Friday, August 2, 2013

Isaac Asimov: Five Books by the Master of Science Fiction

by G. Jack Urso 

In the late 1970s, Fawcett Crest published Isaac Asimov: Five Books by the Master of Science Fiction, a box collection of novels and anthologies by the author that ably demonstrate the breadth of Asimov’s talent. The purpose here is not to review the books per se, but rather to highlight the trends in society and science fiction as reflected in Asimov’s works.

Most science fiction today is actually science fantasy, or rather science action. The science element is usually fairly minimal, and seldom explained except in the form of Star Trekesque technobabble, meaning it sounds scientific, but is actually just nonsense.

Asimov – being the proliferous polymath that he was – centered his stories around  core scientific principles often manifested in automated machines (robots), advanced computers, space travel, and how future technology will affect humans on a day-to-day basis. Asimov succeeds in connecting his audience to science fiction because the characters populating his novels were usually very familiar to mid-Twentieth Century readers. Instead of square–jawed space mercenaries like Han Solo from Star Wars, Asimov opts for a retired tailor as the protagonist in Pebble in the Sky, or a hard-boiled detective in The Caves of Steel. These are familiar faces that allow the reader to explore Asimov’s worlds without getting lost in the science, or the fantasy.

Indeed, Asimov infuses distinctly human traits in the robot Andrew Martin in The Bicentennial Man or R. Daneel Olivaw in The Caves of Steel. These aren’t the mindless automatons of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, or even the silent film Metropolis. While the tension between human and artificial life forms is always present in Asimov’s works, the purpose of the robot protagonist is usually to explore what it means to be human an idea that influenced the character development of the android Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Nine Tomorrows: Tales of the Near Future [Fawcett Crest 1969 edition]
The first book in the collection is an anthology of nine short stories first published in the mid to late 1950s. Here, the technology Asimov explores reflects the concerns and sometimes the paranoia of the 1950s. The space race launched great concern in the United States the education system being inadequate to meet the demands of a society centered around high-technology. The potential impact of meeting those demands are explored in “Profession” and “The Feeling of Power.”

The stand-out stories here include “All the Troubles in the World” and “The Last Question,” concerning the computer Multivac. Asimov explores the impact of sentience on a computer mind in the former story and introduces a potential explanation for the Big Bang in the latter.
Reading these stories, and reflecting on the whole oeuvre of The Twilight Zone, one can see where Rod Serling took his cues.
·  “Profession”: First published in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1957.
In the 66th Century, learning takes place via a direct computer feed to the brain called taping, an effective way of quickly training a highly educated workforce, but with the result of sapping the creative spirit. A citizen, George Platen, is determined to be “feebled-minded” and refused education via taping; however, George’s independent, creative thinking may turn out to be just what the Earth needs for its survival.
·  “The Feeling of Power”: First published in If: Worlds of Science Fiction, February 1958.
In the far future, computers have advanced to the point that humans have forgotten how to do simple mathematical calculations. When someone discovers how to work out math problems on their own, without computers, the military quickly realizes how to use it to continue an interstellar war.
·  “The Dying Night”: First published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1956.
The invention of a teleportation device leads to a murder to suppress its discovery. 
·  “I’m in Marsport without Hilda”: First published in Venture Science Fiction, November 1957.
Max, a Galactic Service agent, is trying to set up a liaison with an old flame, Flora, when his boss calls him away to find a drug smuggler. Can he do so before his wife Hilda arrives and ruins his plans with Flora?
·  “The Gentle Vultures”: First published in Super Science Fiction, December 1957.
A race of tailed-alien vegetarian primates, called Hurrians, believe all omnivorous ape-like species without tails, such as humans, invariably cause their own destruction through atomic war. When they discover Earth-humans have not done so, the Hurrians must decide whether to protect their own existence by starting an atomic war on Earth, or passively accept that their influence in the galaxy will wane as the Earthlings ascend.
·  “All the Troubles in the World”: First published in Super Science Fiction, April 1958.
Multivac, the world-spanning computer, processes all of the data generated by human civilization, which is then used to forecast future events, including predicting crime. As the burden of its duties increase, Multivac begins to act erratically. When the computer predicts its own murder, the identity of the would-be killer, if revealed, could unravel the whole society.
·  “Spell my name with an S”: First published in Star Science Fiction, January 1958.
Upon the advice of a numerologist, an American scientist changes his name from Zebatinsky to Sebatinsky in the hope it will improve his fortunes at work. Instead, it brings him under suspicion of working for the Soviets; however, the numerologist is an alien manipulating the scientist in a deadly bet with another alien on the Earth’s future existence.
·  “The Last Question”: First published in Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1956.
The most powerful computer in existence, Multivac, is asked a question, “How to stop entropy?” As time marches on, Multivac evolves, becoming more and more complex. Each version of the computer is asked the same question, “How to stop entropy?” In the far distant future, Multivac becomes so large that it guides humanity from its home in hyperspace. Trillions of years later, long after the last human has died and all matter and energy in the universe has dissolved into elementary particles, Multivac finally discovers how to reverse entropy. The answer is a twist worthy of any Twilight Zone episode.
·  “The Ugly Little Boy”: First published in Galaxy Magazine, September 1958.
Researchers reach into Earth’s past to bring a Neanderthal child into the present, where a female scientist forms a mother-son bond with the boy. Eventually, the boy acquires a taste for modern life, but when the experiment ends he must be sent back to the past. Knowing the child, now acclimated to life in the future, will not be able to survive in the ancient past, his modern-day “mother” must decide whether to send him back alone to a face a certain death…or join him.

Pebble in the Sky [Fawcett Crest 1971 edition; first published in 1950]

Joseph Schwartz, a retired tailor from the mid-20th Century, is transported into the distant future where he acquires great psychic powers. In this future, the Earth is part of a galaxy-spanning empire that has depleted the planet's resources and left it irradiated. A “Procurator” rules the Earth from a domed city in the Himalayas, where he plans to release a virus against the empire in revenge. Knowing that such an act would also doom the Earth, Schwartz uses his newfound mental powers to stop the plot before the virus is released.
Two themes emerge in the novel. First, Asimov utilizes the growing post-war fear of radiation and threatened natural resources as a plot device. Second, the concept of a man out of time and/or place is influenced by such earlier tales as John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. The influence of these works on Pebble in the Sky makes sense in light of the novel’s dedication to Asimov’s father “Who first introduced me [Isaac Asimov] to science fiction.” Given Asimov's birth date of 1920, John Carter, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon were certainly on his early reading list. Asimov's genius though is in selecting a humble, retired tailor as the protagonist. We can't all be Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, but everyone can be Joseph Swartz.

The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories [Fawcett Crest 1976 edition]
As Asimov moves into the 1960s and 1970s, we see in the anthology The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories further use of the robot to explore the human condition. In doing so, Asimov quite wisely integrates various social issues reflective of the times. Moving beyond the question of which is superior, man or robot, Asimov explores uniquely female qualities to enhance a robot’s human qualities in “Feminine Intuition.” Other issues, including overpopulation, famine, undersea exploration, developmental disabilities, and political intrigue round out the themes Asimov explores.
Of particular note as a writer are the prefaces to the stories Asimov includes, which reveal that even during the height of his career in the 1960s and 1970s, he still wrestled with getting rejection slips. Sometimes, these were from friends in the publishing industry, which must have affected him deeply. To his credit, Asimov is open with his experiences, which puts the rejection experience in better perspective for all writers.
An additional aspect of Asimov’s writing not always noted is his readiness to adapt science fiction to publications outside the usual sci-fi magazines, such as New York Times Magazine, High Fidelity Magazine, Bell Telephone Magazine, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. These are not always his best works, but their purpose is to expand sci-fi interest beyond the usual genre magazines and to that end they succeed.

·  “Feminine Intuition”: First published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1969.
Here, we are introduced to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. U.S Robots constructs a robot with feminine intuition, a mix of knowledge and psychological analysis, in the hope it will discover habitable planets. When the robot is destroyed and the head of U.S. Robots is murdered, it takes a woman’s “intuition” to solve the crime.
·  “Waterclap”: First published in Galaxy, May 1970.
An engineer from the moon visits Earth with the intention of sabotaging an experimental undersea colony so the government will divert funds to outer space exploration. Undeterred by the potential loss of life, can the engineer be talked out of his nefarious plan?
·  “That Thou Art Mindful of Him”: First published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1974.
The Three Laws of Robotics requires that robots obey the orders of humans (as long as they don’t harm other humans); however, not all humans are trustworthy, so how can robots tell the difference? U.S. Robots create two robots who discuss the problem and over time come to the conclusion that ultimately robots are the superior life-form and destined to dominate humanity. [Title comes from Psalm 8:5:"What is Man that thou art mindful of Him?"]
·  “Stranger in Paradise”: First published in If: Worlds of Science Fiction, May-June 1974.
In an a post-apocalyptic world where full siblings are few in order to protect the genetic diversity of the human race, two brothers work to create a positronic brain capable of operating on Mercury. Surprisingly, they find the answer for a superior robot brain in the mind an autistic human, people who are otherwise terminated in order to prevent their genes from entering the gene pool.
·  “The Life and Times of Multivac”: First published in New York Times Magazine, 5 January 1975.
The global computer Multivac has  helped humanity survive following a series of great catastrophes that almost wiped-out their existence. Now, Multivac’s “benevolent” control is threatened by a saboteur determined to destroy the great computer, but is humanity ready for freedom from Multivac, and do they really want it?
·  “The Winnowing”: First published in Analog February 1976.
The year is 2005 and famine is ravaging the Earth’s population of six billion people. In order to reduce the demand for food, The World Food Organization decides to lace food shipments with a random-acting poison and blackmails a scientist by threatening to withhold food from his family. Forced to go along, the scientist strikes back by giving the Council a taste of their own harsh medicine - and sharing in their fate.
·  “The Bicentennial Man”: First published in Stellar Science Fiction, February 1976.
Two hundred years in the life of Andrew Martin, a robot with a positronic brain who slowly transforms himself through a series of operations from a metallic robot to a human android. Over time, Andrew sees members of the family who purchased him die off and decides that there is just one more operation left that will finally make him fully human, and it will be his last.
·  “Marching In”: First published in High Fidelity Magazine, April 1976.
A jazz musician is asked by a doctor at a mental hospital to help devise a treatment for depression. The novel idea of using a laser to record brain wave patterns is discussed, but eventually it decided that the upbeat rhythm of revival hymns can reset a person’s brain wave patterns and treat their depression.
·  “Old-fashioned”: First published in Bell Telephone Magazine, February 1976.
Two asteroid miners encounter an uncharted black hole which damages their ship. Unable to radio for help, one of the miners notes that black holes generate x-rays whenever anything falls into it. With a cargo hold full of rocks, one miner comes up with a way to communicate by throwing stones into the black hole to generate an S-O-S in Morse code.
·  “The Tercentenary Incident”: First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1976.
By July 4, 2076, the United States no longer exists as an independent nation, but as part of a federation that includes the Earth and colonies in outer space. The current president, a failure in his first term, has been replaced by a sophisticated robot duplicate – superior to his human counterpart – who goes on to win reelection. When two government officials uncover the secret, one must decide whether the nation is better off now and how far he should go to keep the other silent.
·  “Birth of a Notion”: First published in Amazing Stories, April 1976.
Simeon Weill, a physicist from 1976, goes back in time to 1925 to meet with his hero Hugo Gernsback, who created the first Science Fiction magazine, Amazing Stories in 1926. Weill tells Gernsback some of the discoveries over the next fifty years and inadvertently suggests a name for the new magazine.

The Gods Themselves [Fawcett Crest 1972 edition]

A scientist invents the Electron Pump, which exchanges matter between our universe and a parallel universe, creating a source of cheap, clean energy. Apparently successful at first, it is soon discovered that the Electron Pump is destabilizing our Sun and will cause it to go supernova. Further, the sun of the parallel universe Earth will cool down,  so continued use of the Electron Pump will destroy both worlds. It takes the sacrifice of a triad of aliens from the parallel Earth (whose race has three sexes) to stop the Electron Pump and save both universes.
This is among Asimov’s most challenging novels. Rooted in strong scientific concepts, the story is hard sci-fi. Asimov succeeds in creating alien characters imbued with qualities both truly alien, as in the approach to sex, but also with very relatable human characteristics such as curiosity and self-sacrifice. Asimov wisely determined that his readers in the early 1970s were prepared for more sophisticated discussions of sex and uses the novel to explore the youthful aliens' sense of experimentation contrasted with their society’s generally more conservative attitudes – a situation no doubt quite familiar to Asimov’s readers in 1972.  

The Caves of Steel [Fawcett Crest 1972 edition, first published 1954]
Three thousand years in the future, two detectives, Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, are assigned to solve the murder of an ambassador. One cop, Bailey, is a human and the other, Olivaw, is a robot – a very unique robot created by the murdered man. The conflict between human and robot is used to explore the nature of life, both natural and artificial, and whether one is superior to the other.
Reading Olivaw’s dialogue, one can easily imagine the words being spoken by the android Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Olivaw is in a sense an alien in human society, and the human-alien buddy concept is played out in numerous sci-fi films, such as James Caan and Mandy Patinkin in the 1988 film Alien Nation.

This collection of books followed me around throughout high school and college and nearly four decades later continues to remain a personal literary touchstone. Isaac Asimov: Five Books by the Master of Science Fiction presents a talented author whose passionate love of science fiction helped to raise it from a marginal genre to important literature that helps an increasingly technological civilization figure out its place in the universe literally. 

As a young man, I always imagined Isaac Asimov as your typical Northeastern intellectual, with a bit of a mid-Atlantic accent. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I first saw an interview with Asimov and instead found a typical New Yorker with an accent that reminded me of any number of cab drivers I’ve encountered. I close with a clip of that interview from Apollo 11: As it Happened, ABC News coverage of the 1969 Moon landing. Rod Serling interviews a panel of science fiction authors about the past and future of the genre.

Editor's Note: All book images above from author's collection.

Works Cited
Asimov, Isaac. Nine Tomorrows. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969.
 – –.  Pebble in the Sky. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1971.
 – –. The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories. New York:
        Fawcett Crest, 1976. Print.
 – –. The Caves of Steel. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1971. 
 – –. The Gods Themselves. New York: Fawcett Crest,
        1976. Print.