Birthday Reviews: Lee, Martin, Shiras, Wells

This is another busy week in which we experience a strange incursion into a relic of empire, get involved in an alien cult, meet a superboy, and suffer a cosmic cataclysm.

Tanith Lee (1947-09-19–2015-05-24)

“Into Gold” (IAsfm, March 1986)

Somewhere in the western portions of what had been the Empire, after a freshly fallen Rome, a princeling and his devoted companion are partly estranged when an Eastern caravan arrives, carrying a woman with strange powers. The companion narrates how the princeling developed an immediate lust for the woman and how everyone around him thought well of her as she became his wife and bore him a son, except the companion, himself. When the sorceress goes off with only her child and a single guard, ostensibly to cure a village suffering from disease, he recollects tales of child disfigurement and sacrifice by Easterners and sneaks off to try to prevent any evil she may be up to. Things, naturally, do not turn out as intended by anyone.

This is a richly-told tale full of imaginative sensory descriptions and details. I particularly like its tragic nature. It’s a case of hamartia rather than the characters being black-hatted villains. Their virtues are their flaws. The stoic taciturn surface of people barely keeping lids on bubbling passions is also appealing and well-done. It might have been better told in third-person, though. All tales are inherently artificial and the third-person, often omniscient, narrative approach may be the most artificial of them all but it’s precisely that which allows it to recede into the background, because artifice is most natural within artifice. You can simply say, “Okay, so some omniscient being is telling me this story,” and forget about the mechanics of it. With this tale, you have to constantly wonder how such a man as the narrator could have such wide-ranging information, be so sensuous in his perceptions, and have such a prodigious memory even when, for example, he tells you things about a parchment which depicts many things, including “three figures, judges of the dead from Aegyptus, I would have thought, if I had thought about them…” It’s not that you can’t do a story in first person, obviously – compare the brilliantly done appropriate subjectivity of Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon” – but it’s actually a trickier thing to do and even the best authors sometimes unnecessarily strain credibility with it. Still, it’s a powerful and generally effective story with many appealing elements.

George R. R. Martin (1948-09-20)

“A Song for Lya” (Analog, June 1974)

When I started doing these birthday reviews, I was actually looking forward to this long novella from Martin’s science fiction days coming up and re-reading it, but I just don’t feel like I have the time now. Suffice to say, this tale of a loving couple’s experiences with an alien religious cult tackles many powerful themes, including most of those touched on by Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead” (“death, love, marriage, boredom, obsession” – just not the boredom) and even more effectively. I recall it being a great story the first time through to my last re-read a few years ago (I guess) and vigorously recommend it.

Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-09-23–1990-12-23)

“In Hiding” (Astounding, November 1948)

When a worried teacher tells a psychiatrist that one of her students seems generally fine but has something a little off about him, the psychiatrist begins a slow process of earning the boy’s trust and finding out what he’s hiding. Since it’s the core of the story and revealed fairly early (and is clear even before officially revealed), it’s no spoiler to say that he’s a tremendously intelligent superboy who has to hide how far ahead he is of everyone else his age, though Shiras holds back a little related material for the end (though it’s given away in the story’s appearance in book form).

In terms of science fiction, this is another John W. Campbell discovery, as this was Shiras’ first sale but her story has a nearly fatal flaw in that there’s little story. You’d think a tale about a boy hiding something would be full of drama but there is only the essential existential conflict without any instances of foreground conflict or any reversals. This, in a way, is a similar treatment of what’s handled by van Vogt in Slan and other such stories and it’s arguably more sophisticated but, while the desire for plotting, conflict, and excitement may be unsophisticated, it’s a desire I won’t hide and this story would have benefited from more of all that. Still, the characterization of the boy, his guardian/grandmother, and the psychiatrist is very well done and the realization of the “super” motif and what it would be like for a person to live among “puppies” is excellent. Because it’s all on a relative scale, it also works in a literal way. When the boy complains that most adults don’t want to learn or understand anything about the world but only preserve their rote attitudes and behavior, it touches on much of what really governs our world.

H. G. Wells (1866-09-21–1946-08-13)

“The Star” (The Graphic, Christmas Number 1897)

In what must have been a very odd Christmas issue, Wells here tells Fritz Leiber’s big novel, The Wanderer (1964), in just a few pages as a rogue planet smashes into Neptune, creating a fiery mass which is called a “star” more in the etymological than astronomical sense. This is all very interesting, at least to some humans (and others) but becomes much more urgent when a mathematician calculates that the star will pass disastrously close to us or perhaps hit us directly in its fall toward the sun. This is all very excitingly told with much imagination and careful selection put into both the astronomical and human elements of the disaster. Some may find the ending turns the story into a sort of bad joke or may find it transforms it in an interesting way (or maybe even a bit of both) but the whole thing certainly makes an impression.

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.