Asimov’s Centennial: Conclusion of Phase One

It’s taken awhile but this post will complete the first phase of my Asimov Centennial Project. I’ll review three last stories which will complete the coverage of I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy and provide an index to all the coverage of Asimov’s output from 1939-1950.

Robot and Foundation Stories

The first story to be written outside the timeframe of The Early Asimov and the final regular story to be written and included in I, Robot is “The Evitable Conflict.” In it, Stephen Byerley (who first appeared in “Evidence”) is now World Co-ordinator and dealing with a problem he wants Susan Calvin’s help with. A fascinating portrait of an Earth which has been reorganized into four Regions with Vice Co-ordinators under Byerley is painted and, in each of them, there are subtle but disturbing problems with what should be the perfect guidance of the Machines (or computers, or stationary robots, which still fall under the domain of the Three Laws which ensure no harm can come to humans). An array of impossible possibilities is presented, such as machine error (impossible by design and Law) or human error (impossible because the errors would produce other inconsistencies). Byerley believes it may have something to do with a “Society for Humanity” which is opposed to the role of machines in society. Susan determines that that is correct, but not in the way Byerley thought.

There are two problems in this successful story. A minor one is that, while the thematic fireplace element at the open and close and the trips through each of the Regions of the world demonstrates the story’s excellent structure, it’s almost too excellent – a little too deliberate and obvious. More importantly, the solution to the problem is supposed to rely on logic and it is logical at every step of the way except the sophistry involved in expanding a premise which anticipates a major, and more earned, change later in the Robot sequence. Still, the problem is suitably puzzling, Byerley and Calvin make for an interesting pair, the future world is imaginatively unusual (if a bit schematic), and there is substantial philosophical material to think about if the reader wants to, and a very good puzzle if that would be enough.

While not strictly a story, Asimov did add three or four thousand words of a framing narrative around and between the stories in I, Robot in the form of a reporter recalling, in 2064, a couple of interviews done with an elderly Susan Calvin in 2057. It rearranges the individual stories from their published order and weaves them into a narrative which describes how, after the last world war shortly before Calvin was born in 1982, the first limited robots were developed at the end of the millennium, grew in abilities, and essentially came to run the world. In the meantime, the nations of Earth coalesced first into Regions and then into the Federation of those Regions while, beyond Earth, interplanetary travel and commerce was developed, culminating in the hyper-drive and the first colonies around nearby stars.

While not dramatically plotted as an independent story, it does portray quite a future history and does powerful work in amplifying the Robot stories into a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

(This framing story is not available apart from this book. For instance, one of the weaknesses of The Complete Robot, aside from the fact that it became incomplete, is that it arranges the stories differently and drops this text. On the other hand, The Complete Robot contains two stories not otherwise available in book form.)

The Psychohistorians” was not initially published in a magazine like the other Foundation stories, but was written to ease the reader into the series as presented in book form and to lengthen the first volume of the trilogy to something more like the subsequent volumes.

Young Gaal Dornick makes his way from his small, remote world of Synnax to the capital world of the Galactic Empire, Trantor. Still deep in sensory overload, he finds himself being questioned by a stranger and explains that he’s a mathematician who has come to Trantor to work for the psychohistorian Hari Seldon. Leaving that meeting, he returns to his room and is surprised to meet Hari Seldon, himself. He’s even more surprised when Seldon proves to him that the Empire is near death. And he’s yet more surprised the next morning, when he’s arrested by the Commission for Public Safety and finds himself on trial, along with Seldon, for being a danger to the Empire which has a chance, however slight, of resulting in his execution. A courtroom drama with twists and turns then follows.

Even as an independent story, this would be pretty good and, as an establishing piece for the stories which follow, it’s excellent. Gaal is a sort of stereotyped “country boy in the big city” but is effective and Seldon steals the show as the Obi-Wan/Yoda to his Luke. (In fact, Gaal literally tells him he stole the show in one scene.) Trantor and the Empire are suitably stupendous. The fascinating concept of psychohistory is conveyed clearly, quickly, and dramatically.

(By the way, somewhat akin to the framing story in I, Robot, this story begins with a quote from the “Encyclopedia Galactica.” In the original versions of the other stories, some have quotes from the works of a Ligurn Vier and many have none at all. The Ligurn Vier quotes were rewritten as Encyclopedia Galactica extracts and more were distributed throughout the trilogy. The Foundation stories work superbly either way but the book version does result in a different perspective on the Encyclopedia (and related issues).)


In the future, I’ll be reviewing Asimov’s works more or less by the book. While, on the one hand, there were some fairly extended periods where he published no new SF novels (1959-81 saw only the novelization of Fantastic Voyage in 1966 and the original novel The Gods Themselves in 1972) and, on the other, there were no extended periods in which he didn’t publish a story in the magazines, he still shifted his focus to books generally and I think it will be better (certainly easier) to cover them that way. What has been covered so far are the contents of the following books:

  • Pebble in the Sky (1950; alternate version from The Alternate Asimovs (1986))
  • I, Robot (1950)
  • Foundation (1951)
  • Foundation and Empire (1952)
  • Second Foundation (1953)
  • The Early Asimov (1972; paperback version published in two volumes (1974))

Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) and Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) each include one story from this period and The Rest of the Robots (1964, paperback version containing only stories as Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robot (1966)) contained three.

They’ve been covered in the following posts:

(Half of Foundation is in “Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943” and the other half is in “Eight Stories, June 1943-May 1945” while I, Robot and The Early Asimov are split over all the posts.)

I’ve also covered the first volume of his two-volume, 640,000-word autobiography, In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, in the following posts:

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


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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Birthday Reviews: Barnes, Pangborn, Sturgeon

In terms of authors, “Happy birthday!” In terms of their stories, “Happy doomsday!” Here’s an apocalyptic triptych (though only one features full frontal nullity).

John Barnes (1957-02-28)

“My Advice to the Civilized” (IAsfm, April 1990)

In the near future, a few years after civilization has collapsed, a former historian and current sergeant in a Company gets ready for battle with an invading, sadistic, murderous, barbarian Horde and writes a letter to the future. Through this letter, we learn something of what happened, what is happening, and what will happen while we mostly get a half-dozen bits of advice which the historian expands upon in a reflective and heartfelt way, thinking heavily upon the loves of his life.

The relatively minor flaw in this story, for me, is its present-tense narration which is rarely a good idea and especially not here. If I’ve been writing a letter, get interrupted, and have returned to the letter afterward, I don’t write “I sit down to write more.” The far more important strengths are the strange believability of a strangely inexplicable collapse of civilization, how the civilized grow more barbaric in response to barbarism, the complex attitude toward both civilization and barbarism (with civilization clearly the favorite), and an interesting effect from its incomplete ending which can be read as completely tragic or somewhat hopeful depending on where you stop in your own continuation of the story. This is also (as it would often be) a timely story.

Edgar Pangborn (1909-02-25/1976-02-01)

“The Red Hills of Summer” (F&SF, September 1959)

After humanity has wrecked Earth, three hundred humans have fled in a spaceship (possibly one of a few) and has found a new world to attempt to colonize. Four people are chosen to go down and test its suitability before the rest may join them. A quiet religious woman, a high-strung and odd political theorist, a fairly ordinary guy (our narrator) and his wife descend to the planet’s surface. What follows is quite a bit of action as the group establishes a landing site, deals with the native life (none sentient but some quite dangerous), and with each other, mixed with some contemplation on why Earth went wrong and whether this world will, too.

There is often a divide between the usually sharp, pragmatic, literal, but sometimes thin “hard SF” and the sometimes deep, philosophical, metaphorical but usually fuzzy “literary SF” that I wish were bridged more often and better. I don’t recall having read Pangborn before (though I’ve certainly heard of him because Gardner Dozois was such a fan [1]) and I’d assumed he was pretty far into the literary territory but this story, at least, is a very nice blend. I do think the story has a couple of flaws (it obtains some of its conflict by having an implausibly poorly planned and executed mission and there is a moment of great tension for the characters at the end which depends on what immediately feels like overreaction so that the tension feels forced for the reader) and I wish “literary SF” didn’t so often depend on ruined Earths but this was generally a very good story which a variety of readers are likely to appreciate.

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-02-26/1985-05-08)

“The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (F&SF, October 1949)

On the planet Lihrt, a gwik creates a disturbance which causes a lab to be deserted which allows a young hurkle (a gwik pet) to unwittingly modify a gizmo and then accidentally fall into it, which results in the hurkle materializing on Earth. It disturbs a classroom, causing a very level-headed (but inexpert) teacher to try to deal with it, which results in a great change for both humanity and the hurkle.

This is told in an almost fairy-tale way which usually annoys me. In this case, it doesn’t, because this is a very funny (though also dark) story in which the “mimsy were the borogroves” methodology is put to great (and sometimes risque) use as we’re told how life went on after the disturbance at Lihrt and the gwik still “fardled, funted and fupped.” Sturgeon was one of the best and could do all sorts of stories from hard SF to fantasy to mainstream and from comedy to tragedy to horror. This particular one may not be his most momentous, but it’s entertaining.

[1] And I’ve got a couple of Pangborn’s books in the Pile, mostly on the strength of that.