Birthday Reviews: Bates, Popkes, Reed

Adventures involving a giant robot, a big hit, and a great ship await us in this week’s birthday stories. Coincidentally, all the authors represented were born on the same day and two of the three stories were published in essentially the same month. However, I’m also remembering the birthday of Frank Herbert (1920-10-08–1986-02-11), author of The Dragon in the Sea (oh, and of Dune and others), though I can’t recall a short work of his that’s really done it for me.

Harry Bates (1900-10-09–1981-09-??)

“Farewell to the Master” (Astounding, October 1940)

“Farewell to the Master” is the basis for The Day the Earth Stood Still in a technical, legal sense but, by comparison, “Who Goes There?” was perfectly faithfully adapted into The Thing from Outer Space. In the story, Klaatu and a robot (here called “Gnut”) have arrived on Earth and Klaatu has been killed by a madman. To demonstrate how sorry humanity is, Gnut is subjected to all sorts of ray-guns, acids, and more, and is now in a museum along with the impenetrable spaceship. The story begins when a reporter is looking over a couple of photos he’s taken and realizes Gnut is not in exactly the same place it was before. He spends a night at the museum on stakeout with his camera and is so unnerved when Gnut actually begins moving about – and towards him! – that he’s only able to get a couple of pictures of the spaceship port Gnut eventually opens and enters. Crazy things go on that night, including a fight between an alien robot and a gorilla but things come to make sense after additional stakeouts and more interactions between the reporter and the metal man.

This story has several weaknesses, mostly in logical plot details including how an alien robot is feared mightily but, when evidence that something has disturbed the museum it is in is found, no standing watch is put on the museum the next night, so the reporter can sneak in again. Still, the strange doings in the museum and the reporter’s fears and thrills have a good effect, some pathos is achieved near the end, and the very end could be a great twist depending on whether the reader foresees it. It’s also interesting that this was written by the first editor of Astounding and published by its third.

The next two comments are lightly revised from a 2013-08-14 review at my previous site.

Steven Popkes (1952-10-09)

“Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” (Asimov’s, December 2012)

“Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” is about AI and music in a non-dystopian near future. I often don’t like rock’n’roll stories because they frequently fail to translate basically incompatible media (a story is not a song) and can be embarrassingly juvenile. For me, this story works well because it creates an ambiguous protagonist who is interesting and real, and manages to avoid the pitfalls of music-in-story while also being a good exploration of AI and, not incidentally, of humanity. This isn’t a particularly original story conceptually, but it’s one of the best examples of it – such that it basically becomes original by the mix of ingredients and the execution. However, if someone didn’t like a long novella filled with dialog about AI like “an anomalous non-deterministic emergent event deriving from conflicting algorithms” or about music like “that triple beat arpeggio driven square into a four by four rhythm…a long glissando across three octaves back to hold the new key into the final chorus,” I could certainly understand.

Robert Reed (1956-10-09)

“Katabasis” (F&SF, November/December 2012)

“Katabasis” puts me in mind of Cordwainer Smith’s “A Planet Named Shayol” as its almost immortal people undergo a horrific endurance test in a weird section of the Great Ship. The protagonist who was almost destroyed in a terrible fire and wasn’t entirely put back together is compelling, as is his relationship to the viewpoint character. That character and her species is exceptionally imaginatively conceived and what they go through to get to the Great Ship is yet another horror of an endurance test. I can’t at all say I love this but it is reasonably well done and powerful.

Birthday Reviews: Cherryh, Schroeder, Wilcox, Zahn

This week’s birthday authors take us to the clouds of Jupiter, to a world six hundred years’ voyage away, and present us with two variations on Cassandra.

C. J. Cherryh (1942-09-01)

“Cassandra” (F&SF, October 1978)

Cherryh is mostly known for her novels (I’ll be reading at least my thirty-fourth of hers soon, which is now less than half the total), which include some fantasies and many set in realistic future space milieus, but she’s written several stories collected in Sunfall, Visible Light and, ultimately, in the Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh. One of her earliest, and one which made one of the biggest impacts, was this updated myth of mad Alis, who staggers through life in and out of mental hospitals seeing a double vision of her current reality of people and places and her possible future of ghosts and destruction after the War. It’s a short and seemingly simple tale but Alis’ agony (and ours) is firmly, judiciously depicted, with depth.

Karl Schroeder (1962-09-04)

“The Pools of Air” (Tesseracts 3, 1991)

A filmmaker, her on-air talent, and a tech guy are trying to save their skins after the helium-3 refining ship they are filming on crashes into something while cruising the clouds of Jupiter, destroying its front-end and cutting them off from direct access to their shuttle. The protagonist has baggage, both figurative and literal, which is not helping her or her companions. In a way, that element is the whole story so it’s hard to say it should be minimized but, in ways, a lot of hard SF [1] is damaged by writers who have drunk the kool-aid and overtly bow to what Asimov called “the tin-god of characterization” in an effort to be accepted as literature. There’s a certain kind of SF where that usually works and sometimes hard SF can be fused with it but, generally, it’s a distraction and hard SF works better on a scientific and social level than a personal one. Be that as it may, this is a concise and energetic story that takes the reader to an impressive setting.

Don Wilcox (1905-08-29–2000-03-09)

“The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years” (Amazing, October, 1940)

This is an honorary happy birthday because parts of this story are painful to read but it is the first full treatment of the generation starship (a year before Heinlein) and it’s oddly clever in ways. Akin to how puns are contrived but still work, this is a pile of author fiats but is at least elaborately contrived. The first generation starship takes off from Earth with what turn out to be seventeen couples and one “Keeper of the Traditions” (our narrator) who goes into suspended animation [2] for a century at a time before coming out to see how things are going and to try to set anything wrong to right. However, he takes a couple of steps backward for every one he takes forward. The time lapse view of the society leads to a certain propulsive effect and the variety of this civilization’s discontents maintain some interest.

Timothy Zahn (1951-09-01)

“The Cassandra” (Analog, November 1983)

Going out through the in door, this Cassandra is quite different. Zahn portrays this as a generational mutation (with characteristic physical markers of white hair and green eyes) on a colony which then collapses due to group trances of apocalyptic visions and the ensuing dislocations and stress. Now a few Cassandras are back on Earth, suffering in a more isolated way and we follow the effort of one such highly educated man struggling to get and keep a job as a dishwasher. This is a story in which there is a problem to be solved (whether it is solved or not) and, despite the author’s afterword talking about how atypically tragic it is for him, there is actually a sense in which it is uplifting because it’s not an inexplicable and pointless affliction or a parable of human blindness but is a natural problem with a cause and actually has some gain come from the pain. This is yet another example of how you can give twelve authors one theme and get twelve unique stories back. If you only think of Zahn as a tie-guy or even just a novelist, check this and his other short fiction out.


[1] I call it hard SF because it seems like it generally, despite being insufficiently concerned with Jupiter’s radiation. The trio breathe a sort of liquid air which, among other things, helps them deal with gravity and I suppose it also wouldn’t hurt regarding radiation but, so far as I recall, radiation is never mentioned.

[2] If it was ever explained why there is suspended animation tech and the mission was designed to (a) have such a tiny population and (b) not provide them all with the tech so as to avoid having to endure such a difficult and uncertain voyage, I missed it.

Birthday Reviews: Collier, Smith

This week’s pair of birthday boys bring us a piece from The New Yorker and then, for something completely different, a piece from Comet.

John Collier (1901-05-03–1980-04-06)

“The Chaser” (The New Yorker, December 28, 1940)

Collier wrote for the slicks and this is one of the slickest. It’s hard to describe without spoiling but to try to be as oblique as it is, if not as witty, it explains why the business model of a seller of magic potions works when a young man wants a very inexpensive love potion.

E. E. “Doc” Smith (1890-05-02–1965-08-31)

“The Vortex Blaster” (Comet, July 1941)

In last week’s “Birthday Reviews,” I said of the van Vogt that, if you like van Vogt, you’ll like the story and if you don’t, you won’t. And I said of the Williamson that, though he was generally able to advance with the times, the particular story was a ’30s story. Well, both those points apply even more firmly to this tale and I’m afraid that, if I have any credibility, I might be blowing it by recommending this, but I likes what I likes. I’ve read Skylark and Lensman books (to which this series of stories is loosely connected) but I’ve never read this series before, and I’m sure going to continue.

Neal “Storm” Cloud is a physicist with an amazing intuitive mathematical sense who has recently suffered the tragedy of losing his family. He’s not suicidal, but ready to die, himself, and this has given him insight into how he may destroy one of the worst blights on the Earth (or “Tellus”). The use of “intra-atomic energy” generally works well but, when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong, creating vortices of incredible destructive power on Tellus, which will eventually render our world uninhabitable. So these vortices must be blasted with duodec bombs which have to be targeted with a speed and precision not even a computer has. And the climax is Storm Cloud’s battle with the biggest, oldest, meanest vortex of them all.

There is baseball and football and one shouldn’t evaluate a running back on how well he swings a bat. And there is “literature” and “scientifiction” and one shouldn’t evaluate this on its similarity to “literature.” To quote Storm, himself, “Z-W-E-E-E-T–POWIE!” It’s its own wonderful, intense, exciting thing, with a completely made-up bit of fantasy (atomic energy hadn’t been actualized yet and, when it was, it was dynamically much as Smith describes, but not literally like it) ensconced within a whole lot of science-like stuff. It may not be quite great, but it’s good! Smith goes for an effect and, while he goes about it like no one else, he gets there. I must quote this bit which will be the acid test: if this paragraph doesn’t break you, nothing will, and you should check out this story. (Two camps of mathematicians dispute whether the vortices will grow indefinitely or eventually explode and Carlowitz is in the latter camp.)

And now Cloud, as he studied through his almost opaque defences that indescribably ravening fireball, that esuriently rapacious monstrosity which might very well have come from the deepest pit of the hottest hell of mythology, felt strongly inclined to agree with Carlowitz. It didn’t seem possible anything could get any worse than that without exploding. And such an explosion, he felt sure, would certainly blow everything from miles around into the smitheriest kind of smithereens.

Asimov’s Centennial: Nine Stories, December 1940-June 1941

After previous posts which covered Isaac Asimov’s earlier stories [1], this post covers the ten stories he wrote from December 1940-June 1941, nine of which survive. They originally appeared in issues of Amazing Stories, Astonishing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories from May 1941 to February 1942 except for Asimov’s only two fiction collaborations [2], both with Frederik Pohl, which didn’t appear until 1950 in Fantasy Book and Weird Tales. Those and four others were first collected in The Early Asimov (1972) while one each appeared in I, Robot (1950), The Rest of the Robots (1964), and Nightfall and Other Stories (1968).

Two of Asimov’s least successful early stories were attempts at farce. “Christmas on Ganymede” is in a similar vein and is much better than those but could easily have been better still. Olaf Johnson is a worker on Ganymede when he tells the Ossies (native workers somewhat like ostriches) the story of Santa Claus and they threaten to strike if Santa Claus doesn’t visit them. This leads to a ludicrous effort by the boss and other workers to turn Olaf into an unwilling Santa Claus and some even less-willing native critters into poor facsimiles of reindeer, culminating in an out-of-control ride and a further comical twist based on a word’s meaning in an unusual frame of reference. The main problem is that it’s rather mean-spirited with Olaf being hated by the other workers as a dummy rather than having the other workers wryly attempt to compensate for their goofy friend or something like that. It’s still reasonably funny, though.

That story was followed by “The Little Man on the Subway” which, like “Life Before Birth” and “The Oak” before it, was aimed at getting into Unknown. This is a vaguely humorous perhaps-satire on religion, akin to “Reason,” involving a train conductor noticing that people keep getting in a car on his train without anyone leaving. At the end of the line, he goes to investigate and ends up getting “miraculated” by one Mr. Crumley into being a Crumleyite as that unworthy attempts to become a god. It’s interesting in its way but ends weakly and nothing in it seems to especially symbolize anything, so it’s more of an abstract fantasy than anything with real meat. It was written by Pohl who was dissatisfied and asked Asimov to rewrite it for him. A few stories later, Asimov tried to break into Unknown for the fourth time with the solo and now lost “Masks” which marks the last story Asimov would ever lose. A few stories later, he tried a fifth time with another collaboration. “Legal Rites” was written by Asimov based on an idea of Pohl’s but failed to sell until Pohl rewrote it years later. In it, a ghost had been friends with a man before the latter died and left his house to a nephew. That nephew and the ghost don’t get along, resulting in a mysterious man coming and warding the ghost from the house. The ghost then sues for the right to continue to haunt the house. This could have worked well and has some good points but the nephew is introduced in a sympathetic way, yet is supposed to be the villain, and the logic of the courtroom scene is sometimes perplexing.

After “Subway,” Asimov wrote the landmark “Liar!” which introduced U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men, Inc. and their robopsychologist, Susan Calvin. Something has gone wrong with the manufacture of RB-34 and it turns out he has the ability to read minds. While ambitious Bogert schemes to take over from his boss, Lanning, and Calvin pines after her oblivious co-worker, Ashe, the robot knows what they want to hear and says things that, while well-meant, result in great conflict and a furious Calvin taking a drastic step. It could be said that nobody really looks good here, but they’re all human (even RB-34, in a way), and the story is very dramatic and plays interestingly on the First Law [3] (here originally a loosely expressed concept called the “fundamental” law before being revised in I, Robot to mention the more rigorously phrased First Law). It is fascinating to me that, at this point, there is no real robot series here. Many Asimov stories feature generic bits of tech like “audiomitters”; “positronic brains” could be seen as the same sort of thing. Otherwise, the first three stories have no common characters, companies, or significant plot elements. The second and third stories do note that robots aren’t allowed on Earth outside of strict limits, but that doesn’t apply to the first. Even regarding the Laws, though all three imply a First Law, only the third loosely states a “fundamental” law. The Second Law doesn’t figure in the first, is only (and perhaps coincidentally) implied in the third, and is actually violated in the second. After a few non-robot stories, it is only in the fourth robot story, “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray,” that USRMM recurs and both a First and Second Law are loosely stated (still no Third or the familiar formulation of any of them). And this story was excluded from I, Robot, though it effectively creates the series! Asimov felt that it “didn’t really fit” with “the other three” but I’d argue that “Liar!” is the one that doesn’t fit. “AL-76” may be an outright humorous tale but “Robbie,” though it has a sometimes distraught girl, is a fairly light tale and “Reason” is a satirical one. I’d argue that the sturm und drang of “Liar!” is what makes it the unusual one so far. The humor in “AL-76” comes from one robot getting loose on the Earth though it was designed to be a “Disinto” operator on the Moon. It comes across a man relaxing in the woods, busy with his hobby of machine repair. The robot is itching to get to work and, to pacify it while he tries to contact the company so he can return the robot to them and get a big reward, he allows the robot to mess around with the broken machinery. This results in unforeseen consequences and a panicked triggering of the Second Law which causes problems for the company when they want to find out about the amazing disintegrator the robot’s made. While light, treated as second class by Asimov (he actually calls it “rotten”), and with a problem I can’t articulate without spoilers, it’s not a bad tale.

The Hazing” is a very minor third and final tale in the “Homo Sol” universe but not as related as the first two were, dealing with some Federation students dumping off some incoming human freshmen on an interdicted world as a prank. The tables turn more than once. “Super-Neutron” is Asimov’s first “club story” in which members take turns telling stories and the one whose story gets holes poked in it has to pay for the meal. A special exception is made so that a non-member may tell his analogy regarding Sol and atomic energy with a nova as the promised outcome. This ends up shaking the auditors badly as they try to disprove his tale. It’s actually a pretty clever and enjoyable concept except that, as with Boyd Ellanby’s “Chain Reaction” some fifteen years later [4], I wonder if this is how people would actually want to be spending their last minutes of life. More confusing is why people should believe that a guy would choose to tell a true story at a time when he’s supposed to be telling a false one. Finally, before discussing Asimov’s thirty-second story, I’ll move on to his thirty-third, “Not Final!” which is a clever tale about a Ganymedan philologist trying to enlist the Colonial Comissioner’s aid in securing funding to deal with a Jovian menace. However, it seems unncecessary when a theoretical physicist declares that, though the Jovians may have the atomic energy to get off their planet, they don’t have the forcefields to prevent them from exploding when they leave the pressures of the deep because he’s determined those are impossible and “That’s final!” The last scene significantly brings on an experimental physicist who’s taking a special ship to pick up the Commisioner for his ride back to Earth.

I deferred Asimov’s thirty-second story, because that one is “Nightfall” which was deemed to be the best SF story of all time by the science fiction writers of the late 1960s. Lagash is a world which seems to be perpetually bathed in the light of its six suns. Its current civilization is about 2,000 years old which is a problem because Lagash’s civilizations seem to collapse about every 2,000 years. All people know about this comes from Cultists who speak of the world ending in fire when darkness falls and mysterious things called ‘stars’ come out, until astronomers start working with the Cultists to put things on a more solid footing, since they realize that an odd arrangement of the world’s suns occurs every 2,049 years when all suns set except for blood-red Beta which is itself eclipsed. This alliance between mutually incompatible world-views doesn’t hold. The story centers around an astronomer, a reporter, a psychologist, and a captured saboteur Cultist who are in Saro University’s observatory to witness the oncoming apocalypse and perhaps preserve some knowledge of it while many are hiding out in a bunker with at least what information has been preserved up to this point. The intriguing milieu, the conversations between these protagonists, the enormity of the situation, the psychological profiling of incipient madness, the dim, bloody atmosphere, the conflict between the Cultist and the scientists, and even an oncoming mob all conspire to produce a powerful impact. Asimov wrote this from an idea of Campbell’s which derives from standing a quote (from the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature) on its head:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

Campbell said he thought rather that they would go mad. My only significant problem with this story [5] is basically that premise. I don’t know that either Emerson or Campbell have it right because I guess a moderately advanced civilization’s reaction to this surprising event would be between those extremes. But that wouldn’t make for a great story and the issue is certainly debatable. If you accept the premise (and Asimov’s herculean efforts make this as easy as possible) this is indeed a classic, though Asimov doesn’t even rate it as his best story and I agree with him – even better stories are yet to come. But, as far as what has come, “Liar!” set a new bar and “Nightfall” set yet another.

Edit (2020-01-27): Added book cover image; fixed the footnote links and a typo.


[1]

[2] Excluding the nominal collaborations with Janet Asimov on the 1980s very-YA Norby series.

[3] For those unfamiliar with them, the Robot stories, in their classical form, generally derive from logical permutations from the following axioms, or the “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, nor through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

[4] I recently reviewed this story in “The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.”

[5] The only other problem was that this story is written with Asimov’s trademark invisible narrator conveying this from the native point of view until suddenly the narrative voice intrudes to make a comparative reference to Earth’s sky (which the people of Lagash have no knowledge of) which has an effect akin to “breaking the fourth wall.” Naturally, I found it very interesting to read the next day in Asimov’s autobiography, when he describes “Nightfall” actually being published, that Asimov discovered Campbell had inserted the paragraph in question and that Asimov regarded it as a flaw. However, he doesn’t say why he retained it in subsequent reprintings.

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.