Isaac Asimov Short Fiction Analysis
A naïve, untutored writer by his own admission, Isaac Asimov learned the art of commercial fiction by observing the ways of other science-fiction writers before him, with considerable assistance from John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Although the diction of pulp writers, for whom every action, however mundane, must have a powerful thrust, colored much of his earlier work, he soon developed a lucid style of his own, spare by comparison with the verbosity of others, which was spawned by the meager word rates for which they worked. Melodramatic action is not absent from his fiction, but confrontations are more commonly conversational than physical. Characters are seldom memorable, and there are few purple passages of description for their own sake; everything is subordinated to the story, itself often an excuse for problem solving to show scientific thinking in action.
Although his first popularity came in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Asimov’s best work was published in the 1950’s. In addition to most of his novels, many of his best stories were written then, including “The Ugly Little Boy” (1958), which concerns a Neanderthal child snatched into the present and the consequences of his nonscientific governess’s forming an attachment to him. This is one of several stories in which the results of science and technology and devotion to them are cast in a negative or at least ambivalent light, contrary to the view Asimov usually maintains.
Other stories from this period include “Franchise,” in which a single voter decides those few issues computers cannot handle; “What If?,” in which a newly married couple catches a glimpse of how their lives might have been; and “Profession,” in which trends in accelerated education are taken to an extreme. Three stories concern societies so technologically sophisticated that what the reader takes for granted must be rediscovered: writing in “Someday,” mathematics in “The Feeling of Power,” and walking outdoors in “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.” “The Last Question” extrapolates computer capabilities in the far future to a new Creation in the face of the heat death of the universe, while “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” concerns a new entertainment form which bears a certain resemblance to traditional storytelling.
Spanning his career, Asimov’s robot stories generally involve an apparent violation of one or more of the “Three Laws of Robotics,” which Campbell derived from Asimov’s earliest variations on the theme. Their classical formulation is as follows:1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
While this formulation was an attempt to dispel what Asimov called the “Frankenstein complex,” it was also a set of orders to be tested by dozens of stories. The best of the robot stories may well be “Liar!,” in which a confrontation between robot and human produces an unusually emotional tale, in which the fear of machines is not trivialized away. “Liar!” introduces one of Asimov’s few memorable characters, Susan Calvin, chief robopsychologist for U.S. Robots, whose presence between “chapters” of I, Robot (1950) unifies to some extent that first collection of Asimov’s short fiction. Usually placid, preferring robots to men, Calvin is shown here in an uncharacteristic early lapse from the type of the dispassionate spinster into that of “the woman scorned.”
The story begins with a puzzle, an attempt to discover why an experimental robot, RB-34 (Herbie), is equipped with telepathy. Trying to solve this puzzle, however, Calvin and her colleagues are sidetracked into the age-old problem of human vanity, which ultimately relegates the original puzzle and the robot to the scrap heap. Aware of the threat of harming them psychologically if he tells the truth, Herbie feeds the pride of the administrator, Alfred Lanning, in his mathematics, along with the ambition of Peter Bogert to replace his superior, and the desire of Calvin to believe that another colleague, Milton Ashe, returns her affection, when he is in fact engaged to another.
As the conflict between Bogert and Lanning escalates, each trying to solve the original puzzle, Herbie is asked to choose between them. Present at the confrontation, Calvin vindictively convinces the robot that whatever it answers will be injurious to a human being, forcing it to break down. Since Herbie is a conscious being, more interested in romantic novels than in technical treatises, Calvin’s act is not simply the shutting down of a machine but also an act of some malevolence, particularly satisfying to her, and the whole story underlines the human fear of being harmed, or at least superseded, by machines.
Asimov’s next published story, “Nightfall,” is still his best in the opinion of many readers, who have frequently voted it the best science-fiction story of all time, although it shows its age and the author’s, since he was barely twenty-one when he wrote it. Written to order for Campbell, it begins with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (1836) which Campbell and Asimov in turn have reinterpreted: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore,...
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