Birthday Reviews: Butler, Cartmill, Sheffield

In one of these stories we lose speech and, in another, we gain the stars but, in both, we remain human. In the other story, that day’s science fiction really was the next day’s science fact.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-06-22–2006-02-24)

“Speech Sounds” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1983)

Rye is riding the bus when trouble erupts. Two guys start fighting which results in the bus driver slamming on the brakes which results in additional fights. Many try to leave the bus at that point and, when a man wearing the uniform of a cop arrives and tosses in a gas cannister, the rest get off. Eventually, the man persuades Rye to accept a ride from him and, by this time, we understand that Rye is in world that’s been struck by a plague, or something like it, which has deprived almost everyone of the power of speech and/or reading and/or the comprehension of these things, as well as impairing some people’s minds generally. The bus is a rare and isolated thing and there is no police force as civilization has collapsed. Rye was trying to make the long journey from LA to Pasadena to see if she could connect with a suriving brother rather than kill herself. Her quick relationship with the “cop,” Obsidian, and the following multiple rapid reversals result in a change of plans.

This is a master class in science fictional exposition as a simple bus ride seems momentarily normal except for strange little dissonances which grow more persistent and troubling as the world is gradually revealed. The depiction of loss and the efforts to persist anyway rings true as does the desperation, randomness, and violence. A note at the end may ring slightly less true but is the sort of thing we sometimes need to tell ourselves. This is an effective contemplation of communication and the ties that bind.

Cleve Cartmill (1908-06-21–1964-02-11)

“Deadline” (Astounding, March 1944)

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I just wanted to acknowledge the author and his famous story which brought US intelligence agents down on him and John W. Campbell, demanding to know who was leaking top secret information about the atomic bomb. Turns out, no one was, but Cleve Cartmill was a very clever user of previously published information who described, with some detail, essential aspects of the bomb. Unfortunately, as a story, it’s not that great, as it simply translates WWII into “SF” by putting it on a world not named Earth and by spelling the Allies and the Axis backwards, not to mention having a woman go far beyond being a justifiably paranoid resistance fighter into being basically insane and/or stupid. Still, while many people wrongly assume SF is supposed to be predictive, it can be, and this is one of the more remarkably prescient tales of SF.

Charles Sheffield (1935-06-25–2002-11-02)

“A Braver Thing” (IAsfm, February 1990)

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On the eve of his Nobel laureate speech, a physicist who has made a breakthrough in interstellar flight reflects on his road to Stockholm. It’s not what you might expect, involving a lost satchel of books which leads to a teenaged infatuation with the mother of the boy who lost the books, as well as a strange friendship with that boy, which produces parallel lives, culminating in a sort of double-Jekyll-and-Hyde situation of dark obessesions, suicide, and more.

In a way this is a hard SF story and, in a way, it’s not science fiction at all. In a way it is “literary” and, in a way, it isn’t. To make that clearer, the author says in his afterword that it’s not science fiction but “fiction about science” and that’s partly true: the science fiction is that it does have a future Nobel winner with a future physical science breakthrough but that science fictional part is not the point, which is its focus on the scientific endeavor along with the good and bad within individuals and humanity as a whole. But with that focus on science and the complete absence of fantasy (allowing the elliptical “given us the stars”) it’s in a way the hardest of hard SF. And it treads perilously near to being overwritten in places but manages to be “literary” (styled and character-centric) without being enfeebled by it. There are many things to choose from in this excellent story but I think the strongest thing about it for me may be its interlocking, resonant plot structure. But if you’re more interested in style, characters, theme, or several other things, it’s here.

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.)