Birthday Reviews: Asimov, Breuer, Russell

Exactly one week late with last week’s installment which brings us a feeling of power, a not-so-alternate world of political madness, and a ship which is out of control and set for the heart of the sun!


Isaac Asimov (1920-01-02/1992-04-06)

“The Feeling of Power” (If, February 1958)

While doing my Asimov Centennial reviews I fell one book short of covering all his pure science-fiction-era books from 1950-1959 when I didn’t get to Nine Tomorrows. This is from that collection, which I hope to review in its entirety soon. In the meantime, this one amusingly turns the notion of technological advance on its head when humans are fighting Deneb with self-programming computers and are at a stalemate until they discover that they can do math themselves with only their brains and paper. This may give them a bizarre edge in the conflict.

It’s an odd story unlike most other stories of the time (including Asimov’s own) in being aware of mechanical miniaturization and is a hair from anticipating Vinge’s Singularity (but misses it completely) and one has to wonder how we lost all records of the principles of multiplication but not all other history (however confused what has been retained may be) and why the technician who rediscovered them by analyzing the working of computers uses base ten instead of two but it’s just always stuck in my head as a remarkable concept and becomes ever more meaningful as I contemplate people someday relearning the concept of paper itself, including reading from it and writing on it (perhaps even in cursive!), and possibly using telephones that do only one thing but do it well: enable (voice!) communication.

Miles J. Breuer (1889-01-03/1945-10-14)

“The Gostak and the Doshes” (Amazing, March 1930)

When I reviewed Great Science Fiction by Scientists on February 13, 2017, I only said this “alternate world story” is “memorable” and “tells of a guy slipping into an earth in which people madly emote over senseless slogans rather than using reason. (These days, this earth feels like the alternate one.) It’s rather lazily plotted but makes up for it with its other excellences.” I think some of those excellences include a powerfully evoked mood of paranoia and the deft deployment of clever satire. Either way, it’s another of those Cassandra stories where, if Cassandra could ever have any effect, we’d be much better off.

Eric Frank Russell (1905-01-06/1978-02-28)

“Jay Score” (Astounding, May 1941)

Moving from Cassandra to Icarus, John W. Campbell’s May 1941 issue of Astounding brought us “Jay Score,” about a Star Trek-like spaceship crew composed of, among others, Martian techs (who would also like to have played chess with Harness’ club last week) and a black doctor. This yarn later became part of Eric Frank Russell’s Men, Martians, and Machines. I enjoyed that book so much that I went looking for more like it, encountering Joseph Green and Stephen Tall. In this episode, a meteor hits the Upsydaisy and ruins her trip to Venus, sending the ship on a crash course for the sun. The only way to survive is to veer slightly to achieve a cometary orbit which will require a pilot on the exposed, boiling bridge, but Jay Score is uniquely suited to trying to pull off the almost impossible feat. Fun stuff.

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: Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robots and Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

For previous stories, see:

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

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

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

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.


[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.