of books has a tangled history. Sam Merwin was editing Startling and wanted an Astounding-type 40,000-word novel from Asimov so, from June to September 1947, Asimov worked on a novel he called “Grow Old with Me” which was a misquote from a Browning poem. Merwin was very pleased with its progress until it was completed at 48,000 words and then, in October, announced that Startling was dropping the emulation of Astounding and now wanted Amazing-type stories. Infuriated, Asimov refused to rewrite it that way and it went into the drawer. Fortunately, Fred Pohl was in the mood to be an agent again, got Asimov to admit the existence of an unpublished novel, and took it to Gnome in January 1948. Though that deal fell through, he persisted until, at the end of March 1949, Doubleday agreed to take it if Asimov would lengthen it to 70,000 words. Asimov worked on the revision from early April to late May. At the beginning, he discovered the correct quote (“Grow Old Along with Me”) though, in June, his editor told him it needed a new title which sounded more science fictional, so he changed it to Pebble in the Sky. The book was finally published in January of 1950. However, the original version survived and found its way into Asimov’s papers which were periodically sent to Boston University at the request of its librarian, where it and some other alternate versions were discovered by Charles Waugh, part of the prolific Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh editing team, who had the idea of putting out a book of them. Thus, in 1986, The Alternate Asimovs [1] came into being. The versions are quite different in ways, but tell essentially the same story, so I’ll review the best known version, Pebble in the Sky, and then talk about some of the differences between the two.

Pebble in the Sky

Bald, pudgy, retired tailor Joseph Schwartz is walking down the sidewalk in Chicago on one fine summer afternoon in 1949, quoting Browning and thinking about how wonderful his golden years are and will be. He sees a Raggedy Ann doll, begins to step over it, and– Elsewhere in Chicago, a chemist is working with plutonium when something strange occurs and– Joseph Schwartz dizzily collapses onto the grass. It’s a fall evening and he’s looking at the cleanly split half of a Raggedy Ann doll. Indeed, a chunk of his shoe is missing, as well. After much confusion and hysteria, he finds himself tearing wildly about the woods, until he finally finds a house. Beating on the door and yelling, he’s relieved to see a woman open it but terrified all over again when she starts speaking in a language he’s never heard.

So begins Joseph Schwartz’s adventures in a strange new time and old place. He will find that he’s on Earth, after all, but an Earth of fifty thousand years in the future. In the meantime, humanity has spread to the stars and, just over eight hundred years ago, has created a Galactic Empire, but has forgotten where it came from. Earth has become an irradiated backwater of this Empire, either ignored or despised by the galaxy, with those nearest hating them the most [2]. They return this hatred. While there is loose Imperial oversight from a Procurator, the local rulers of Earth are the Society of Ancients, a tyrannical group of people who hold to the ridiculous belief that Earth is the birthplace of humanity. They enforce the Sixty, the euthanizing of people who reach that age, on a planet which now can only support a population of twenty million. Their mad leader has forced a doctor, Shekt, to do work on a Synapsifier to heighten the mental abilities of their biologists as part of his plan to have those biologists unleash a plague on the Empire so that he may become Emperor of what’s left.

As mismatched as the Society of Ancients against the Galactic Empire is, the forces opposing the Ancients on Earth are about as mismatched. Dr. Shekt has learned of the plan through the ravings of a biologist driven mad by the Synapsifier procedure and has told his daughter, Pola. They later recruit Bel Arvardan, an Imperial archaeologist, who has come to Earth to disprove the prevailing theory that humanity arose independently on various planets and has been interbreeding into homogeneity and to prove his theory (ironically also what the Ancients hold) that humanity came from a single birthplace and, more, that this very Earth is it. Caught up with them is Schwartz, who has a decision to make and a role to play despite not wanting to have anything to do with this bizarre future.

While this story is set in the far future, features Galactic Empires with strange worlds and societies, and has tools like Synapsifiers which can give strange mental powers, this is largely about prejudice and empathy. In this, Earth would seem to take the role of Judaea while the Roman Empire is enlarged to Galactic scope but it is not at all limited to this, as much of the hatred between Earthpeople and Imperials is expressed in modes of then-contemporary racism. Arvardan, being an educated Imperial, thinks of himself as an enlightened man but can scarcely conceive of being involved with an Earthie female until he meets Pola. What produces this situation in which five hundred quadrillion lives hang in the balance is traditional hatred in which wrongs are treasured up and hate is met with hate while what it would take to save them is an understanding of the efforts some make to overcome their societal limitations in order to make contact with a shared humanity.

The dislocation and plight of Schwartz as one of the viewpoint characters is engaging, the milieu is a fascinating mix of the familiar and strange, the plot is vast and dramatic (and the key part of it is hard to read these days), and the resolution, while imperfect, is satisfying.

“Grow Old Along with Me”

The essential question about the two versions might be “Should I get one or the other or both?” A fanatic like myself will want both but I suspect the general reader would probably only want one and that one should be Asimov’s “final” version.

As Asimov himself says in the “Afterword” to the story, the main differences between the first and second versions are that he “cut the asinine prologue, epilogue, and intermissions” and wove what had been three separate sections focused on Schwartz, Arvardan, and both Schwartz and Arvardan into a more intermixed narrative.

The “asinine” parts he mentions really are surprisingly bad and jarringly discordant with an otherwise good first version, as are some other places where the narrative voice is off-key or intrusive, which are also minimized in the second version. Though the tripartite structure works well, the blended second version is better. One of the more notable parts of that is an earlier introduction of, and larger part for, Pola. (One of the apparently unintended consequences of this, though, is that it changes some of Arvardan’s motivations in places.)

While Asimov mentions the largest changes, there are many others great and small.

The most noticeable lengthening is probably in the change in which Schwartz is kept for observation by Shekt. Schwartz escapes briefly from the farm in both versions but also makes an earlier escape from Shekt’s offices in the second version which produces the basically new chapters of 8 and 9. (This also creates one of the few continuity problems in the expansion in that Schwartz goes to the city thinking his nature may make him valuable but still applies for the menial job of the first version.) Another additional scene comes from giving an unnamed character who has one scene and naming him Lt. Claudy and giving him several scenes which are put to generally good effect. He hates Earth people more than most and that raises the change in which Asimov originally portrayed some strong anti-Earth prejudice in the first version but dialed it up to 11 in the second version. I’m not sure that this is really an improvement as the point comes across loud and clear even in the first. Similarly, Arvardan’s self-perception of his own “enlightenment” vs. his actual involuntarily ingrained prejudice is made much more heavy-handed.

Claudy is just one of several characters who are named or expanded or slightly modified. For instance, Schwartz is originally taken in by a married couple and the wife’s paraplegic father, Grew. His character is made more prominent and cantankerous in an early chapter. (Both versions, as Asimov notes, feature the chess game between Grew and Schwartz which is taken from a real game. I would note that it is played on a magnificently imaginative and beautiful set.) The Secretary of the Ancients is given the name Belkis and lesser agents such as Natter and Creen are also named and magnified, with Natter getting a more drastic and on-screen fate.

Putting it elliptically, as it’s near the end, the prison scene is much improved by having a character only arrive, rather than arrive, depart, and return, which addresses one pretty severe credibility strain though, oddly, Asimov has a character raise another problem and inadequately address it.

A technically minor change, but a striking one, is that the image of the Raggedy Ann doll made a powerful impression on me and was not actually in the first version. Of all things missing in the first version, I missed this most.

Moving into even more minor things, the date of Schwartz’s origin is changed from 1947 to 1949 and, to give him more to lose, he’s given two daughters instead of one, and there are numerous minor stylistic tweaks which are improvements most of the time.

In essence, everything of value in the good first version except its extreme brevity is preserved in the second while many positive and few negative changes are introduced.

[1] Of all Asimov’s science fiction, The Alternate Asimovs is the only thing that I’m reading for the first time for these reviews.

[2] Interestingly, while this is an Empire novel and those are connected to the Foundation books, the Robot stories and novels were a separate series at this time, yet this fits very well with the semi-Spacer story “Mother Earth,” which was written between these two versions, and the subsequent Robot novels in the Spacer milieu.

Previous posts in this series:

Birthday Reviews: Niven, van Vogt, Williamson

This week’s birthdays include some especially high-magnitude stars in the SF firmament and bring us one pretty hard SF story and two that are very much not. Twice we go to Mars where non-Martian aliens have set up amazing superscience gizmos and once we take a trip to the Lesser Magellanic to try to find fifty lost suns.

Larry Niven (1938-04-30)

“The Hole Man” (Analog, January 1974)

Captain Childrey is a neat freak who is leading the expedition of the Percival Lowell to Mars. Astrophysicist Andrew Lear is a slob who discovers an abandoned base put on Mars by interstellar visitors ages ago. Lear believes it’s powered by a quantum black hole. Childrey does not and mockingly calls Lear “the hole man” in the sense of having a hole between his ears. The expedition does not go well.

This is a hard SF story with a strong human interest. The science fictional parts are engaging and well done but the problem with the story is that it’s deadly serious, but has a flippant tone which never really changes. That tone makes for enjoyable reading in the course of the story, but seems like a weakness in retrospect. Still, the ideas and execution of the tale are otherwise excellent from its great opening hook (“One day Mars will be gone.”) on to its personal and celestial conclusions.

A. E. van Vogt (1912-04-26–2000-01-26)

“Concealment” (Astounding, September 1943)

It’s kind of funny that van Vogt is known for his fixups (novels built up out of previously published stories) and that SF frequently suffers from infodumps when this reads like it went the opposite direction, seeming like an excerpt from a novel, and generally has the opposite of infodumps, being very cryptically in media res. It does go on to form the prologue to one of my favorite overlooked van Vogt books: The Mixed Men aka Mission to the Stars.

In it, the Imperial Earth battleship Star Cluster blazes past a “meteorite” weather station (for detecting and charting space storms of vast dimensions and durations) in the Lesser Magellanic where Gisser Watcher immediately destroys himself and his station to keep the knowledge of the locations of the Fifty Suns hidden from Earth. Mere atomic annihilation is not enough, of course, as Earth has matter transmission technology and the crew of the ship uses something akin to that to simply reconstitute him and his station after they’ve reversed course. What follows is a battle between Watcher and Grand Captain Laurr (Gloria Cecily) and her crew to hide or find the Fifty Suns that were established outside Earth’s control 15,000 years ago. Mental technology is brought to bear on Watcher, which initially has some effect but not much, as the Chief Psychologist says he’s resisted her attempt with mental power like one with an IQ of 800 despite initially having an “average” IQ of 167. As if that weren’t enough, his Dellian training gives him techniques to achieve heightened super-strength in the same way he can achieve heightened super-intelligence, which comes into play when things get physical at the end.

Basically, it’s all here: if you don’t like van Vogt, then you probably won’t like this; if you do, you probably will. In about fifteen pages, you get a concrete and literal milieu of fifteen millennia, multiple galaxies, multiple star systems (including one with ninety-four planets), and you get super-minds and super-strength, with cryptic openings (Lady Laurr is introduced as “she” and only given a plethora of names after a couple of pages) and abrupt, numinous endings. And this is just one story, and just the start of the book. Bigger, better, faster, more! Preposterous? Yes. Fun? Yes!

Jack Williamson (1908-04-29–2006-11-10)

“Nonstop to Mars” (Argosy, February 14, 1939)

When I saw it was time to celebrate Jack Williamson’s birthday, I thought I should really review one of his serious classics such as “With Folded Hands” but I kind of knew I wouldn’t be able to resist re-reading “Nonstop to Mars,” especially after the van Vogt.

Now that the cathion rockets have begun to take over, a guy like Carter “Lucky” Leigh is a bit outmoded, along with his career of flying planes nonstop from place to place for publicity and sponsorships. Things got even worse last time, as he was circumnavigating the Earth from Pole to Pole but got pushed out of the news by the “Stellar Shell” or the strange object that came into the system from Beyond and threatened to hit Earth, but actually landed on Mars. And they get worse still on his current flight from Capetown to Honolulu as weird atmospheric conditions and some strange sort of tornado damages his plane and forces him to make an emergency landing on a South Pacific islet. He’s surprised to get an answer to his distress call from a scientist on the islet and is even more surprised when the scientist turns out to be a woman. Not only that, but the woman is Dr. Elene Gayle, the very one who discovered the Stellar Shell and she has a dislike of publicity hounds – her boyfriend is a noble altruistic rocket pilot.

Some time goes by as they uncomfortably help one another and argue. Atmospheric conditions worsen and Gayle becomes convinced that her worst fears are true: the Stellar Shell was an alien ship and the aliens are using the tornado tunnel between planets to siphon Earth’s atmosphere to Mars. The Earth is likely doomed. Then Gayle’s boyfriend and another scientist arrive to take Gayle back to the mainland, leaving Leigh to take care of himself. He sets upon a plan that is bold, to say the least. In the final third of the novelette, he repairs his plane and, when the islet rotates under the siphoning vortex again, he takes it into the maelstrom for an unforgettable voyage which is only the first of his great challenges.

The history of science fiction is a bit askew in that “the 30s” really run from about 1926-1938 and “the 40s” run from about 1939-1949 but, despite this tale’s 1939 date, it really is “a 30s story.” The characterization of Leigh and the depiction of his life and skills are very good but the relationship of Leigh and Gayle is much like that of Hammond and Burlingame in Weinbaum’s recently reviewed “Parasite Planet” (1935) and the science obviously, um, strains belief. What’s remarkable is how Williamson manages to introduce even an atom of plausibility to it and how it’s so breathtakingly audacious that it’s all worth it, regardless. Preposterous? Yes. Fun? Yes!

Asimov’s Centennial: Two Stories, February 1947-March 1949 (Second Foundation)

These two stories (of about 25 and 50 thousand words) make up the contents of Second Foundation, the final volume of the original Foundation trilogy.

It is strange how the wordage of Asimov’s Foundation stories fit so neatly into three ordinary volumes (four shorter tales and a prequel making about 75,000 words, then 25 and 50 thousand word stories before this pair of identical lengths) while the focal points of the stories did not. For instance, the two Mule stories are 75 thousand words but are split over the last two books, which open and close with non-Mule stories which have distinct characters and plots though both stories in Second Foundation deal with the notion of a “search” for the Second Foundation. Many people have trouble with these stories for the very reason that they read them as “novels” and find them “disjointed” but I’ve always loved the time-lapse of more or less self-contained stories which combine to tell a larger story.

“Now You See It…”

In book form, this appears as “Search by the Mule.” Initially, Asimov preferred to call it “Now You See It–” though, in its magazine publication, this and the next story each had an ellipsis instead of an em dash. The discussion of this requires an immediate and unavoidable spoiler to the previous tale, though I’ll be as non-specific as possible.

In our last story, we left off with the Mule’s designs of learning the location of his enemy, the Second Foundation, having been thwarted. In the time between then and the opening of this tale, the Mule has been sending the Converted Captain (now General) Pritcher on search after search, continuing to scour the Galaxy for the one force capable of challenging the Mule for supremacy. Pritcher now believes that the Second Foundation does not exist, but the Mule feels that some of his agents have been subtly altered in ways that suggest a long-range plan, which can only show the hand of the Second Foundation. For the next search, he provides Pritcher with a partner: brash, young, and Unconverted Bail Channis, who may bring a new energy and perspective to the search. The Mule tells each a slightly different version of the plan and each is more opponent than ally to the other. This comes to a head when Channis believes he’s discovered the location, sneakily launches the ship while discussing this with Pritcher, they reach the seemingly unimportant, modest world of Rossem, meet the locals including the Elders and the Governor of the world, and accuse each other of being traitors to the Mule. At this standoff, the Mule, who has been following them, arrives and more reversals and a sort of “Mentalic Standoff” follows.

Lucas is often accused of excessive homage to Kurosawa and others to make Star Wars but he also borrowed a lot from the Foundation series. Vader scouring the galaxy for the location of the hidden rebel base possibly owes much to this and some of the thrilling psychological combat and conflicts in the Emperor’s attempt with Vader to turn Luke also owes a lot to this. The uneasy relationship between Pritcher and Channis is compelling and the final scenes with more players magnify this into gripping combat in which hardly a muscle is moved. It also contains much of interest along the way such as the Interludes which depict Second Foundation members communicating with one another in a way that is practically, though not literally, psychic. To borrow a description from the next story, it is explained that Second Foundation speech must be translated:

It will be pretended therefore, that the First Speaker did actually say, “First, I must tell you why you are here,” instead of smiling just so and lifting a finger exactly thus.

On the downside, it seems to me that there is a logical glitch, and/or the Mule is described as being a little more powerful than we were previously given to understand and a detail of the final standoff may not be completely convincing to the hypercritical but, if anything, these are all pretty minor blemishes to a very good tale, though it’s somewhat modest compared to most other Foundation stories, being fairly simple and half the length of the novel-length tales around it. The reason for that is that Asimov enjoyed writing repeated puzzles like the Robot stories but didn’t enjoy writing the extremely complicated Foundation stories with their extended narrative connections and had intended to end the series with this. Fortunately, Campbell made him change the ending to be less conclusive and to write at least one more novel-length tale.

“…And Now You Don’t”

In book form, this appears as “The Search by the Foundation.” Set a generation after the Mule’s time, (specifically in 11,692 of the Galactic Era or 348 of the Foundation) it has two main threads. Precocious and willful fourteen-year-old Arcadia Darell, granddaughter of Bayta Darell (heroine of the story, “The Mule”) initially features in both of them. Through her, we get the backstory that has led to this point and meet the first of the conspirators to connect with her father, Toran. Because the Second Foundation is suspected to have interfered with the Mule, some citizens of the First Foundation are slipping into complacency, believing the Second Foundation will play fairy godmother at need while others feel a hatred for the group which may be running them like puppets. Arkady (as she prefers to be called) manipulates a boy into providing her with equipment she can use to spy on the conspirators’ meetings and develops plans of her own. When one of them, Homir Munn (a librarian and family friend), is sent to Kalgan, which had been the Mule’s imperial capital world, to see if anything about the Second Foundation can be learned there, Arkady stows away. In alternate shadowy scenes from the Second Foundation’s point of view, we learn that the Plan has been badly damaged by the Mule and is likely to fail utterly without their (mis)application of psychohistory to individuals in a much more aggressive and finely tuned way that has been their usual practice.

After the first third of the story, the second thread begins. Arkady and Munn arrive at Kalgan where they meet the current “First Citizen” (dictator), Stettin, and his mistress, Lady Callia. Things initially go in a middling fashion, with Munn failing to get permission to examine the shrine of the Mule from Stettin, but with Arkady managing to succeed with Callia, who then succeeds with Stettin after all. However, things go worse when Stettin decides, from Munn’s lack of progress, that there is no Second Foundation and decides he’s ready to make war on the Foundation, detaining Munn and deciding that Arkady will be a useful bride for him in a few years. This causes Callia to help Arkady escape Kalgan, during which Arkady learns a couple of things – not everything is as it seems and she believes she knows where the Second Foundation is, which she also believes puts her life at risk. She decides not to return home to Terminus, but flees to her birthplace of Trantor. On the verge of being captured by the Kalganian police, she’s befriended by a childless couple who were on an agricultural trade mission but are now returning to Trantor.

Past the halfway point, war breaks out and, as it usually does, it starts badly for the First Foundation. Very unusually, there is an on-screen space battle which is brief but effectively done. That is the climax of the purely physical story of Kalgan vs. the First Foundation but there is still the first thread of the partly-psychological story of the First Foundation vs. the Second Foundation to return to. In a way, the final sixth of the tale is an extended denouement but it does contain a scene akin to the murder mysteries in which all the suspects are gathered together and the detective details the crime and names the culprit, except that there are multiple would-be detectives. After a round-robin in which almost everyone claims they know the secret, the secret is finally revealed and matters come to a conclusion of what will be a rather brutal sort and the very brief true denouement follows.

(Both Asimov and his critics usually credit him for inventing the science fiction/mystery hybrid with the Robot novels but, really, most of his Robot stories and even these Foundation tales, especially this one, are at least puzzle stories and some are already essentially mystery hybrids. They may not have literal detectives explicitly solving murder cases but they are still formally mysteries. Instead of a whodunnit, this is a wherizit.)

While not apparent from this synopsis, one of the most striking things about this tale is its humor. It is a deadly serious story in essence but Arkady is a lively, charming character whose brilliance and naivete combine to produce humorous reactions in others as they tend to see her as a sort of tiny sorceress. But she’s an equally effective dramatic character. When she realizes she’s in over her head while trying to flee Kalgan, her emotional pain and feelings of isolation are very effectively drawn. Even through all this, she keeps her wits about her. While she is by far the most effective character of this tale, the deft character touches aren’t limited to her. For instance, the heartbreak one character feels when he finds out he’s not who he thought he was is a brief but powerful moment and takes what could be a conventional thing and skews it into perceptive originality, much like the internals of Pritcher being controlled by the Mule in earlier stories is unusual, putting the horror in the reader rather than in the controlled man, himself.

In a more general sense, this story continues to produce its mythico-historical resonances which is one of my favorite things about this series. Having starships named after famous characters featured in earlier stories, quoting famous sayings from leaders from centuries before, echoing dynamics from Earth’s own Roman, Roman Catholic, and other history, and much more, gives these tales the tangibility and power of 1776 and 1066 and all that. The thumbnail sketch here of Kalgan (joining those of Rossem, Trantor, Neotrantor, and others in earlier tales) also contributes to this effect.

While not necessarily virtues or flaws, there are a couple of odd views of science and human nature portrayed in this, though. One might view our power of speech as a great connecting force for humanity (though it obviously doesn’t work perfectly all the time even for people skilled in its use and especially not for those of us who aren’t) but it’s portrayed here as “the prison bars of ordinary speech” which isolate us from one another when a more immediate emotional reading of one another could unite us. There is also an oddly utilitarian view of science when a branch of science and the technology related to it which is developed in the story is seen as something that will become inactive and fade from memory because it’s seemingly useless but much of what drives science (as opposed to science grants) is pure love of knowledge and many developments arise from apparently useless things in unforeseen ways.

Moving on to flaws in this very enjoyable tale, the biggest is a structural one. Arkady is obviously the star and animating force until she leaves Kalgan, after which she only gets a single chapter and a brief scene. Given the nature of the unfolding plot, this is perhaps unavoidable, but it is also regrettable.

There are also either three main logical flaws in the story or three failures in my perception. Many readers may wish to skip the bullet points because all three may be irrelevant to them, the second approaches or crosses into spoiling the previous story, and the third one does the same to this story.

  • The whole notion of information on the Second Foundation being scarce except for Hari Seldon’s statement that it’s at the other end of the galaxy seems problematic. Leaving aside the specifics, I have to ask why Seldon would say even that much. If you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy, you shouldn’t say you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy. (This is almost certainly an artifact of Asimov making this up as he went along.)
  • The rise of the Second Foundation to prominence after dealing with the Mule in the previous story also bothers me. Since the only people in the room were the Mule himself, an unconscious and Converted Pritcher, and two Second Foundation agents, how could anything about the Second Foundation have gotten out? But perhaps we can grant that the Mule uncharacteristically laid out his suspicions to a Fleet commander before going to the planet’s surface and that got out somehow and grew in the telling.
  • Finally, whatever their resentment, how can anyone of the First Foundation think it wise to try to simply destroy the Second Foundation and feel confident in the Plan’s eventual success if they do so, when the whole point is that only they were able to stop something as unforeseeable as the Mule?

If you just accept the premises and can live with less Arkady in the back half of the story, though, this is a tremendously thought-provoking and entertaining tale which brings things to a good “pausing point” (suitable for either stopping or continuing) and it was to remain paused for about thirty-two years. Perhaps the clearest thing I can say about the value of this work is that my Centennial plan is to chronologically read Pebble in the Sky and the rest of Asimov’s books which include several masterpieces that I look forward to, yet I’m having to fight the urge to start on Foundation’s Edge right now.

Previous posts in this series:

Birthday Reviews: Purdom, Richardson

How do aliens react to the possibility of their society being destroyed? How do humans react to the possibility of our world being destroyed? Read these two stories and find out!

Tom Purdom (1936-04-19)

“A Response from EST17” (Asimov’s, April/May 2011)

[This is lightly revised from a sketch of a private review I wrote 2012-08-07. (I thought I had a published review somewhere, but I can’t find it.)]

I have had some contact with Mr. Purdom on a long-defunct discussion board and I like him–he seems like a true gentleman. But this should have nothing to do with his fiction and, leaving that aside, this story was still the best in Dozois’ entire The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 29th Annual Collection. My only real complaint (and it’s probably my fault) was that I found the who, what, and why a little confusing at first.

It turns out that humans have sent an early, slower, private consortium probe to Extra-Solar Terranoid 17 and it’s overtaken by a later, but faster, more governmental probe. So there are two nanotech/smart machine probes of human design in the same system. EST17 is populated by long-lived feathered humanoids whose society is also long-lived, having a machine-determined biological ruler which rules two groups – the “serenes,” who are the traditionalists, and the “Adventurers”, who are the anarchic radicals. The one keeps the society stable – the other keeps it from ossifying. The native government bonds to the government probe while the radicals bond to the private probe and much wackiness ensues.

The overhanging sword of Damocles is “the Message.” Apparently, it’s sort of like a destructive chain-letter. After contact, civilizations tend to give other civilizations the Message, a cornucopia of the super-science of 23 civilizations, which basically produces an instant Spike which catastrophically transforms the recipient society via “Turbulence.” In response, the alien ruler, who is perhaps the least serene of the serenes – though no Adventurer – tries to feel her way into breaking this cycle by utilizing the Adventurer, who naturally goes about things in an unorthodox way.

This is complicated, pure SF, with an actual solution of sorts (if more sociological than physical), and was great fun to read. It makes a new dish of SF out of old ingredients with new flavors which, unlike much current fiction, invites a sympathetic response to all sides.

R. S. Richardson (1902-04-22–1981-11-12)

“N Day” (as by Philip Latham, Astounding, January 1946)

(This may not be the kind of story most people would want to read right now, but hopefully someday…)

This is the author’s first tale and it’s a good one. The only problem with it is the time it takes to make explicit what the reader suspects early on: this is a story about the end of the world. An astronomer is observing the sun on clear days while going through the papers of a deceased colleague on rainy days and the two things dovetail, leading him to the conclusion that the sun is about to go nova. This story works less on the basis of its plot, in which the reader wonders if the scientist is correct or not, and more through its clever take on the way people might react either way. The psychological changes in the Prufrock-like scientist, and the way some of his associates and the general public respond, are astutely depicted and produce an eschatological story which both sticks out from its innumerable companions and does so in what is perhaps a more realistic way with a particularly effective ending.

Links: 2020-04-15

Science Fiction






Two almost completely different things here…

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Asimov’s Centennial: Six Stories, April 1946-October 1948

I’ve been covering Asimov’s early works in groups of eight or nine stories (including a novel length work in the last batch) but the last nine stories Asimov wrote in the 1940s [1] include two novel-length works, one of which has two significantly different versions, so I’m only covering the six shorter works in this post and will handle the other stories as normal book reviews. In fact, except for finishing up the first volume of Asimov’s autobiography and a last special post related to this era, I plan to review the remainder of Asimov’s works in normal individual book reviews.

Robot Stories

The first two stories in this period of the late 1940s following “The Mule” were both Robot stories.

In “Evidence,” Stephen Byerly is a lawyer running for mayor as a reformer while Francis Quinn is his unprincipled opponent out to smear him with the charge of being, basically, a robot brain in a human-like body (which is a damning accusation in a society which despises robots and doesn’t allow them in the general population). But it’s difficult to to prove someone is a robot when they’re implicitly recognized as human under the law, with full rights including the right to privacy. Conversely, trying to preserve those rights while proving you are in fact not a robot isn’t much easier. Still, a way is found for the proof for or against at the climax, but it is the denouement with Susan Calvin at the end which packs more punch.

My one problem is that, despite what the story says, it seems to me that the proof that someone is not a robot is easy and, though proving that someone is would be hard, convincing people of it wouldn’t be. Simply order the being to do something no sane and self-respecting human would do. If the person disobeys, they’re not a robot (Second Law) and, if they do it, they are either a robot or at least not a sane and self-respecting person most people would want for mayor. But if I’m wrong there or if you overlook that problem, this is an otherwise effectively written story which carries some emotional weight and is very good.

Despite the conflict, “Evidence” is basically an upbeat story of sorts. “Little Lost Robot” is much darker. While working on experimental hyperdrive starships, which is dangerous, robot labor is useful but robots interfering with the work to “save” humans from danger is not, so special robots are secretly built with a modified first law (and less stable minds). When a human tells an intrusive special robot to get lost, the robot mixes in with sixty-two other robots with normal First Law programming, but who are otherwise identical. If people find out that the unstable robot exists, it could be very bad for the government and for U. S. Robots & Mechanical Men, so Susan Calvin and Peter Bogert are sent out to try to identify the robot. Because the robot is unstable and has developed a superiority complex, it becomes a battle of wits with a robot whose First Law prohibition against harming humans was intentionally weakened and is now almost non-existent.

Like “Evidence” and others, a solution to the problem is fairly obvious but Calvin and the rest do not see it until they do something very similar near the end (which is itself a problem as more than one Robot story involves repeated attempts at solving the problem before a final success which hinges on something which should have been determined when initially establishing the domain of the problem). Asimov goes to great lengths to explain all the dynamics with the strange robot and perhaps succeeds but I wasn’t entirely convinced this time. The effort at writing an almost pre-Asimovian “robot menace” story provides much excitement but at the cost of seeming contrary to most robot principles in the series. But, once again, if you accept the premise of this particular tale, it works well.


After writing the story which made up the first third of Second Foundation, Asimov turns to a story that isn’t connected to those series and is coincidentally named “No Connection.” It is connected thematically to other stories, though, being somewhat like “Homo Sol” and others in portraying humans (or the like) as weird beings who are inexplicably violent and, more than that, are beings who have a sort of vice in peace which inverts so that they have a sort of virtue in war. It’s also akin to “The Weapon” in the sense of having wise old “aliens” or “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use” in that and in having, well, weapons too dreadful to use. It is unusual in being on an Earth so far removed from ours as to feel like an alternate world in that the “Americans” the story opens with turn out to be Gurrows, or civilized bears whose society is extremely egalitarian and “”social without being gregarious,” while beings evolved from chimpanzees and called Eekahs inhabit the other continent. The particular Eekahs who make contact with the Gurrows are fleeing political persecution (which the Gurrows can barely comprehend) from their society which is “gregarious without being social.” The protagonist, an archaeologist interested in the concept of a “Primeval Primate,” can’t see the connection between several things, including the Eekahs, the Gurrows, the odd results from using the Eekah knowledge of radiation to date things and more, but the reader comes to see, sooner or later, that it’s all connected after all. (Actually, in this, it’s also like “Not Final!”) It’s a very interesting depiction of an alternate sentience and society though the story, by its very nature of providing the reader but not the characters with a “conceptual breakthrough,” isn’t fully engaging.

For something very different, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” is a fake science article, so doesn’t really have any people, places, things, or plots except the thing of thiotimoline, itself, which is a substance which dissolves prior to hitting the water. But it’s a very thoroughly and cleverly done spoof which actually may have counted in Asimov’s favor with his Ph.D. examiners because he obviously had to know what he was talking about to fake it that well. Despite the time travel bit, some readers somehow even thought it was a real science article. I’m not sure if this was historically first, but it’s the earliest example I know of what has become a microgenre of its own. (“Meihem in ce Klasrum” predates this by about a year and a half, but is more a fictional essay on spelling than a fictional scientific paper.) If you’re susceptible to the notion, this is a very funny lampoon of academic papers and has a very entertaining idea as well.

Asimov next became embroiled in the difficulties with “Grow Old with Me,” which finally resolved happily after quite some time. Meanwhile, he wrote more stories, including “The Red Queen’s Race.” This is a time travel story and is one of the minority which appeals to me because it avoids logical inconsistency. Even aside from that, it’s also very good. A “flatfoot” playing a dumb cop (when he’s definitely not dumb and not any ordinary cop, either) investigates the mysterious death of a physicist whose last act was to somehow drain an entire atomic power plant. The only real clue is a chemistry book he was having translated into Greek. The cop interviews several people but the most interesting comes at the end when a philosopher does a remarkable point/counterpoint presentation of views of ancient history. This story has references to the then-undetected neutrino, to what would become chaos theory and how remedying the lack of a “mathematic psychohistory” would be helpful. It also has some interesting details in its time travel mechanics. It isn’t a real action-packed tale and the philosopher appears too conveniently, so it might not be an epochal classic or anything, but it’s a very good, idea-packed story with a good narrative voice.

Asimov quickly followed that up with a second superb story, “Mother Earth,” which, like “Blind Alley,” is related to the Robots/Empire/Foundation universe without generally being included with those main stories. In this, several scenes of conversations between major and minor exemplars paint a picture of a “Terrestrian” society of billions packed into a single planet where the soft sciences are strong and robots are despised and an “Outer Worlds” society of fifty loosely united worlds out in space made from human colonists who have developed eugenically-controlled racist low-population societies built on robots and the hard sciences and who despise the people of Earth. For decades, tensions have been building and the Ambassador to Aurora, Luiz Moreno of Earth, turns out to be a proto-Seldon character who is leading a three-pronged “Pacific Project” which everyone believes is either misdirection or some vast secret when only a third of it is truly hidden and the other two-thirds are hiding in plain sight. This is short on physical action (despite an off-screen Three Weeks’ War) and long on concepts which build an astonishing amount of tension in the best Robot/Foundation tradition. The reader can fruitfully argue with some of the premises and dynamics and may approve of some ends but not means (or vice versa) but, however the reader approaches it, there is much to engage with, from ideas on psychology and history (and even psychohistory), overpopulation, eugenics, racism [2] , the surprising difficulty of deciding who the actual winners and losers of wars are (an issue I’ve noticed myself from Alexander’s conquests to WWII and beyond), and strange premonitions in this 1948 story of things that would soon occur (as well as something which soon proved to be backwards). While much of this story is covered in earlier Robot and Foundation stories (and some others) and would be covered again in later ones in different ways, this a fascinating and key story for most readers, I’d think, and certainly for Asimov fans.

[1] For the record, these are the stories with their magazine publication date (all published in Astounding except “Grow Old with Me”) and first appearance in book form with that date:

  • “Evidence” (September 1946) I, Robot (1950)
  • “Little Lost Robot” (March 1947) I, Robot (1950)
  • “Now You See It–” (January 1948) Second Foundation (1953)
  • “No Connection” (June 1948) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline (March 1948) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “Grow Old with Me” (appeared in expanded form as the Doubleday book Pebble in the Sky (1950))
  • “The Red Queen’s Race” (January 1949) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “Mother Earth” (May 1949) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “–And Now You Don’t” (November 1949-January 1950) Second Foundation (1953)

For previous stories, see:

[2] “And racism will be dead, for variety will then be the great fact of Humanity, and not uniformity,” as written by Isaac Asimov in 1948 and published by John W. Campbell in 1949.

Birthday Reviews: Emshwiller, Kelly, McDevitt, Sterling

This week brings an overload of birthdays and an overload of great stories with a singing bug, morally challenging alien dinosaurs, a universe created in a lab, and a society exploiting Time with the help of Mongol hordes on Harleys. And, unlike last week’s, none are in series and all are brand-spankin’ new (well, okay, not older than thirty-five years).

Carol Emshwiller (1921-04-12–2019-02-02)

“Moon Songs” (The Start of the End of It All, 1990)

Whenever I rave about Carol Emshwiller, her story “Pelt” usually leads the parade but this time I thought I’d focus on a different story. She has dozens of brilliant tales but the one I’m going to talk about now is “Moon Songs,” in which the narrator looks back on the interrelations between the person he was at the time, his sister, the world, and art and beauty. Oh, and the ugly, crippled bug they found which sang the middle of what seemed like a beautiful song when it was pricked. The narrator, at the time of the main story, was a physically unimpressive and weak-willed young boy in the thrall of his older and beautiful, but awkward and unpopular, sister. She wanted to be popular or famous or something remarkable and the boy got increasingly disturbed as she became increasingly infatuated with the mite and used and abused it to pretend its abilities were her own. The climax is powerful and the denouement disorienting.

As with essentially all Emshwiller stories I’ve read, the characters are complex and compelling, especially internally. The prose seems natural but is carefully controlled, avoiding plainness or the faux arts. The observations are profound and connect with me despite not being anything I’d observe on my own. I think that’s what I like best about Emshwiller: she’s an unpretentious artist who quietly communicates her visions in a way that even one who’s ordinarily interested in other things can’t fail to notice.

James Patrick Kelly (1951-04-11)

“Think Like a Dinosaur” (Asimov’s, June 1995)

By 2069, the alien Hanen (nicknamed “dinosaurs”) have arrived and allow humans access to the technology they operate which gives us the stars: matter transmission and wormhole beams, basically. However, we’re on a sort of probation and need to behave according to the dinos’ sense of ethics which involves balancing the equations: no creating armies of yourself with the scanners to take over the universe or anything. This would seem like a simple task but it’s not, even under ordinary circumstances. Michael Burr assists the dinos by helping humans make the transition and is guiding Kamala Shastri through the process which will take her to Gend where she can learn to grow artificial eyes for the blind. When something goes wrong, he finds that it’s even more complex and difficult than he’d ever imagined.

This tale references Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” but knowing that one isn’t required to get the vast majority of the powerful effect of this and, if you’re a fan of that era of SF, it might even be helpful if you don’t compare them too much. Taken by itself, this tale is perfectly structured, with a brief frame in the present surrounding the bulk of the story set at Kamala’s departure. Both human characters are given the foreground and made deftly, economically real but the three aliens are also sharply sketched individuals. The science and fiction is perfectly blended to satisfy wiring diagram and literary readers alike. The narrative is initially interesting and ratchets up rapidly and convincingly into something jaw-droppingly, pulse-poundingly bizarre and emotionally and intellectually engaging.

Jack McDevitt (1935-04-14)

“Act of God” (Microcosms, 2004)

I couldn’t let Jack McDevitt’s birthday go by without wishing him happy birthday because I’ve enjoyed so many of his novels so much (including The Hercules Text, Eternity Road, and the Alex Benedict novels) but didn’t have a whole lot of stories to choose from because I’ve never been able to get one of his collections (they aren’t exactly available in affordable mass market paperbacks). Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot to choose from to find good ones.

In this tale, the reader hears one half of a dialog between a distraught scientist and a skeptical friend as the former tells the latter about how he came to be involved in a scientific experiment to create a Little Bang which produced a universe in another dimension. He then relates all the (bad) things that happened to his coworkers and what he thinks is the reason. This is an economical (and somewhat funny) story which is a fine addition to the “scientist/god bottle-universe” subgenre.

Bruce Sterling (1954-04-14) & Lewis Shiner

“Mozart in Mirrorshades” (Omni, September 1985)

I wonder if there is, ironically, an alternate history where, instead of a boring old The Difference Engine with William Gibson and its ensuing dull steampunk, we got an expanded version of this and, I dunno, “powderpunk” or something took over instead. Because, this, ladies and social justice warriors, is how you make your critiques of imperialism! You do it with humor, verve, excitement, and sneaky nuance within your strong satire!

In “Realtime,” people have figured out how to go back in time and drain resources from the past, forking them up so that the wrecked world goes spinning off on its own alternate timeline and Realtime gets all the benefits. So Rice is in charge of the 18th century job where we see Mozart and Thomas Jefferson being exploited. But this story doesn’t forget to have a self-sufficient plot as Rice gets lost in an extended debauch with Marie Antoinette, a soft-hearted co-worker starts a local insurrection which threatens the project, Mozart schemes to get a Green Card (taken to Realtime) where he wants to be a pop star, and all hell breaks loose. This brings on the Gray Card Army (alternate crossovers) such as one of Genghis Khan’s generals riding a Harley, who does things like jamming a machine pistol into Mozart’s nose and saying, “I put my gun on rock and roll, there nothing left of you but ears, man.” Not to mention stray notes thrown off like sparks from a dragging muffler such as “a six year old Napoleon munching Dubble Bubble in Corsica.” But, while a secondary character in a lot of ways, Mozart in his mirrorshades is an indelible, brilliant image and he also provides some of the nuance to the tale. Great stuff.

Review: Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele

Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele
Hardcover: Tor, 978-0-7653-8218-4, $26.99, 300pp, April 2017
Tradepaper: Tor, 978-0-7653-8219-1, $16.99, 300pp, April 2018?

Avengers of the Moon is Allen Steele’s authorized addition to the Captain Future tales, the originals of which were a pulp series almost entirely written by Edmond Hamilton, often under the “house name” Brett Sterling, which is to say that these were mass-produced adventures for mostly young readers with no pretensions to art or scientific rigor. That said, I’ve read one of the novels (plus a novelette) and, compared to expectations, found them to be surprisingly skillfully crafted, imaginative, and entertaining works which were enjoyable in their context.

This version is “an effort to bring Captain Future into the twenty-first century for a new generation of readers.” [1] Unfortunately, as I indicated, I’m no expert on the full history of Captain Future and his Futuremen or on the nature of the changes. I can tell that the story is set in the twenty-fourth century, and the busy solar system is preserved by having Mars undergo terraforming while it and other worlds are populated with a mix of baseline humans (who must wear protective gear) and bioengineered humans. While older SF had several examples of competent women, I suspect that the degree to which Joan Randall is made a competent police officer may also be a tweak. However, certain things are unchanged or emphasized the other way: the plot is a melodramatic thriller and the villains are as black-hatted as any.

As related in the second section of the novel, twenty years before its main action, the parents of Curt Newton got involved with a businessman named Victor Corvo. They wanted to create androids and he wanted an army of slaves. When they discovered their goals weren’t compatible, the parents went into hiding along with their infant son, Curt Newton, and their aged mentor, Simon Wright, and the businessman started hunting them. Arriving at the moon, Wright died but his brain was preserved in a drone’s “body” while the android that had been intended to receive his brain developed a mind of its own and acquired the name Otho. Meanwhile, impressed by the oddly intelligent robot, Grag, they acquired it. Corvo found them and killed the parents and believed he’d wiped out their base on the moon but the three strange entities survived to raise Curt Newton. Newton’s mission in life, as designed by Wright and initially unknown to Newton, is to avenge his parents’ murders by dealing with Corvo. The story opens with Curt and Otho making a rare excursion from their hidden base where Curt first lays eyes on Corvo, who has since become a Senator of the Solar Coalition and is hosting the President, and Newton is later told his true backstory. Curt resolves to continue on his life’s journey so makes his plans and, with the help of Grag and the others, sneaks into Corvo’s compound on the moon to assassinate him. However, it turns out that there is a bigger plot afoot which leads to yet a bigger plot and then an even larger scale, without ever losing sight of Newton and Corvo. All this is complicated and modified by Newton’s meeting Joan Randall (at the same event in which he saw Corvo) and their subsequent, usually strained and awkward, interactions. Without giving anything away, there is much derring-do, lots of neat gizmos, overheard conversations, fights, a cult, and a suitably climactic climax.

The conflict, plot, and edifying message are in keeping with Captain Future and, if it’s not already obvious, this makes Captain Future somewhat resistant to being molded into something suitable for the twenty-first century and a new generation of readers if those readers aren’t going to respond to the originals anyway. The discomfort Newton incessantly has with the name “Captain Future” reads like a “signal from Fred” [2] and, I think, is an example of what has the novel fall between two stools, neither able to distance itself from the originals sufficiently to be “modern” (as Steele did in his original metafictional take in the novella “The Death of Captain Future,” which he himself calls “satirical”) nor able to embrace it fully to attain the full innocent joy it might. Also, I prefer science fiction which moves forward and am tired of “origin stories” and prequels, especially ones that are as Batman-like in backstory and as Bond-like in execution (Newton at one point even calls himself “Newton. Curt Newton”). [3] Further, the origin story slows the opening portions of the book, not just in the flashback section but in all the exposition necessary early on. Finally, the aspects of one rescue in space and of the conclusion aren’t the logically tightest. All that said, while I have to give this a mixed review, I really did enjoy it despite its difficulties. One might wonder why, in this context, Newton is the “leader,” especially as he’s not always as competent as one would like (and in at least one part with the Martian woman, N’Rala, is downright stupid) but he does win the reader’s sympathy. Joan is also attractive, the Futuremen trade some of their simple charms for more complex ones, and the tale, however familiar, grows to be fun and exciting. Basically, I’d only warn off people looking for a pure masterpiece or for whom this just doesn’t sound interesting on the face of it, or for whom any tweak to the beloved original would offend them. If you’re unfamiliar with the originals and this sounds like fun to you or you’re a fan of Captain Future who doesn’t mind some modest, mostly technological, tweaks, you will probably enjoy this. [4]

[1] This is quoted from Steele’s “Afterword” on page 297, in which he relates his first experience with Captain Future, some of his subsequent writing on the subject, and his research and approach to this book.

As far as references within the book, this is as good a place as any to mention some I recall: Obviously, Burroughs’ fiction is explicitly referenced, Leigh Brackett (the great SF writer and wife of Captain Future’s creator) is eloquently honored in a ship name, and Wells appears as the name of a city (or something like). “The Search for the Magician” may be a nod to Asimov’s “The Search for the Mule” (though it may be to any number of searches). And the section title “Fire on the Mountain,” being familiar with Steele, is likely a direct reference to the Grateful Dead.

[2] According to the Turkey City [writer’s workshop] Lexicon, edited by Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling, a “signal from Fred” was coined by Damon Knight and is “[a] comic form of the ‘Dischism’ in which the author’s subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ‘This is really boring.’ ‘This sounds like a bad movie.'”

[3] Another thing this book reminds me of is the series of Digby Allen juvenile/YA space adventures written by Joseph Greene at the turn of the 1960s (not to be confused with the Joseph Green of the Conscience Interplanetary tales at the turn of the 1970s). The original Captain Future tales seemed to me to have a more freelance sort of mentality while equally red-haired and young Dig Allen would seem more at home in this world of prominently featured hierarchical organizations such as the Interplanetary Police Force and Solar Coalition Guard.

[4] While the book is suitable for all ages, I think any young people who aren’t on top of the world right now might especially enjoy it.

That also makes me want to digress on part of why recent attacks on science fiction, especially classic science fiction, from people, especially privileged people (usually with college degrees and who make a reasonable to an unreasonably large amount of money, usually not doing physical labor) about science fiction being of, for, and by “the privileged” make me so angry. Science fiction has always been of, for and by the misfits, which this book does a good job of illustrating. Yes, Curt is presumably white. And an orphan growing up in isolation whose parents and friends are a brain in a box, an android, and a robot, all of whom are initially treated by others as weird or repulsive or stupid. Yet they are the heroes.

Birthday Reviews: Kuttner, Smith, Weinbaum

Oddly, this week’s birthday reviews are all novelettes in series which come from the pages of Astounding over the span of a mere eight years (though across the tenures of two editors).

Henry Kuttner (1915-04-07–1958-02-04)

“The Proud Robot” (Astounding, October 1943)

Gallagher is an inventor/scientist but only when he’s drunk. Coming off a bender, he finds that he needs money badly, has made a deal with a businessman he doesn’t remember anything about, and has apparently made a proud robot of strange capabilities named Joe. He spends the rest of the story trying to get drunk again and figure out what was going on. This is in a series of stories about Gallegher and, while perhaps not fully sustaining the novelette length, is a funny tale which does touch on some interesting ideas about social behavior and change related to media and does have a heck of an explanation regarding Joe’s nature.

George O. Smith (1911-04-09–1981-05-27)

“QRM – Interplanetary” (Astounding, October 1942)

Rewinding exactly one year, George O. Smith also launches a series – the Venus Equilateral series which made him famous. This is a bizarre combination of very advanced and dated SF all at once, as it’s about the Venus Equilateral Relay Station, a communication satellite, but one which made out of an asteroid, staffed with the population of a small city, and which is situated ahead of Venus in the Trojan position so as to facilitate communications when Mars or Terra are around the sun from Venus or each other. All is well as long as someone like Channing, who knows what he’s doing, is in charge, even on a temporary basis. All is not well when a businessman is installed as the permanent boss and doesn’t know what he’s doing. The only real problem with this story is that, while it tries to be somewhat fair to the businessman and make him somewhat of a human character, when it comes to the climactic snafu, the businessman is almost (though, alas, not absolutely) too stupid to be believed. Either way, the depiction of the station is wonderful and the series does go on to be a great depiction of heroes who save the day with diagrams jotted onto paper napkins at a bar.

Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-04-04–1935-12-14)

“Parasite Planet” (Astounding, February 1935)

Rewinding still further, this one even predates Campbell but it’s a superb story by a writer whose tragically early death (even earlier than Kuttner’s) was a major loss to the field. Weinbaum is best known for “A Martian Odyssey” which did for aliens what Asimov did for robots. It’s superb and I recommend it to everyone but I wanted to focus on Weinbaum’s Venus (also a series). This is a Venus that Asher fans should love, as it’s an elaborate and exceedingly nasty ecology which produces frissons of horror amidst great adventure. Its only flaw is an uncomfortable mixture of romance (not unique to this story) but the relationship between the two characters has Han/Leia vibes and Pat Burlingame is about as competent as Leia, too. The plot is simple: disaster strikes, “Ham” Hammond must make his arduous way to distant safety, he encounters another person, disaster strikes and strikes again! But this simple plot is executed very well, keeping the pulse pounding through a very fast read. Though aspects of the denouement will cause many (including me) to groan for various reasons, I enthusiastically recommend the tale.