Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2289
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,...
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- Critical Essays
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, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God.” Asimov fulfilled Campbell’s demand that the event, taken as an astronomical possibility, would drive men mad, but this conclusion is partly counterbalanced by the author’s faith in the power of science to explain, without completely succumbing to, awe and superstition.
With the Emerson quote as an epigraph, “Nightfall” was committed to an inevitable, rather than a surprise, ending. From the start, the catastrophe is imminent, predicted by astronomers who have no idea of what is really in store. Aton 77, director of the university observatory where the action takes place, reluctantly permits a newspaper columnist, Theremon 762, to stay and observe, thus setting the stage for a story which is almost all exposition. Sheerin 501, a psychologist, becomes Theremon’s major interlocutor, explaining both the physical and behavioral theory behind the predictions which the media and the populace have ridiculed.
Astronomical observation, gravitational theory, and archaeological findings have confirmed the garbled scriptural account of the Cultists’ Book of Revelations that civilization on the planet Lagash must fall and rise every two millennia. Lit by six suns, Lagash is never in darkness, never aware of a larger universe, except when another world, a normally invisible “moon,” eclipses the only sun then in the sky, an event which happens every 2049 years. In hopes of overcoming the anticipated mass insanity, the scientists have prepared a Hideout in which some three hundred people may be able to ride out the half-day of darkness and preserve some vestige of scientific civilization.
While Sheerin is explaining all this and glibly countering commonsense objections, a Cultist breaks in to threaten the “solarscopes,” a mob sets out from the city to attack the observatory, and the eclipse indeed begins. Amid flickering torches, the scientists withstand the vandals’ charge that they have desecrated the scriptures by “proving” them only natural phenomena. They then speculate ironically about a larger universe, even an Earthlike situation presumed inimical to life, but neither they nor the Cultists are prepared for the truth of “thirty thousand mighty suns” or the gibbering madness which demands light, even if everything must be burned down in order to obtain it.
Other than the astronomical configuration—a highly unlikely and inherently unstable situation—and its consequences, there is nothing “alien” in the story, which is about potential human reactions. The diction is heavily influenced by 1930’s pulp style, some pieces of the puzzle are not rationally convincing, and the story leaves loose ends untied, but it is dramatically convincing, like H. G. Wells’s inversion of a similar dictum in “The Country of the Blind.” Although Asimov’s moral survives, that people can, through scientific observations and reasoning, do something to improve their state, it is largely overshadowed by the effectiveness of the ending. However well-prepared for and rationalized away, the concluding vision of “Nightfall” evokes exactly that quasimystical awe and wonder Asimov is usually constrained to avoid.
“The Martian Way”
Relying more on single “impossibilities,” correlated extrapolation and reasoning from present-day knowledge, Asimov’s best fiction generally stems from the 1950’s. The best example of his positive attitude toward future expansion by human beings and their knowledge, “The Martian Way” illustrates the conviction expressed by most of his novels and much of science fiction that the future lies “out there” in space beyond the “cradle” for human beings provided by Earth, its history and prehistory. A “space story” to be sure, “The Martian Way” also concerns political conflict, which is resolved not by drawn blasters at fifty paces but rather by reason and ingenuity, based on a setting and assumptions alien to Earthmen both at the time of writing and at the time period in which the novella is set.
There are a puzzle and a solution, but they are an excuse on which to hang the story. The rise of a demagogic Earth politician, Hilder (modeled on Senator Joseph McCarthy, but echoing Hitler by name), threatens the human colony on Mars which depends on Earth for water, not only for drinking, washing, and industry but also as reaction mass for its spaceships. Among those who will be affected, Marlo Esteban Rioz and Ted Long are Scavengers, who snag empty shells of ships blasting off from Earth and guide them to Martian smelters. Although Rioz is the experienced “Spacer,” the “Grounder” Long has a better grasp of “the Martian way,” which means not tying one’s future to Earth, rather facing outward to the rest of the Solar System and beyond.
Campaigning against “Wasters,” Hilder parallels past profligacy toward oil and other resources with the present Martian use of water from Earth’s oceans. The Martian colonists recognize the spuriousness of that charge, but they also recognize its emotional impact on Earth. The solution is a marriage of scientific elegance and technological brute force, breathtaking in context even to the Spacers themselves, who set off on a year’s journey to bring back an asteroid-sized fragment of ice from Saturn’s rings. How they do it is chronicled by the story, along with the euphoria of floating in space, the political wrangling with Earth, and the challenges of colonizing the new frontier.
Throughout the narrative resonates the claim by Long that Martians, not Earthmen, will colonize the Universe. The fundamental difference lies less with the planet of one’s birth than with the direction in which one looks to the future. Scientifically more astute and less burdened by racial prejudices, Martians work in teams rather than as individual heroes. Although there are distinct echoes of the legendary American West, the situation on Mars is more radically discontinuous with its predecessors on Earth. The arrival of an independent water supply is just the excuse they need to cut at last the umbilical cord to Earth and the past.
“The Dead Past”
If “The Martian Way” points toward Asimov’s novels, most of which take place off Earth, even beyond the Solar System, “The Dead Past” is more typical of the extrapolation Asimov defends in his critical writings as “social science fiction.” The novella begins harmlessly enough with a professor of Ancient History being denied access to government-controlled chronoscopy, which would let him see at firsthand the ancient city of Carthage. Although time-viewing is the central science fiction, the focus of the story switches to “the closed society,” as Professor Potterly seeks to subvert governmental controls. Scientists in this near-future society have bartered their freedom of inquiry for recognition, security, and financial support. This position is defended by a young physics professor named Foster, whose future depends on his staying within the bounds of his discipline and of the controls which have evolved from governmental support of research.
The point is exaggerated, as is the conspiracy of silence surrounding chronoscopy, but the satirical edge is honed by the subsequent activity of the two academics and Foster’s cooperative Uncle Ralph, a degreeless, prestigeless, but well-paid science writer. With his help and the shortcut supplied by his specialty, “neutrinics,” Foster reinvents the chronoscope at a fraction of its earlier cost and difficulty, and the conspirators give out the secret to the world. In contrast to Foster’s newly gained fanaticism, Potterly has begun to have doubts, in part because of his own wife’s nostalgic obsessions. In a melodramatic confrontation with the FBI, they discover that the chronoscope’s operating limits are between one hundred and twenty-five years and one second ago, making privacy in the present a thing of the past. Either a whole new utopian society will have to evolve, a doubtful supposition, or the government’s suppression of information will turn out, in retrospect, to have been for the good. Although the story has flaws and its fantasy is almost certainly unrealizable, the satire is engaging, and the ending is a thoughtful variation on the theme that there may indeed be some knowledge not worth pursuing.
Asimov’s fiction usually has a makeshift quality about it, his characterizations are often featureless, and his propensity for surprise endings and melodramatic diction and situations may irritate some readers. Nevertheless, his exploitation of scientific thought and rationality, his emphasis on the puzzle solving which makes up much of science, and his generally good-humored lucidity have made him, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, one of the cornerstones of modern science fiction.