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: Kuttner, Smith, Weinbaum

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

Henry Kuttner (1915-04-07–1958-02-04)

“The Proud Robot” (Astounding, October 1943)

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

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

“QRM – Interplanetary” (Astounding, October 1942)

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

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

“Parasite Planet” (Astounding, February 1935)

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

Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, June 1943-May 1945 (Foundation and Empire)

During the war, especially in its later phases, many science fiction writers were unable to continue writing or at least were unable to write as much. Even Asimov’s productivity declined, partly due to his own war work. However, Campbell’s need, combined with Asimov’s increasing proficiency, resulted in Asimov selling everything he wrote [1] from this point through the end of the 40s to Astounding.

Robot Stories and Others

This timespan also demonstrates the growing success of Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series, as only the first story has nothing to do with either, though even it features protoplasmic “robots.” In “Death Sentence,” Theor Realo is an albino misfit given to a sort of archaeological monomania which results in his uncovering evidence that the civilization he currently lives in was preceded by an even greater one. He has visited a world of that civilization and discovered that it is populated by artificial people who are part of a planet-wide psychology experiment that has continued after the demise of its creators. When he finally gets professional scientists (and government officials) to pay attention to him and they discover how much the experiment has been contaminated by Realo’s actions and how dangerous the subjects of the experiment may be, matters come to a head.

The main conflict in this story is between discovering an unknown quantity of knowledge versus unleashing an unknown quantity of danger and the efforts of the scientists to attain the former and the government official to avoid the latter. Oddly, this story focuses most on the notion of avoiding danger. It’s especially odd as Realo’s amateur archaeology reminded me of Schliemann’s discovery of Troy which, all things considered, was a great discovery. Either way, this tale is a fair example of “the early Asimov” despite a weak “surprise” ending.

The second and seventh stories were Robot stories. “Catch That Rabbit” is another Donovan and Powell adventure. They are on an asteroid with DV-5 (“Dave”), who is an asteroid mining bot in control of several subsidiary semi-autonomous robots or “digits.” Since Dave is both experimental and supposed to be autonomous, Donovan and Powell are tasked with overseeing him without overseeing him, so to speak. But, when he doesn’t bring home the asteroidal bacon, the humans have to explicitly watch him after all. He performs properly when they do, but not when they don’t. Most of the story involves the humans insulting each other and proposing solutions without knowing what the problem is (unable to make rabbit stew because they haven’t caught the rabbit) other than that Dave sometimes goes into a weird fugue with his sub-bots marching about oddly. Finally, after deciding it has something to do with crisis situations and the “personal initiative factor,” they try to create a crisis by causing a roof-collapse near the bots but this backfires, putting them in a desperate situation.

This one ends with a groaner and has some plotting conveniences in which some things come too easily and some things not easily enough. but is otherwise a pretty standard robot story – more of an album track than a hit single.

Escape” puts Susan Calvin and the gang at U.S. Robots in the same story with Donovan and Powell but with only a stationary robot (computer) rather than a mobile computer (or proper robot). It begins when Consolidated Robots comes to U. S. Robots with a profit-sharing deal based on U. S. Robots’ “Brain” being given some information and developing an interstellar drive. However, U. S. Robots figures out that it’s a trick because Consolidated has already blown up their own “brain” trying to develop the stardrive themselves. Consolidated’s brain apparently decided the stardrive would be fatal to humans, which triggered the First Law. Susan Calvin believes their Brain, with its advanced, but child-like, personality will be able to succeed so U. S. Robots takes the deal. Things seem to be going well enough and the Brain even has other robots build the starship, so Donovan and Powell are brought in to look it over. Then everyone finds out that things are not going so well, after all, and Susan Calvin fights desperately to fix the situation while Donovan and Powell have an amazing experience.

This is a momentous Robot tale (combining two subseries and foreshadowing the transition from the solar milieu of the stories to the interstellar milieu of the Robot novels and beyond) and is fun, funny, and exciting. At the same time, major underpinnings of the plot aren’t really sensible and, despite all that happens to them, the characters don’t actually do much. In a highly critical sense, this isn’t particularly good but, in a way, it’s the best Robot story yet in terms of being an imaginative and enjoyable creation.

Blind Alley” was the sixth story of this group, In it, Asimov combined the familiarity with bureaucracy gained by working at the Navy Yard with an early Empire setting. Despite the Imperial setting, he included an alien race in its otherwise “all-human galaxy.” These aliens had been on the verge of star travel when humanity met them. Learning that the whole galaxy has been occupied, they cease reproducing and begin to die off. This tale applies Newton’s laws of motion regarding inertia and mass to bureaucracy and shows how powerful that can be, whether for hindrance or help.

This is too long in that, along the middle, you have time to think “this is too long” and part of that is probably due to the segments of bureaucrat-ese which alternate with each section of narrative–however apt, they’re actually hard to read. Still, it’s an interesting story with a great ending and shouldn’t have had to wait until The Early Asimov to be collected. I only wish that, because of issues it creates in the continuity, it had been a generic bureaucracy rather than specifically that of the Trantorian Empire.

Foundation Stories

The Foundation stories took up the third through fifth and the eighth stories in this group. The first three were written from October 11, 1943 to August 21, 1944 and focused on the Traders, who foreshadow Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League. Briefly, in “The Big and the Little,” it is seventy-five years after “Bridle and Saddle” and the Four Kingdoms have been brought to heel by the Foundation’s technological, religious, and, now, commercial power. This relationship is codified in the Foundation Convention. Still, three Foundation ships have gone missing which implies that someone has Foundation-level technology or that someone is a traitor. Jorane Sutt, the power behind an incompetent mayor, sends Master Trader Hober Mallow on a trading (spying) mission to Korell. Once there, Mallow is kept waiting by the dictator and the tedium is broken only when a mob chases a Foundation priest to the ship. He is brought aboard by some of the crew even though his presence on Korell violates the law. Smelling a trap, Mallow throws him back to the mob and is almost immediately invited to meet the dictator. These meetings reveal no evidence of Korell directly having atomic power but he does see guards armed with Imperial blasters. This leads him towards the remnants of the Empire and Siwenna, which used to be the capital of the Empire’s Normanic sector but which has been crushed by various political upheavals. Now a would-be dictator with designs on the Imperial throne rules the sector from Orsha II and may be interfering with the Foundation. If the Foundation responds too strongly, they may attract Imperial ire and, if they react too weakly, they may face further problems from Orsha II. Complicating matters still further, Mallow returns with his findings and becomes embroiled in an internal political fight with Sutt and others, which culminates with Mallow being put on trial for sacrificing the priest. With unavoidable existential threats from within and without the Foundation, it’s a true Seldon Crisis which is worked out by story’s end.

The one bad thing about this story is that (somewhat as in “Legal Rites”) I’m not entirely convinced by the logic of the trial scene and its direct aftermath. Among the vast number of good things about this story, it is his longest yet (and only his second novella after “Bridle and Saddle”) and the length is handled well. More importantly, it is an excellent example of Asimov’s stories not having villains, as such. Sutt is initially the focus and has some effective traits. Even if he is seeking power, he also cares about the Foundation’s safety though, by the point of this story, he’s on the wrong side of history. Mallow takes the position of the hero, or at least one moving with the flow of the times, but isn’t exactly all sweetness and light. The worst characters (the dictators of Korell and the Normanic sector) are secondary or off-stage. So it isn’t a simplistic “good vs. evil” story but a case of complex people having contradictory goals which bring them into conflict. This treatment of these people also leads to a prime question which exercises real historians: the “great man” theory vs. the “forces of history” theory. Mallow, himself, says, “This is a Seldon Crisis we’re facing, Sutt, and Seldon Crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.” However, while this may indeed be a story of forces, and history might have produced any actor to take Mallow’s place had he not been who he was, he did risk life and liberty to defend the Foundation (or gain power for himself, as the case may be). Hardin has joined Seldon as a name to conjure with, being frequently quoted almost a century later. And Seldon, himself, is a “Great Man.” So the stories constantly speak of forces but constantly embody them in individuals of peculiar character. It produces an interesting ambiguity.

While the Foundation is producing its own mythic symbols, it still faces some. As it grows in power, some star systems see the Foundation as a magical place of mysterious wizards but, at the same time, it encounters more and more powerful enemies, including the weakened but still immensely powerful vestiges of the Empire, itself. When Mallow sees the Spaceship-and-Sun symbol of the Empire on the blasters of the Korellian guards, he’s powerfully affected by it and so is the reader.

I’d also like to emphasize the magnificent scene when Mallow arrives on Siwenna and meets elderly Onum Barr who tells him the tale of Stanell VI, the last good Emperor, and of Siwenna’s agonies in the decay of the Empire and his own fall from comfort. Mallow, though a trader and not given to welfare, did get something for nothing (Barr’s information), so secretly leaves rations for Barr. I love the closing line after he finds the rations which taste strange to him: “But they were good, and lasted long.”

Finally, I’d like to end with this excellent quote:

Korell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal “honor,” and court etiquette.

(Not that classic science fiction can tell us anything about the present, of course.)

The Traders so captured John Campbell’s interest that he asked Asimov to do another story focusing on them, which resulted in the very short “The Wedge,” which is the first Foundation story which doesn’t deal with a Seldon crisis. In it, a trader must attempt to rescue another “trader” (actually, a Foundation agent, who also happens to be a friend) who was trying to drive a wedge into the religious society and gold-based economy of Askone with his forbidden atomic technology before being arrested. The true trader shows the agent how it’s really done.

This is a fine tale but, in Foundation terms, is obviously minor, even to the point of being flipped around in the book order, presumably because it wasn’t tied tightly to the chronology and because “The Big and the Little” made a more powerful closing tale to the first volume of the books.

Speaking of the books, the final Trader tale,”Dead Hand,” is separated from its fellows, leading off the second volume of Foundation tales and bringing the Foundation fully into contact with the Empire. It deals with the efforts of Bel Riose, the Military Governor of Siwenna, to reinvigorate the Empire and conquer the Foundation in the name of Cleon II as well as the efforts of Ducem Barr (son of Onum Barr from “The Big and the Little”) and Trader Lathan Devers (both of whom are his prisoners) to stop him. When Ammel Brodrig, an Imperial sycophant and reprobate, is sent to observe Riose’s activities, Devers tries to convince Brodrig that Riose is bent on making himself Emperor. Unfortunately, Brodrig believes this a little too thoroughly and gets more men and material for Riose in an effort to make this so. As powerful as the Foundation is, the Empire is still powerful when it turns its focus to something and things are not going well for the Foundation. Barr and Devers give up on trying to deal with things as prisoners and escape with the aim of reaching Trantor and turning Cleon against his agents. Their efforts, which even include gunplay, take up most of the remainder of the story.

This stage of the Empire (c. 200 F.E.) is much like the Byzantine Empire in the period of Emperor Justinian and his general, Belisarius (whose name is even very similar to Bel Riose). In this, the tensions between combinations of weak and strong emperors and generals make the Empire a fitful beast and Seldon’s “dead hand” (which makes one think of the “invisible hand” attributed to Adam Smith) is the real actor vs. Riose’s “living will.” This gives the story something of the feeling of Raiders of the Lost Ark in that the sound and fury from our hero or heroes actually signifies little though the two levels of the story (surface action and background themes) each work well even if, by design, they aren’t integrated. Bel Riose is also a very interesting character. He’s nominally the enemy but is an honorable man with the interests of his Empire at heart which, ironically, leads to his being shunned by the court and suspected by all. (Again, not that the vicious being honored and the virtuous being condemned could tell us anything about the present.)

“Dead Hand” was Asimov’s 48th and longest story at 25,000 words but he doubled that at a stroke with his 51st story and first novel, “The Mule,” which was originally serialized in two parts in Astounding and makes up the final two-thirds of Foundation and Empire. The thumbnail sketch [2] is that the Seldon Plan predicts how the Foundation will create a new galactic empire after 1,000 years of misery, rather than 30,000, so long as human nature remains about the same, but the Foundation has no way to deal with the inhuman, or a mutant of unknown powers. This, 310 years into the Plan, is the Mule, a powerful warlord with some sort of psychic strength which enables him to conquer the previous warlord of Kalgan and make war on the Foundation itself. Where all the might of the remnants of the Trantorian Empire failed a century before, the Mule succeeds in conquering the Foundation by the shattering midpoint of the story. That Foundation had become a tyranny with the Mayoralty becoming hereditary. The Traders had been forced into hiding in hollowed out worlds and the like. Each has been seeking to dominate the other, but both come to be dominated equally. Standing against the Mule are Toran, of a Trader world, and Bayta, of the Foundation and its democratic underground, who have just gotten married. Along the way, they acquire Magnifico Giganticus, the small, spindly, beak-nosed, runaway jester of the Mule’s (whose “abduction” by Toran and Bayta actually gives the Mule his pretext for war on the Foundation); Ebling Mis, the famed scientist and closest thing to a psychohistorian the Foundation currently has; and, sometimes, Captain Han Pritcher, of Foundation Intelligence and also of the democratic underground. Their journeys will take them across half the galaxy, from Haven to Kalgan to Terminus to Neotrantor, to the ruins of Trantor itself. There, while seeking knowledge of and help from the mysterious Second Foundation, they will learn shocking things and fail to learn others and not all will survive.

This novel is packed to bursting with both ideas and action. Bayta is convinced that the Empire fell apart from “the triple disease of inertia, despotism, and maldistribution of the goods of the universe” and fears the Foundation is doing the same. (Ebling Mis is characterized as having said at one time that “the only people who inherited anything by right of birth were the congenital idiots.”) She also contemplates aspects of psychohistory:

The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more.

Some things which struck me include Mis thinking that the Mule can be defeated “the only way anyone can be licked–by attacking in strength at weakness.” I don’t actually agree with this–we see evidence of America currently being successfully attacked at points of strength, for instance, but it’s a stimulating thought. Similarly, “There are people on Haven itself who would not be unhappy over the Mule’s domination. It’s apparently an insurmountable temptation to give up endangered political power, if that will maintain your hold over economic affairs,” which may give insight into some current events.

In terms of style, Asimov is as clear as usual but wields an increasingly subtle instrument. He textures Magnifico’s character with a sort of Spenserian lilt and rises to psychedelic heights when describing the clown’s playing of the Visi-Sonor, which is a sort of “musical” instrument that operates on the visual center of the brain. Though a very few things like the introduction of the planet Radole are a little overwritten, many things, including the description of the Mayor and his lineage and the fall of Kalgan, have an almost Ciceronian (or, perhaps more directly, a Gibbonesque) structure and elegance.

If, from a distance of seven thousand parsecs, the fall of Kalgan to the armies of the Mule had produced reverberations that had excited the curiosity of an old Trader, the apprehension of a dogged captain, and the annoyance of a meticulous mayor–to those on Kalgan itself, it produced nothing and excited no one.

Speaking of falls, Foundation’s Fall is more effective to me than “Nightfall.” I don’t want to describe it and blunt its impact for those who haven’t experienced it but it takes what has been built up over several stories and internal centuries and produces a cataclysmic scene using almost pure cognition to powerfully affect emotions.

The characterization is also quite strong once again. The Mule is another example of an Asimovian villain who isn’t quite like other villains. While all the main characters suffer at his hands, they do so in unusual and poignant ways. The real hero of this story is Bayta, who is Princess Leia’s ancestor: active and smart, ultimately armed and decisive. As an example of how she seems, a disapproving peasant of fallen Trantor observes that “There were three men, varied, old, young, thin and beaked. And a woman striding among them like an equal.” But Han (Pritcher, rather than Solo, in this case) and Mis are both given their very powerful scenes as well.

This is not a flawless tale. I really wish someone could make me believe in Trantor again, but the ecology of an all-metal planet and the farming of it once again after its partial destruction is impossible for me to explain. I’m also not clear on how Mis was able to determine all of Seldon’s past appearances in the Time Vault and predict his next one, nor why the Vault isn’t generally being recorded and/or guarded. The nature and conclusion of what was supposed to be the Seldon crisis is thought-provoking, but troubling. One of the two most important problems probably comes from Asimov’s “pantsing”: given the nature of the Second Foundation, why was its existence ever disclosed? And the other is that the finale is shocking and tremendous, but threads a very narrow eye of a credibility needle and the denouement is overlong. But these are minor blemishes or nitpicks in what is–still!–one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction. These stories, and this among the foremost, have concepts that engage the mind, people and events that engage the heart, and plots and counterplots with twists and revelations that raise the pulse.

[1] (With the exception of the story which became his first book-length novel and which didn’t appear until 1950.) The stories in order of composition, with the issues of Astounding they appeared in and their major book appearances are:

  • “Death Sentence” (November 1943, The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Catch That Rabbit” (February 1944, I, Robot (1950))
  • “The Big and the Little” (August 1944, Foundation (1951))
  • “The Wedge” (October 1944, Foundation (1951))
  • “Dead Hand” (April 1945, Foundation and Empire (1952))
  • “Blind Alley” (March 1945, The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Escape” (August 1945 as “Paradoxical Escape”, I, Robot (1950))
  • “The Mule” (November 1945/December 1945, Foundation and Empire (1952))

For previous stories, see:

[2] Obviously, from the mess that is this post, these stories are hard for me to discuss because a short synopsis doesn’t do them justice while justice requires thousands of words because almost everything about them is fascinating. (I emitted almost 5,000 words of notes on this 50,000 word novel which would balloon far beyond that if I could manage to put them into coherent sentences.)

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.