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 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 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“ 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.
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)
 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.
 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.”
 I reviewed this story in the Birthday Reviews: Asimov, Breuer, Russell post and have repeated most of it here.
 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.