Birthday Reviews: Crowley, Rothman, Taylor

This week: a speculative sandwich with one story partly about how hard it is to hold on and one partly about how hard it is to let go, with a superscience adventure between!


John Crowley (1942-12-01)

“Snow” (Omni, November 1985)

This opens with Charlie telling us how his deceased wife’s ex-husband bought her a “Wasp” and the contract that goes with it. The Wasp is a recording device designed to follow her around and store eight thousand hours of her life at a repository where she is to be buried and where visitors may come to commune with these recordings. It seems Georgie is older than Charlie but still young when she does die and the body of the story consists of his coming to visit her resting place and his experiences with this technology, as well as his interactions with the director of the place when he encounters problems with the technology. There are a lot of ways such a story could go but the way this one chooses is to be a stylish, dark, philosophical meditation on memory, death, and entropy using literal and technological snow as a symbol and which seems to show the ultimate emptiness of life, the universe, and everything, but which seems to vector toward a zen-like peace which keeps on keeping on. Not my kind of story, but weighty and skillfully done.

Milton A. Rothman (1919-11-30/2001-10-06)

“Heavy Planet” (Astounding, August 1939)

[Adapted from my 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers.]

Pseudonymous Lee Gregor’s “Heavy Planet” reads a bit like “Hal Clement meets Thunderball.” People are living on a planet with incredible gravity such that steel is almost like kleenex to them. However, they have enemies and need atomic weapons to deal with them so, when an atomic-powered spaceship goes down in the ocean, the protagonist and some of those enemies converge on the wreckage and tense combat ensues. This thrilling tale is simultaneously action- and idea-packed and I enjoyed it a lot.

Lucy Taylor (1951-11-30)

“The Family Underwater” (Close to the Bone, 1993)

This story bristles with sharply horrific phrases jabbing like fire urchin spines and comical ones glinting like bioluminescence in the dark deep. It’s set in a house filled with water in which family members may metamorphose into sea creatures but, for all that, it’s an all-too realistic story of abusive, dysfunctional families, habituation, and, worst of all, how difficult it can be to escape from them even if you’ve left.

Birthday Reviews: Anderson, de Camp, Pohl

Nine months after the cold days of February, three Grand Masters were born on consecutive days (and several other authors were born during this week that, but for time and space, I could have covered—and may some year soon). They give us tales of an interstellar war, an immortal neanderthal, and a very odd couple.


Poul Anderson (1926-11-25/2001-07-31)

“Time Lag” (F&SF, January 1961)

This may not be among Anderson’s best stories (at one point, a character thinks “a short, dry lecture might soothe” another) but I like it and it’s the one I wanted to re-read this time.

Elva the Vaynamoan is returning home from having been out doing leader-like things in her stable, non-sexist, free, open, healthy, low-population society which preserves the environment of her colonial planet and respects the semi-intelligent natives thereof when a spaceship enters the atmosphere for the first time in centuries. Of course, it turns out that these are invaders from a society that is antithetical to hers in essentially every way and they destroy Elva’s home, kill her husband, and capture her, but fail to shock the Vaynamoans into immediate surrender. The leader of the expedition, Golyev the Chertkoi, takes her back home with him as he readies a second expedition, to be followed by a third intended to finally bring Vaynamo to subjection even though it will take quite some time due to interstellar travel and even longer for the two worlds due to time dilation and the twin paradox. This leads to a pyrotechnic climax in which we learn more about Elva and the Vaynamoans. The story’s full volume is not as simplistic as I’ve boiled it down to and produces an exciting and involving experience.

L. Sprague de Camp (1907-11-27/2000-11-06)

“The Gnarly Man” (Unknown, June 1939)

An anthropologist happens to go to a sideshow where she meets what’s presented as “Ungo-Bungo the ferocious ape-man” but whom she recognizes as (im)possibly something else: a neanderthal. She manages to talk with him and introduce him to some of her fellow scientists, who take varying views of him, while we learn that he was struck by lightning fifty thousand years ago and hasn’t aged since. He’s gone from time and place in various guises and occupations, most recently being Clarence Aloysius Gaffney, sideshow actor. Problems arise when he tries to get some poorly mended broken bones treated and finds a doctor who seems willing to help him, but actually has other ideas.

This reads almost like a sequel to Lester del Rey’s “The Day Is Done” (published a month earlier) if the neanderthal in it thought he was the last one, not knowing that one of his kind had become immortal. On the other hand, it’s almost like a rejoinder in which the pitiable misfit is replaced by an admirable one. It could be more strongly plotted (only having enough to produce some tension and hang the main notion of a modern-day neanderthal on) but it mostly works with good old-fashioned story-telling, with that intriguing central notion, an effective tone and mood, and some nice phrases.

Frederik Pohl (1919-11-26/2013-09-02)

“Day Million” (Rogue, February/March 1966)

Many of today’s readers might be interested in and surprised by this story’s take on non-binary omnisexuality which transcends most of today’s “cutting-edge” but, really, this tale of the love of “Don” and “Dora” is a tour de force of future shock which uses sparkling prose and intense conviction to convey both how far we’ve come and how far we may go. Its six pages are the distilled quintessence of science fiction, itself.

Birthday Reviews: Binder, Bradbury, Tiptree, Vance

Eando Binder (Otto has the birthday this week) introduces us to one of science fiction’s more significant robots while Jack Vance takes us to an ancient alien battlefield where the fighting’s just begun and Ray Bradbury and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) bring us visions of damsels with dulcimers in their completely different ways.

Happy birthday also to Vonda N. McIntyre (1948-08-28–2019-04-01). While not generally the biggest fan, I would have re-read and reviewed her remarkable “Aztecs” novella but I intend to read the novel expanded from it sometime this eon, so didn’t feel like getting into the novella right now. The birthday party is still full, anyway.


Eando Binder (1911-08-26/1974-10-14)

“I, Robot” (Amazing, January 1939)

Shortly before Isaac Asimov was to set his stamp on robot stories forevermore, Earl and Otto Binder wrote this bildungsroman/Frankenstein-revision about a robot with an iridium-sponge brain (it’s the platinum that makes Asimov’s robots so good) who was created by Dr. Link and raised and named Adam Link by him. The “to whom it may concern” letter structure written in a quiet space amidst much trouble makes it a little distant and it’s a bit sentimental, but it’s an interesting and effective tale now and was even more unusual when written. It’s good stuff for anybody but essential for Asimov and/or robot fans.

Ray Bradbury (1920-08-22/2012-06-05)

“The Anthem Sprinters” (Playboy, June 1963)

Everybody’s gotta love The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 but I’m actually not otherwise the biggest Bradbury fan. However, this is a story that I’ve read twice, with a grin the whole time both times. And it’s not even science fiction.

An American is in an Irish pub when he learns about a “bug under a microscope [which] is the greatest beast on earth,” in this case, the betting sport the gang has to entertain themselves based on what needs to happen at the ends of movies… unless still greater things intervene. Actually, while not SF, and without anything that flatly contradicts the natural world, this is a species of fantasy just because everything in it is imbued with such improbable joy.

James Tiptree, Jr. (1915-08-24/1987-05-19)

“Milk of Paradise” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

This story resists synopsis in the way that poems resist paraphrase and, as the references both within and in the title of the story to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” indicate, that’s not an accident. To put it baldly and rob it of its texture, Timor was the son of a scout who, with his father dead, lived with aliens as a boy until he was rescued at age 10. Now apparently a young man, he can hardly associate with humans who are repugnant to him, as he is to himself, for not being like those wondrous aliens. This is especially hard to understand for the people who come into contact with Timor because humans generally know of only one other species, the sub-human Crot. When Santiago shows up, strikes a familiar chord in Timor, and wants to take him on a space journey, Timor’s isolation changes and changes again, each time in an ambiguous way.

Much as the river Alph, the story flows in what seems like a reasonably clear and accessible way which engages the reader but is obviously going to be deeper than many stories. Even feeling that, the waters at the chasm burst out with surprising force and depth of psychological action. Perhaps it’s a restatement of the poem in science fictional terms or perhaps it’s a reply. It also may be tangential to all that, only borrowing the poem for a title and a quote, and be saying something about the extraordinary power (for good or ill) of formative events, or seeing with more than eyes or, conversely be about us and, as Nietzsche had it, that we may need our self-deceptions to survive. Either way, it’s a fascinating and powerful experience that may err on the side of obliqueness but is otherwise excellently executed.

Jack Vance (1916-08-28/2013-05-26)

“Sulwen’s Planet” (The Farthest Reaches, 1968)

Professors Gench and Kosmin and Dr. Drewe are the focal characters of a mission to develop a plan of exploration of Sulwen’s Plain on Sulwen’s Planet which orbits Sulwen’s Star. The plain is the scene of a 62,000-year-old battle where no less than seven starships of at least two races have crashed. Gench is a philologist while Kosmin is a comparative linguist and they are constantly stepping on each others’ hated toes. Drewe is a mathematician and Director of the mission. We follow the dangerously serious games of one-upsmanship between the two wordmen before a clever double-ending.

This reminds me of something else I can’t put my finger on and any reader would be justified in being disappointed in the insufficient use made of the fantastic setting (as well as being put off by the personalities of both Gench and Kosmin) but the setting is so fantastic while the action within it is so believable, the plot is so clever, and the final perception of Gench and Kosmin is sufficiently modified that it’s an enjoyable tale.

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!

Birthday Reviews: Norton, Phillips, Rocklynne

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

Andre Norton (1912-02-17/2005-03-17)

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

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

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

Rog Phillips (1909-02-20/1966-03-02)

“The Yellow Pill” (Astounding, October 1958)

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

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

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

“Into the Darkness” (Astonishing, June 1939)

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

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

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

Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, June 1939-November 1940

Asimov’s first sequel and cover story (December 1940)

I’ve previously covered Asimov’s first fourteen stories (in terms of when they were written), describing the nine which survive. This post covers the eight which survive from his next eleven. They originally appeared in issues of Astonishing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Cosmic Stories, and Super Science Stories from February 1940 to November 1942. Later, one was collected in I, Robot (1950) and all the rest were collected in The Early Asimov (1972).

Half-Breed” is an odd story in that it isn’t all that great, but Pohl published it and it was so well-received that he asked for a sequel (which it was well-designed to have). So, after four intervening tales, that became not only Asimov’s first sequel, but his first cover story and is, indeed, much better than its predecessor. “Half-Breed” centers on wealthy inventor Jefferson Scanlon, who is having trouble inventing atomic power in his basement. When he goes out to think about it, he comes across Max, a half-human/half-Martian (one of the despised “Tweenies”), who is being tormented by a pack of human kids. He rescues the young Tweenie, who helps him with his atomic power problem (it turns out Tweenies are the future master race1) and things snowball from there into the creation of “Tweenietown.” Things go well until a malignant politician starts nosing around. As science fiction, this obviously has flawed biology and, as racial symbolism, it may have its “heart in the right place” and be “advanced” for 1939 but it seems rather patronizing. However, “Half-Breeds on Venus” puts those problems in the background and mostly suffers from a rather dated bit of romance (speaking of, Asimov had only just gone on his first chaste dates so wasn’t writing what he knew). “Tweenie: TNG” focuses on the colony of Tweenies which now reside on Venus and, specifically, on the children of Max, especially Henry and his girlfriend, Irene. They meet the psychic amphibian “Phibs” of Venus, encounter a group of human settlers moving into the very region where they had built their hiding place, and must deal with them, giant “Centosaurs,” and raging storms, all at once. That main action-adventure part of the story is successful, creating a colorful and exciting tale.

Meanwhile, Asimov wrote “The Secret Sense,” in which a human condescendingly pities a Martian’s inability to appreciate human music and other failings of Martian senses. The goaded Martian lets slip that Martians have very refined sense, thank you. It turns out that Martians are hiding both this fact and the fact that humans can have their own rudimentary sense enhanced to experience what Martians do at the cost of it permanently blowing out that sense after a mere five minutes. Our protagonist insists on undergoing the procedure and the story deals with his experience and its aftermath. Asimov here tries to eff the ineffable and does a reasonably good job expanding on a minor motif raised earlier in “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use” (in which a human perceives Venus as very monotonous and ugly but the Venusian, with greater ability to distinguish color, perceives as beautiful) but such stories are very difficult to pull off completely.

Asimov next wrote two stories that never sold and got lost (“Life Before Birth,” a fantasy aimed at getting into Unknown, and “The Brothers”) and then wrote “Homo Sol” which, when he wrote a sequel to it immediately after writing the sequel to “Half-Breed,” became his second series. The first two installments go in the opposite direction of that series. The first is a pretty good story which, akin to “Pilgrimage,” is a “Galactic Story, Mk. I” in that it includes non-human sentients in an interstellar civilization. In this, humans have discovered “the secret of interstellar travel” which removes the interdiction on their system and makes them eligible to join the Federation. However, the master psychologists of the Federation are astonished when the humans reject the invitation and must travel to Earth to find out what makes them so strange. Among this story’s defects, it’s explicitly pointed out that psychologists may understand mental foibles but still have them, but these are especially “academic” psychologists. Also, the conclusion is supposed to effect all humanity but not all regions have the same ideals which should render it only partially effective, if at all. The story’s virtues include a busy, interesting civilization; a good explanation of the Fermi question using the Prime Directive motif; an interesting look at the double-edged sword of panic; Asimov getting the hang of his “excitement through dialog” approach; and a funny line about one character not waiting for some bureaucrats to “to start to begin to commence to consider doing something.” However, the sequel, “The Imaginary” picks up a dangling thread from the first story regarding a squid-like animal from Beta Draconis IV and adds elements that don’t fully cohere such as “the square root of negative one” and puts them in a plot about a threat to all life in the universe which is unconvincing and resolved in an unsatisfying way.

After the lost “The Oak” (yet another failed attempt to break into Unknown and the last lost story of any kind except for a final attempt at the same thing), Asimov wrote “Twins,” which was published as “Heredity.” It’s an odd story akin to “Half-Breeds on Venus” in the sense that its theme is less successful than its plot. The main focus is about settling the nature vs. nurture argument through a wildly unethical experiment (which is never questioned in the course of the story) in which twin brothers are separated at birth and raised on separate worlds (Earth and Ganymede) without knowing of each others’ existence until they turn twenty-five and are made co-owners of a business on Mars. All this isn’t especially successful but, after a flawed opening, the main action kicks in. The two brothers travel across Mars after a simultaneous storm and marsquake in order to deliver vital supplies to the ruined capital city while dealing with simple things like venomous Martian reptiles and complicated things like each other. All that makes for a good adventure tale.

History” is a lesser tale and an oddly pacifist and anti-scientific one coming from Asimov in the early stages of WWII. It deals with a Martian historian working on Earth when war breaks out between Earth and Venus, the Martian recalling an ancient Martian superweapon, and the government being willing to do anything to make the absent-minded professor give them all the information he can. This does anticipate how government and people violate their own principles in wartime but the lack of any proper catharsis regarding this harms the tale and, as I say, the pacifism and approach to science is not appropriate under the story’s circumstances so the theme doesn’t really work, either2.

Reason” is Asimov’s best story yet and also relates to the sequel theme. This is the second robot story in retrospect3, though still without the Three Laws (indeed, the Second is explicitly violated and that’s never really explained even in I, Robot) and still without any initial reference to U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men or other concrete tie. It is the first of several stories with relatively steady, mustachioed Gregory Powell and volatile, red-headed Mike Donovan who are a pair of what might be called robot mechanics. In this tale, they are aboard Solar Station Five4 where they are both maintaining the power station and overseeing an experimental robot, QT-1, which is designed to be intelligent enough to run the station itself, freeing humans from dull labor and the danger of solar storms. It’s also intelligent enough to question where it came from but not so intelligent as to be empirical about it, relying on pure reason. (This story is partly a sort of sci-phi which satirizes Plato, religion, Descartes, and the like.) The robot decides that humans are flimsy and badly designed while the regular robots are better, and QT-1 is the most advanced of all so, obviously, they must have been created in that order. As that which is greater than QT-1 and to which everyone’s attention is bent, the power converter must be its creator. The rest of the story details Powell’s phlegmatic and Donovan’s choleric attempts to deal with this robot and prevent a loss of beam focus that would destroy portions of the Earth. The whole does a good job of creating an impression of a busy, futuristic, technologically advanced solar civilization using few characters or gizmos. Though a flaw might be that those protagonists don’t actually do much, they are in a dramatic situation that engages the reader. It also brings Asimov’s empirically grounded rationalism to the fore (though it does include a sort of “principle of the identity of indiscernible beliefs”). While it has a serious core, its satirical approach produces a mild humor that is more successful than a couple of earlier attempts at outright comedy. At this point, the robot series is not fully formed, but it’s largely there and already very enjoyable.

1: Asimov wrote of the silver-haired Tweenies in June 1939 and the tale appeared in the February 1940 Astonishing. Van Vogt’s tale of the golden-tendriled slans came out in the September 1940 issue of Astounding. The tales aren’t generally similar but do deal with persecuted superior beings.

2: It also marks at least a second example of Brooklynite Asimov’s penchant for making foreigners talk funny. As the Ganymedan brother in the previous story talks with a vaguely Scots accent and people in future stories will talk about the “Pewiphiwy”, so this Martian pronounces “th” as “d.”

3: I only glanced over the version in I, Robot to compare it to the anthologized version I read this time so I don’t know that these are all the changes, but they may be: the first two paragraphs were added; the text near the end regarding the next experimental robot and mentioning USRMM between “Muller looked at him…” and “‘…Two weeks, I think.'” is added; the explanation near the middle of why robots are manufactured in space is modified.

4: This appeared in the April 1941 issue of Astounding while George O. Smith’s first Venus Equilateral power satellite story appeared in the October 1942 issue.

Asimov’s Centennial: The First Nine Stories, June 1938-May 1939

I’ve previously discussed the first twenty-one chapters of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, which cover his ancestry to the writing of his first fourteen stories. This post reviews the nine of those which survive. One was collected in I, Robot (1950), one in Asimov’s Mysteries (1968), six in The Early Asimov (1972), and one in the autobiography itself (1979).

His first is lost but his second, “Stowaway,” eventually appeared as “The Callistan Menace.” In it, the crew of a spaceship heads to Callisto where several ships have been mysteriously lost. The discovery of a young boy stowaway ironically provides a welcome distraction from their worries and the boy comes in handy when they reach the somewhat habitable surface and face their danger. This was a common motif even in the 30s and this particular example, among other problems, is predictable, but the structure, pace, and style are surprisingly good for just his second attempt. “Marooned off Vesta” (which was to receive a magazine-requested sequel called “Anniversary” twenty years later, both of which were collected in Asimov’s Mysteries) features another handful of guys in space facing danger (in this case, a trio is in a fragment of a ship that’s been destroyed by an asteroid and are orbiting very near to, but oh so far from, Vesta) and isn’t all that different qualitatively but just enough so that the difference between being rejected only by Astounding rather than by Astounding and Amazing makes sense. There is some misuse of characters and some contrivance, but also some “gripping” narration of the effort of the main character to save them all. Both stories show space as dangerous but reward pluck and luck and, while not exactly “good,” are fun and likable.

Asimov eventually published numerous successfully funny pieces but his fifth and ninth stories (third and fifth extant) are not. “Ring Around the Sun” features two rivals being tricked into crewing an experimental spaceship together in an effort to fly near the sun in order to deliver “mail” (which I choose to interpret as “packages of supplies”) to Venus year-round. It initially seems like a basically serious “survival in space” story like the two prior (but superior to them) when the sun-shielding tech goes awry but develops several serious problems and ends as a bad and un-cathartic joke. Similarly, “The Magnificent Possession” (which Asimov originally called “Ammonium” and is his first Earth-based tale) involves a Bert-and-Ernie-like couple of chemist/inventors developing a process of plating things to appear more attractive than gold but there is a very serious catch to the process. The main problem with this story is that the protagonists don’t behave like scientists and their nemeses certainly aren’t believable but aren’t really funny, either. I’ve read worse, but can understand this taking awhile before finally finding a down-market home for publication.

Between those two tales, Asimov wrote “The Weapon,” (only published in book form in In Memory Yet Green[1]) which, while didactic and somewhat simplistic, is interesting for several reasons, including featuring very little dialog and especially for being Asimov’s first tale with a sentient alien character, the Chief Elder of Mars, representing a feline race of pure intellect. In this tale, a human defender of democracy is seeking a weapon from the more advanced race to help in a desperate war against the forces of oppression. The Martians refuse, saying humanity must do things themselves, so the human attempts to steal the weapon from them. It’s clear where elements of this story come from as Asimov values intellect, had pet cats at the candy stores, and wrote this as Hitler’s power was waxing. However, I don’t know of a source for the impressive description of a vast lab inside Deimos, which anticipates scenes from Forbidden Planet and Star Wars. After “The Magnificent Possession” and “Trends” (discussed next), Asimov wrote “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use,” which, in addition to having a similar title, also features aliens, super-weapons, and naive didacticism, this time being an anti-colonial piece such as one might read innumerable examples of today. This time, the aliens are the emotional Venusians and, ironically, it has a pleasingly Weinbaumian Martian feel as a human and his Venusian companion explore the ruins of a great Venusian city in which the Venusian discovers the titular weapon which may free his people from human domination. (As intellect is highly prized in the other story, so the lack of it is the greatest imaginable horror in this one.)

Trends” is a second Earth-based story and the first story he sold to Astounding. (It appeared in the famed July 1939 issue along with van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” which is taken to inaugurate the Golden Age.) After the Second World War of 1940, an age of neo-Victorian religion and anti-scientific morality has kicked in, impeding a backyard inventor’s efforts to go to the Moon in 1973. It suffers from some frequently recurring problems of naivete, a superfluity of characters, and adds infodumps to the mix, but makes many interesting sociological points in a tale filled with both dialog and action which works pretty well and may be inspiring things even today, such as Allen Steele’s “The Prodigal Son.”

Even more interesting than that one, “Black Friar of the Flame” (originally “Pilgrimage”) takes the same “socio-religious movement” motif and stands it on its head as a positive, in which religious enthusiasm is used to promote social change. It is Asimov’s first tale written on a galactic and millennial (and near-novella-length) scale, anticipating the Foundation stories and even including names to conjure with such as Santinni and, especially, Trantor. This one is not consistent with the more famous Foundation universe, though, as Earth is under the heel of the reptilian overlords from Rigel with some human guardians of the Hall of Flame seeking freedom from them but it does borrow from Foundation’s methodology of translating past events into the future—in this case, a Judaean revolt from Rome and the Greco-Persian Battle of Salamis. However, it is unlike the Foundation (or most of Asimov’s work) in being oddly violent and jingoistic. There are all kinds of problems with this tale (Asimov can’t decide who the main character is, some of the reversals and the climax aren’t plausible, etc.) but there is some of that Foundational aura that is very exciting, it balances dialog with excellent description, and it was compulsively readable despite its flaws. It, too, may have inspired later things as I was constantly reminded of the recently-read To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg and its Blue Flame socio-religious movement.

Finally, “Robbie” is another interesting precursor which seems like an almost deliberate reversal of “Flame” in that it’s a short near-future small-scale planet-bound story. In it, the title character is the robot caretaker of young Gloria and beloved by her but despised by Gloria’s mother. When the father gives in to the mother’s demands and sends the robot back, Gloria is inconsolable and the father must navigate between that Charybdis and his wife’s Scylla. This was originally a one-shot story in the vein of Lester del Rey’s famed and sentimental “Helen O’ Loy” whose only problem was in effectively conveying the sensibility of a young person without a layer of saccharine but is otherwise structurally sound and generally effective. It was changed from a robot story to a Robot Story on its publication in I, Robot with the substitution of the manufacturer’s name from Finmark Robot Corporation to U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men, the boss from Finmark to Robertson, the introduction of Susan Calvin in a silent cameo, and an explicit mention of the implicit First Law, plus numerous non-series-related changes.

So, even at this early stage, Asimov always seemed to have promise and his powers are clearly growing (inconsistently from story to story but with a clear general arc) and the seeds of his two main works are already sown.

Edit (2020-01-07): This post initially began with a digression on my reading ahead in In Memory Yet Green. I’ve removed it from this post, made it a separate post, and slightly revised this, mostly in the opening. I also modified the title to match the “series” title.


[1] In The Early Asimov, Asimov had recorded the title but thought it was lost. It was one of the very few pieces he wrote which was initially not published under his own name but as “H. B. Ogden” (in Super Science Stories), the reason for which mystifies Asimov, himself, but which may have contributed to Asimov not keeping a copy and then basically forgetting about it until coming across a mention of its sale in his records when writing the autobiography. So he reprinted it in that work.

(Amusingly, in addition to Asimov, Robert A. W. Lowndes, John Russell Fearn, and James Blish all appear in that issue under pseudonyms so maybe it was just the thing to do in that issue.)