Birthday Reviews: Heinlein, May, Wyndham

This week’s tales provide entertainment while also showing the good and bad that can arise when we go out there or when things come here.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-07-07–1988-05-08)

“Columbus Was a Dope” (Startling Stories, May 1947)

A salesman is in a bar celebrating his sale of steel to a professor who wants to build a starship and he, the professor, another salesman, and the bartender get to talking about why people would build a starship. After the professor has left, they also discuss the odds of anyone on the ship surviving. At this point, the subject of Columbus, the explorer who found a New World, comes up and the salesman provides the title which is soon undercut. Without spoiling the specifics, the story ends with clever irony which reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Firefly, when Wash mockingly dismisses something by saying, “That sounds like something out of science fiction!” His wife tells him, “You live in a spaceship, dear.” Not getting her point, he replies, “So?” In a way, this is a minor story for such a major author but it has a very big theme in a small package and demonstrates many of his virtues, such as economically making the far-out and futuristic utterly common-place and believable.

Julian May (1931-07-10–2017-10-17)

“Dune Roller” (Astounding, December 1951)

In her first tale, Julian May takes us to the alien world of Lake Michigan for an adventure I can’t believe wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie. After an introductory scene of a meteor striking the lake long ago, we cut to Dr. Ian Thorne, who is playing in a shore pool, recording the statistics of the various critters therein, when he notices something gleaming attractively. He collects the golden elongated teardrop which sets in motion a chain of events which includes some discovery and some death and destruction. All this is told in a very understated and leisurely way (which includes some effective humor) which exhibits the storytelling confidence of a veteran (though there is a sequence where all the characters are a little too quick on the draw for plausibility). The milieu is made both concrete and vivid but also, as I said, very strange. The main character and his friends (including both a non-scientist and a fellow scientist), as well as his new girlfriend, all have their distinctiveness. Finally, this particular Thing from Another World is effective and memorable. Good stuff.

John Wyndham (1903-07-10–1969-03-11)

“The Asteroids, 2194” (New Worlds #100, November 1960)

Much of this feels like a very mainstream tale with plenty of layers in the narrative onion to peel. A journalist is visiting an island where he meets a man who seems rather odd. By way of explanation, another local tells the story of a freighter captain who collided with a derelict. He discovers three bodies in the other ship but only one is dead. The other two are not yet dead, but in cryogenic suspension, though the revival process is often fatal. And perhaps that’s a good thing for some people. Though the story features multiple characters and settings, it’s about almost none of them but actually about one person who no longer has a place and feels he has lost even more than that. Either way, the colorful and well-told layers have their intrinsic interest (and serve their thematic purpose) and it ultimately gets to its thoughtful point (whether one sympathizes with it or not).

Asimov’s Centennial: Pebble in the Sky (Two Versions)

Preface

The first of Isaac Asimov’s hundreds of books has a tangled history. Sam Merwin was editing Startling and wanted an Astounding-type 40,000-word novel from Asimov so, from June to September 1947, Asimov worked on a novel he called “Grow Old with Me” which was a misquote from a Browning poem. Merwin was very pleased with its progress until it was completed at 48,000 words and then, in October, announced that Startling was dropping the emulation of Astounding and now wanted Amazing-type stories. Infuriated, Asimov refused to rewrite it that way and it went into the drawer. Fortunately, Fred Pohl was in the mood to be an agent again, got Asimov to admit the existence of an unpublished novel, and took it to Gnome in January 1948. Though that deal fell through, he persisted until, at the end of March 1949, Doubleday agreed to take it if Asimov would lengthen it to 70,000 words. Asimov worked on the revision from early April to late May. At the beginning, he discovered the correct quote (“Grow Old Along with Me”) though, in June, his editor told him it needed a new title which sounded more science fictional, so he changed it to Pebble in the Sky. The book was finally published in January of 1950. However, the original version survived and found its way into Asimov’s papers which were periodically sent to Boston University at the request of its librarian, where it and some other alternate versions were discovered by Charles Waugh, part of the prolific Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh editing team, who had the idea of putting out a book of them. Thus, in 1986, The Alternate Asimovs [1] came into being. The versions are quite different in ways, but tell essentially the same story, so I’ll review the best known version, Pebble in the Sky, and then talk about some of the differences between the two.

Pebble in the Sky

Bald, pudgy, retired tailor Joseph Schwartz is walking down the sidewalk in Chicago on one fine summer afternoon in 1949, quoting Browning and thinking about how wonderful his golden years are and will be. He sees a Raggedy Ann doll, begins to step over it, and– Elsewhere in Chicago, a chemist is working with plutonium when something strange occurs and– Joseph Schwartz dizzily collapses onto the grass. It’s a fall evening and he’s looking at the cleanly split half of a Raggedy Ann doll. Indeed, a chunk of his shoe is missing, as well. After much confusion and hysteria, he finds himself tearing wildly about the woods, until he finally finds a house. Beating on the door and yelling, he’s relieved to see a woman open it but terrified all over again when she starts speaking in a language he’s never heard.

So begins Joseph Schwartz’s adventures in a strange new time and old place. He will find that he’s on Earth, after all, but an Earth of fifty thousand years in the future. In the meantime, humanity has spread to the stars and, just over eight hundred years ago, has created a Galactic Empire, but has forgotten where it came from. Earth has become an irradiated backwater of this Empire, either ignored or despised by the galaxy, with those nearest hating them the most [2]. They return this hatred. While there is loose Imperial oversight from a Procurator, the local rulers of Earth are the Society of Ancients, a tyrannical group of people who hold to the ridiculous belief that Earth is the birthplace of humanity. They enforce the Sixty, the euthanizing of people who reach that age, on a planet which now can only support a population of twenty million. Their mad leader has forced a doctor, Shekt, to do work on a Synapsifier to heighten the mental abilities of their biologists as part of his plan to have those biologists unleash a plague on the Empire so that he may become Emperor of what’s left.

As mismatched as the Society of Ancients against the Galactic Empire is, the forces opposing the Ancients on Earth are about as mismatched. Dr. Shekt has learned of the plan through the ravings of a biologist driven mad by the Synapsifier procedure and has told his daughter, Pola. They later recruit Bel Arvardan, an Imperial archaeologist, who has come to Earth to disprove the prevailing theory that humanity arose independently on various planets and has been interbreeding into homogeneity and to prove his theory (ironically also what the Ancients hold) that humanity came from a single birthplace and, more, that this very Earth is it. Caught up with them is Schwartz, who has a decision to make and a role to play despite not wanting to have anything to do with this bizarre future.

While this story is set in the far future, features Galactic Empires with strange worlds and societies, and has tools like Synapsifiers which can give strange mental powers, this is largely about prejudice and empathy. In this, Earth would seem to take the role of Judaea while the Roman Empire is enlarged to Galactic scope but it is not at all limited to this, as much of the hatred between Earthpeople and Imperials is expressed in modes of then-contemporary racism. Arvardan, being an educated Imperial, thinks of himself as an enlightened man but can scarcely conceive of being involved with an Earthie female until he meets Pola. What produces this situation in which five hundred quadrillion lives hang in the balance is traditional hatred in which wrongs are treasured up and hate is met with hate while what it would take to save them is an understanding of the efforts some make to overcome their societal limitations in order to make contact with a shared humanity.

The dislocation and plight of Schwartz as one of the viewpoint characters is engaging, the milieu is a fascinating mix of the familiar and strange, the plot is vast and dramatic (and the key part of it is hard to read these days), and the resolution, while imperfect, is satisfying.

“Grow Old Along with Me”

The essential question about the two versions might be “Should I get one or the other or both?” A fanatic like myself will want both but I suspect the general reader would probably only want one and that one should be Asimov’s “final” version.

As Asimov himself says in the “Afterword” to the story, the main differences between the first and second versions are that he “cut the asinine prologue, epilogue, and intermissions” and wove what had been three separate sections focused on Schwartz, Arvardan, and both Schwartz and Arvardan into a more intermixed narrative.

The “asinine” parts he mentions really are surprisingly bad and jarringly discordant with an otherwise good first version, as are some other places where the narrative voice is off-key or intrusive, which are also minimized in the second version. Though the tripartite structure works well, the blended second version is better. One of the more notable parts of that is an earlier introduction of, and larger part for, Pola. (One of the apparently unintended consequences of this, though, is that it changes some of Arvardan’s motivations in places.)

While Asimov mentions the largest changes, there are many others great and small.

The most noticeable lengthening is probably in the change in which Schwartz is kept for observation by Shekt. Schwartz escapes briefly from the farm in both versions but also makes an earlier escape from Shekt’s offices in the second version which produces the basically new chapters of 8 and 9. (This also creates one of the few continuity problems in the expansion in that Schwartz goes to the city thinking his nature may make him valuable but still applies for the menial job of the first version.) Another additional scene comes from giving an unnamed character who has one scene and naming him Lt. Claudy and giving him several scenes which are put to generally good effect. He hates Earth people more than most and that raises the change in which Asimov originally portrayed some strong anti-Earth prejudice in the first version but dialed it up to 11 in the second version. I’m not sure that this is really an improvement as the point comes across loud and clear even in the first. Similarly, Arvardan’s self-perception of his own “enlightenment” vs. his actual involuntarily ingrained prejudice is made much more heavy-handed.

Claudy is just one of several characters who are named or expanded or slightly modified. For instance, Schwartz is originally taken in by a married couple and the wife’s paraplegic father, Grew. His character is made more prominent and cantankerous in an early chapter. (Both versions, as Asimov notes, feature the chess game between Grew and Schwartz which is taken from a real game. I would note that it is played on a magnificently imaginative and beautiful set.) The Secretary of the Ancients is given the name Belkis and lesser agents such as Natter and Creen are also named and magnified, with Natter getting a more drastic and on-screen fate.

Putting it elliptically, as it’s near the end, the prison scene is much improved by having a character only arrive, rather than arrive, depart, and return, which addresses one pretty severe credibility strain though, oddly, Asimov has a character raise another problem and inadequately address it.

A technically minor change, but a striking one, is that the image of the Raggedy Ann doll made a powerful impression on me and was not actually in the first version. Of all things missing in the first version, I missed this most.

Moving into even more minor things, the date of Schwartz’s origin is changed from 1947 to 1949 and, to give him more to lose, he’s given two daughters instead of one, and there are numerous minor stylistic tweaks which are improvements most of the time.

In essence, everything of value in the good first version except its extreme brevity is preserved in the second while many positive and few negative changes are introduced.


[1] Of all Asimov’s science fiction, The Alternate Asimovs is the only thing that I’m reading for the first time for these reviews.

[2] Interestingly, while this is an Empire novel and those are connected to the Foundation books, the Robot stories and novels were a separate series at this time, yet this fits very well with the semi-Spacer story “Mother Earth,” which was written between these two versions, and the subsequent Robot novels in the Spacer milieu.

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Asimov’s Centennial: Two Stories, February 1947-March 1949 (Second Foundation)

These two stories (of about 25 and 50 thousand words) make up the contents of Second Foundation, the final volume of the original Foundation trilogy.

It is strange how the wordage of Asimov’s Foundation stories fit so neatly into three ordinary volumes (four shorter tales and a prequel making about 75,000 words, then 25 and 50 thousand word stories before this pair of identical lengths) while the focal points of the stories did not. For instance, the two Mule stories are 75 thousand words but are split over the last two books, which open and close with non-Mule stories which have distinct characters and plots though both stories in Second Foundation deal with the notion of a “search” for the Second Foundation. Many people have trouble with these stories for the very reason that they read them as “novels” and find them “disjointed” but I’ve always loved the time-lapse of more or less self-contained stories which combine to tell a larger story.

“Now You See It…”

In book form, this appears as “Search by the Mule.” Initially, Asimov preferred to call it “Now You See It–” though, in its magazine publication, this and the next story each had an ellipsis instead of an em dash. The discussion of this requires an immediate and unavoidable spoiler to the previous tale, though I’ll be as non-specific as possible.

In our last story, we left off with the Mule’s designs of learning the location of his enemy, the Second Foundation, having been thwarted. In the time between then and the opening of this tale, the Mule has been sending the Converted Captain (now General) Pritcher on search after search, continuing to scour the Galaxy for the one force capable of challenging the Mule for supremacy. Pritcher now believes that the Second Foundation does not exist, but the Mule feels that some of his agents have been subtly altered in ways that suggest a long-range plan, which can only show the hand of the Second Foundation. For the next search, he provides Pritcher with a partner: brash, young, and Unconverted Bail Channis, who may bring a new energy and perspective to the search. The Mule tells each a slightly different version of the plan and each is more opponent than ally to the other. This comes to a head when Channis believes he’s discovered the location, sneakily launches the ship while discussing this with Pritcher, they reach the seemingly unimportant, modest world of Rossem, meet the locals including the Elders and the Governor of the world, and accuse each other of being traitors to the Mule. At this standoff, the Mule, who has been following them, arrives and more reversals and a sort of “Mentalic Standoff” follows.

Lucas is often accused of excessive homage to Kurosawa and others to make Star Wars but he also borrowed a lot from the Foundation series. Vader scouring the galaxy for the location of the hidden rebel base possibly owes much to this and some of the thrilling psychological combat and conflicts in the Emperor’s attempt with Vader to turn Luke also owes a lot to this. The uneasy relationship between Pritcher and Channis is compelling and the final scenes with more players magnify this into gripping combat in which hardly a muscle is moved. It also contains much of interest along the way such as the Interludes which depict Second Foundation members communicating with one another in a way that is practically, though not literally, psychic. To borrow a description from the next story, it is explained that Second Foundation speech must be translated:

It will be pretended therefore, that the First Speaker did actually say, “First, I must tell you why you are here,” instead of smiling just so and lifting a finger exactly thus.

On the downside, it seems to me that there is a logical glitch, and/or the Mule is described as being a little more powerful than we were previously given to understand and a detail of the final standoff may not be completely convincing to the hypercritical but, if anything, these are all pretty minor blemishes to a very good tale, though it’s somewhat modest compared to most other Foundation stories, being fairly simple and half the length of the novel-length tales around it. The reason for that is that Asimov enjoyed writing repeated puzzles like the Robot stories but didn’t enjoy writing the extremely complicated Foundation stories with their extended narrative connections and had intended to end the series with this. Fortunately, Campbell made him change the ending to be less conclusive and to write at least one more novel-length tale.

“…And Now You Don’t”

In book form, this appears as “The Search by the Foundation.” Set a generation after the Mule’s time, (specifically in 11,692 of the Galactic Era or 348 of the Foundation) it has two main threads. Precocious and willful fourteen-year-old Arcadia Darell, granddaughter of Bayta Darell (heroine of the story, “The Mule”) initially features in both of them. Through her, we get the backstory that has led to this point and meet the first of the conspirators to connect with her father, Toran. Because the Second Foundation is suspected to have interfered with the Mule, some citizens of the First Foundation are slipping into complacency, believing the Second Foundation will play fairy godmother at need while others feel a hatred for the group which may be running them like puppets. Arkady (as she prefers to be called) manipulates a boy into providing her with equipment she can use to spy on the conspirators’ meetings and develops plans of her own. When one of them, Homir Munn (a librarian and family friend), is sent to Kalgan, which had been the Mule’s imperial capital world, to see if anything about the Second Foundation can be learned there, Arkady stows away. In alternate shadowy scenes from the Second Foundation’s point of view, we learn that the Plan has been badly damaged by the Mule and is likely to fail utterly without their (mis)application of psychohistory to individuals in a much more aggressive and finely tuned way that has been their usual practice.

After the first third of the story, the second thread begins. Arkady and Munn arrive at Kalgan where they meet the current “First Citizen” (dictator), Stettin, and his mistress, Lady Callia. Things initially go in a middling fashion, with Munn failing to get permission to examine the shrine of the Mule from Stettin, but with Arkady managing to succeed with Callia, who then succeeds with Stettin after all. However, things go worse when Stettin decides, from Munn’s lack of progress, that there is no Second Foundation and decides he’s ready to make war on the Foundation, detaining Munn and deciding that Arkady will be a useful bride for him in a few years. This causes Callia to help Arkady escape Kalgan, during which Arkady learns a couple of things – not everything is as it seems and she believes she knows where the Second Foundation is, which she also believes puts her life at risk. She decides not to return home to Terminus, but flees to her birthplace of Trantor. On the verge of being captured by the Kalganian police, she’s befriended by a childless couple who were on an agricultural trade mission but are now returning to Trantor.

Past the halfway point, war breaks out and, as it usually does, it starts badly for the First Foundation. Very unusually, there is an on-screen space battle which is brief but effectively done. That is the climax of the purely physical story of Kalgan vs. the First Foundation but there is still the first thread of the partly-psychological story of the First Foundation vs. the Second Foundation to return to. In a way, the final sixth of the tale is an extended denouement but it does contain a scene akin to the murder mysteries in which all the suspects are gathered together and the detective details the crime and names the culprit, except that there are multiple would-be detectives. After a round-robin in which almost everyone claims they know the secret, the secret is finally revealed and matters come to a conclusion of what will be a rather brutal sort and the very brief true denouement follows.

(Both Asimov and his critics usually credit him for inventing the science fiction/mystery hybrid with the Robot novels but, really, most of his Robot stories and even these Foundation tales, especially this one, are at least puzzle stories and some are already essentially mystery hybrids. They may not have literal detectives explicitly solving murder cases but they are still formally mysteries. Instead of a whodunnit, this is a wherizit.)

While not apparent from this synopsis, one of the most striking things about this tale is its humor. It is a deadly serious story in essence but Arkady is a lively, charming character whose brilliance and naivete combine to produce humorous reactions in others as they tend to see her as a sort of tiny sorceress. But she’s an equally effective dramatic character. When she realizes she’s in over her head while trying to flee Kalgan, her emotional pain and feelings of isolation are very effectively drawn. Even through all this, she keeps her wits about her. While she is by far the most effective character of this tale, the deft character touches aren’t limited to her. For instance, the heartbreak one character feels when he finds out he’s not who he thought he was is a brief but powerful moment and takes what could be a conventional thing and skews it into perceptive originality, much like the internals of Pritcher being controlled by the Mule in earlier stories is unusual, putting the horror in the reader rather than in the controlled man, himself.

In a more general sense, this story continues to produce its mythico-historical resonances which is one of my favorite things about this series. Having starships named after famous characters featured in earlier stories, quoting famous sayings from leaders from centuries before, echoing dynamics from Earth’s own Roman, Roman Catholic, and other history, and much more, gives these tales the tangibility and power of 1776 and 1066 and all that. The thumbnail sketch here of Kalgan (joining those of Rossem, Trantor, Neotrantor, and others in earlier tales) also contributes to this effect.

While not necessarily virtues or flaws, there are a couple of odd views of science and human nature portrayed in this, though. One might view our power of speech as a great connecting force for humanity (though it obviously doesn’t work perfectly all the time even for people skilled in its use and especially not for those of us who aren’t) but it’s portrayed here as “the prison bars of ordinary speech” which isolate us from one another when a more immediate emotional reading of one another could unite us. There is also an oddly utilitarian view of science when a branch of science and the technology related to it which is developed in the story is seen as something that will become inactive and fade from memory because it’s seemingly useless but much of what drives science (as opposed to science grants) is pure love of knowledge and many developments arise from apparently useless things in unforeseen ways.

Moving on to flaws in this very enjoyable tale, the biggest is a structural one. Arkady is obviously the star and animating force until she leaves Kalgan, after which she only gets a single chapter and a brief scene. Given the nature of the unfolding plot, this is perhaps unavoidable, but it is also regrettable.

There are also either three main logical flaws in the story or three failures in my perception. Many readers may wish to skip the bullet points because all three may be irrelevant to them, the second approaches or crosses into spoiling the previous story, and the third one does the same to this story.

  • The whole notion of information on the Second Foundation being scarce except for Hari Seldon’s statement that it’s at the other end of the galaxy seems problematic. Leaving aside the specifics, I have to ask why Seldon would say even that much. If you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy, you shouldn’t say you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy. (This is almost certainly an artifact of Asimov making this up as he went along.)
  • The rise of the Second Foundation to prominence after dealing with the Mule in the previous story also bothers me. Since the only people in the room were the Mule himself, an unconscious and Converted Pritcher, and two Second Foundation agents, how could anything about the Second Foundation have gotten out? But perhaps we can grant that the Mule uncharacteristically laid out his suspicions to a Fleet commander before going to the planet’s surface and that got out somehow and grew in the telling.
  • Finally, whatever their resentment, how can anyone of the First Foundation think it wise to try to simply destroy the Second Foundation and feel confident in the Plan’s eventual success if they do so, when the whole point is that only they were able to stop something as unforeseeable as the Mule?

If you just accept the premises and can live with less Arkady in the back half of the story, though, this is a tremendously thought-provoking and entertaining tale which brings things to a good “pausing point” (suitable for either stopping or continuing) and it was to remain paused for about thirty-two years. Perhaps the clearest thing I can say about the value of this work is that my Centennial plan is to chronologically read Pebble in the Sky and the rest of Asimov’s books which include several masterpieces that I look forward to, yet I’m having to fight the urge to start on Foundation’s Edge right now.


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Asimov’s Centennial: Six Stories, April 1946-October 1948

I’ve been covering Asimov’s early works in groups of eight or nine stories (including a novel length work in the last batch) but the last nine stories Asimov wrote in the 1940s [1] include two novel-length works, one of which has two significantly different versions, so I’m only covering the six shorter works in this post and will handle the other stories as normal book reviews. In fact, except for finishing up the first volume of Asimov’s autobiography and a last special post related to this era, I plan to review the remainder of Asimov’s works in normal individual book reviews.

Robot Stories

The first two stories in this period of the late 1940s following “The Mule” were both Robot stories.

In “Evidence,” Stephen Byerly is a lawyer running for mayor as a reformer while Francis Quinn is his unprincipled opponent out to smear him with the charge of being, basically, a robot brain in a human-like body (which is a damning accusation in a society which despises robots and doesn’t allow them in the general population). But it’s difficult to to prove someone is a robot when they’re implicitly recognized as human under the law, with full rights including the right to privacy. Conversely, trying to preserve those rights while proving you are in fact not a robot isn’t much easier. Still, a way is found for the proof for or against at the climax, but it is the denouement with Susan Calvin at the end which packs more punch.

My one problem is that, despite what the story says, it seems to me that the proof that someone is not a robot is easy and, though proving that someone is would be hard, convincing people of it wouldn’t be. Simply order the being to do something no sane and self-respecting human would do. If the person disobeys, they’re not a robot (Second Law) and, if they do it, they are either a robot or at least not a sane and self-respecting person most people would want for mayor. But if I’m wrong there or if you overlook that problem, this is an otherwise effectively written story which carries some emotional weight and is very good.

Despite the conflict, “Evidence” is basically an upbeat story of sorts. “Little Lost Robot” is much darker. While working on experimental hyperdrive starships, which is dangerous, robot labor is useful but robots interfering with the work to “save” humans from danger is not, so special robots are secretly built with a modified first law (and less stable minds). When a human tells an intrusive special robot to get lost, the robot mixes in with sixty-two other robots with normal First Law programming, but who are otherwise identical. If people find out that the unstable robot exists, it could be very bad for the government and for U. S. Robots & Mechanical Men, so Susan Calvin and Peter Bogert are sent out to try to identify the robot. Because the robot is unstable and has developed a superiority complex, it becomes a battle of wits with a robot whose First Law prohibition against harming humans was intentionally weakened and is now almost non-existent.

Like “Evidence” and others, a solution to the problem is fairly obvious but Calvin and the rest do not see it until they do something very similar near the end (which is itself a problem as more than one Robot story involves repeated attempts at solving the problem before a final success which hinges on something which should have been determined when initially establishing the domain of the problem). Asimov goes to great lengths to explain all the dynamics with the strange robot and perhaps succeeds but I wasn’t entirely convinced this time. The effort at writing an almost pre-Asimovian “robot menace” story provides much excitement but at the cost of seeming contrary to most robot principles in the series. But, once again, if you accept the premise of this particular tale, it works well.

Others

After writing the story which made up the first third of Second Foundation, Asimov turns to a story that isn’t connected to those series and is coincidentally named “No Connection.” It is connected thematically to other stories, though, being somewhat like “Homo Sol” and others in portraying humans (or the like) as weird beings who are inexplicably violent and, more than that, are beings who have a sort of vice in peace which inverts so that they have a sort of virtue in war. It’s also akin to “The Weapon” in the sense of having wise old “aliens” or “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use” in that and in having, well, weapons too dreadful to use. It is unusual in being on an Earth so far removed from ours as to feel like an alternate world in that the “Americans” the story opens with turn out to be Gurrows, or civilized bears whose society is extremely egalitarian and “”social without being gregarious,” while beings evolved from chimpanzees and called Eekahs inhabit the other continent. The particular Eekahs who make contact with the Gurrows are fleeing political persecution (which the Gurrows can barely comprehend) from their society which is “gregarious without being social.” The protagonist, an archaeologist interested in the concept of a “Primeval Primate,” can’t see the connection between several things, including the Eekahs, the Gurrows, the odd results from using the Eekah knowledge of radiation to date things and more, but the reader comes to see, sooner or later, that it’s all connected after all. (Actually, in this, it’s also like “Not Final!”) It’s a very interesting depiction of an alternate sentience and society though the story, by its very nature of providing the reader but not the characters with a “conceptual breakthrough,” isn’t fully engaging.

For something very different, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” is a fake science article, so doesn’t really have any people, places, things, or plots except the thing of thiotimoline, itself, which is a substance which dissolves prior to hitting the water. But it’s a very thoroughly and cleverly done spoof which actually may have counted in Asimov’s favor with his Ph.D. examiners because he obviously had to know what he was talking about to fake it that well. Despite the time travel bit, some readers somehow even thought it was a real science article. I’m not sure if this was historically first, but it’s the earliest example I know of what has become a microgenre of its own. (“Meihem in ce Klasrum” predates this by about a year and a half, but is more a fictional essay on spelling than a fictional scientific paper.) If you’re susceptible to the notion, this is a very funny lampoon of academic papers and has a very entertaining idea as well.

Asimov next became embroiled in the difficulties with “Grow Old with Me,” which finally resolved happily after quite some time. Meanwhile, he wrote more stories, including “The Red Queen’s Race.” This is a time travel story and is one of the minority which appeals to me because it avoids logical inconsistency. Even aside from that, it’s also very good. A “flatfoot” playing a dumb cop (when he’s definitely not dumb and not any ordinary cop, either) investigates the mysterious death of a physicist whose last act was to somehow drain an entire atomic power plant. The only real clue is a chemistry book he was having translated into Greek. The cop interviews several people but the most interesting comes at the end when a philosopher does a remarkable point/counterpoint presentation of views of ancient history. This story has references to the then-undetected neutrino, to what would become chaos theory and how remedying the lack of a “mathematic psychohistory” would be helpful. It also has some interesting details in its time travel mechanics. It isn’t a real action-packed tale and the philosopher appears too conveniently, so it might not be an epochal classic or anything, but it’s a very good, idea-packed story with a good narrative voice.

Asimov quickly followed that up with a second superb story, “Mother Earth,” which, like “Blind Alley,” is related to the Robots/Empire/Foundation universe without generally being included with those main stories. In this, several scenes of conversations between major and minor exemplars paint a picture of a “Terrestrian” society of billions packed into a single planet where the soft sciences are strong and robots are despised and an “Outer Worlds” society of fifty loosely united worlds out in space made from human colonists who have developed eugenically-controlled racist low-population societies built on robots and the hard sciences and who despise the people of Earth. For decades, tensions have been building and the Ambassador to Aurora, Luiz Moreno of Earth, turns out to be a proto-Seldon character who is leading a three-pronged “Pacific Project” which everyone believes is either misdirection or some vast secret when only a third of it is truly hidden and the other two-thirds are hiding in plain sight. This is short on physical action (despite an off-screen Three Weeks’ War) and long on concepts which build an astonishing amount of tension in the best Robot/Foundation tradition. The reader can fruitfully argue with some of the premises and dynamics and may approve of some ends but not means (or vice versa) but, however the reader approaches it, there is much to engage with, from ideas on psychology and history (and even psychohistory), overpopulation, eugenics, racism [2] , the surprising difficulty of deciding who the actual winners and losers of wars are (an issue I’ve noticed myself from Alexander’s conquests to WWII and beyond), and strange premonitions in this 1948 story of things that would soon occur (as well as something which soon proved to be backwards). While much of this story is covered in earlier Robot and Foundation stories (and some others) and would be covered again in later ones in different ways, this a fascinating and key story for most readers, I’d think, and certainly for Asimov fans.


[1] For the record, these are the stories with their magazine publication date (all published in Astounding except “Grow Old with Me”) and first appearance in book form with that date:

  • “Evidence” (September 1946) I, Robot (1950)
  • “Little Lost Robot” (March 1947) I, Robot (1950)
  • “Now You See It–” (January 1948) Second Foundation (1953)
  • “No Connection” (June 1948) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline (March 1948) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “Grow Old with Me” (appeared in expanded form as the Doubleday book Pebble in the Sky (1950))
  • “The Red Queen’s Race” (January 1949) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “Mother Earth” (May 1949) The Early Asimov (1972)
  • “–And Now You Don’t” (November 1949-January 1950) Second Foundation (1953)

For previous stories, see:

[2] “And racism will be dead, for variety will then be the great fact of Humanity, and not uniformity,” as written by Isaac Asimov in 1948 and published by John W. Campbell in 1949.

Birthday Reviews: Gallun, Piper, Rucker

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-03-22–1994-04-02)

“Derelict” (Astounding, October 1935)

Jan Van Tyren was a big wheel until his family was killed when some of the native Loathi of Ganymede revolted. On his way back to Earth, he comes across a derelict ship that’s come from outside the solar system long ago and has some amazing experiences there, resulting in a new condition. It’s a tale with too many adjectives and not a lot of action but is a mood piece which runs counter to the generic notion of 30s SF and displays great imagination.

H. Beam Piper (1904-03-23–1964-11-06)

“Time and Time Again” (Astounding, April 1947)

This is an incredibly simple story in one sense: in 1975, during a battle at Buffalo in WWIII, Captain Allan Hartley is too close to an atomic bomb blast and will die soon, except he wakes up in 1945, in his thirteen-year-old body, but retains full knowledge of the intervening thirty years. The details of this, what he does both small and large in 1945, his explanation for it, and his plans about what to do with it are not so simple and make this story very effective. My one reservation is that Allan and his dad seem to have extraordinarily flexible minds but they aren’t portrayed as average in any other way, so even this isn’t really a problem.

Rudy Rucker (1946-03-22)

“Pac-Man” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 1982)

This is an amusingly dated phildickian piece about a woman who gets a job at a bank and her husband who’s working at a video arcade. When he has a couple of really good games playing Pac-Man [1] things get really strange.


[1] “Peg-Man” in the original version of the story because editor George Scithers had some strange notions about copyright.