Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Martian Way and Other Stories

by Lacey Kat
(Copyright by Author - All rights reserved)

“The Martian Way and Other Stories,” was the fourteenth book that Isaac Asimov published, and the first collection of short stories Asimov did that did not have a theme. “I, Robot,” consisted of nine connected stories; and the “Foundation” books consisted of nine connected stories. However, by 1955, Asimov had no more “connected” stories in his, at that time, fledgling portfolio.
Evidently, according to the author, putting out random collections of your work was, what we would call today, “box office poison.” These books seldom sold and were the first sign that your carrier as a writer was on the skids (who would have thought). However, having a thrust for being published, and a good relationship with editors, Asimov pitched the idea to then editor of Doubleday’s new science-fiction program, Walter I. Bradbury (referred to, in Asimov’s biographies, simply as “Brad”). To Asimov’s surprise “Brad” liked the idea and so “The Martian Way and Other Stories” came to print.

A slim work, only about 176 pages, it contains four “novelettes.” These are shorter than your standard novel but longer than a “short” story. They were written between 1952 and 1954 and originally published in “Galaxy,” “Space Science Fiction,” and “Astounding.” These were among the plethora of SF pulp and glossy magazines that filled the racks in the dawn of the “Atomic Age.”

The first story is called, of course, “The Martian Way.” Unfortunately, this being still early in Isaac’s career, he had not begun the habit of introducing his works. Later, of course, he thrilled in the habit of adding light to the works presented. Here the reading public will be in the dark. Unless, of course, you read my reviews.

“The Martian Way” was written in 1952 at the height of what would later be called “McCarthyism."
Then Senator Joseph “Tail-gunner Joe” McCarthy was stomping all across the United States rooting out Communism (a.k.a. “The Red Menace”). His simple-minded “patriotism” sickened the young Isaac Asimov and while McCarthy did not affect him directly, he knew it was only a matter of time before SF authors were rounded up and paraded before the “House un-American Activities Committee.”   So Asimov decided to fight back the only way he knew how, with an SF story. A story that deals with Martian colonists, with a problem, who were victimized by a “McCarthy-style” politician back on earth. Rather than bend to the will of narrow-minded “patriots,” they find a better solution to their problem and at the same time shame them into silence and reduce them to ridicule. He did it in 18,000 words.  The November 1952 issue of “Galaxy” featured “The Martian Way,” on the cover, with Isaac’s name misspelled. He sat back and waited for the mail he was sure his story would elicit, denouncing him or supporting him, but it never came. The story was so subtle that no one got the satire.  Still the story is a good one and has stood the test of time. Faced with a shortage of water, used not only for personal necessity but also for propulsion of spacecraft, the Mars colonists, shunned from the earth, turn to space to satisfy their needs. In an exciting and imaginative story, one that could happen in my lifetime, "The Martian Way” is used to solve the problem, for good.

The next story in the collection is called “Youth.” It deals with the simple question of what would happen if the first alien explorers were found by youngsters who, not recognizing their find, decided to keep the creatures as “pets”?  “Youth is a 10,000-word novelette that first appeared in the May 1952 issue of “Space Science Fiction,” edited by Lester del Rey. Though a sizable work, Asimov wrote it in only ten days, and that is all he had to say about it. The impetus for the story is lost with the author, as are any anecdotes about its creation. It is a very clever story, and without spoiling the ending, let me just say that Asimov was never credited for that episode of the “Twilight Zone.”

“The Deep” is an unusual story for Asimov for it deals with a totally alien world and culture. In his later writings, only humanoid characters would populate the Asimov universe. In these earlier times, Isaac explored the possibility of other life forms and other ways of life.  The story centers on a planet that orbits a slowly dying sun. The civilization, unable to move to another planet, is forced to dig toward the only source of energy left, the molten core. As that too slowly cools, the society makes one final effort at survival.   It is interesting on several levels. First, it is a product of its time, December of 1952. The technological references, while SF, are clearly pre-transistor. Second, Asimov invents a society were even “mother love” is considered obscene. At a time when “soulless Communism” was the threat and “mom and apple pie” were American virtues, no editor would dare risk his magazine’s reputation on such a radical story idea. As a matter of fact Tony Boucher of “Fantasy and Science Fiction,” did reject it. However “Galaxy” bought and ran it. Today the idea seems tame, but back then it was a different world.

“Sucker Bait” is the final story in the collection and its history sheds some light on the publishing world of that time.  It was, at that time, not unusual for a publishing house to call some of its writers in and present them with a project. They would give the diverse authors the same set of facts, and then ask them each to write their own story, based on those facts. For example once, in 1957, Larry Shaw, of “Infinity,” called in Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Randall Garrett, to his office and gave them the title, “Blank.” Each author was to write a story with that title. These stories were collected and published in his magazine, with the appropriate ad campaign.  In 1953, Twayne Press had the idea of producing what it called “Twayne Triplets” (I am sure only for the love alliteration). The idea was to create a planet with a particular astronomical or chemical situation, and then have three different authors write three different stories all based on that planet as background. Asimov loved the idea but was afraid that the other two authors might not live up to their end of the deal and he might be stuck with an unused story (sacrilege to a professional writer). Asimov (who may have know more than he let on) secured the serial rights to his story, as a hedge against trouble. It paid off for one of the authors pulled out of the contract and Twayne Press folded.  “Sucker Bait” was the result of this ill-fated venture, and it deals with a teenage human computer who is on a ship sent to investigate what happened to a space colony over a hundred years ago. The theme of the story, as the crew sets out to solve the mystery, is that a genius is useless if he cannot see beyond his own training. This would be a theme the Renaissance Asimov would visit a number of times. Each member of the science party is an unquestioned authority in his own field, but it is up to an unstable “Nummonic” to put all of the pieces together.

“The Martian Way, and Other Stories,” is well worth the time of any reader. As science fiction, it
explores different worlds, cultures, and adventures. As the early work of Asimov, it adds insight into his early career and ideas he would come back to again and again, and as mystery and adventure, it never lets the reader down.

Although this book was first published in 1955 it is still available, new, from Amazon.com for under $16.00.

The Kite that Won the Revolution

by Lacey Kat
(Copyright by the Author - all rights reserved)

(Known for his science fiction, Issac Asimov's actual literary output covered a vast array of topics.  In this review I will be looking at one of the good Doctor's historical output.) 


On June 27th, of 1962, Isaac Asimov was having lunch with Austin Olney. Austin was the head of the Juvenile Division of Houghton Mifflin Company. This was a publishing firm based in Boston. Austin and Isaac had been friends and professional associates since 1957 and it was not uncommon for Asimov to have lunch with people who might buy his work.

On this date, Austin had an idea for a new project for Isaac. Houghton Mifflin was busy putting out a series of juvenile books that dealt with American history. They were being edited by Sterling North who, at that time, was a book reviewer for the New York Post (and no stranger to Asimov, the writer of books). Mr. Olney wanted Isaac to do one of the series. After some thought Isaac suggested a book on Benjamin Franklin, with a strong look at his scientific discoveries. Austin agreed and that book became “The Kite That Won the Revolution.”

Asimov started writing the book in December of 1962 and finished it by the end of the year. On January 15 Isaac received a badly edited manuscript back from the series editor, the aforementioned Sterling North. Isaac understood the need to sometimes edit any work, or even any one of his. However, because of some past bad experiences with over-enthusiastic editors (who may not have understood the subject or point of Asimov’s current project), The good Doctor preferred to do the editing himself. If the editor or publisher did not like this, Asimov felt they did not have to buy his work. If a story was to be judged, Asimov wanted it to be judged on his work, not another’s editing.

Asimov went to Austin Olney and told him that while North’s series was good, his editing made “The Kite,” no longer a work of Asimov. As such he wanted the manuscript back. Austin came up with a better idea. Houghton Mifflin would publish the book as tomb unto itself, and not part of North’s series. This satisfied Asimov, it satisfied Austin, and it satisfied Houghton Mifflin. The only person it did not satisfy was Sterling North who called Asimov and screamed at him in a rather “high-pitched voice.”

You cannot please everyone, and you can seldom please editors.

“The Kite that Won the Revolution,” was published in 1963 and it did only moderately well as an independent book. It may have done better as part of the North series, but Asimov was pleased that he stuck by his principles and produced a work that was his own.

It is unfortunate that “The Kite,” did not do well and has been all but lost in the dustbins of publishing history. Let me tell you about the book and see if you agree with me.

“The Kite,” referred to in the title of this small but enlightening work, is the famous one flown by Ben Franklin. “The Revolution,” that it won was, of course, the American Revolution of 1776. It is here that Asimov begins his tale. He starts with the beginning of the fighting, in Concord, Massachusetts, in April of 1775. Asimov then moves to the battle of Bunker Hill, in June of the same year. This was the first important battle for the “colonists/ soon to be independents, because, although they lost, they put up a good fight against a better equipped, better trained, professional army. Asimov continues to relate the American’s valiant, though often un-victorious, efforts until the arrival of the French in 1778.

It is at this point that Asimov departs from his history lesson to teach a little about history. To do ventures to explain, rather well, how seemingly unrelated events connect to form our modern world. This was a device used most effectively twenty years later by the Science Editor of the BBC, James Burke, in his series for television, “Connections.”

Let me explain.

Asimov leaves the battlefield and the American Revolution with several questions hanging in the air. The main one was why the French, who were in no position, either financially or philosophically, to support the Americans, never the less did so. To answer that, the good Doctor first takes the young reader back forty or fifty million years, to a forest of pine trees on the northern coast of Europe. These trees produced enormous amounts of sap that hardened with contact with the air. This resin, (from the Greek word meaning “to flow”) hardened and was buried under the soil and the Baltic Sea. The resin took on a reddish-yellow color and became known as “amber.” Amber (or Bernstein in German) became prized for its color and ease in shaping into works of art. In 600 B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Tales found that by rubbing amber it would attract pieces of fluff, just like some rocks would attract pieces of iron. He wrote about this in his journals and decided that rocks that attract must have “souls.”

From here Asimov projects us to the 1500s and an Englishman by the name of William Gilbert. He was playing with the new invention, the compass. He found that when you rubbed amber it would attract the needle of a compass just like the “magnetic” force of a lodestone (natural magnet). Because the Latin name for amber was electrum, things that would attract when rubbed were called “vis electrica” or “the force of amber.” From this, we get the term “electricity.” Get the connection?

Asimov then details the discoveries of electricity from the 1500s to 1706 in his usual lively style. By the sixth chapter, he is ready to introduce us to the subject of his book, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was the only important scientist that the American colonies produced in their 169 from Jamestown to 1776. While singular in nature, however, Asimov shows how he was more than responsible for the French intervention in the American Revolution, and the final defeat of the British and the establishment of both the United States and of Canada.

“The Kite,” in the title is the kite Franklin flew to prove that the lightning in the sky was the same electricity that would be scientists had been producing by rubbing amber here on earth. For this, he became a respected scientist from a less than respected area of the new world. The other scientific accomplishments, along with his well-developed personal style, made him a revered and admired man in most of Europe. It was this respect that lead the French to help America, even though the principals of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” were not the principals of the French monarchy. All this is detailed in the rest of the book.

The only problem that I had with this intriguing history lesson is that it is indeed a “juvenile” book. The jacket says for ages eleven and up. However, I found that even a child in the fourth grade would have no trouble and that anyone over the age of fourteen would find this a quick read.

I found this interesting because while Asimov wrote a number of “juvenile” books, many reviewed in this section; he never seemed to talk down to his audience. His “Lucky Starr” stories and his books on chemistry and astronomy were always accessible to any reader. This book, however, is overly juvenile for most adults and that is too bad. It contains a wealth of information on the development of science in the “Age of Reason,” and most textbooks seldom approach this subject. I had no problem reading “The Kite,” because I was familiar with the author, however, older students and most adults would find it too elementary to hold their interest. Perhaps Isaac should have written an edition for the older members of his audience.

That said I can still recommend this book to anyone who can find it. The catalog number is “B Fr” in the Juvenile section of the library. You may have it in yours, and I would suggest making an effort to find out. An adult can finish it in one sitting, and a child in a couple of nights. It will educate both readers.

A small postscript;

Asimov was a big fan of Ben Franklin’s, and in 1974 he wrote several fantasy stories involving conversations between Isaac and Ben (The Dream; Benjamin’s Dream; Benjamin’s Bicentennial Blast) for the “Saturday Evening Post.  Later he used Franklin in his book “Norby and the Queen’s Necklace.” 

50 Short Science Fiction Tales

by Lacey Kat
(Copyright by the Author - All Rights Reserved)

"50 Short Science Fiction Tales" is a collection of short-short stories, edited by Asimov, from a wide selection of good and great science fiction authors of the late forties and fifties. (1940s and 50s, in case this review survives that long). Each tale is approximately a thousand words (four to five pages), with minor exceptions, and meets the challenge of creating an alien world, establishing characters, and getting to the punch, all in the same amount of space most stories use to describe the weather. In our hectic world, these "bite-size" bits of sci-fi are a welcome diversion while waiting in line, or for your next appointment.

This was Isaac Asimov's second anthology, published in 1963, and followed his successful "The Hugo Winners" in ‘62. He was aided in his selection of tales by Groff Conklin, who became a personal friend of the good doctor, and was noted for his evaluation of the merits of science fiction as well as his science and technical writings. A chain smoker, he died in 1968.

The only problem with this clever little collection, from an Asimov's fan point of view, is the lack of Asimov. Other than the introduction, he is nowhere to be found. This still being in his developmental period, Asimov had not yet come of the habit of opening and/or closing each piece with his usual observations. In this case that is a bigger than normal loss as this collection has many authors that may have been forgotten over the span of fifty years. Also, while these were all written considerably before my time, some in publications no longer available, some of the stories seem very familiar. It would be interesting to know if they were dramatized on TV or the ideas for later films. Asimov recognized the importance of historical context, and in his later anthologies, he included extensive wordage in the form of introductions, forewords, and afterwords. That is why I look for his name on the cover, and I am sure many fans feel the same way.

A quick footnote: In his autobiography, "I. Asimov," Isaac said that he recognized the need for introductions after his first anthology, and "never again" did he let collections lie there without a single editorial word from him. Apparently, he forgot about "50 Short Science Fiction Tales."

Published in 1963 by Macmillian Publishing Company, it was reprinted by Scribner Paperback in 1997 and is generally available.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Asimov Book Review - The Gods Themselves

By Lacey Kat
(Copyright by the author - All rights reserved)

There is more to being a prolific writer than just writing, although that is one of the primary rewards.  A prolific writer needs to have something to write about and to do that the writer needs to have ideas.  Not only ideas but the ability to turn an idea into a written piece in a reasonable amount of time.

For example, on January 23, 1971, Isaac Asimov was attending a Science Fiction Convention in New York, with his intended, Janet Jeppson.  At a panel discussion, two noted science fictions authors, Lester del Rey, and Bob Silverberg discussed science fiction and the need for the story to outweigh the science.  Bob worried that some in the industry worried less about the human aspect of science fiction, and more about the trivial matters of, to use his example, plutonium-186.  Asimov immediately laughed at this for there cannot be plutonium-186, and most members of the audience knew it.  After the talk, Asimov approached Silverberg and said that while there cannot be plutonium-186 he would show what a real science-fiction writer could do and write a story about the impossible element.  Silverberg said, “you write it and I’ll include it in my next anthology,”   and a story was born.  In one shot Asimov turned an off-handed example in a panel discussion into his next, and some say his best, science fiction novel, “The Gods Themselves.”

Now it must be remembered that Asimov had all but left science fiction over a decade before.  His last science fiction novel (excluding “Fantastic Voyage,” which he wrote based on the screenplay and not on his own) was “Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn.”  This was part of his juvenile series and was published in 1958.  His last adult novel was “The Naked Sun,” (Reviewed on this blog) and that was published in 1957.  True, Asimov had written several short stories during that time and had crafted several anthologies of his past work, but for the last dozen years the good doctor had been concentrating on his non-fiction endeavors.

On February 6, 1971, Asimov sat down to craft a short story based on the idea of plutonium-186.  He was considerably older than the last time he wrote science fiction and his views on the world had also changed... considerably.  Gone was the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his youth, and in its place was a skeptical view of mankind, and its ability to see beyond its immediate gratification.  Remember, this was the early 1970s.  The problems of nuclear reactors were becoming apparent, there were gas shortages looming, and pollution and overpopulation were topics of the day.  To Asimov science was the answer, but would people listen? 

Isaac’s “short” story involved the discovery of what seemed a cheap “free” source of energy.  After the planet becomes dependent on it, a young scientist discovers that the use of this new energy source may lead to the destruction of our solar system.  Will humanity give up its way of life, or will they put it off to the next generation? 

“The Gods Themselves,” is from the Friedrich Schiller quote:   “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.”   At this time of his life, Asimov was less positive about the fate of mankind.

The five-thousand-word length, originally sought, soon bloomed to ten-thousand-words as Asimov felt a true thrill with writing science fiction again.   The hallmark of a true writer.  Anthology be damned, he was going to let the story write itself out completely.    By the time he finished, on February 28th, it was twenty thousand words long, four times what it was supposed to be.  This made it too long for inclusion in the original anthology, but Doubleday publishers like the idea so much they asked Asimov to expand it to novel length.  Asimov at first said no.  It was a good story as told and to expand it would just be padding.  Then, thinking on his feet, Asimov came up with the idea of telling the story from two different points of view.  The new energy source in the original story was possible because of communication with another universe.  What if the second part of the book dealt exclusively with that universe?  Then the third part of the story could be in another setting and change the downbeat ending to an upbeat one.  Doubleday said “great,” and now Asimov had to make it work.

Just a side note.  Lest you start to feel sorry for Bob Silverberg, having to put out his anthology sans Asimov, not to worry.  To make up for the loss of “Gods,” Isaac wrote “Take a Match,” and Bob used that.  Asimov was a man of his word and could almost always be trusted to come through. 

While Isaac was known for his science fiction, his universes were almost exclusively populated by humans.  He had dabbled with aliens in some of his short stories, but he never tried to make a completely alien civilization before.  Now he had to.  The market had also changed in the last thirteen years.  The sexual revolution was in full swing and publishers wanted sex in their stories.  Part two of “Gods” would revolve around an alien universe with alien sex. In fact, it would be populated by creatures that had three sexes, not just horny humanoids with pointy ears.  This was beyond anything Asimov had attempted before.

The book was finally finished on September 7th, 1971, and it looked like it was going to be published without being serialized in any prominent science fiction magazine.  This was because “Analog” had lost editor John Campbell some months before, and Ben Bova had not yet taken the reigns.  In an usual twist, both “Galaxy” and “If” published the book in three parts over three successive months.  This was because both related magazines published on alternate months, and each section of “Gods” could stand alone as a short story/novelette.  The April 1972 edition of “If” contained the story of the tri-sexed aliens, and reportedly sold out on the newsstand.  An interesting commentary on the state of science fiction fans in the early 1970s.

The book was published in 1972, and was widely successful.  In 1973 it won both the “Nebula” and “Hugo” awards for best novel.  While this author feels that the awards were given primarily to honor Asimov’s past contributions, “The Gods Themselves” proved that the good doctor was still at the top of his form.

All from a casual remark about the illogic of plutonium-186.

That is what it takes to be a prolific writer.

Now on to the review.

“The Gods themselves,” is divided into three sections of increasing length and complexity.  The first section, entitled, “Against stupidity . . .” (See quote reference above) focus on the “discovery” of a passage to another universe with laws different from our own.  In the “para-universe,” nuclear attractions are stronger so that any element that comes from then to us soon becomes unstable and highly radioactive.

The section uniquely begins with chapter 6, which Asimov explains, is intentional.  It bounces between the “present” when Peter Lamont, a young Ph.D. discovers that the “Electron Pump,” that now supplies earth with its power, was not the result of Frederick Hallam, but was given to him by intelligence outside of this universe, and the “past,” when a young Hallam finds that a bottle of “stable” tungsten metal has become unstable and radioactive.  It is an interesting way of telling the story, and one that I have never encountered before.  Rather than being a simple “flashback,” Asimov moves the reader back and forth through twenty years chapter by chapter depending on the readers need to know.  Hallam is now the savior of mankind and edits history so that he gets sole credit for the Electron Pump.  Any effort to examine it, or check for problems, is suppressed.   Lamont, with the help of a linguistic expert, discovers that the Electron Pump is dangerous to the laws of our universe and continuing use may result in the destruction of the sun or our entire area of the galaxy.  Because Lamont cannot conclusively prove his ideas, and because the Pump is the easy solution to mankind’s problems, no one will help Lamont explore his ideas and stop the destruction of man.

The next section of the book is entitled, “. . . the gods themselves . . .” and takes place in the parallel universe.  It focuses on Dua, Odeen, and Tritt, members of a triad that these creatures need to form in order to reproduce.  Odeen is called a “Rational” and his job is to learn and contact others.  Tritt is called a “Parental,” and his job is to tend to the children, family, and sex.  He acts more on instinct than thought.  Dua, who Asimov refers to as a “she” is an “Emotional,” and it is her job to bind with the rational and parental to allow procreation.  All three must “melt” for this to occur.

Dua is an unusual “Emotional” because she has a large amount of “Rational” in her makeup.  She, along with Odeen and Tritt, are “Soft Ones,” capable of undefined shapes and moving through solid objects.  Their teachers are the revered “Hard Ones.”  They seem to run the planet and are looked upon as gods.  The exact relationship between the Soft and Hard Ones is not revealed until the end of the section.

In this universe, nuclear forces are much stronger.  Suns are smaller because anything approaching the size of our sun would be too densely packed and would go nova.  With smaller, cooler suns, the night sky has only seven visible stars.  The planets own star is cooling down and energy is the food of the “Soft Ones.” As a result, the birth rate has been declining and a new source of energy is needed.  Enter the “Positron Pump.”   The “Hard Ones” have communicated with our universe and are using the pump to bring energy into their universe.  They know that the Pump will make our sun unstable, but they want this as they hope to use the force of our sun going nova to provide them with energy, independent of their own star, for a million years.   It is the “Emotional,” Dua, who discovers this plot and objects to the destruction of other life forms for what she sees as selfish gain.  It is Dua who has warned us of the danger of our “Electron Pump.”

The final section of the book is entitled “. . .canted in vain?” and here Asimov attaches a question mark to the original quote.  His intent, in the first story, was to end on a negative note, reflecting his pessimism at the current state of selfish humanity.  By the time the book was completed, Asimov decided to end on a much more positive note, remembering that individuals can sometimes save the group from itself.

The story starts on our moon sometime later (the first two sections occur roughly simultaneously in the two universes).  It centers on the actions of Ben Denison, an engineer from earth, and Selene Lindstrom L, a native of the moon.  Earth is in a slow decline creatively with more energy put into the Electron Pump, and less energy put into other endeavors.  The moon is the current cutting edge of science, and Denison wants to migrate to the moon to be a part of that.  Politics, as usual, are woven through the story.  The moon wants more independence, and earth sees the moon as only one of her “colonies” beholden to the mother planet.  Life is hard on the moon with limited resources, and Asimov goes out of his way to paint a society free from the “puritanical norms” of the earth.  Nudity is common, though not necessary to the plot, children are born out of wedlock, and sex is more or less free.  Once again, having little to do with the story, and in no way connected to the sex lives of the para-universe.

Denison is aware of the theories about the problems caused by the “Electron Pump,” but Hallam still controls earth science any attempt to question his gift to man is met with professional banishment.  Denison has come to the moon to test his theories and look for a solution.  For some reason no one has been able to set up and “Electron Pump” on the moon and Denison believes that the para-universals need a strong planetary magnetic field to find the area to make the passage between universe.  The moon has no magnetic field, so no door, so no “Electron Pump.”
  With the help of Selene, Denison must try and find a solution to the energy crisis, and the problems it is causing, before running afoul of both the earth establishment and the lunar revolutionaries who want the moon to become a separate world from earth.  And all of this before the sun, and this arm of the galaxy, is destroyed.

Unlike Asimov’s earlier works, the portrait of scientist as savior is not as clear as he once painted it.  The years have shown Isaac how harsh and self-centered scientists can be, and he portrays that in this book.  In the end, it is science that saves the day, but it must fight the pettiness that is in each man regardless of his chosen field.

The book is well written in a somewhat unusual Asimov style.  Any hangups or ignorance of sex he displayed in his earlier works is obviously gone.  This book shows a more mature writer, one that has seen his ideals of youth tested and strained.  Yet it still shows hope for the world if they would only listen.


Still in print, “The Gods Themselves,” can be found in most major bookstores or online at Amazon.com.

Asimov Book Review - Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000

By Lacey Kat
(Copywrite by Author - All Rights Reserved)


Science Fiction, as once described by Isaac Asimov, is a look at how technology affects society.  How changes in applied science will change the people who use it.  As this is a sort of prediction of things to come, and as sometimes the author gets things right, Science Fiction writers are sometimes called “Futurists.”

Asimov often bristled at this title and enjoyed bringing up his 1953 short story "Everest."  In that tale, Asimov predicted that the tall mountain would never be climbed.  Unfortunately for him, the story was published two months after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood upon Everest’s highest point.  Every time he was asked to discuss the future of man, Asimov used this example of what an expert “futurist” he was.

This, of course, never stopped the press from seeking Asimov out when questions about the time to come were asked.  There is an uncertainty about tomorrow that worries the intellectual animal, and anything we get to hedges our bets is welcome.  We read the horoscopes, pick up the “look ahead” editions of popular news magazines, and watch the “World of Tomorrow” programs on “The Learning Channel and YouTube.”

Of course, this is not a recent phenomenon.  What makes modern man different from the ancient Greeks, who went to the Oracles of Delphi for a look into the future, is the idea that “science” is a more legitimate predictor of human events than the past soothsayers were.  This despite the fact that time has often shown them no more accurate.

Which brings me to the book to be reviewed.

In 1899, a French commercial artist, by the name of Jean Mare Cote’, was commissioned to produce a set of “cigarette cards” that would show life a hundred years in the future.  The pace of science and technology was sufficiently fast enough, by this time, that people thought they could reasonably see what the future would hold.  The turn of a century is also a strong time to think about the future.   Unfortunately, Jean Mare Cote’s prognostication abilities did not see that the company who
commissioned him  would go out of business and his whole project would be for naught.  In 1978, Christopher Hyde came across the only pristine set of these cards still in existence and he brought them to America.   Isaac Asimov was contacted to write his reflections of Cote’s illustrative predictions of life in our present, his future, and “Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000,” was created.

The drawings are all very colorful and look at life in the “far” future with a touch of French whimsy that movie genius Georges Melies would commit to film a few years later.    It is apparent to the reader that the artist was more of a Liberal Arts major than a scientist by training.  Some of his “predictions” are hopelessly impractical and would have been easy to see even in the 1900s.  However, other ideas are only mildly off actual inventions we use today.   For example, the first colour card shows a rescue at sea using the not yet invented “aero plane.”  Air-sea rescue is now a well-established event, but Cote’ envisioned only a glider with an engine,  not very much more advanced than the gliders of the 1890s.  Another card, however, depicts the use of “helicopters” as platforms for observation, and does so with remarkable accuracy.  The first helicopter was not built until 1940 yet many of its features were anticipated in Cote’s drawings.

While not a scientist, Jean Marc Cote’ was a commercial artist and understood that you must produce what your public will want to see.  His scenes of days yet to come are filled with activities of super science.  We see people hunting, wearing personal flying machines on their backs.  We see people attending races, and playing croquet, all underwater, yet fashionably dressed.  In addition, we see the floors swept and the dishes cleaned, all by machines with wheels, wires, and small mechanical hands, watched over by the maid of course.  The future will be wonderful, and we can understand it.   There is even a scene of two women at a restaurant talking to other people on Viso-phones.    Not that that would ever happen today.

Along with each card is a paragraph or two by Isaac Asimov explaining why the idea depicted was presented and why it is flawed.  Asimov also presents a very interesting introductory essay on Futurism, and why it is so important that we know what is to come.

It is a pleasant book and interesting for its view of our present from another time.  My only problem is that Asimov seems to take the subject far too seriously.  These were not drawings commissioned by MIT and intended for governmental policy commissions.  They were intended to be cigarettes cards viewed by ladies and gentlemen of means who still viewed science as a new toy.  These were the 1899 version of the “Jetsons.”  The idea of airplanes (All prop by the way.  No jets envisioned), slightly larger than bicycles, delivering mail to each home was as foolish as the idea of watching fish races, underwater, while wearing calf-length gowns.  It was whimsy and Asimov did not seem to notice this.
Another thing that Asimov failed to comment on was the lasting impact of Cote’s ideas on popular culture of the next century.  In 1930, David Butler made a cute little musical film set fifty years into the future (1980) called “Just Imagine.”  In the opening scenes, he had 200 story skyscrapers and rows of aircraft flying at different levels.  At an intersection, in a hovering bucket, was a traffic cop directing the air traffic.  This is not unlike the “Aviation Police” on the card presented on page 40 of “Futuredays.”  Page 64 shows automatic Barbers and mechanical Tailors taking care of customers with little human intervention.  All the ideas that were presented, in jest on the Jetsons, sixty years later.  Many of Cote’s notions of the future were held long into the 20th Century.  Asimov would have done well to explain why these were such cherished visions of life yet to come.

Whether it is looking at old science fiction shows depicting space 1999, or reading old science fiction novels that warn of future doom, we find comfort in how the past viewed the future.  Maybe because they always seem to miss key inventions, or give too much credit to their own work, that they have always gotten the future wrong.  It makes us feel better, I believe, to see their folly because we hope it makes our current dire predictions just as inaccurate.

“Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000” is still in print and an enjoyable read for the reasons I have speculated on above.  The introductory essay on futurism by Isaac Asimov has not been reprinted elsewhere and is worth the cost of the book alone.  The reflections by Asimov on each idea presented in the artwork are interesting and informative, as Asimov often is.  The chance to see another time’s vision of our lives, however light, is always an interesting reflection on the society of the time.  It helps us see how our own time reflects on our vision of the future.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Asimov Book Review - End of Eternety

by Lacey Kat
(Copyright by Author - All Rights Reserved)


On November 17, 1953, Isaac Asimov was on the faculty of Boston University.  He had just finished his first mystery story, “The Singing Bell,” which Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine had rejected, and his 9,000-word “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” which would soon be rejected by Fantasy and Science Fiction.  He wanted to write another novel, but, at the moment, had no ideas.

Being a collegiate library, Boston University naturally had a collection of bound periodicals.  Isaac enjoyed checking out the editions of Time magazine and reliving the history.  The librarians took to calling him the “time” professor.  In one of the early editions of this newsweekly, he noticed a small drawing out of the corner of his eye.  It looked, at first glance, to be a mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb.  The cloud produced by a bomb that would not be produced for at least a half of a generation after this magazine was published. 

It turned out, upon closer examination, to be a picture of the “Old Faithful” geyser in Yellowstone National Park.  However, that started the good doctor to thinking.  What if it was a drawing of a nuclear bomb published so many years before 1945?  How would it get there and what might it mean?  The answer could be time travel, and with that, Asimov started working on his novelette “The End of Eternity.”



The idea in the story is that sometime in the 27th-century man has developed the “Temporal Field.”  An area outside of time, but that can be connected to any point in time the operator wants.  Eventual man uses the power of the far distant sun, going nova, to power “Eternity.”  Eternity is a state of being outside of normal time.  A Temporal Field that extends from the 27th Century for over a hundred and fifty thousand centuries into the future when the sun has gone nova and all life is extinguished.  Eternity can also be seen as a sort of temporal skyscraper with each floor representing a different century.  Movement from floor to floor (century to century) is by way of “kettles.”  These kettles move along shafts and allow the operator to choose the exact time he wishes to stop.  The only exceptions are the years before the 27th Century, which for a sort of foundation to Eternity, and the “hidden centuries” which are, for some unknown reason, blocked to exploration by the “Eternals.”

The “Eternals” are those who inhabit Eternity, and whose job it is to ensure humankind has the safest, most benevolent, life possible.  To do this they move through time making the Minimum Necessary Change - M.N.C. to events that will have the Maximum Desired Response – M.D.R.  For example, by moving a canister on a shelf, space travel is not attained in the 2456th Century.  Space travel, the Eternals have observed, is self-limiting and a waste of energy and resources.  The problem is that the time stream is self-correcting and after a few centuries, things are as they would have been (no paradoxes here).  Therefore, the Eternals must study the centuries and constantly find the M.N.C. that will provide the greatest benefit as they see fit.

The Eternals, recruited from the best and brightest of the centuries that Eternity covers go through three stages in their development; that of Cub, Observer, and Specialist.  The specialists are divided into different casts, the Computer, the Technician, the Sociologists, the Life-Plotters, and the Observers.  The utilize whatever technology they need from the centuries they deal with, even if they deem that technology dangerous to humankind and eliminate it in the time stream.  For example, each level of Eternity is manufactured using a matter-copying device.  This device was deemed too dangerous for Man so the Eternals made the M.N.C. to ensure it would never be invented.  However, it is useful to the Eternals so they kept it in their world of the temporal field. 

The story follows the exploits of Technician Andrew Harlan who breaks the code of the Eternals and falls in love with one of the subjects of his recent observations.  He moves her from a point it time where she was about to be eliminated from the time stream and hides her uptime in a century not used by Eternity.  He then goes back to the working levels of Eternity to see what he can do to be sure he can stay with his new lady love.  He is willing to do anything even if it means destroying Eternity itself.

That is the basic plot of the novel.  There is more involved of course, a few mysteries to be reviled, the reason there is no humanity after a certain century, who really invented the temporal field, who is this Noys of the 482nd Century, etc.  However, these are for the person who decides to read the story.  Personally, I would advise against it.

This is not one of Asimov’s better novels.  Having not yet published a novel myself, I do not stand as an expert on the constructing of such work.  However, that said, I have read enough of Isaac’s work, through all periods of his life, to know what is and is not a good Asimov novel, and, in my lonely opinion, this is not one.


In the first place, the characters are not memorable.  Even Andrew Harlan, the story’s main character, is uninteresting.  Exactly why he does what he does is less than clear, and why he falls for Noys, a driving force in the story, is ignored by the author.  The key questions are finally answered in the last two or three pages of the novel, and then there is no time to digest the information, so you just do not care.  Time, forgive me, goes on and you are left wondering why you plowed through this story rather than taking up needlework or finishing a jigsaw puzzle.  Either of which would have been more productive than navigating to the “End of Eternity.”

When Asimov finished the original story, in February of 1954, he sent it off to Horace Gold of “Galaxy Science Fiction” magazine.  Galaxy was a good magazine, the rival of Astounding Science Fiction, and Horace Gold was eager to buy what Asimov had to sell.  However, he was a cantankerous man, in Asimov’s opinion, and demanded extensive rewrites of Isaac’s work as well as changed the storyline and titles when they were published.  This did not endear Horace to Asimov, but he paid well and that is what any author likes.

Horace did not like the original 25,000-word novelette entitled “End of Eternity,” and wanted a complete revision.  He wanted, as Asimov put it, "to jack up the title and run a new story under it."  Asimov refused.  Doubleday liked the story and asked Asimov to flesh it out into a full novel.  Asimov did not like the way Horace handled himself and this may have tainted his view of the story and its value.  Doubleday, having let Asimov slip through their fingers in the early years of hardback science fiction, was now eager to atone for their mistakes, and this may have colored their view of the story and its value as well.  In either case, I believe Horace Gold had a more accurate opinion this time and that should have been the end of “Eternity.”

Now, let me reiterate here, that Asimov himself thought this was his greatest work and many critics and fans agree.  My opinion, which I feel I can support, is the minority one and you are free to disagree with me when you have finished the book.  I welcome any honest discussion on how I might be in error.

If you wish to read the novel, it is readily available from Orion Publishing Group; (July 1, 2000) with the ISBN: 0575071184.  Amazon.com has the book, both new and used, and it can be yours within the week.  Along with standing alone, the text can also be found in the collections “The Far Ends of Time and Earth,” which is also easy to find, and “Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov,” which is not.

Asimov Book Review - The Alternate Asimovs


by Lacey Kat
(Copyright by Author - All Rights Reserved)


On my bookshelf is a collection of small books on a variety of esoteric subjects.  I am often kidded on this and asked why I keep these obscure micro-tombs, all of which I have read, within eyeshot of my computer.  The answer is simple.  It helps to relieve the dreaded “writer’s block.”

I’ll give you an example.

One book is entitled “Now all we need is a Title,” and subtitled, “Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way.”  In it, you learn that Peter Benchley was thinking about calling his great shark epic, “What’s That Noshin’ on My Laig,” before settling on the less wordy title of “Jaws.” On the other hand, Margaret Mitchell was going to call her classic novel of the American Civil War, “Pansy,” before deciding that the romantic imagery of “Gone with the Wind ” was more suitable.

The point of this drift is that classics rarely start off that way, and the first few drafts, even of a title, often present an insight into the mind and development of the author.

Which brings us to “The Alternate Asimovs”

In this volume, Asimov presents three of his stories as they were originally written and presented to publishers, but not in the final form that we are familiar with.  Two of these short stories were fleshed out into full novels, while the third story received a significantly different ending.   Not all of these changes made the author happy, and fortunately for us, Asimov provides substantial comments and history.

This book was not originally Asimov’s idea.  Despite his well-recognized ego, the good Doctor never saw the value of his unpublished work.  Whenever his personal papers accumulated to an uncomfortable level he took them into his backyard and burned them in his barbecue pit.  Story ideas, first drafts, personal letters, and unsold narratives were reduced to smoke and ash.

Fortunately, there are some people who see the value in collections.  For this story, that savior came in the form of Dr. Howard Gotlieb of the Boston University Library.  He convinced Isaac that there was a literary and historic importance to these papers.  That there were a vast number of people, some in the need of lives, who would gain incalculable knowledge and literary prestige by pouring over these doodles, notes, and first drafts.  How could Asimov refuse such an obligation to history?

Which brings us to the subject of this review.

The first short story in the book is entitled, “Grow Old Along with Me,” and was originally written for “Startling Stories,” on September 22, 1947.  Three weeks later it was promptly rejected.  It was rejected again by “Astounding” and then rejected again by a small publishing house that specialized in science fiction novels.  Asimov was crushed by this literary fiasco and would have burned the manuscript right then except he had just moved into a new house and it did not have a barbecue pit.  Fortunately, two years later, Walter I. Bradbury liked the story and asked it to be fleshed out to some 70,000 words for publication at Doubleday.  They requested a new title and Asimov, still stinging from the earlier rejections, was more than happy to comply.  He changed the name to “Pebble in the Sky,” and it became his first published novel.

What is interesting about this shorter version is that Asimov breaks what Television calls the “fourth wall.”  He talks to the reader in a prologue, two intermissions, and an epilogue to explain where the story is going and why.  This familiar tone was not original even back then, as Ellery Queen would often stop the story to inform the reader that they now had all they needed to solve the mystery (I never could and found this part annoying), but Asimov had a comfortable style and, for him, it worked.   He would later eliminate these familiars for a more direct style and expand the role of Joseph Schwartz to a more principle character.  However, as a short story, this was not at all bad.  It still had the foundation Asimov would use in his later work and also could stand alone as an entertaining read.  I have to agree that “Pebble in the Sky” was an improvement, but only because it filled in more of the details that were only briefly mentioned in the original.

The second selection in “Alternate” is the novelette version of  “The End of Eternity.”  I must admit that I was anxious to read this version as have never been a big fan of the full novel (see review this section).  I was hoping that an abbreviated version would be less confusing and to the point.  Asimov has always loved this story and has felt that history will rank it among his best work.  A great many fans have agreed with him, but I have never been one of them.  I will admit that the full novel is a significant improvement over this early version.  Asimov filled in a great many details in both the technical, as well as social, aspects of the story.  In fact, the full novel makes this substantial work look like a treatment one would give a publisher to request a contract for a completed work.  It is interesting to see what Asimov thought was important when asked to expand the work for book publication, and what he decided to omit from the original ideas.  It shows his thinking process and that is the basic value of this book.

The final selection is the short story “Belief.”  In 1952 John Campbell asked Asimov to write a tale about a man who found he could levitate.  Campbell at this time was drifting toward the fringe areas of science and wanted Astounding to contain more stories dealing with these aspects.  Asimov wrote a story leaning more toward science than fringe and gave it an uncharacteristic downbeat ending.  Campbell liked the story but requested a more upbeat finish.  While Asimov changed the final third of the story, he was never quite satisfied with it.  For the first time, he presents the original story as written, and the final finish that Campbell requested, and we have come to know and love.  Asimov never liked the upbeat ending, but I felt that it showed his ability to develop a cleaver solution to his hero’s problem.

Unlike the other two novels, this story is presented in its entirety so that the reader can compare the visions of both the writer and publisher.  It also has extensive preface and end notes which Asimov uses to build his case for the original story.  Again, an education worth the price of the book.

The printed versions of these three stories are, for the most part, superior to the first drafts presented in this book.  However, the stories and commentary given here are what makes it valuable for anyone wanting to be a writer, for they show how to effectively change your work for the better.

Copyright 1986 by Doubleday & Company, this book can be found for a fair price on Amazon.com

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Asimov Book Review - Buy Jupiter and Other Stories

by Lacey Kat
(Copyright by Author - All Rights Reserved)

To stave off his publisher's calls for an autobiography Isaac Asimov started adding biographical information to his story introductions. He then put together three short story collections which, taken together, covered his life from birth to his second marriage on November 30, 1973. These were, in order of chronology, not publishing, "Before the Golden Age," "The Early Asimov," and subject of this review, "Buy Jupiter and other stories."  (all reviews available on this site BTW)

Actually, "Buy Jupiter" did not start off as an entry into Asimov's literary autobiography. In 1974 Isaac was asked to be Guest of Honor at a science fiction convention known as Boskone XI. The organizers of the convention wanted to publish a small collection of his works on the outside chance someone at the convention had never heard of him (really!). The result was a little book of seldom read stories entitled, "Have You Seen These." Larry P. Ashmead, then a chief editor at Doubleday, saw the book, liked the stories, and asked Asimov to add a few more. The result was "Buy Jupiter," a collection of two dozen short stories, that have not appeared in any other of his earlier collections. They are arranged in chronological order of appearance and, most important to an Asimov fan, they are bracketed with biographical commentary.

Most of the stories are written in a conversational style that Asimov preferred. While most authors use a narrative to tell their story, Isaac liked to invite the reader into the party. In fact, one of the last stories, "Thiotimoline to the Stars," is almost entirely a lecture given by a general to a graduating class. This style of storytelling gives the reader the impression that the author is talking TO them, not AT them. As the story protagonists are sitting by the fire unraveling a mystery, you are sitting with them, enjoying the company.

The stories are a healthy mix on minor mysteries, space-age problem solving, and latter 20th-century pessimism. Asimov was always worried about overpopulation and atomic war, and a number of his stories dealt with these fears in one form or another. Most are very enjoyable and raise awareness, but others tend to be a little heavy-handed for this author's taste. All seem to be written with sincerity and not just to jump on the popular bandwagon. The collection even includes his famous "Everest," the oft commented on, but seldom read, reason Asimov never wanted to be called a "futurist."

While this is a biographical continuation, it nicely stands alone. The stories are enjoyable, and the additional information gives you a look into the life and writing style of the author. It also gives budding writers a look at how story ideas originate, and how writing jobs are found. For those who wish to follow in Asimov's footsteps, this is a valuable education.

Isaac Asimov eventually did write his autobiography and as a research tool, it is invaluable. However, it is not one of his more interesting reads. The biographical information Isaac included in "Buy Jupiter" is much more accessible to the general fan. The stories are fun, and with twenty-four of them, there is something for everyone.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Asimov Book Review - Before the Golden Age

by Lacey Kat
(Copyright by author)

Isaac Asimov once wrote that he avoided writing an autobiography because he felt that nothing ever happen to him that would be of any interest to his readers. His editors continued to ask, however, so to blunt their pressure he started adding biographical information to some of his short story collections. Three books in particular; The Early Asimov, Buy Jupiter, and Before the Golden Age, form a literary autobiography from his early experiences with science fiction to his second marriage on November 30, 1973.

While Buy Jupiter and The Early Asimov contain works written by Isaac, Before the Golden Age is an anthology of stories that shaped his imagination, fired his interest in science fiction and lead him into the office of John Campbell, the man who is most responsible for the Asimov we have come to know and love.

In fact, the "Golden Age" that Asimov refers to began in 1938 when John Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories. He so dominated science fiction that to read Astounding was to know the entire field. This lasted until the early 50's when other magazines rose from the post war ashes, and science fiction spread to film, TV, books, and paperbacks. Never again could one person know the whole field of SciFi.

But before this space age Camelot there was a time when science fiction road the pages of the "pulp press." Cheap magazines made of wood pulp paper, unglazed covers, and ragged edges. Each about a dime, and devoted to a specific reader, there were Westerns, Detective stories, love and romance stories, and the kind of tales that would later inspire adventures from Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones. The magazines were cheap and they paid cheap. The authors were clumsy, primitive, and less than knowledgeable about their subjects. But then so were the readers. Remember, this was before cable TV.

Before the Golden Age (Doubleday (c) 1974) is a collection of these early science fiction short stories that graced the pages of such magazines as Science Wonder Quarterly, Astounding Stories of Super-Science, Air Wonder Stories, and Amazing Stories. It would be worth the 912 pages just for this look into an era of science fiction before real science, the years between 1931-1938. What makes this tomb a must read for Asimov fans is that between each story is a look at the writer in his early years. What he was doing when this story was published, and why it had so profound an impact on his early life and future writings. Remember, this was a time before Isaac decided to be a writer, let alone pursue science. To any Asimov fan, this book lets you see into what shaped his gift and why it went the directions it did. In these stories, you see glimpses of the Foundation, robots, and ugly little boys.

As a bonus, the stories in the book are still quite good. If you allow for the time written and the advance of knowledge over the years, each piece is as enjoyable now as when Isaac first read them in his father's candy store seventy years ago. This was a time when hard science did not have to get in the way of a story. When Venus was a tropical jungle filled with wild aliens. When the speed of light was not a barrier to ever increasing speed. When you could take your spaceship to the edge of the universe and find yourself on a giant glass slide, under a giant microscope, in another universe around the corner. It is a double education and worth ever
y cent.

[Update]  While the entire book is out of print, copies can be found on Amazon and eBay.  There is also a multi-volume set that was published later so if you are looking for the book be sure to ask if it is the original or one of the divided works.   (Examples to the right)







As I said in my review, these stories are not bad, given they were written by writers and not trained scientists, for the most part.   That "Hollywood" can't seem to find good stories to develop (see my scathing review of ABC's Masters of Science Fiction mini-series) is baffling
.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Asimov Book Review - The Naked Sun

by Lacey Kat
(Copyright 2016 by Author)

By the mid-1950’s Isaac Asimov was steadily moving away from science fiction, and devoting more time to non-fiction work. This trend had been steady through most of the decade beginning, if you will, with the publication of his book “Biochemistry and Human Metabolism.”

Asimov enjoyed writing and found that he enjoyed non-fiction more than fiction writing. In fiction, every story had to be different. In non-fiction, however, that was not the case. Asimov found he could write a technical paper for a science journal, popularize it for a broad appeal magazine, and even shorten and simplify it for a publication geared for a younger audience. The same article could serve many masters.

Asimov did not totally abandon non-fiction however and one of his better efforts during this time is the sequel to “Caves of Steel,” which he called, “The Naked Sun.”

“The Naked Sun” is the further exploits of New York detective Elijah Baley. Baley’s world is a thousand years from the time of the “Robot” stories Asimov wrote in the 1940s. Earth, as we found out in “Caves of Steel,” is over populated and mankind is forced to live in vast underground cities. Robots, once banned on earth, are slowly making their way into the everyday lives of the people in these cities.

However, earth is not the only planet humans call home. On fifty worlds out in space, humans have colonized and established various societies that are now more advanced than the lowly home of humanity. On these worlds robots are the norm. In fact, on Solaria, the population is held steady at twenty thousand people, but there are over two hundred million working positronic robots. That is a ratio of ten thousand to one.

[One cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a robot or finding the robot programmed to swing the dead cat]

The story opens with Detective Baley summoned to Washington. There has been a murder on Solaria and they have requested the help of the detective who solved another murder involving a “spacer.”

Washington has two reasons for assigning Elijah Baley to the case. The first is that the “spacers” requested him and earth is in no position to turn down such a request. The second reason is that little is known on earth about the “Spacer” worlds. Space travel is forbidden to any Earthman and the planet lives in isolation from the rest of the galaxy. Baley’s superiors see this as an opportunity to gather information on another planet.

Baley takes the assignment and is taken to the planet Solaria where he meets his former partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. This is a surprise to Baley because Daneel is not from Solaria, but from another spacer world called Aurora, and Daneel is not a human, but a humaniform robot. A fact that Baley alone seems to know about.

Solaria is a world of isolation. In many ways Asimov made it the direct opposite of the earth he created. Earth is overcrowded, as we learned in intimate detail in the previous novel. There is almost no time that a person is alone. Also, because the people of earth live in underground cities, they suffer from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces. On Solaria each person has their own estate, and usually live alone. Robots tend to their every want, and advanced three- dimensional viewing is the only contact they have with other people. In fact “viewing” is such an accepted for of personal interaction that it takes a special effort to “see” someone in the flesh. Some Solarians can only take personal contact from a distance, and others become violently ill at the thought of a person actually being within their sight.

In this setting then comes the mystery. A prominent scientist is brutally murdered in his home, surrounded by robots that must not allow any harm to come to him. The only witness to the murder is a robot that can no longer function and has been destroyed. The only other human on the estate; his wife. A woman he can barely stand to be with.

This is a more mature novel than “Caves of Steel” in that it shows a development in Asimov’s novel style. In “Caves,” Asimov spent a large amount of time establishing the society of earth. In “Naked Sun,” Solaria’s society, knowledge of which is important to the mystery, is developed with the story. Baley, like the reader, is unfamiliar with this brave new world and must learn about it as he goes along. In this way, the reader, like the detective, must search through the information to see what is an important clue, and what is an abstract piece of information. In some cases, R. Daneel Olivaw is a source of information, but in reality, he plays a minor role in the overall story. It is the Plainclothesman Elijah Baley, with his policeman instincts that must solve the mystery and catch the killer.

Asimov has also sharpened his mystery writing skill a bit more for this novel. The solution is not as obvious and is not revealed as early as in “Caves of Steel.” There is a larger collection of suspects and they must all be examined in different ways. A fact that is itself a clue to the mystery (no, I am not giving anything away).

In the end, even though this story is set over a thousand years into the future, and over a hundred light years from earth, in the final chapter the intelligent detective must gather all of the suspects into “the library” to explain how the crime was committed, how the case was solved, and who the murderer is. Why Asimov resorted to this well-established cliché is unknown to me. He may have felt that it was obligatory for a murder mystery, but by this time in his career, he was more than able to challenge established propriety. It was well done and did not detract from the overall story, but it did reduce it a notch on the originality meter.

In the end “Naked Sun” is an excellent example of what Asimov thought science fiction should be. Not spaceships and laser guns, but a look at how technology affects society. Asimov successfully creates a planet where robots are so prevalent and human contact is so absent. A world where the basic needs of humans are bread out, but the basic needs of humans are the deciding factors in the case.

This was the second, and for the most part, last of the Elijah Baley mysteries. As stated above, Asimov was moving away from science fiction and more toward non-fiction. He would return to the Baley/ Daneel partnership thirty years later, but by that time he was using them to connect his “Robot” and “Foundation” stories and Asimov’s reason for the original pairing was lost. For this author it was a great loss indeed.

“The Naked Sun,” is a very good murder mystery and a very good science fiction novel. Isaac Asimov once again demonstrated how seamlessly these two genres’ could be fused together. He explores some pressing sociological issues without being heavy-handed

or preachy, and he provides a good story to boot.

How he does it so successfully is another mystery to be unraveled.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Asimov Book Review - Nightfall & Other Stories


by Lacey Kat
(Copyright 2016 by Author)


"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore: and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God . . .."

Ralph Waldo Emerson 'Nature'

On March 17, 1941, John W. Campbell, Jr., then editor of "Astounding Science Fiction" met with a young Isaac Asimov, one of his stable of young writers. Asimov, who had just turned 21, had an idea for a story. Campbell, being the boss, had a better one. Campbell asked (so the story goes), "What do you think would happen if men were to see the stars for the first time in a thousand years?" Asimov, then quite naive on the ways of man, said, "I don't know." Campbell the said, "I think they would go mad." The two men talked a bit about the how & why of a world without stars, then Campbell sent the young, and only recently published, author out off his office with the orders, "Go home and write the story." And the rest, as they say, is history.

The story that evolved out of that meeting over sixty years ago is known as "Nightfall." It is considered by many to be the best science fiction short story of the twentieth century. It has won the Hugo Award and the Nebula, and readers" polls consistently place it in First place. By 1969 it had appeared in ten anthologies and was translated into Dutch, German, Italian, and even Russian (I say "even" because in 1969 the Cold War was still in full swing and neither Russia nor the U.S. printed much of the other's literary works).

As popular as it was, Asimov never included "Nightfall" in any of his collections until 1969. He also never considered it to be one of his best works. And therein lies a rub. At the "young" age of twenty-one, Asimov wrote a story so powerful that John W. Campbell Jr. actually gave him a bonus. It elevated Asimov to the level of "serious writer," it got him his first "cover," and from that point on he sold everything he wrote. The question was, where do you go from up?

Asimov himself once wrote that he was a little irritated at being told, over and over again, that "Nightfall" was his best story. He felt that time and practice should have made him a more polished writer in the passing years, and surely something else that he wrote should have surpassed this "dated" classic. The price of stardom at a young age.

To capitalize on his point Asimov put together this collection of twenty short stories. They cover the period of 1941 to 1968 and include stories that had not, at that time, appeared in any of his other collections. The stories vary in length and source. Some were published in leading Science Fiction Magazines of the time such as "Galaxy," "Astounding Science Fiction,"" New Tales of Space and Time," and "Fantastic." Others were first published in other sources such as "Scientific American" and the Netherlands medical magazine "Abbottempo." As he grew in fame periodicals of all kinds hoped to broaden their readership by including an "Asimov" story.

The first story, "Nightfall," deals with a planet, in a system of six suns that only sees a night sky once in two thousand and forty-nine years. And today is the day. In the span of thirty-two pages Asimov, using largely a conversation style introduces an alien civilization, gives you a history lesson, a quick look at the problems of astrophysics, examines the role of religion in society, and speculates on what you might do if you knew the world were coming to an end. For most writers, this would take a trilogy. [Note: In 1990 Robert Silverberg did expand the short story into novel length with the aid and approval of Asimov]

Each of the next stories, presented in the order they were published, takes a deferent look at a wide host of subjects. Asimov was never dull. What is particularly interesting in this collection is that Asimov has stories that include "alien" characters. This is unusual for the good Doctor as he usually populated his universes with humans only. However, in this collection, we see various attempts to present alien life with decidedly alien psychologies. In "Green Patches," for example, the alien life is a collective and sees man as too individual to do any good. In "C-Chute," a story that first appeared in "Galaxy" magazine and then was presented on radio, Asimov presents a war with an alien race that breaths chlorine and has a "hive" mentality. In "Hostess" the alien ambassador comes to dinner, much to the chagrin of the Hostess' husband. In "What is this thing called Love?" an alien that reproduces through budding must explain the concept of "sex" to his superior. So he grabs two earthlings off a train platform and asks for a visual aid. After reading these examples you may wonder why aliens are so scarce in Asimov's universe.

There is one robot story in the collection. It is called "Sally" and does not deal with the usual three laws conflicts.

One other story, that I found particularly interesting deals with the idea alternate universes. What would you do if you could see both outcomes of an important decision, and you did not like either one. Current Sci-Fi superstar Larry Niven wrote a host of stories dealing with contact with alternate realities, but that was over a decade after Asimov explored the idea. This story is also interesting as it has "romance" as a driving force. Asimov seldom had female characters in his stories, let alone romantic undertones.

"Nightfall and Other Stories" is a classic example of why Isaac Asimov was considered one of the great authors of the last century. Each story in the book starts with a brief biographical note explaining the history of the story. I have always enjoyed these glimpses into the life of the author and wish more would follow Asimov's example. What the book also shows is that Asimov was wrong. He did not get better with experience. He was a genius from the early stages of his writing. "Nightfall" shows how well developed his talent was at an early age. If you have not read "Nightfall and Other Stories," you have not read Asimov.

WARNING: In an effort to make more profit, I can only suppose, Grafton Books released "Nightfall One" and "Nightfall Two" in 1986. These are simply the original "Nightfall and Other Stories" split into two volumes. There is no new material, in either volume, and they were marketed primarily in England, New Zealand, and Australia. If you have "Nightfall and Other Stories", there is no reason to buy these.

Asimov Book Review - Earth Is Room Enough

By Lacey Kat
(Copyright 2014 by Author)

Isaac Asimov is best known for his science fiction writing, specifically his Foundation novels and his robot stories. While this would be enough for most of today’s writers, it should be remembered that this was just a smidgeon of Asimov’s literary output. Most of his work was non-fiction, a good amount was not science, and a good amount remains published today.
Even among his science fiction the robots and the Foundation were a distinctive minority. Asimov populated his work with massive computers that ran the world, fantasy creatures that granted wishes, for a price, and aliens who were just looking at what makes man tick. Interspaced with these tales were bad jokes, clever rhymes, and a pull at your heartstrings from time to time.
If you would like to get to know Isaac Asimov, or you would like to introduce a friend to his worlds, I would strongly suggest holding off on “Foundation” and “I Robot,” and instead buy them a copy of “Earth is Room Enough.”
The title comes from a criticism that all of Asimov’s stories took place across the galaxy and that he never brought stories home. To prove these less than educated observers wrong in November of 1956 Asimov took a collection of stories that took place on Earth to Doubleday Publishers who not only agreed to print them but made the book a “Selection of the Month” for the Science Fiction Book Club.
The collection is an entertaining cross section of Asimov’s works including some robot tales, the first Multivac story, some of his poetry, and a pun or two. It is a fine example of why Isaac Asimov is considered one of the giants of the last century.
Here is a brief synopsis of the stories in this volume.
Dead Past - Andrew Potterly, a Professor of Ancient History, is desperate to prove, via "time-viewing," that the object of his research, the ancient Carthaginians, did not practice human sacrifice. In his world, however, intellectual disciplines are not supposed to mingle. He is a history professor and has no reason to contact the advanced physics departments. He cannot get special government permission, and no established physicist will help him, so he pressures a young physicist, Jonas Foster, into making a time-viewing device illegally.
This is the first story in the book and at fifty pages is a little daunting. Other than that, there is very little to criticize about this story. The characters are sharply drawn, and the conflict is vivid. In fact, until the end, you think you know what the conflict is and who the good and bad guys are. Asimov does a very good job of challenging these preconceptions in the end without making the reader feel foolish or used. Asimov also makes the story more complex than many of his novelettes by skillfully bringing in threads from all over the place. Items like the pain of losing a child, frustration over what seems to be an over burdensome system, and even a careless cigarette are all utilized to paint a rich background for what is essentially a simple story.
The Foundation of S F Success – This is a short piece of comic verse that is a mild parody of a poem by William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). In it, Asimov “answers” the question of how to become a successful Sci-Fi author. It is a whimsical look at Asimov and the Foundation series, and the debt owed to Roman History. It was the first bit of comic verse Asimov ever sold, and he was paid $15 for it.
Franchise – was the first of the “Multivac” stories that Asimov ever wrote and was originally printed in the August 1955 edition of IF magazine. Asimov wrote it after the introduction of the Univac computer in the 1952 Presidential election. In that election, Univac was used to predict the outcome using a small, representative, sample of the voting public. But how small of a sample do you need to make an accurate prediction? That is what “Franchise” is all about.  Seems even more relavant today. 
Gimmicks Three – In this amazing little bit of fantasy (odd for the early Asimov) Isidore Welby sells the soul to the devil. When the devil appears to collect, Welby is given a test to pass. If he passes, he’ll become a demon and have a comparatively comfortable life in hell; if he fails, he’ll just be damned. This contains all of the usual “gimmicks of a pact with the devil,” a locked room mystery, and time travel. Asimov blends all three into an interesting twist that Faust should have thought of.
Kid Stuff – By 1953, Asimov was becoming more interested in writing non-fiction. Science Fiction, no matter the success, was still looked at as less than adult fare. In this story, Jan Prentiss earns his living writing fantasies. This is a source of embarrassment to himself and his family. Then Prentiss meets an elf. An elf from Avalon. An elf that wants to take Prentiss back home. You see the fantasy world is stuck in a rut and this elf is a mutant. He can turn his psychic gifts into practical electronics. He wants Prentiss to help him turn Avalon into a modern industrial civilization, or he will do harm to Prentiss’ family.
The Watery Place - Ambassadors from the planet Venus are mistaken for pesky tourists from Venice and humanity’s future is ruined.
Asimov loved humor and particularly loved puns. As a result, he wrote a number of stories of unequal success to utilize this love. This short-short story appeared in “Satellite Science Fiction” in the fall of 1956. It was the magazine’s first issue and having a big name like Asimov was a plus. The story is cute, but not that cute, and the name was more important than the content at this point.
Living Space – One of Asimov’s talents was to take an overused Science Fiction situation, and look at it in a different light. In “Living Space,” Asimov looks at the concept of “alternate Earths.” The idea that there are an infinite number of parallel dimensions with an infinite number of earths in them. All you have to do is figure out how to go from universe to universe. Most of these stories are used to look at alternate histories. Worlds where Rome never fell or the Germans won WW II. They relieve the author of creating completely new worlds; just change the one you know to fit your story.
In Asimov’s story, Earth is overpopulated so they find alternate Earths which never developed life. There you can put one family in one house and have a world all to yourself. However, what happens if you meet someone from an alternate earth who wants your planet for themselves? Moreover, if they are a colony of Nazis from yet another alternate-Earth, they may have more than one world conquest in mind.
The Message – This is one of the few Asimov stories that have suffered from the passage of time. In it, we find out who “Kilroy,” of “Kilroy was here” really was. It is a cute story that almost falls into the Forest Gump look at history. However, most of today’s reading public does not know about Kilroy or his role in WW II. It would be like writing a science fiction story featuring the Brady Bunch. Today’s youth may know the name but have lost the connection.
Satisfaction Guaranteed – This is one of only two robot stories (not counting the Multivac story) in this collection, and it is one of the better “Susan Calvin” stories. She plays only a minor, but important, role in the story. The major player is a “frumpy” housewife named Claire Belmont, who is asked, by her husband, to “field test” the latest model of the home robot. A robot that looks like a man and is designed to help around the house. Clair is repulsed by the situation, but slowly comes around as the robot, “Tony,” helps her become the wife and hostess she has always wanted to be. In the end, Tony does one more thing to elevate Clair’s social status. Something not meant to be in his personal programming.
Hell-Fire - First published in Fantastic Universe, May 1956, this is an another short-short story reflecting Asimov’s depression on the use of atomic power. He wrote several such stories as he saw the promise of “atomics” turned into the cold war. This one is odd for two reasons. The first is the lack of sedulity in connecting the bomb with the devil. The second interesting footnote is that after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center pictures circulated showing Satan’s visage in the smoke emanating from the tower wreckage. It is also worth noting that this story does not seem to appear in his autobiography, “In Joy Still Felt.” Perhaps it was something he would rather forget.
The Last Trump - First published in Fantastic Universe, June 1955, it is a “fantasy story” about the end of the world. An end that is in a more old-testament fashion. The Old Testament’s Sheol. A gray nothingness where everyone walks around without desire, without fulfillment, without death. It is an interesting look at what might happen if we woke to find that the end is as the Bible predicted it. Sort of a “left behind” from a Jewish point of view. None of the characters are of interest, but the story is well written and raises some interesting questions. Not being a total religious zealot, Asimov injects a little reality to solve the mess humanity finds themselves in.
The Fun They Had – This is a quaint little story more along the lines of Ray Bradbury than Isaac Asimov. In it, Margie Jones longs for the “good old days” of education instead of the dull computerized education she is forced to sit through today. The grass, she feels, was greener then.
This was written for a children’s newspaper in 1951 and the technology is a bit off. However, the idea of computerized education is more on the mark and helped establish Asimov as a “futurist.”
Jokester - Noel Meyerhof, the Grand Master of the Multivac “priesthood” asks the giant computer brain why jokes exist. The only logical answer is that humans are being experimented on and that humor is a technique to test our psyches. Once that little fact is discovered, of what use will the experiment be? This is a fun story that raises a few questions on the origins of thought. It was turned into a radio play, quite effectively, in the Science Fiction Anthology series “X Minus One.”
The Immortal Bard - What if you brought William Shakespeare to the present and he took a course in Shakespeare? Gotthard Guenther at the Cambridge Center inspired this story when Asimov attended his lecture on Science Fiction for the Arts. During the lecture, Gotthard explained to the audience the ideas behind “Nightfall,” not knowing that Asimov was a few yards away. After the talk, Asimov proudly went up to the lecturer and declared that his analysis was wrong. Gotthard asked Asimov, “What makes you think, just because you are the author of ‘Nightfall,’ that you have the slightest inkling of what is in it?” A lesser author would have stormed off insulted. Asimov used the incident to write a story of a better author finding himself in a similar situation. I believe this idea was also explored in a “Twilight Zone” episode ten years later.
Someday - Niccolo Mazetti is unhappy with his “Bard,” his story-telling computer. His friend Paul Loeb, who has the latest model of electronic Bard, tries to upgrade Niccolo’s and tells him of all the clever things the new models can do. The upgrade is too little and Paul and Niccolo leave the obsolete machine to play with the newer one at Paul’s house. The Bard manages to overhear this and, after they leave, tells a story to itself of its own pain. The interesting thing about this story is that it is one of the few non-law stories that Asimov wrote, and it deals with a robot’s feelings, not logic.
The Author’s Ordeal – This is another bit of comic verse that Asimov wrote in the style of W. S. Gilbert. In this verse, he laments the distractions a writer must face while working on the plot for a new story. Anyone who is an author, or is trying to be one, will find pathos in this funny tale.
Dreaming is a Private Thing - What if you could record dreams and then play them back for other’s entertainment? Jesse Weill runs a company that does just that. He manufactures "dreamies"—prerecorded dream sequences. Then you can pick and choose your mental fantasies. As with any other industry there are problems and we follow Jesse through the course of the day as he deals with acquiring new talent, fending off the government censors who want to crack down on pornography, and keeping his best talent happy. This idea has been explored several times since in movies such as “Brainstorm” in 1983 and the original “Total Recall” entitled “We can remember it for you wholesale.” It is an interesting look at “new” technology and its effects on society. Which, as Asimov has pointed out, is what science fiction is supposed to be about.

Earth is Room Enough is readily available from Amazon.com (0449241254) in both the paperback and hardback edition. It is a fine addition to any bookshelf and a very good introduction to a very good author. It is seldom that I find a book that is so completely enjoyable.