Review: In Joy Still Felt by Isaac Asimov


In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978 by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $19.95, 828pp, 1980
Paperback: Avon, $9.95, 828pp, 1981

The second volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, published a year after the first[1], is actually the second half of a single manuscript. As such, it has five sections like the first’s six, which are divided into forty-six chapters like the first’s fifty-five and each chapter is divided into a varying number of sections. However, the second volume generally has many more and shorter sections per chapter and, given that each section is really a story or anecdote or other atomic element of autobiography, it results in the second seeming much choppier and less cohesive. Also, for the general science fiction fan, it suffers in comparison to the first because it mostly focuses on the period in which Asimov wrote very little SF, turning instead to writing mostly non-fiction (and mysteries). However, for the Asimov fan, this may be as important and it’s still interesting and entertaining. Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine any such fan having the first volume and not wanting the second at least for the sake of completeness.

The first part describes his battle with higher-ups in the Boston University School of Medicine due to a genuine animosity toward him, ostensibly due to his writing somehow making him a bad teacher and reflecting badly on the school when, really, he was a popular lecturer, at least, and was esteemed for even his early writing, including his science writing, despite his vulgar involvement with science fiction. He was ultimately able to retain his title and a connection to the school while giving up the actual teaching duties he wasn’t especially fond of in the first place and the day would come when he would be given honorary degrees by multiple universities, be invited to do special things for Boston University, and have a library of his works collected there.

This part also describes the birth of his second child, Robyn, which is odd in at least a couple of ways. One, which he is aware of, is that he wasn’t contributing to his pet fear of overpopulation but he wasn’t contributing to its solution, either. The second, which he seems unaware of, is an apparent complete lack of interest in his first son, David, combined with an infatuation with Robyn which makes his word “doting” an understatement. He and Gertrude certainly seem to have taken care of David, who seems to have turned out well, but I can’t imagine there not being some sort of psychological issue there.

Most of the remaining sections cover his transformation into a science popularizer and a general polymath who wrote everything from books on the Bible and Shakespeare to original “lecherous” limericks. Along the way, the fascinating background is given to oddities like his writing a science fiction movie novelization (Fantastic Voyage, 1966), another intended story which became a novel which won him his first “regular” Hugo as well as a Nebula (The Gods Themselves, 1972), and his successful second effort in the 1970s at writing mysteries after something of a commercial failure in 1958. The ever increasing number of books written at an ever increasing pace is detailed. His rising fees and increasing schedule as a speaker is also described. His increasing celebrity and his increasing interactions with fellow celebrities, from the scientist Carl Sagan to the cartoonist Al Capp to the envy-inducing meetings with Racquel Welch and Julie Newmar, are also narrated.

Those sections also tell the story of his divorce from Gertrude, his first wife, after thirty-one years and his marriage to Janet, his second, which was to last the almost twenty remaining years of his life. The oddity here is that he met Janet years before and made a bad first impression, but met her again and they seem very fond of each other from that point on until, at his separation and return to New York from Boston, they immediately meet and move as quickly to marriage as the slowness of the divorce proceedings allow. Yet Asimov disclaims any romantic connection beforehand which leaves his complete failure to give any reasons for the divorce in an otherwise minutely detailed autobiography all the more puzzling.

Another interesting thread is the discussion of how a man who refused to fly in an airplane was able to travel to England and South America and more after he discovered his love of cruise ships and the generally pleasant times he spent on them, almost always with Janet but sometimes alone, and at his destinations.

Contrasting with the general successes and happy second marriage, he also discusses the deaths of his father and then his mother, coupled with his own health struggles with thyroid cancer and then a coronary in 1977 (which might have killed him if it had been a little more severe, especially with how he handled it, eating cheescake explicitly against doctor’s orders and stupidly walking to his appointment and running up the stairs as a self-test). But it ends with the happy note of his (temporary, as it turned out) recovery, the establishment of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and the celebration of his two hundredth published book (which was the co-published first volume of the autobiography (Doubleday) and Opus 200 (Houghton Mifflin)).

The main narrative ends on December 31, 1977 with the assumption of an eventual third volume if he lives long enough “except that” the section continues with what might have been better as an epilogue or something of the sort which updates his book count to include this, the 215th publication, through 1979 and his promotion to a full, rather than “associate” professor of biochemistry. (Both these cutoffs make the last date in the subtitle confusing.)

Unfortunately, while there was a third book of autobiography, I. Asimov was not a continuation of the first two using the same method, but mostly a recapitulation of the two volumes using a different method and partly an extension of it with the new method.

One of the things that surprised me is that, while I knew he never turned his back on the field of SF as some other writers did and continued to appear in SF magazines with his F&SF column and frequent stories and even the occasional novel, I wasn’t aware of how trivial these things were to his overall self-perception in that era. In other words, he really did mentally move on from SF and it was mere unimportant dabbling as far as he was concerned. Part of the reason for this was due to the ease and speed with which he wrote non-fiction which coupled with his increasing mania for counting his books. By the end of his life, he counted around five hundred books and, in this autobiography, sometimes laments his failure to count something he might have or justifies to himself and his readers the things he did count but, really, this is one area at least in which his integrity fails. If you exclude counting some books in multiple revisions, all the things for very small children of very few pages, all the pamphlets and even charts, all the things he put his name on for contributions he made, all the books Martin H. Greenberg primarily edited and which he wrote introductions for, I think a reasonable count of his true written books is less than two hundred, mostly for teenagers, and often reusing the same material in different guises. It’s still a prodigious number and isn’t in need of unseemly inflation but it did indeed become a mania for him. Most of his first one or two hundred books account for most of the “solid” books and the last three hundred include few and most of those come from his return to science fiction in the period just outside the bounds of this autobiography.

Other than the book counting mania, one of the things that makes Asimov’s recounting of his successes with “charming Asimovian immodesties” and “cheerful self-appreciation” appealing is that he recounts his many failures and failings with equal openness, making a special point to admit to all the stupidities the genius committed that his friends delighted in pointing out. Many “immodest” people have a sort of meanness which involves a smug air and/or the belittling of others but Asimov’s is generally indeed “cheerful” in that he’s simply happy about characteristics he has or things he’s done and it’s an infectious joy that few would begrudge him or themselves and it’s always coupled with the admissions of the many things he couldn’t do or the few things he has failed at. Without ever saying the words or making a special point of it, it is a sort of “American success story” in which the kid of immigrant parents becomes a rich, world-famous, successful author.

In sum, it’s an interesting story told with Asimov’s considerable enthusiasm and general clarity (barring an occasional opacity such as his divorce), with much humor and general insight (barring an occasional blind-spot) and, while not as strong (especially for the less specifically Asimovian and more general SF fan) in the latter part as the earlier, it’s part of a whole (to that point) which is indispensable.

[1] I reviewed the first volume (In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, Doubleday, $15.95, 732pp, 1979) in 2020 as part of my “Asimov’s Centennial” reviews with a series of extremely detailed reviews in tandem with the SF he published in that period (and barely beyond) which make them quite inconsistent with the style of this one. Those reviews were

Review: Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov


Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $3.50, 236pp, 1959
Paperback: Fawcett Crest, $1.95, 224pp, c.1980 (Contents)

Nine Tomorrows is Isaac Asimov’s third and final collection of all-1950s stories[1] and his last “bare” collection (one without Asimov’s personal notes on the volume as a whole and/or its individual contents). After this collection, while never leaving the field of SF, he would focus primarily on writing non-fiction for almost the next quarter-century and it would be five years before his next SF book.

Like the previous collection, Earth Is Room Enough, this collection includes poems but, in this case, both are placed at the beginning. According to his autobiography, he wrote “I Just Make Them Up, See!” when he was feeling down. It has someone asking him the ubiquitous “Where do you get your ideas?” question in a very colorful way. “Rejection Slips” is a three-part poem which parodies the styles of Campbell’s, Gold’s, and Boucher’s rejection letters. The first is unusual and good enough and the second is quite funny but both are more fannish in their appeal and won’t register with every fiction or poetry reader.

The fiction itself is also arranged like Earth Is Room Enough, with the longest stories on each end and the shorter stories between (though the third is middle-length). The pattern is repeated so precisely that the first story in this book, “Profession,” is the longest in the book and fills a quarter of it, just like “The Dead Past.” And, like that story from the prior collection, “Profession” features a sort of intellectual anarchist in a bureaucratic milieu with those two elements combining to illustrate a theme which is complex and controversial. George lives in a society so technologically advanced that the necessary education can’t be stuffed into people’s heads the old-fashioned way, but requires direct implantation via education tapes. Children experience a Reading Day where, one day, they can’t read, and the next, they can. At this time, they are also analyzed and tend on their ways to their generally foreordained professions: whatever task their brain structure specially fits them for. However, something’s a bit odd about George and, much to his surprise, rather than being recruited by a prestigious planet to immigrate there as a computer programmer, he finds himself stuck on Earth and, worse, in a sort of “special ed” facility. Just how special is up to him to find out.

While it’s clear that much of humanity tends to fall into rote roles through inertia and that a few are different, this story has an odd biologically determined elitism that comes closer to most of the things Asimov would stand against than for but, however one takes the thematic content, it is provocative. Even if it didn’t have that, the dynamics of George’s plight and the quietly elaborate and creative future society[2] make this a worthwhile read.

At the other end is “The Ugly Little Boy” which also features an interestingly complex background involving a scientist/entrepreneur inventing a way to bring elements from the past into stasis rooms (neither there nor entirely here) where people in the present can interact with them. Initially restricted to fairly long ranges, the invention becomes capable of bringing in historical figures. The story focuses on a nurse who is brought in to care for a young neanderthal child and her reaction when, after having grown deeply attached to “the ugly little boy,” the bringing in of historical figures results in the boy’s maintenance in the stasis room being considered too costly for an older, less popular product. In a way, this story is like Lester del Rey’s more sentimental stories but it has a fascinating conceptual background and excellent and complicatedly interacting characters from the boss and his child to the nurse and “her” child in all their combinations. This is yet another story that leaves one wondering where the idea that Asimov doesn’t have characters, especially not female, comes from.

Of the shorter stories in between, “The Feeling of Power[3] amusingly turns the notion of technological advance on its head when humans are fighting Deneb with self-programming computers and are at a stalemate until they discover that they can do math themselves with only their brains and paper. This may give them a bizarre edge in the conflict.

It’s an odd story unlike most other stories of the time (including Asimov’s own) in being aware of mechanical miniaturization and is a hair from anticipating Vernor Vinge’s Singularity (but misses it completely) and one has to wonder how we lost all records of the principles of multiplication but not all other history (however confused what has been retained may be) and why the technician who rediscovered them by analyzing the working of computers uses base ten instead of two but it’s just always stuck in my head as a remarkable concept.

The Dying Night” is a murder mystery set at an astronomers’ convention and involves three old college buddies who have each gone off to the moon, Ceres, and Mercury while an embittered fourth developed a heart defect and had to remain on Earth where he turned his superior intellect to developing a matter-transmission device which would enable him to travel to other worlds without rockets. When he ends up dead, the peculiar detective (and recurring character) Wendell Urth is called in to investigate. It’s a clever and interesting tale in most ways but seems to have three flaws: even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t figure it out the first time, the solution seems too obvious at one point in retrospect; I have to wonder why astronomers would be such whizzes at developing matter-transmission devices; and I have to wonder why the perpetrator could fail to overcome one mental block at the same time he succeeds in overcoming a much stronger mental block.

I’m in Marsport Without Hilda” is another sort of mystery in which an agent must determine which of three powerful men are importing illegal drugs without angering the two who are not guilty of this crime, all while the agent tries to secure a date with an impatient woman. Some may not be amused by the married man’s strenuous efforts at infidelity but it’s a reasonably clever tale which should amuse most. (Note, about a half-page is cut and some “hard-boiled” words are changed from the original and subsequent printings (such as in Asimov’s Mysteries) because Asimov’s book editor felt librarians might no longer trust Asimov to be squeaky clean but, really, this actually removes much of the rationale for the word association gimmick and otherwise makes virtually no difference.)

The “Gentle Vultures” are aliens who are named such by the human they’ve abducted in order to ascertain why humans are not following the usual pattern and having a nuclear war. Their usual practice is to wait for the event and then to rehabilitate the survivors. Deciding that we may never have a nuclear war, they decide to try to start it for us, though their principles (more biologically ingrained than ethically acquired) present quite an obstacle. The presentation of the aliens as being horrific to the human (and to humans generally) while just acting according to their natures and even being virtuous from their point of view is done well and sets this story a little above similar tales.

All the Troubles of the World” is one of several stories (and the first of two in this collection) dealing with the giant ultracomputer, Multivac, in which the practically omniscient artificial intelligence has humanity place on it all their troubles with the directive to solve them. When a man seems to be impossibly falsely arrested, the humans in charge of administering Multivac learn something shocking. Usually super-AIs are shown as great boons or great dangers but this story has a unique perspective. The ending could be seen as melodramatic or as effectively surprising and powerful.

Spell My Name with an S” deals with a “numerologist” helping a physicist who wants more independent work and recognition. The numerologist’s admission that he’s more of a statistician, the change he suggests, and its effects are fun to trace out and, while the ending might strike some as a bridge too far (and reminiscent of another story in the book), that’s also an entertaining loop in its way, following on a generally entertaining and clever story.

Asimov’s “Nightfall” was ranked as the all-time best story by the SFWA when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I was published in 1970 but, despite that, I think this book saves an even better story for last (of the shorter stories, at least). “The Last Question” opens in the (still) near future of 2061 with Multivac being casually asked something which, despite its vast knowledge, it can’t answer. The question is occasionally asked again and again over the course of eons which Asimov traverses with his translucent prose conveying transcendent conceptual poetry until its perfect finale. If I could make an anthology of SF, even if limited to a single short one, this would be in it for being definitive SF and giving me great joy simply as a story but also for either resonating with or perhaps even shaping my attitude to, well, everything.[4]

In sum, there’s really nothing in this collection that’s not enjoyable and several stories that would reasonably be in any “best of” collection or anthology, plus at least a couple of outright classics. Asimov considered it his best collection in 1980 and, while he should have at least had some recency bias for The Bicentennial Man which, as I remember it, gives this one a run for its money, I may agree with him: great stuff; strongly recommended.


  • 7 “I Just Make Them Up, See!” (F&SF, February 1958)
  • 9 “Rejection Slips” (Nine Tomorrows, 1959)
  • 11 “Profession” (Astounding, July 1957)
  • 69 “The Feeling of Power” (If, February 1958)
  • 79 “The Dying Night” (F&SF, July 1956)
  • 106 “I’m in Marsport Without Hilda” (Venture, November 1957)
  • 120 “The Gentle Vultures” (Super-Science Fiction, December 1957)
  • 137 “All the Troubles of the World” (Super-Science Fiction, April 1958)
  • 154 “Spell My Name with an S” (Star Science Fiction, January 1958)
  • 170 “The Last Question” (Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1956 )
  • 184 “The Ugly Little Boy” (Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1958)

[1] As can be seen from the content listing, it is actually entirely late 1950s (1956-59). It was also his nineteenth and final SF book of the 1950s as well as the twenty-ninth of the thirty-two total books he published in that decade.

[2] Despite this collection’s subtitle, “Tales of the Near Future” (even leaving aside “The Last Question,” which starts there but manifestly doesn’t end there), this story is set in the seventh millennium for no apparent reason and it’s not unique in Asimov’s works in that regard. It reads like it might be 2200 or so, and that might qualify as “near future.”

[3] I reviewed this story in the Birthday Reviews: Asimov, Breuer, Russell post and have repeated most of it here.

[4] If you don’t believe me, believe the author himself, who also thought it was his (and everyone’s) best. Although, actually, the story does arguably have one single flaw which, ironically, is the last line–but only because the next-to-last is so good and sufficiently establishes the concept.

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir
Hardcover: Crown Publishers, 978-0-8041-3902-1, $24.00, 369pp, February 2014
Tradepaper: Broadway Books, 978-0-553-41802-6, $15.00, 369pp, October 2014

I bought this book a long time ago after seeing the movie in the theaters (which is an unusual procedure for me when it comes to SF) and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. I doubt many people interested in it at all have been any slower than I have, so a long synopsis or detailed critique wouldn’t be much good. Basically, a half-dozen explorers are on Mars when a storm starts to tip their exit vehicle and they have to leave almost as soon as they’ve arrived. One of them, Mark Watney, is injured and the sensors indicate he’s dead. After efforts above and beyond the call of duty, his companions can’t find him, so they leave without him. What follows is his tale of fighting to survive alone for a long time with meager supplies.

Among the few problems this book has is that there’s only so much logical suspense over the ultimate story arc given the way the book is written though that also doesn’t stop the emotional response from working (and, to be fair, it’s hard to judge that aspect of the book having already seen the movie). A second is that the narrative structure seems loose, with a huge amount of first-person logging from Watney mixed (sometimes at places where it feels jarring and sometimes not at places where you’d expect it) with some third-person stuff on Earth and some omniscient, objective stuff on Mars as well. And thirdly the protagonist is arguably a bit of wish-fulfillment – yes, he’s a believable human and does screw up and so on, but he’s a damned funny, smart, brave, indomitable person.

On the other hand, I’ve been getting to bed late for awhile because (as is often said hyperbolically) “it was hard to put down.” One of the best things about the book is how well it judges and handles Watney’s problems and successes so that I never got bored with too much success and relative safety or irritated by excessive failure. (The movie actually gives Watney an easier time of it.) I also enjoyed the fuller internal dimension of Watney’s subjective view though the movie’s greater relative balance between the parts makes cinematic sense, too. The book also has more funny lines and clever details than the movie has room for. To further compare the two, the movie is a remarkably faithful adaptation though necessarily much abridged, especially in the back half (which results in a logic glitch to one of the best parts). On the other hand, it adds a famous line and takes cinematic advantage of something that was discussed but not actually done in the book. I rewatched it on completing the novel and had forgotten how fantastic it looked, too.

If you’re feeling at all jaded about SF or life in general, either treatment of the story will help with that. Basically, if you’ve liked the book or movie at all and haven’t experienced both, you almost certainly want to try the other.

At one point while reading this I came to hope they’ve begun passing it out in every classroom in the country (or world) and, when looking for the cover art for this post, was delighted to stumble across a classroom edition (though that probably just means they censored the frequent profanity). This book is a great guide to life, itself: explore, educate yourself about reality, face facts, solve problems, take necessary risks but be smart about it, never give up, keep a sense of humor, be hopeful, survive, and help your fellow humans.

Review: Stormland by John Shirley

Stormland by John Shirley
Hardcover: Blackstone Publishing, 978-1-09-401782-2, $26.99, 338pp, [April] 2021

This will not be a review so much as a notice because I actually read this immediately after The Godel Trigger and entered the above information to start the review, but never got around to writing anything else until yesterday (on a different book) and this is no way to write a review.

As I remember it, the premise of this book is that climate change has led to a constant series of storms hitting the southern United States, making the region almost unlivable but making it one of the better places to hide out with the people unable to leave if you’re a criminal or otherwise want to leave the rest of the world. Another element is the continued privatization of all things, resulting in various law enforcement corporations. The main protagonist is a rent-a-cop who remembers when things were otherwise and prefers those times, but has been sent out to track down a serial killer who has disappeared into Stormland. Another element is the strife between a rich showoff and his son during and after the former crashes his fancy vehicle into Stormland. And, along the way, we meet various natives and a couple of the 1% who are evil voyeuristic mind-controlling nutjobs. (And there just might be something more broadly symbolic and thematic in that.)

I’m not generally a big fan of cli-fi or apocalyptic stuff but I am a pretty big fan of John Shirley. My favorite book of his is Eclipse and there was a moment in this when the near-future scenario, the eclectic band of characters, the socioeconomic themes, and the vivid, gritty tangibility of this book excited me with the feeling that I might have another Eclipse-level book on my hands. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that but that’s a high bar and I still enjoyed it. Perhaps the worst thing is the very premise, in that I have a hard time buying the notion of what seems to be basically a year-round procession of hurricanes while the rest of the planet seems to be more or less “normal.” (I have thought about Earth developing a Jovian permanent storm which seems a little more plausible, but I don’t know.) The weirdest part was how this was at once ferociously apocalyptic and oddly cozy with lots of nice and semi-mean people and only a few utterly vicious folks, with most of the latter not even being in Stormland. But this mixture is actually probably more realistic than either purer form of apocalyptic fiction. I think one of the best parts was the relationship that develops between the cop and the killer and the questions raised by the latter’s past and current state, which I’ll let the reader discover. Ultimately, it’s a pretty action-packed and thoughtful book.

Review: Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt

Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt
Hardcover: Saga Press, 978-1-4814-9797-8, $27.99, 375pp, May 2019
Paperback: Pocket Books, 978-1-4814-9798-5, $8.99, 440pp, February 2020

Any discussion of this eighth installment in the Alex Benedict series (in which a dealer in antiquities stumbles across a historical mystery to investigate in each novel) will necessarily spoil an element of the seventh.

That element is the return of Alex’s uncle, Gabe, which, along with other things in Coming Home (such as its title), made me think that was a nice stopping place for the series (which opened with his disappearance). I think that may have been the plan, too, because the gap between the seventh and eighth volumes was longer than any since it was turned into a series with the second[1]. Even when this did come out, I wasn’t intending to get it but things eventually worked out so that I did. The return of Gabe also makes the subtitle, “An Alex Benedict Novel” almost a misnomer. In the first, essentially stand-alone, novel, Alex was the narrator. In the subsequent novels, Chase Kolpath (his pilot and girl Friday) became the narrator and Alex becomes an object in Chase’s universe of perception. In this, Alex retreats further to the background as the first three-quarters or so of the book focuses more on Gabe and one of the key discoveries occurs then. However, the first half or so contains no real discoveries at all as the actual investigation into the mystery doesn’t really kick in until after that, focusing instead mostly on Gabe’s return and adjustment to having, in essence, traveled over a decade into the future and on the fact that there actually is a mystery to eventually be investigated.

The mystery is that, about a decade ago, four scientists were investigating a black hole from Octavia, a space station which was orbiting it, when the station disappeared. Gabe and Alex undertake more or less separate lines of research with Chase sometimes accompanying Gabe and sometimes Alex. The usual searches for and meetings with people who might have been involved or have known something occur, artifacts are followed up on, multiple seeming dead-ends are encountered, and eventually breakthroughs occur and things progress as they usually do in the novels of this series. Along the way, the characters confront and reassess their relations with the artificial intelligences which are such an important but under-appreciated part of their civilization which works on a science fictional level and, presumably, a symbolic one as well.

All in all, this would probably work well (perhaps better) for a reader new to the series despite it seemingly being so focused on backstory, because the backstory is made clear and the series would be shiny and new, and it’s not a bad book or a labor to read. Still, I’d recommend reading the older ones instead. And for me, I rarely read so many volumes in a series, yet enjoyed the seven I’d read so much that I felt I could read the next mystery episode indefinitely, yet was also satisified when the series seemed to reach a stopping place. This belated episode, which changes the chemistry and pushes the serial arc further, didn’t really rekindle my enthusiasm. The mystery was fairly average, took too long to get to, and its resolution was underwhelming (though it is clever how the parts relate), and the most interesting part of the book, while conceptually central to it, was slighted in terms of the actual narrative focus and dramatic action devoted to it.

[1] It’s presumably irrelevant to the fiction, but another change is that of publisher, as the series has moved from Ace to Saga/Pocket. Also completely irrelevant to the fiction but something I just want to say, is that this Pocket paperback is a very nice book as a physical object and reading experience, with generous inner margins, a firm spine but flexible covers and paper, nice looking title page, typography, style, etc.

Review: The Godel Operation by James L. Cambias

The Godel Operation by James L. Cambias
Trade Paperback: Baen, 978-1-9821-2556-1, $16.00, 273pp, May 2021

(This review will be brief because, while I was intending to get back to blogging this year, I wasn’t intending to review this book when I started reading it. But, in the end, I decided I might as well.)

The Godel Operation is set about eight thousand years in the future in a solar system teeming with life both biological and artificial, which is a sort of miracle since there have been intermittent wars throughout the intervening time, some of which pitted biological vs. artificial life and were vast in scale and ferocious in intensity. Thanks to a change of heart (or new calculation) between the AIs, leading to some civil strife between them, a new, non-genocidal (dis)order arose. So, much like the first decades after WWII, but on a far larger scale of time and space, life in the solar system is doing fairly well after it all, though there are extremists on both sides who still pine for a final solution. Similarly, many habitats have been repaired or created but relics of the wars persist, especially including the Godel Trigger, a legendary weapon that is rumored to be able to eliminate all artificial life.

Our narrator is Daslakh, an AI inhabiting a spider mech body and doing mining chores with Zee, who is “pretty clever for a lump of meat.” When Zee is feeling down, Daslakh contacts the “god” (controlling AI) of Raba, an asteroid of the Uranus Trailing Trojans where the pair lives and works. That AI implants artificial memories in Zee, supposedly to add spice and give meaning to Zee’s life, about a lost love who is actually a character taken from a “first-person virtual entertainment.” This leads to Zee’s determination to find her and make things right, and to Daslakh going with him. So begins a series of adventures taking them to various places in the solar system and closer and closer to the Godel Trigger, culminating on a partially terraformed Mars. Along the way, they meet a woman who has the name of Zee’s “love” and looks like he remembers her but certainly doesn’t act like her, another woman Zee is actually much more drawn to, an uplifted cat and her two human goons, a system-famous thief who may never have stolen anything, and several other more or less colorful humans and AIs.

Daslakh’s sarcastic narrative style, in which light contends with dark, engagement with remoteness, is enjoyable. The other characters are interesting, though the narrative viewpoint allows or covers for some distance. The standard quest plot is deftly executed through a fascinating milieu which makes the solar system feel like a galaxy and gives a good feel of the millennia gone by. Admittedly, Daslakh is a sort of tour guide who tells us about much of this but it’s lightly handled and comes alive with plenty of action, too. In broad strokes, it may not be utterly unique but the details and handling make it seem quite fresh and much more convincing than many other futures. And, as the whole plot plays on one extremely well-known trope, so the ending audaciously reinvents another one. Ultimately, it had something to say about the aesthetic justification of the universe, the changes that can occur to intelligence over time (partly in a social/physical sense, but most pertinently in a personal, psychological sense), and I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn


Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 179pp, 1958

The Rings of Saturn is the last Lucky Starr book, though it’s not the final one. Isaac Asimov had a notion to write Lucky Starr and the Snows of Pluto but he switched to primarily writing non-fiction and there were never any more Lucky Starr books. That makes this the sixth of seven novels which introduces a third wheel while asking two key questions in a milieu which includes fifty outer worlds and the Three Laws of Robotics.

The plot involves the Earth Council discovering “Agent X,” a spy for the most anti-Earth outer world, Sirius, and sending ordinary ships out in pursuit after Agent X blasts his way out of Mos Eisley spaceport. Of course, these ships are not up to the task, but Lucky Starr and his big-in-spirit companion, Bigman Jones, take their snazzy supership out and go on an exciting chase to Saturn [1] where Agent X jettisons a capsule of the stolen plans to the Death Star and is destroyed by an unlucky connection with some space junk. However, it is then revealed that the Sirians have established a base on Titan, claim it as their own territory, and warn Lucky off. He does retreat, only to hide by an asteroid and pick up Wess, a fellow Councilman, before detaching (somewhat like the Falcon floating away with the Star Destroyer’s garbage). Even so, the Sirians have some spiffy mass detectors and track Lucky’s ship as he ducks into the Cassini Division and then crashes into the snowball of Mimas. (Actually, he burns his way in with a fusion beam.) Still, the Sirians persist, so the trio set up a base, leave Wess behind (Lucky tries to get Bigman to stay behind, too, but predictably fails) and then Lucky surrenders. A conference has been set up at which the fifty worlds and Earth will decide if solar systems are indivisible territorial units (as has been the previous assumption and is still Earth’s position) or if Sirius’ new definition of any uncolonized world being up for grabs will hold. After Lucky’s surrender, evil Sirian Sten Devoure’s plan is to kill Bigman in some excruciating way if Lucky doesn’t agree to be taken to the conference and confess his war crimes of invading Sirius’ world of Titan. Much derring-do still results in Lucky agreeing to go to the conference but, rather than telling Sirian lies for them, he instead agrees to reveal Wess’ presence in exchange for Bigman’s life. Both Bigman and a couple of more honorable Sirians are dismayed at Lucky’s moral failure but take Lucky to Vesta for the climactic conference (which turns into a sort of trial) in which all appears lost.

In this one, Lucky and Bigman’s relationship (in which an adult male is repeatedly tousling another adult male’s hair and so on) still bugs me, Sten Devoure is as melodramatic a black hat as his name suggests, there are many contrivances including the mass detectors, the Sirian robots’ limitations (especially including the “battle stations” gimmick), and Lucky’s habitual silence about his clever plans until the end, and the climax is too easy for all the big todo that led up to it. On the other hand, there are exciting scenes, some of the space combat (with a “pea-shot” vs. “grape-shot” and the light speed delays) are similar to Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet space fights, the interstellar politics near the end have an almost Foundation-like feel, and the courtroom scene (and, obviously, the robots themselves) have a Robot-like feel. In addition to the interesting notion of stellar territorial definitions, this also finally raises (though it does not satisfactorily answer) what being “human” is and how robots [2] recognize it in the context of their Three Laws (dramatized by the racialist Sirians ordering their robots to kill the small, subhuman Bigman Jones). Related to this, Asimov specifically has Lucky make the case for the advantages of diversity.

Looking at this book as part of the whole series, I’d say that certain melodramatic aspects and repeated motifs drag this one down but some of its questions and exciting scenes lift it up to place it on par with most of the rest. Though it is clear there could be more stories in the series (with one Sirian brought into the Earth fold and intimations that Devoure and Lucky will tangle again and with the Earth-Sirian cold war still ongoing rather than being ended in some sort of climactic grand finale), it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, either, so makes a decent close to the series.

[1] The depiction of details of Saturn, its rings, and its moons are no longer completely accurate, but they are reasonable and it shouldn’t cause much of a problem for anyone.

[2] Interestingly, Lucky’s cosmopolitan admiration of the “human” accomplishment of the “Sirian” robots seems to echo Asimov’s presumed admiration of the Soviet Sputnik and, while he doesn’t mention that directly anywhere that I know of, this book was written from November 1957 to February 1958, after Sputnik went up in October 1957. (This scientific event may also have played a role in Asimov’s change of focus after this novel from science fiction to mostly scientific non-fiction.

Asimov’s Centennial: Earth Is Room Enough

Earth Is Room Enough by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 192pp, 1957

After receiving comments indicating that he wrote too many space stories [1], Isaac Asimov responded by making his second collection of all-1950s stories also be a collection of all-Earth-based stories. It is a very well-constructed volume which contains seventeen items, with substantial pieces placed at the ends, within which other substantial works alternate with less substantial ones (including one poem after the first story and one before the last). The strongest tales are the ones at the ends and the one in the middle (which is the collection’s sole Robot story). [2] It also contains an unusual number of fantasies and, on the other hand, stories which are about or mention Multivac, the “ten-mile-long” computer which structures society as orderly and rationally as this collection is structured.

The first and longest item in the book (filling a quarter of it) is just such a story. In “The Dead Past,” Arnold Potterly is a professor of history with a mania regarding Carthage, which leads him to petition the government for use of the chronoscope (which is manipulated through interactions with Multivac), through which he can see Carthaginian history and absolve them of the things history has blamed them for. When his request is refused, he commits “intellectual anarchy,” defying this society’s strictures on directed research and suborns a physicist into attempting to create their own chronoscope. That physicist suborns his uncle, a science writer, into more illicit deeds. At that point, the story morphs a couple of times to reach its conclusion.

This is a significant story and ultimately successful, albeit imperfect. While the physicist and his uncle come to life, they are structurally as much conveniences as characters, a part that is not yet the climax feels like it possibly could have been a better climax (and the actual ending seems a little sidewise from what has gone before), and the story is sometimes too “on message” and has a strange message, besides, playing devil’s advocate for the notion that perhaps unfettered scientific research might be bad and government intrusion could be benevolent though it may not be painting certain things as either good or bad but simply inevitable. The human-interest angle with the professor and his wife dealing in their own ways with the loss of their daughter, the complex nature of the chronoscope, the depiction of how grants can be used to control avenues of scientific research for good or ill, is all effective and makes for a compelling and thought-provoking tale.

At the other end, “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” focuses on a day in the life of the head of Dreams, Inc. (which deals in “dreamies,” or a sort of virtual reality). He first deals with the parents of a boy who may have the potential to become a “dreamer,” then a government official who wants to know more about the illicit pornographic dreamies made by others and threatens all dreamie makers, including Dreams, Inc., with censorship, then an employee who is panicked about their competitors, Luster-Think, moving into low-quality mass-market dreams and, finally, with the company’s star dreamer who wants to quit because the creation of his art has taken over his life. Through these angles, we can contemplate aspects of art and artists. While perhaps a bit too directly translated from non-fiction (about fiction) to fiction, it’s a well-done story with good observations and details which really does imagine its new art form in believable detail (with the “overtones,” multiple layers, clouds visualized with synaesthetic associations of touch and smell, and so on).

In between, with “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” Susan Calvin returns briefly to bestow TN-3 on a woman whose husband will be going out of town for awhile. “Tony” is a sort of butler, maid, gardener, interior decorator, and much more, including a component of an experiment. The transformations the two go through are effectively drawn and anticipate some women’s reactions to Spock and the like; though various people of today may find things to dislike for various reasons, it’s a well-done story.

Of the other substantial tales, “Franchise” and “Jokester” are not so substantial that they fully require their length and are hard to accept literally but “Franchise” is a Multivac story about elections being decided by Multivac interviewing a single citizen as a sort of satirical “if this goes on” of polling and does stress the importance of voting in its way. “Jokester” is another Multivac tale in which Multivac provides an astonishing answer to some questions given it about jokes. I don’t buy all the details of the analysis of humor and the ending isn’t strong, but it does include some demonstration jokes which, as conventional as they are, were worth a chuckle. “Someday” is another tale which at least cites Multivac, but is more about people in the future having become dependent on machines and having forgotten how to read or write since all media are audiovisual, as dramatized through two kids who despise one kid’s low-quality story-telling machine and who learn about writing from an oddly antiquarian teacher and resolve to learn it… so they can use it to send secret messages in a club. It ends on a rather un-Asimovian note.

One of the more interesting tales is “Living Space,” which is an “Earths Is Room Enough” parallel-worlds story in which each family gets a world of their own (except for the poor saps who have to stay on “Earth proper” to make the base work), using alternate Earths where life didn’t develop. The first complication to this is excellent (presenting us with the viewpoint of lebensraum, which is handled with remarkable equanimity) and the second makes an even bigger jump but I feel like Asimov didn’t realize quite what he had here, as this could have been a great story but ends quickly and simply as merely a good one.

There are also two substantial fantasies in the Unknown style long after Unknown‘s demise. One is a bizarre tale in which insects are elves (or vice versa) and is one of a few (such as “Dreaming”) which deal with writing or similar things, as Jan Prentiss is writing a story for Horace W. Browne’s Farfetched Fantasy Fiction [3] which he insists is most definitely not “Kid Stuff” when he is confronted with the appearance of a malicious imperial bug. The other is “The Last Trump,” which initially reads as a brilliant parody of “Resurrection Day” which simply renders it as literally and rationally as possible but which gets distracted by its angel’s efforts at encouraging the Chief to indulge in some sophistry at the end.

Of the less substantial pieces that fill the gaps, “The Foundation of S.F. Success” and “The Author’s Ordeal” both apologize to W. S. Gilbert and presumably take his lyrics and replace the words while preserving the meter/tune. The latter probably took more effort and creates an effective headlong effect while satirizing how SF stories are generally written but the former is an even funnier and more clever self-satire of Asimov’s Foundation stories.

There are also two more fantasies. “Gimmicks Three” (originally published as “The Brazen Locked Room”) is a fantasy with a science fictional twist (only partially realized) on the “deal with the devil” motif. “Hell-Fire” is another science fantasy about the hellish power of the atomic bomb which relies on its moral more than its structure.

The remainder of the slighter pieces are SF. “The Watery Place” is one of several of Asimov’s groaner pun short-shorts involving a sheriff’s comical failure to realize he’s making first contact. While not exactly a pun, “The Message” is a time-travel piece going back to WWII which may be even more groan-worthy. “The Fun They Had” seems to be a sentimental piece about schoolchildren of the future looking back on schools of the past. The best of these is “The Immortal Bard,” in which a drunken physicist at a party reveals his ability to transport people from the past and tells the English professor something shocking. Like many of these (the SF parody poems, “Dreaming,” “Kid Stuff,” etc.) this has a strongly personal element as Asimov had a running struggle with critics telling him what his stories really meant.

While this collection only has the three really great pieces (plus the excellent minor piece of “The Bard”), there are several near-great or extremely interesting pieces and all the rest can be casually enjoyed, so this is a very good collection overall.

[1] I think it may have been James Blish who said in a review, “Come home Isaac, all is forgiven!” but I can’t find the quote now. If anyone knows it, please drop me a line. I’m certainly not going to complain, as Earth is not room enough for me, but it’s true that his Foundation novels, Empire novels, half the Robot novels and stories, and The End of Eternity, in a sense, are all mostly off-Earth.

[2] Contents:

  • “The Dead Past” (Astounding, April 1956)
  • “The Foundation of S.F. Success” (F&SF, October 1954)
  • “Franchise” (If, August 1955)
  • “Gimmicks Three” (F&SF, November 1956)
  • “Kid Stuff” (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, September 1953)
  • “The Watery Place” (Satellite, October 1956)
  • “Living Space” (The Original Science Fiction Stories, May 1956)
  • “The Message” (F&SF, February 1956)
  • “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (Amazing, April 1951)
  • “Hell-Fire” (Fantastic Universe, May 1956)
  • “The Last Trump” (Fantastic Universe, June 1955)
  • “The Fun They Had” (Boys and Girls Page, December 1951)
  • “Jokester” (Infinity, December 1956)
  • “The Immortal Bard” (Universe Science Fiction, May 1954)
  • “Someday” (Infinity, August 1956)
  • “The Author’s Ordeal” (Science Fiction Quarterly, May 1957)
  • “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” (F&SF, December 1955)

[3] Asimov is presumably conflating editors Horace Gold, John W. Campbell (or perhaps Robert W. Lowndes), and Howard Browne and keying on the magazine which published this story, Gold’s Beyond Fantasy Fiction.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter


Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 192pp, 1957

Lucky Starr and his sidekick Bigman Jones continue their tour of the Solar System, this time taking us as far as Jupiter where they have their most direct confrontation with the Sirian menace yet. Earth is secretly developing the first Agrav starship but the Earth’s power-seeking former colony is somehow pulling off an impossible job of espionage and finding out all about it. If Sirius gets the complete plans if and when the ship is successfully completed, it will mean war. Initially, Lucky is worried about telepathy and a V-frog (of a species introduced a couple of books back [1]) makes another appearance because Lucky’s thinking to set a telepath to catch a telepath. So the two men and their Venusian critter set out to Jupiter Nine to save the Agrav project. It quickly turns out that it’s not telepathy, but could be the Invasion of the Robot Body Snatchers. Fortunately, the V-frog will be useful for the task of identifying any robot spies, as well, since they lack emotion. Unfortunately, the V-frog is quickly killed. Fortunately, the pool of possible spies is reduced when the Agrav ship, the Jovian Moon, sets out on its maiden voyage with a limited crew, one of whom must be the spy. Unfortunately yet again, it turns out the ship is sabotaged and what had been a wondrous journey to see amazing Jupiter and its retinue of moons turns into a struggle against imminent destruction. Fortunately, yet again, the sabotage reveals the Sirians’ hand to Lucky, if only he can survive to use the knowledge.

In this Asimov completely takes off the Paul French gloves. Sirius is shown to be essentially a Spacer world. The notion of robots is central to this tale and, beyond that, the Three Laws are actually quoted in full in this one. Beyond that total-milieu similarity (or identity), there is also a bit of specific sameness to some of this in both good and bad ways. The good is that taking the reader to the worlds of the Solar System maintains its joy. The bad is that things like Lucky having to endure unfair hazing at the hands of larger, more skilled opponents (who lose anyway) lose their interest, as Lucky’s fight in the Agrav corridor with Armand is just like his pushgun fight in Pirates of the Asteroids. Lucky also behaves non-optimally more than once, such as when he provokes the Commander of the project due to a frankly silly supposed need to “field-test” the V-frog’s perception of emotions, which produces a continued struggle for dominance between the two throughout the book. The “puppy dog” aspect of Bigman’s relationship to Lucky continues, with Bigman getting excitedly playful and nearly dying when things go wrong, though he is given a moment to be clever in the way he evens the playing field (not too much, not too little) for Lucky in the corridor fight. Still, it’s another proficient Lucky Starr adventure (perhaps better than average though not the best) and will probably hit the reader however they’ve been hit by the other tales.

[1] All the previous books in this series are referenced in footnotes in the first ten pages of this one.

Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
Hardcover: Doubleday, 2.95, 222pp, 1955

The oldest people, such as fourteen-year-old Len Colter’s grandmother, can remember the time before the Destruction when God destroyed man’s cities in a rain of fire (an atomic war) and, much chastened, men have become religious extremists and amended the Constitution to never allow cities again, while building a general orthodoxy which includes a deadly intolerance for almost any form of machinery or technology beyond nineteenth-century levels. As a New Mennonite living in Piper’s Run (Ohio?), Len and his fifteen-year-old cousin, Esau, chafe against the restrictions. Esau is innately a perverse hellraiser while Len is ambivalent about most things but frustrated with his current life and enchanted by the little he can learn from his grandmother about how things used to be. They also hear rumors of a possibly mythical place called Bartorstown [1] where men still have technology and it becomes a sort of El Dorado to them. They suspect Hostetter, a trader who frequently travels back and forth through Piper’s Run, is actually a man of Bartorstown. One night, Hostetter has heated words with a fellow trader, Soames, who ignores what Hostetter was telling him and falls victim to a stoning by religious fanatics who are convinced that Soames is a Bartorstown man. When Hostetter gets the man’s effects and takes off with the traumatized boys who witnessed the murder, it turns out that Esau is not too traumatized to have a peek into the belongings, be irresistibly drawn to one of the items, and steal it. It’s a radio and the boys become consumed with trying to make it work, even stealing some of their teacher’s books in a fruitless effort to help. Even so, partly by clever thought and partly by luck, they eventually succeed, hearing remote voices in the night. More inspired than ever, Esau unwisely decides to contact Hostetter to get taken to Bartorstown but Hostetter instead turns him in to the town’s authorities as a good non-Bartorstown man would do. This gets Len caught as well and both boys are whipped by their fathers (who do so with differing degrees of eagerness). Where Esau had been aggressive, he is broken after the whipping and often-timid Len is suddenly more certain than ever. He decides to run away and invites Esau to come with him, restoring some measure of spirit to the other boy. The fact that it’s later decided that they’ll undergo a public flogging in addition to their private whippings makes leaving that much easier.

In the second part of the three-part book, the boys are young men who have stopped at Refuge, a bustling metropolis pushing the mandated limit of “one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile” along their blind and winding way to El Dorado where the dominant religion is the ever-so-slightly more relaxed Church of the Holy Thankfulness. They’ve been taken in by Judge Taylor who tolerates Esau but likes Len. Still, he’s aware of their troublesome ways and advises Len that he might have a good life here if he’ll find some of the same contentment Len’s father also once advised him to find. One of the things standing in the way of that contentment is the judge’s daughter, Amity, because both the young men like her and she doesn’t discourage either of them. Eventually it comes to blows between the boys and Len decides to leave, with the Judge throwing out Esau for good measure and warning him to have nothing to do with his daughter, which Esau obeys as much as he does anything else. Meanwhile, they’d been working for Dulinsky, a businessman who is working on building another, and illegal, warehouse. The neighboring town, Shadwell, has effortlessly been growing from Refuge’s overflow and is not pleased at the notion that Refuge may grow and deprive them of their own easy wealth. This comes to a head in more violence and death in which Len is beaten up more than once and nearly lynched before being saved by a finally-revealed Hostetter. Esau and the pregnant Amity have already been rounded up and they are finally off to Bartorstown, which requires an arduous journey through the great West. In the third part, they will learn that it both is (a little) and is not (a lot) like what they’d imagined, will learn that Bartorstown is terrified of being destroyed and will not let them ever leave, and will suffer great culture shock and paths of adjustment to it. This is a road far, far harder for Len than Esau (complicated by his meeting Joan, a sharp, flashing-eyed woman who has an agenda of her own) and Len will finally have to do something he’s never done before.

Despite, or because of, being a fan of Leigh Brackett’s planetary romance and space opera, I put off reading this for a long time [2]. Novels about backwards societies and religious fanatics don’t appeal to me. However, while this was easy to put down because it isn’t my kind of thing, it also had me enthralled as long as I had the book in my hands because it’s so well done, emotionally engaging, and uses the light of its thoughtful author and questing protagonist to shine through the darkness which seems to overwhelm most such books. This is a well-regarded novel but, if Brackett had been a “literary” figure instead of a “pulp” author, like Orwell, Huxley, Shute, Stewart, etc., this would probably be considered a classic of “real” literature alongside them. Through her Hamlet of Len Colter, she explores the difference between dreams and reality and, even more pointedly, between those ruled by fear and a need for stasis which they cloak in holy garb and those who recognize both the dangers and rewards of change and, either way, its inevitability, however quick or long it is in coming.

This isn’t a perfect novel. The most glaring thing is how gentle a holocaust this was, with no craters where cities stood, or mutants roaming irradiated badlands, but with amendments to the Constitution and still a Mexican border. There is either too much or too little Esau: too simply characterized for almost a dual main-character or too prominently featured for a sidekick. There are odd glitches such as having a New Mennonite teacher and town leaders who almost revere relics of books rather than burning them. Also, while she did an excellent job of showing both the brutal, vicious father of Esau and his brother, the basically decent and compassionate father of Len, and more generally showing the rationale and “goodness” of even self-righteous murderers (and even agreeing so overwhelmingly with the side of technological change and free thought as I do), I feel like she could have given the forces of fear and stasis an even fairer hearing. Finally, the book is a “classic SF novel” in most ways but is a little long for that. It pays off in great tangibility and detail for her milieu but does prevent a breakneck pace.

All that is trivial in comparison to the reality of Len, the way the novel can make the reader furious and excited and nervous and happy, and the subjects it handles with such psychological acumen and philosophical depth. Though chapters 27-29 (of the 30) had me very worried she was going to ruin it (and were some of the most emotionally involving at the same time), she pulled it off for what I think is a great success. Again, not my kind of thing, but highly recommended.

[1] It’s eventually explained that it’s named after the former Secretary of Defense, Henry Waltham Bartor, who was a driving force behind getting it built (Bartor’s Town) but it long confused me, seeming like a strange corruption of “Barter Town” or something.

[2] Of all the books she published in her lifetime, this was the only one I hadn’t yet read.