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Isaac Asimov 1920–
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Paul French) Russianborn American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and autobiographer.
Asimov is a prolific writer and is regraded by many critics as the most important and influential author in the science fiction genre. His novels have done...
(The entire section contains 33425 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Isaac Asimov 1920–
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Paul French) Russianborn American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and autobiographer.
Asimov is a prolific writer and is regraded by many critics as the most important and influential author in the science fiction genre. His novels have done much to make science fiction a critically accepted field, and his laws of robotics and the factual information in many of his stories have earned him the respect of laypersons and scientists alike. In his fiction there is an underlying concern for humanity and its survival in the face of advancing technology. His stories often deal with such contemporary social problems as overpopulation, the threat of atomic warfare, or racial prejudice.
Asimov's stories first appeared in the science fiction magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, and most have now been published in such collections as I, Robot, Asimov's Mysteries, and The Bicentennial Man. He is credited as the first writer to integrate successfully the properties of science fiction with those of the detective novel. The Caves of Steel and its sequel, The Naked Sun, are successful works of this type. Asimov's long-awaited sequel to the Foundation trilogy, Foundation's Edge, has recently been published. Like most of his fiction, it is readable, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating. His Foundation trilogy won the Hugo award for best all-time series in 1966 and his novel The Gods Themselves won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1972.
Asimov also writes nonfiction science books to introduce the general public to complex scientific procedures and discoveries and to alert readers to the effects of these scientific advancements.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 9, 19; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2; Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 26; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)
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["I, Robot"] is an exciting science thriller, chiefly about what occurs when delicately conditioned robots are driven off balance by mathematical violations, and about man's eternal limitations. It could be fun for those whose nerves are not already made raw by the potentialities of the atomic age.
Nancie Matthews, "When Machines Go Mad," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 4, 1951, p. 6.
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[In "David Starr: Space Ranger," a] tale of the seventieth century, Paul French ingeniously combines mystery with science fiction. His inventiveness and his use of picturesque details remind one of Robert Heinlein's books and, though his characters are not so fully developed as are Heinlein's, they are for the most part more individualized than in the usual story of this kind. There are moments, to be sure, when David Starr suggests the comic-strip hero, but he is convincing enough for the purposes of the story.
Ellen Lewis Buell, "Martian Mystery." in The New York Times Book Review (© 1952 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1952, p. 34.
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["Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus"] is Paul French's best juvenile science fiction book to date. Crackling with suspense, lit by humor, sparkling with complexities of plot, and alive with interest, it is a tasty deep-sea dish for every reader who is young at heart.
The great underwater cities which harbor Earth's settlers on Venus are threatened with destruction by a hidden enemy who can control men's minds. Lucky Starr, youngest member of Earth's Council of Science, hurries to Venus with his friend, "Bigman" Jones, to discover why the Council's agent on Venus has turned traitor. Following a trail which grows increasingly complex, Starr and Bigman find themselves in fantastic danger, developed by the author both cunningly and scientifically. The identity of the book's villains is as surprising as it is inevitable. Here is a s-f juvenile guaranteed to keep young people away from the TV set—and, incidentally, to teach them facts about their solar system.
Villiers Gerson, "Hidden Enemy," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1954, p. 10.
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It seems to be an open secret that "Paul French" is Isaac Asimov; and the latest adventure of Lucky Starr ["Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus"] is the first in this series to deserve comparison with Asimov's often admirable adult science fiction. Here he has dropped the foolish trappings which made earlier books seem like a blend of Space Patrol, Superman and the Lone Ranger, and devoted himself to a straightforward, near-Heinlein adventure on Venus—a tight, fast story, including a well-plotted detective puzzle and some excellent xenobiology—which, for the uninitiated, means the study of possible non-Earthly life forms.
H. H. Holmes, in a review of "Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), November 28, 1954, p. 16.
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["Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury"] is much the best of the Space Patrol genre this spring. It's an interplanetary detective story of sabotage on a mysterious project on Mercury, with well constructed deduction, exciting action and accurate astronomical information.
H. H. Holmes, in his review of "Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1956, p. 36.
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The swashbuckling science-fiction hero, Buck Rogers style, can be a pretty depressing fellow. In "Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn" … Paul French tells us how Lucky spoils the Sirians' plans to colonize one of our sun's planets. Studded with what one supposes are spaceman epithets, such as "Great Galaxy!" and "Sands of Mars!", this is a good guy vs. bad guy situation in which neat plotting is the saving grace of an otherwise ordinary effort.
Robert Berkvist, "Teen-Age Space Cadets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 14, 1958, p. 18.∗
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[In "Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn"], French-Asimov has fun with fresh variations on the Three Laws of Robotics … and lets David Starr contribute to future history by establishing, against the opposition of the sinister Sirians, the principal of the indivisibility of stellar systems. The novel's a mite short on plot, and much of its banter seems more childish than youthful; but like all Asimov it is ingenious and carefully credible.
H. H. Holmes, "Three, Two, One, Zero and a Space Suit," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 10, 1959, p. 27.∗
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["Words of Science and the History Behind Them" is] entertaining and informative…. Isaac Asimov, who has written science fiction and science truth, here discusses almost 1,500 scientific terms under 250 alphabetized headings, one to a page. The result is that Enzyme and Equator glare at each other incongruously from opposite pages, as they might in a dictionary. But this is no dictionary, nor even a comprehensive reference work. Yet it is packed with information about the meanings and derivations of words and the stories behind them, and it would appeal to any youthful reader with even slight scientific curiosity.
The discovery that an aneroid barometer is a "not wet" barometer, that a centrifugal force is one that flees from the center and a centripetal force is one that moves toward the center, that centigrade is the scale of "a hundred steps" from melting to boiling and that a telescope is a "distance watcher" is bound to be provocative to a young mind. And if the young mind wants a simple introduction to relativity, that is here, too—in 400 words….
[In its field, this book functions] valuably in directing the attention of a new generation to words, those beautiful and useful tools of communication. (p. 63)
Theodore M. Bernstein, "More Than Meets the Eye and Ear," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 1, 1959, pp. 3, 63.∗
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["Words of Science and the History Behind Them"] is an alphabetically arranged collection of one-page essays on such unfamiliar words as catalysis, isomer, occultation, tantalum, and yttrium, and such quite ordinary words as artery, continent, cortisone, lever, nucleus, and planet….
In addition to being a useful reference book, this is a delightful book for children of any age to read at random, because of the charm and freshness of the author's information and speculation, and his sense of the essential reasonableness and simplicity of all science.
Emily Maxwell, in her review of "Words of Science and the History Behind Them," in The New Yorker (© 1959 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 40, November 21, 1959, pp. 236-37.
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In the lucid and information packed style that has rendered the author outstanding in the juvenile science field, Isaac Asimov describes twenty-six men and the moments at which they reversed the course of scientific thought [in Breakthroughs in Science]…. Embracing every area of science, this is a readable text which should interest even the most reluctant student, and is therefore recommended to school libraries.
A review of "Breakthroughs in Science," in Virginia Kirkus' Service, Vol. XXVIII, No. 19, October 1, 1960, p. 869.
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[Breakthroughs in Science is a collection] of brief (1,500 words) essays on the life and work of nearly 30 important scientists and technologists…. Style is odd: paragraphs and sentences seem often to have been artificially shortened and most unlike Asimov's usual excellent, smooth-flowing exposition. The essays themselves seem far too short for the amount of ground covered. The whole project bears a most un-Asimov-like air, and the result is an inferior work from an author whose true excellence can usually be taken for granted. The general juvenile encyclopedias give far better coverage of the subject treated here.
Theodore C. Hines, in his review of "Breakthroughs in Science," in Junior Libraries, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the December, 1960 issue of Junior Libraries, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1960), Vol. 6, No. 4, December, 1960, p. 58.
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[The Rest of the Robots] is a true delight—reprints of eight short stories and two novels all by Asimov and all written with his characteristic verve, intelligence and humor. In his introduction he gives a capsule history of the art of science fiction and its changing philosophy. He has arranged his selections by date of writing and has prefaced each with critical comments which trace his increasingly serious approach to the world of "robotics." These stories cover a span of 15 years and clearly show a growing skill in technique as well as greater depth and complexity of subject.
Betty Flowers, in her review of "The Rest of the Robots," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the January, 1965 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1965), Vol. 11, No. 5, January, 1965, p. 72.
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In essence I, Robot is a collection of indifferent short stories given a spurious novelty by mechanical transformation. But SF requires re-thinking, not mere re-clothing. In the very first story, Robbie, a nursemaid robot, is described as a primitive type, made before the secret of conferring speech on them had been discovered. Yet, inferentially, his programming must have been incredibly complex, and the inclusion of speech-mechanism would have been the merest subsidiary detail. The potentially devastating point of this particular tale, that if a child thinks of its robot guardian as human then too it thinks of its human guardian as a robot, is badly fumbled.
Hilary Corke, in his review of "I, Robot" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1967; reprinted by permission of Hilary Corke), in The Listener, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1989, May 11, 1967, p. 629.
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In [Asimov's Mysteries], Isaac Asimov has brought together 14 short stories illustrative of the "science fiction mystery"—a form which, he explains, he began writing in response to comments that the two could not be combined. Obviously, they can be: the puzzle as hero can be as entertaining in its way as galactic empires, alien life-forms, or social extrapolation. This book provides further evidence if it was needed. In most of the stories Mr. Asimov draws the puzzle elements from science, and the knowledgeable reader may be able to figure out whodunit or how it was done before the climax. Four of the stories feature an eccentric professor as armchair sleuth, and a couple are vehicles for Mr. Asimov's punning propensities…. This is a competent volume….
Richard W. Ryan, in his review of "Asimov's Mysteries," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, December 15, 1967; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1967 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 92, No. 22, December 15, 1967, p. 4521.
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As the companion volume to Asimov's earlier Breakthroughs in science …, [Great ideas of science] is composed of short essays on famous scientists and their accomplishments. In Great ideas of science the major contributions of sixteen scientists … are discussed. Ten years ago a reviewer suggested of Breakthroughs that the "general juvenile encyclopedias give far better coverage to the subjects treated." We feel that the same criticism is valid for Great ideas of science. Asimov's theme is that "the universe behaves in accordance with certain laws of nature that cannot be altered or changed," but that "it is possible for human reason to work out the nature of the laws governing the universe." He presents this theme in his initial chapter and subsequently discusses how each scientist's contribution has extended human reason. A formal conclusion restating the theme would have been fitting. Asimov's writing is so terse that the knowledgeable student will want more information (there is no bibliography), while other readers need more information for adequate comprehension. (p. 12)
A review of "Great Ideas of Science: The Men and the Thinking Behind Them," in Science Books (copyright ©1970 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science), Vol. 6, No. 1, May, 1970, pp. 11-12.
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The continuing popularity of Asimov's earlier novels should guarantee an audience for [The Gods Themselves]…. The story of earth's demands on its dwindling energy reserves is told in three tenuously linked segments…. The plot, which can almost be read as three short stories, reflects the contemporary search for an energy source free from dangerous side effects and demonstrates that self-serving convenience can be an overwhelming argument against probable consequences. Although this runs counter to the "new wave" in science fiction, it will no doubt be welcomed by YA's who want accurate science, an intriguing hypothesis drawn from a modern dilemma, well-detailed imaginary worlds to explore and even a dash of romance.
George Merrill, in his review of "The Gods Themselves," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the May, 1972 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1972), Vol. 18, No. 9, May, 1972, p. 97.
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In "More Words of Science," Isaac Asimov exhibits, as he did in his 1959 "Words of Science" (to which this book is a sequel), the same deep attention to the science of words as he does to science. Dr. Asimov's knowledge of his subjects embraces their etymology, lending, in most cases, a simple clarity to even the more complex definitions….
From ablation to zpg, a full page is devoted to each definition. This page-length treatment permits a scope and style most dictionaries, including children's encyclopedias, do not attempt. Asimov's mode explores both the development of the term he explains and of the idea, process, theory, hardware, organ, cell, behavior or astral body he has selected, defining these subjects' importance to us. Latin and Greek roots for words (often more informative than their modern derivatives) as well as words simply examined as they are, from modern foreign languages, form part of each definition. A full amount of knowledge is packed into each of these small essays.
The need for a sequel to the 1959 edition is made evident in the new words that have followed in the traces of myriad developments since that date, or come into more common use, or acquired new meanings….
In all, there is excellent balance struck among the disciplines of biology, anthropology, astronomy, chemistry and physics. Not much, if anything, has suffered neglect. This is an excellent work of modern-day reference, surely—but, more than that, a book that can be read, enjoyably, simply for the sake of reading and learning.
Robert J. Anthony, in his review of "More Words of Science," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1972, p. 10.
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Every author has his favourite hero, usually based on a flattering version of his own personality. In his first work of fiction for fifteen years, The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov continues with his fictional alter ego in the form of the questing man of science. A man, it need hardly be added, of intellect, vision, courage, and so on. In this tripartite novel there are, basically, three distinct personalities who might be said to fit these rather exacting criteria, including an exotic though blobby alien. Despite Asimov's obvious identification with his dramatis personae, it is Science itself that directs the proceedings, manipulating both humans and aliens as the godlike puppetmaster; the layman is soon left floundering in a swamp of scientific complexities….
Between experiments there is plenty of extra-curricular activity, such as nude PT sessions, a guided tour of a moon colony by a long-legged moongirl, and a tri-sexual mating ritual. It may seem rather trite, but then the end of the world has always been a ready-made subject for ribaldry.
"Any More for the Apocalpyse?" in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3684, October 13, 1972, p. 1235.∗
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The language of science continues to grow at an astounding rate. When Isaac Asimov's book, Words of Science, was published in 1959, term such as "quasar," "laser," and "transfer RNA" were not included; since they were not yet a part of the common scientific vocabulary. More Words of Science takes up where the earlier volume left off and provides the reader with 250 more clearly and interestingly written explanations. Very often, books of this sort are useful only as references; by contrast, More Words of Science is so well written that many people will want to read it cover to cover. The book is not a dictionary of science terms. Each word is given a page-long narrative which goes considerably beyond the minimum. Drawn from all fields of science, the terms and their explanatory essays are thoroughly indexed. Cross-references have been avoided, however, in order to do away with the annoyance of flipping from one page to another. More Words of Science can be highly recommended to general readers who seek a pleasant and non-threatening introduction to a broad spectrum of words from the language of science.
A review of "More Words of Science," in Science Books (copyright © 1972 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science), Vol. VIII, No. 3, December, 1972, p. 211.
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[The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying is a candid], delightful insight into Asimov's increasing maturity as a science fiction writer. His discussion of his feelings on first breaking into print could be an inspiration to any young writer…. The early stories are valuable to any collection of science fiction since they show Asimov's concern with the exactness and certitude of the known in our science and his uncanny ability to predict those elements in and concerning science which have since come to pass. Stories like these also show his progression from an awkward, inspired teenager to the intellectual genius and internationally known writer he has become. (The book could be used as a text for "creative writing," provided the teacher understood science fiction.) Above all, the delicious comments about the short stories, the editors he has known, the fans and bibliographers (who grow angry when he confesses to having lost some of his earliest writings), combined with the gentle sense of humor and satire of Asimov, make this book indispensable to the SF fan or collection. There is only one Asimov in science fiction and only a handful of others who can approach his stature.
A review of "The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying," in Choice (copyright © 1973 by American Library Association), Vol. 10, No. 1, March, 1973, p. 87.
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Asimov employed the wide-angle lens for his view of life and it is a pity that his largest milestone, the Foundation trilogy, was written before sf authors were able to think of their books as books, rather than as short stories or serials in ephemeral magazines (or magazines that would have been ephemeral but for the dedication of fans). Conceived as one organic whole, the Foundation series would have undoubtedly risen to greater majesty….
Asimov has developed into one of the polymaths of our day, producing a stream of popularisations of various scientific disciplines. The popularity of his novels continues. Like many another writer, Asimov began in subversive vein, prophesying change and barbarism; but, a generation later, such ideas lose their sting and become safe for a general public. Increasingly, one sees the solid conservative faith in technology in Asimov's novels. His short stories often err on the side of facetiousness. (p. 269)
Brian W. Aldiss, "'After the Impossible Happened': The Fifties and Onwards, and Upwards," in his Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (copyright © 1973 by Brian W. Aldiss; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.; in Canada by Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.), Doubleday, 1973, pp. 244-84.∗
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On page 4 of The Bicentennial Man, Isaac Asimov claims to have published 175 books. By the time you read this, the score will probably have passed 200. The Bicentennial Man does not seem to form any particular landmark in this apparently endless plain of prose, but is still a good read, particularly if you like conjuring-trick stories about robots and are not totally switched off by the purple cotton wool introductions in which Asimov now packs his stories. Certainly, anyone who feels that the three laws of robotics had all the pith sucked from them years ago should read this collection—although none of the stories takes the pith quite as well as John Sladek's pastiche of Asimov in The Steam-Driven Boy. (pp. 218-19)
Martin Sherwood, in his review of "The Bicentennial Man," in New Scientist (© IPC Magazines, 1977), Vol. 74, No. 1049, April, 1977, pp. 218-19.
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The beginning of Isaac Asimov's career as a writer of science fiction coincided closely with the beginning of the development of "social science fiction." (p. 13)
[Asimov defines "social science fiction"] as "that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings." He recognizes the existence of the other types of science fiction—adventure and gadget—which do not fit this definition, but he feels that "social science fiction is the only branch of science fiction that is sociologically significant, and that those stories, which are generally accepted as science fiction … but do not fall within the definition I have given above, are not significant, however amusing they may be and however excellent as pieces of fiction." (p. 14)
Science fiction has often been accused of being escape literature. There is no doubt that many science fiction stories are primarily escapist in intent; however, Asimov sees a difference between science fiction and other forms of escape literature such as westerns, true romances, and mystery stories; much of science fiction encourages its readers to think about the future—an occupation that can hardly be described as "escaping"—and the possibilities that the future seems to hold…. For the first time in the world's history, mankind can no longer take the future for granted. Each individual's future may always have been uncertain, but mankind has never before been concerned about the future of the whole human race. (pp. 14-15)
One of the major functions of science fiction for Asimov is to accustom its readers to the idea of change. In contemplating the possible futures presented in science fiction, the reader is forced to recognize and accept the idea that things will change, and he is helped to surrender some of his traditional human passion for the status quo. Asimov sees this as a real benefit to our society, as we try to plan and implement the changes that will do the most good for humanity. He does not claim that science fiction writers set out deliberately to propagandize their readers and make them aware of the inevitability and value of change; they write interesting stories, usually based on scientific facts, and try to extrapolate from today's society the many different possible changes for man and his world in the future. Any benefits to the readers, or to society, are simply by-products of a job well done. (p. 15)
Asimov has written some adventure and gadget stories, and some that are just plain fun, but the greatest part of his work is clearly social science fiction…. [Even] his earliest stories, written when he was not yet twenty, show a real concern for people, and for social issues. As he matured as a writer, he continued to be disturbed over many of the same social problems; the main difference between his early works and his later ones may be the subtlety with which he presents his message. In some of the earlier stories, the urgency of the message weakens the effectiveness of the story. Two early stories, "Half-Breed" … and "Half-Breeds on Venus" …, were clearly motivated by Asimov's distress over the prevalence of racial prejudice…. He sees the diminishing of racial prejudice as a service that science fiction might help to perform for society, since science fiction writers, because they are dealing with larger areas of the universe, usually speak of all the people of Earth as simply "Earthmen," making no distinction among the races. Whether a man is black, brown, red, or white is not so important when he and his fellows are facing a green monster from Mars. (pp. 16-17)
["Trends"] dealt with a theme that had not previously been used in science fiction—the possibility that people might be opposed to the idea of space flight and try to stop it. (p. 17)
The specific threat from technological advances that man might lose the ability to control his own life is a recurrent theme in the science fiction of many writers, as are the problems of atomic energy and overpopulation. This threat is part of the problem Asimov presents in "Trends."…
The theme of man versus his own technology appears in many Asimov stories, from "Trends" to his science fiction novel The Gods Themselves. Resistance to science often takes the form, in Asimov's work, of an underground group, such as the Medievalists in The Caves of Steel, which works in some way to resist or subvert scientific and technological advances. This distrust of technology is a basic theme in all the robot stories. Indeed, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics ended the Frankenstein-monster era of robot stories and brought in the more scientific story, in which mankind must make the decisions about the robots' capabilities and protect himself against any possibility that his creations might rise up and destroy him. The source of the difficulties that have to be solved in the robot stories is usually an apparent conflict between the ideal of the Three Laws, and the robots' application of the Laws. (p. 18)
Reading through Asimov's works, looking for evidence of his attitude toward man and technology, one is struck by his ambivalence. He clearly takes great delight in technological advances for their own sake—he just plain likes clever new gadgets, and new-and-better ways to do things—but he also recognizes that humanity cannot survive without allowing for individuality and uncontrollability, even "orneriness." No matter how advanced a technology may become, he feels, it will still have to be possible for people to escape the control of the machines in some way for life to have any meaning. (p. 19)
[Asimov] has great faith in man's ability to use technology for his own good, as in The Gods Themselves, but at the same time, he has repeatedly shown that he recognizes the danger of too much control over men's lives. Many of his stories revolve around a protagonist who insists on doing something human, whether it is simply going outdoors when it is no longer necessary or proper, or learning to do something that the computers can do for you, or working to defeat the technology that controls his life. Humanity remains triumphant, if not always victorious, in the battle against an overpowering technology.
Atomic weapons and atomic energy are a unique and over-whelming part of the technology that threatens us. Asimov has frequently used atomic devastation as one aspect of the background for his stories, instead of making it a major component of the plot. (p. 24)
One Asimov story that is about atomic weapons, rather than using them as one aspect of the setting, is the short-short story "Hell-Fire" …, found in Earth Is Room Enough. A group of scientists has gathered to view the first extremely slow-motion film of the explosion of an atomic bomb. To their shock and horror, the film clearly shows the face of Satan, complete with horns and demonic grin, formed in the mushroom cloud of the explosion. Although Asimov claims no religious affiliation himself, some of his most effective works have strong religious or theological elements because he recognizes the importance of religion in man's history, and because, as he says, he is interested in religion along with many other subjects. (p. 26)
It is obvious that Asimov's stories cannot be neatly divided into discrete categories—these stories are about atomic energy, and these are about overpopulation, and so on. There is a great deal of overlap, and most stories will contain references to many different sociological concerns. Population control might be effected by technological advances or, failing that, by atomic warfare. Population growth that is not controlled will, on the other hand, put great demands on technology to provide enough food and shelter for everyone. Asimov's concern about atomic energy tapered off as the world seemed to adapt to the existence of this threat, and the horror of atomic war became at least a little more remote and perhaps a little less certain. At the same time, the dangers of overpopulation began to come into prominence in his work. (p. 27)
One of Asimov's most extended and chilling looks at one possible future for Earth is provided in The Caves of Steel. This is one of Asimov's two novels which successfully combine the mystery story and science fiction. It is laid in the fifty-first century. The population of Earth has reached eight billion; almost the entire population is crowded into the huge cities, leaving the rest of the land free for agriculture; every aspect of life is controlled in an effort to make the overcrowded conditions as bearable as possible. (pp. 27-8)
Elijah Baley, a New York City detective, is one of the heroes of the book; the other is R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot detective from Spacetown, an Outer Worlds colony set up on Earth. Baley lives in a New York City with a population of twenty million. He sees the "first problem of living" in such an overcrowded world as being to minimize friction with all of the other people who have to live in such close proximity. The best way to do this is for people to be scrupulous in their observance of all the customs and regulations that encompass every part of daily life, so as not to offend or inconvenience their neighbors, from whom there is never any real escape. (p. 28)
The fifty Outer Worlds were settled a thousand years before the time of this story, by men from Earth. Now each world has its own civilization and resists any immigration from Earth, in order to keep its society just the way it wants it. Earth, therefore, is hemmed in with its enormous population and cannot find any real solution to its problems. Man has long since lost the urge to colonize any new unoccupied worlds, because of his closed-in existence. Robots are widely used on the Outer Worlds but are feared and distrusted on Earth, and efforts to use them are bitterly resented.
In The Naked Sun, the sequel to The Caves of Steel, we get a closeup picture of the "ideal" life on one of the Outer Worlds that figured in the earlier work. All of the Outer Worlds are thinly populated and have economies that make use of robots. Solaria, the planet to which Baley is sent to solve a murder, presents a picture of the most extreme dependence on robots. Each citizen of Solaria lives on a large estate of his own, attended by a great number of specialized robots…. In striking contrast to the crowded Earth, where privacy is almost impossible, Solaria has developed a society in which human contact is at an absolute minimum. Even married couples actually "see" each other (that is, are physically present in the same room) only at scheduled intervals, although they share the same estate. All social visits and business conferences are conducted by three-dimensional televiewing, rather than "seeing." (pp. 28-9)
The Naked Sun gives a picture of a society that might be regarded as ideal from the point of view of technological advancement, and yet it is clearly not ideal in the human sense. While Earth's overcrowding has led to a timid humanity, with little spirit of adventure or initiative, Solaria's artificial isolation has led to a people with little feeling for each other and no way to work together in an emergency. The advanced technology which permits easy communication with anyone on the planet has actually made real communication—communication of human understanding, empathy, and mutual helpfulness—much more difficult. (p. 29)
Many of Asimov's stories about overpopulation simply present the problem, not the solution. He appears to feel that no solution will be possible until people are thoroughly awakened to the nature of the threat posed by our growing population. (pp. 29-30)
Throughout his writing career Asimov has shown his concern for the problems that humanity has to face. By examining a few of his stories and novels we have seen the various ways in which he has expressed this concern. Some stories seem to have been written primarily to encourage the reader to recognize and think about some particular problem. Some stories present the problem but suggest no solution; other stories offer possible solutions. Occasionally, Asimov is pessimistic about man's chance of surviving and maintaining his human individuality; more often he has seemed to feel that man's determination to run his own life will somehow win out over any obstacles that science and technology might put in the way.
From 1945 on, Asimov was quite pessimistic about the prospects for avoiding atomic war, but he usually pictured humanity as surviving and rebuilding its civilization. Only an occasional story, such as "No Connection," presents the possibility of man's being completely destroyed and some other species rising to an intelligent, civilized society.
Asimov's major worry in the last twenty years, as far as the fate of humanity is concerned, has been overpopulation, and he has become increasingly pessimistic. He does not believe that humanity will be able to solve this problem soon enough—if ever. But if the problem is not solved intelligently, nature will work out a solution, or series of solutions—warfare, starvation, disease.
Asimov began to write science fiction because he was determined to be a writer, and science fiction was what he knew best and enjoyed the most. As he matured as a writer, science fiction itself was coming to maturity as a serious and responsible type of literature. Asimov and other science fiction authors wrote more and more works that sought to waken humanity to the dangers it faces. (pp. 30-1)
Marjorie Mithoff Miller, "The Social Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov," in Isaac Asimov, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (copyright © 1977 by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg; published by Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York; reprinted by permission), Taplinger, 1977, pp. 13-31.
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Asimov has balanced the demands of [two genres, mystery and science fiction] by building on their common ground.
Both types impose the need for logical, analytical method and for subtle, acute reasoning—applied in the one instance to untangling a puzzle in immediate time and place, the other in speculative time and place. Both exercise the special knowledge of the author. Detective fiction demands a knowledge of police procedures and an understanding of the deductive process; science fiction, of the scientific premises on which the speculative world is based.
A second answer lies with Asimov's own track record. He has been able to draw on his ingenuity without undue strain or awkward repetition. In at least three cases he has expanded an initial appearance of his detective characters into a series without sacrificing either his powers of deduction or his scientific reasonableness. The last four of the Lucky Starr juveniles, the Robot novels, and the Wendell Urth short stories testify to this point. (p. 37)
One might quibble at the inclusion of the Lucky Starr juveniles in a discussion of Asimov's detective science fiction, but this series is worth our notice if only to follow the shift of the title character from the conventional hero of space opera and action-adventure to the hero as cool, rational space detective. The title of the first book of the series is revelatory: David Starr: Space Ranger…. It tempts us to substitute another well-known epithet, Lone Ranger, especially after we read the book and meet John Bigman Jones, friend and cohort of David Starr. Bigman can well serve as a space-Tonto, for he, too, comes from a different culture than the main character, albeit another culture in the galaxy instead of the continent. Together they encounter many exciting adventures and solve all problems. In the second book of the series, Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids …, our hero continues his adventurous exploits, complete with push-tube duel in outer space. (pp. 37-8)
With the third book of the series, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, Lucky begins the shift from space ranger to space detective…. Now more prone to rely on the powers of his mind and on scientific data rather than on cleverness and physical courage alone, Lucky Starr continues to solve the puzzles of his universe: intergalactic conspiracy, conspirators who use telepathic animal extensions of their power, and computers misused to control and to gain power. One brief but telling exchange between Lucky and Bigman illustrates how far Asimov has moved his duo from a Lone Ranger-Tonto relationship to a Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson one. At one point Bigman excitedly questions Lucky about something he doesn't understand. Lucky's answer is not the expected explanation but a sentiment worthy of the Great Detective himself: "Actually, it's only a matter of logic." (p. 38)
In the remaining three novels of the Lucky Starr series the two characters retain this relationship, but a new element enters the picture—robots.
[Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, and Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn] present Lucky Starr less as a trouble-shooter and more as a problem-solver for the Council of Science of Earth in their continuing confrontation with the Sirian civilization, a robot-saturated economy. The two "space detectives" solve the stolen robot caper, block the use of Venusian V-frogs to control human emotions, and finally in the last novel they avert a serious galactic struggle when the Sirians move in to establish colonies in Earth's stellar system. While this last novel moves more closely to spy-thriller conventions, the two preceding ones rely more heavily on the personal deductive process. (pp. 38-9)
In The Caves of Steel Asimov uses the classic pattern of detective fiction: statement of the problem, marshalling of the clues and facts, completion of the inquiry, and explanation of the proof. Setting the pattern into action is the introduction of the detective, Elijah Baley, just before Baley is summoned to Commissioner Enderby's office to receive an assignment to investigate a murder in Spacetown. (p. 39)
This assignment holds a unique challenge for Baley. He is a true product of the conditioning which the City of some 3000 years in the future imposes upon all of its inhabitants. He fears open spaces. He feels uncomfortable in open air. Most of all, he experiences mingled fear and disgust in the presence of robots because they represent an ever-growing threat that they might replace men. To all Earthmen the robots mean loss of jobs, the misery of loss of status, and the lonely sense of displacement. His new assignment requires that Baley face all of these fears. He must go to Spacetown and endure the open spaces and the unconditioned air, especially those disturbing vagrant breezes. An obligatory consideration of the case forces him to take as an assistant a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, whose humanoid appearance is so lifelike that he passes undetected even by the chief robotics expert of Earth.
At this point Asimov had to pay considerable attention to an important imperative of science fiction. A story which takes place some 3000 years in the future obviously demands the creation of a world different from the one in which the reader lives today. Setting is always important in science fiction; it must believably fit the future. In Caves Asimov begins to build his world from the first page. Particularly during the phase of the investigation which deals with the collection of data and the sifting of clues, Asimov skillfully blends in necessary details of setting.
Asimov does alleviate some possible difficulties in this blending by localizing most of his action in the world of the detective, a world which is not too unfamiliar to the reader. In Caves New York City now covers a large area, but more importantly it has burrowed deep underground to become a "tremendous self-contained cave of steel and concrete."… It is a microcosm reflecting an overpopulated Earth dependent for certain strategic material on the Outer Worlds, those outlying planets and asteroids originally populated by immigrants from Earth but now closed to such settlement.
The existence of the Outer Worlds and the conflict between them and Earth is not a new invention for this novel. In 1949, Asimov wrote "Mother Earth" …, a short story foreshadowing Baley's Earth at an earlier time when some diplomatic links still existed between Earth and the Outer Worlds. (pp. 39-40)
[The short story is] evidence of Asimov's economy or utility of invention, an economy we will see over and over again in the science fiction mystery stories of Asimov. While "Mother Earth" does not feature Lije Baley or R. Daneel Olivaw, it could well be considered the initial story of that series, but one lacking the presence of the detective spirit.
The length of the novel afforded Asimov some benefits which he could not gain in the short story…. [Since Asimov] needed to blend two effects, he took advantage of the length of the novel to fix the setting firmly before turning to the serious work of solving the crime.
Asimov gives us the City in some detail. There is some exposition and direct description of the [city]….
But most exhilarating for the reader is the sense of direct experience which Asimov affords us. With Baley he moves us around the City. (p. 41)
Not only do we learn to know the City physically but we learn to know the people and the things they value. Above all, privacy is jealously guarded, as one may well imagine. Status is one of the keys to happiness, not status based on money or family connections, but on one's rating as a worker. The status ratings bring greater privileges and assure a modicum of comfort for a man and his family. The successful solution of the Spacetown murder will bring Baley a higher rating….
To assure this rating, Baley has only to solve the murder. But solving the murder also means working with a robot…. [The] investigation must proceed; gradually Lije Baley's professional training succeeds in controlling his first instinct and he accords R. Daneel a grudging cooperation. (p. 42)
Near the end of The Caves of Steel Asimov does weaken the blend of mystery and science fiction by introducing a new and unanticipated element. Unexpectedly, the Spacers call off the murder investigation, informing Baley of their decision through R. Daneel. Asimov would have us believe that their main objective was not to find the murderer but to woo Baley's mind toward a tolerance of robots. With this accomplished, they then widened that tolerance to the point where he could entertain, even could express to Enderby, the idea that Earth might consider a new wave of emigration to the still-empty worlds in space. By necessity, this project would involve both leaving the safety of the City and accepting the help of robots in colonizing the new worlds.
Asimov does salvage his detective story, however, when he allows Baley to close the case in his own way…. The revelation of the facts as evidence shares the readers' attention with the author's concern for the "second chance" afforded the criminal. The science fiction side of the story has the last word as Daneel says to the culprit, "Go and sin no more!"
In the sequel The Naked Sun, Asimov himself recognizes his accomplishment in the brief foreword to the novel in The Rest of the Robots. He modestly states that he once again "achieved a perfect fusion of the murder mystery and the science-fiction novel." Whether the first novel was a perfect fusion is debatable…. The sequel, on the other hand, does achieve a unity which supercedes that of the first robot novel…. Like its predecessor, The Naked Sun features Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw collaborating on a murder case, this time on one of the Outer Worlds.
The unity achieved in The Naked Sun is explainable in several ways. First, Asimov uses less time to present his two main characters, who are well known, at least to his fans who have read The Caves of Steel (one obvious advantage of a series). Second, he does not have to be so detailed in his explanations of the people in the Outer Worlds, their way of life, or their psychology. Above all, he need not spend half his book readjusting Baley's attitude toward acceptance of robot help. Since the adjustment occurred in the first book of the series, it now requires reaffirmation only. True, Baley has other new adjustments to make: he must learn to control the panic engendered by flying; he must come to terms with the unique customs of Solaria; and, most of all, he must conquer his fear of being in the open. These are problems built into the movement of the plot and are easily absorbed into the mystery pattern.
As in Caves, the story in The Naked Sun falls into the pattern of the classic detective story. A murder occurs on Solaria, one of the Outer Worlds; Elijah Baley is sent to investigate. (pp. 44-5)
The murder on Solaria is the first in two centuries. Solarian security finds itself incapable of coping with such an extraordinary occurrence. Because his success in the Spacetown murder (The Caves of Steel) has earned him a reputation in the Galaxy, Solaria requests Earth to send Elijah Baley to handle the investigation of their murder. An official in the Justice Department gives Baley his charge: find the murderer. He also gives a sub rosa assignment: keep eyes and ears open to the general situation on Solaria so that he may report to Earth upon return. In The Naked Sun, unlike the late introduction of the second problem in Caves, Asimov introduces this thread of the plot early. Also, it fits more naturally into the detective fiction pattern—the international intrigue of the spy thriller grafted onto the localized puzzle of the mystery story.
As before, R. Daneel Olivaw from Aurora, the largest and most powerful of the Outer Worlds, joins Baley as his assistant. Once on Solaria the two detectives slowly gather data, even though they are barred from visiting the scene of the crime or from interviewing suspects except by trimensional image. In Solarian society,… direct access to another's personal presence is practically unknown, even between spouses who meet only on "assigned days." Asimov obviously is working a science-fiction variation of the locked-room situation in detective fiction.
The bare facts of the case come from Hannis Gruer, head of Solarian security: the identity of the murdered man; the facts that no murder weapon was found but that a positronic brain-damaged robot was on the scene; the fact that the murdered man's wife was found bending over the body. The robot, governed by First Law, cannot possibly be suspected of the murder. The chances of any one person's attempting and gaining access to the man are nil because of the elaborate network of robots around each human being on Solaria—not to mention the extreme psychological aversion the murderer would have to overcome merely to approach the victim. The only possible human suspect is the murdered man's wife Gladia. But again, no weapon which could have served the purpose of murder was found, and she had had no time in which to dispose of any such weapon.
After Gruer's report Baley recognizes the seemingly insurmountable difficulties facing him. His only move now is to fall back on the commonplaces of detection, and his response is almost a cliché: "Murder rests on three legs, each equally important. They are motive, means, and opportunity. For a good case against any suspect, each of the three must be satisfied." A faithful reader of detective fiction will easily recollect this truism from speeches of countless fictional detectives, be they amateurs or professionals. At first, the statement seems almost an unwarranted one, until we recall that Asimov must also keep up the logic of the science fiction side of his tale. His character is speaking to someone from a different culture; he is operating in a country where murder is known only in an academic sense. The study of motive, means, and opportunity is unnecessary, hence forgotten. The reminder of basic police procedure illuminates both the detective and the science fiction parts of the novel.
Find motive, means, and opportunity. The path seems simple. But complications soon arise. Baley discovers the existence of subversive elements in this ostensibly tight social organization on Solaria. These people wish to change the "old ways, the good ways," the customs and traditions of which the murdered man was an advocate. The suspicion now arises that Dr. Delmarre, being a Traditionalist, was silenced for political reasons. (pp. 45-7)
The intergalactic politics smack so obviously of twentieth-century cold war or international politics that the situation threatens to jeopardize Asimov's fusion of science fiction and mystery by suddenly assuming some conventions of a thriller. (p. 47)
Surprisingly, Asimov moves us back to the original purpose—a science-fiction detective story—with the very character whose absence at the briefing allowed the digression into galactic politics. R. Daneel Olivaw's absence gives Asimov the opportunity to subordinate the robot detective more completely to the human detective than in Caves. No longer the "pocketfrannistan" able to store, sort, and produce instant information for Baley, the robot serves him as the source of background information: Solaria's geography; its social and cultural mores; biographical notes on Solarian officials; and any supplementary data which Baley needs. As the novel unfolds, the need for Daneel's peculiar gift lessens while the necessity for human imagination grows.
Especially is this state of affairs evident when a second murder attempt occurs, this one on Gruer himself, in full "view" (not in "sight") of Baley and R. Daneel during another interview by trimensional image. This murder attempt accomplishes several things. It partially disables R. Daneel, whose stable existence and operation depends upon his adherence to the Laws of Robotics. Seeing harm come so dramatically to a human being briefly puts Daneel into the robotic equivalent of shock. It thus reduces his effectiveness as an equal partner. By this episode Asimov turns his full attention to the human detective and to the problem calling for human deductive powers. Lije Baley, his own professional training as his sole resource, is jolted into action. Concentrating on the immediate problem—murder and attempted murder—he lets the problem of subversion sort itself out naturally in the course of the investigation.
The internal problems of Solaria and the secondary assignment given to Baley by the Justice Department prove to be mutually supportive. With their advanced robot economy, low population, and excessively long life span, the Solarians have come to a danger-point in their social existence. What seem to be Solaria's strengths in the Galaxy are in fact its weaknesses. As Lije Baley solves the original murder and the second murder attempt, he incidentally uncovers the sociological dilemma underlying these crimes, and this discovery allows him to fulfill the second assignment.
Many writers of science fiction give in to a didactic urge. Since science fiction frequently operates as prophetic vision, an author often feels impelled to use the vision to warn his readers of the portents visible in contemporary life. Asimov yields a little to this urge in Baley's report to Albert Minnim of the Justice Department. He parallels the two societies, Solaria and Earth. Earth is a "turned-inside-out" Solaria. Both worlds are at dead ends—Solaria through personal isolation, Earth through cultural isolation. Both worlds must break their molds and introduce new ways of doing things. Each world is a distorted mirror-image of the other.
The metaphor of a mirror-image led to the title of a short story in which the detectives make their third appearance. (pp. 47-9)
The problem in "Mirror Image" is impending death, not of a person or of a civilization, but the death of a reputation. Two eminent mathematicians possess identical scholarly papers explaining a startling discovery in their discipline. Both propose to deliver the paper at an important convention. The paper will add considerable luster to the reputation of either man by contributing to the older man's already high place in the profession and by giving impetus to the younger man's rising prominence. Each claims the paper as his own; each accuses the other of stealing it after having been invited to read it as a consultant. Each offers to forgive and forget if the other will forego all claims on the contents.
This unpleasant contention has erupted aboard a space ship enroute to the convention. In the age-old tradition of all ships, the captain as sole authority must act the part of Solomon. To avert the future scandal, he must decide to whom the paper really belongs. He enlists the aid of a passenger on the starship, one R. Daneel Olivaw of Aurora. Olivaw in turn requests and receives permission to make an unscheduled stop at Earth so that he might consult with plainclothesman Elijah Baley.
A key factor in the case, one which Baley uses to keen advantage, is the presence of two robots, property of the two mathematicians. They reinforce the title-metaphor of mirror image by being identical robots, made in the same year at the same factory to the same specifications. Unable to interview the two scientists (they are Spacers and arrogantly reject any contact with an Earthman), Baley interviews the two servant-robots. They corroborate their masters' stories, as expected. To lie and thus cause harm to the master goes against First Law; in this instance the harm to reputation is as important as injury to person. By skillful questioning based on his knowledge of the First Law, Baley pushes one of the robots to the point of stasis, out of commission, thus finding the vital clue to the guilty man.
The clue still has to be turned into evidence. Only after Olivaw has returned to the starship, faced the two men with the fact, and received the confession of one, only then does Baley know that his deduction is accurate. In this story Asimov works a variation of the classic armchair detective. Baley collects facts while sitting in his office; he plans his course while sitting in his office; and he interviews the robots via micro-receiver set up in his office. At no time does he physically work at fact-gathering. Even the final confrontation of the detective and the guilty party is done second-hand through Olivaw. Baley himself operates purely on the intellectual level, resting his case on his powers of deduction alone.
"Mirror Image" demonstrates one reality about detective fiction not illustrated by Asimov heretofore. Stories of detection need not be based on sensational situations to be good stories of detection. While murder or political intrigue may create more excitement for a reader, the less sensational but nonetheless knotty problem allows the author to place a greater emphasis on the deductive process per se. In "Mirror Image" the mode of detection satisfies dyed-in-the-wool devotees of both mystery and science fiction.
Yet another Asimov character, Wendell Urth, made his appearance at the same time that Lucky Starr turned space detective and Lije Baley began his association with R. Daneel. (pp. 49-50)
[Detective] fiction devotes little space to characterization, except for the detective himself. The author usually feels the responsibility to establish his detective as a person of perspicacity with the most impeccable credentials in his own field and with a record of achievement in activities requiring deductive ability. Asimov discharges this duty admirably. He draws Wendell Urth as a man of independent mind to the point of extreme eccentricity…. While he works semi-isolated from the world, mentally he roams the known reaches of the solar system. His personal appearance is deceiving. Certain words attach themselves to him: round, pudgy, snubby, stubby, stumpy. Asimov works with images of roundness: a round body, a round face, the round nubbin of a nose on which round glasses perch. But behind this unprepossessing appearance is a mind of superior quality. (p. 51)
In Wendell Urth we have an extreme case of the armchair detective. A man who refuses to stir from his own premises except to walk to his classroom is not a man one expects to do the laborious job of clue-collecting. To accommodate his character's special eccentricity, Asimov changed the sequence of his plot from that we have been used to in the previously discussed stories. For the classic pattern he substituted R. Austin Freeman's "inverted story in two parts." In the first part of each story Asimov gives his reader the commission of the crime with the criminals fully identified. In some cases, we even experience the entire situation through dialogue and action rather than through exposition. We are given all the facts which Urth later will turn into hard evidence. In the second part of the story we follow Urth in this task.
The shift to the inverted pattern eases somewhat the work of fusing detective conventions with science fiction. Since in each of the four stories the criminal either lives or works in space, the inverted pattern allows Asimov to tell his science fiction story before any need for deduction arises. He has only to play fair with the reader by placing all necessary facts and pertinent circumstances before him. Jacques Barzun gives his opinion that "in any combination of the detective interest with anything else, the something else must remain the junior partner." This subordination need not occur with the inverted pattern. In the first part of the story science fiction can definitely be the senior partner, with the emphasis on the nonterrestrial settings, the alien life-forms, or the scientific premise on which the action later will turn. In the second part of the story, once we have met Wendell Urth in his cluttered study and have admired his artifacts from Callistan or his Galactic Lens, then detection becomes the senior partner.
In "The Singing Bell," Louis Peyton, archcriminal à la Moriarty or Flambeau, plans to recover a cache of Singing Bells from the Moon and to murder the man who has enlisted his help in the project…. He carefully plans the trip to the Moon by scheduling it during the month in which he habitually retreats to his mountain hideout. Under the established pattern of his life he can cover up this instance of aberrant behavior which includes murder. For the reader there is nothing kept back about the trip to the Moon, the murder, the victim, or the criminal. H. Seton Davenport in the conversation with Wendell Urth reveals that the police know everything we know, except they can't prove it.
This situation is, of course, the Perfect Crime perpetrated by the Master Criminal which can be broken only by the Master Mind. In this story Urth does not "solve" anything. He does the only imaginative thing possible to crack the case: he sets up a simple situation in which he forces the criminal to trap himself by another established pattern of behavior, thus betraying himself to the police who then can test him with the psychoprobe.
"The Talking Stone" departs from the most common crime of mystery fiction, murder, and turns to smuggling. When a disabled spaceship stops at a repair station, the mechanic stumbles by chance on a smuggling operation being perpetrated by asteroid miners…. Vernadsky, the mechanic, senses a mystery and relays his suspicions to a friend, a space-patrolman. Together they track down the ship which the mechanic had only half-repaired so that it would break down in a predetermined area in space. They do find the ship. They also find a dead crew, for a meteor has hit the ship. The silicony is alive, but it also dies after giving a cryptic message about the location of its "home": "There," it says, "Over there."
The two men report their find to H. Seton Davenport, who in turn calls on Wendell Urth…. Without leaving his study, Urth finds the meaning of the creature's last words. Thus he is able to direct Davenport to the location of the hidden record of the coordinates of the asteroid—in a most obvious place, of course. In "The Talking Stone" Asimov has worked a science-fiction twist on Poe's strategy in "The Purloined Letter."
In 1956, Asimov published the third Wendell Urth story in as many years, "The Dying Night." First, he gives the necessary background information for motive, means, and opportunity for murder…. When all clues, suspects, and paradoxes have been presented to the reader, Asimov brings in Wendell Urth, this time using Professor Mandel instead of H. Seton Davenport as the "bridge" between the two parts of the story. As in "The Singing Bell," Urth solves the problem by utilizing his knowledge of each man's conditioned behavior. He forces the murderer to reveal himself by an involuntary reaction to Earth's sun.
"The Dying Night" differs significantly in other respects from the two preceding stories. Here the reader does not know who the murderer is, nor has he witnessed the preplanning or the actual commission of the murder. Also, at the end of the tale Asimov breaks, or at least "bends," one of the lesser conventions of the mystery story—no love interest. After carefully building Urth up as the Brain whose sole concerns are his profession and his deductive exercises, Asimov gives him a heart. He humanizes Urth at the end when the professor requests a trip by mass transference to a place close by. To the amazed scientists he shyly explains, "I once—quite a long time ago—knew a girl there. It's been many years—but I sometimes wonder …"
"The Key" brings H. Seton Davenport back to work with Wendell Urth. (pp. 51-4)
As in "The Dying Night," Asimov invites his readers to close their acquaintance with Wendell Urth on a note more personal. In the conclusion of "The Key" we get a glimpse of a Wendell Urth who is not always in control of situations. The nature of his fee for this case is a strange one. He requests that no notice of his help be publicized. If it is, his niece may hear of it and make his life miserable. As he describes her, "She is a terribly headstrong and shrill-voiced woman who will raise public subscriptions and organize demonstrations. She will stop at nothing," including making his life unbearable. To leave our worthy detective on such a note may seem frivolous, but it indicates something about Asimov's developing attitude toward the conventions of detective fiction. He felt freer to play with them, as is witnessed by the cryptogram based on puns; he also felt freer to dilute them with other considerations. Although the early emphasis had been on Professor Urth's formidable mental powers, in the later stories the working-out of the crime shares partnership with the tactics of humanizing Urth. (p. 55)
One must accord Asimov the credit of having faced the challenge of blending science fiction with mystery fiction in several modes. He has written short stories, short-shorts, novels; he has given us the blend in single tales, in series with a detective-duo, and in series with the amateur-professional combinations. Second, he has treated many of the classic conventions of detective fiction: the locked-room plot, the "perfect crime" plot, the mistaken-identity situation, the cryptogram gimmick, and, perhaps most importantly, he has done successful variations on the personality of the detective. He has adapted his ability to write a well-planned technological story, based on solid scientific facts, to writing a well-planned deductive episode. He has successfully used the two major patterns of the mystery formula—Poe's classic pattern and Freeman's inverted pattern; to a lesser degree, he has succeeded in utilizing some of the best features of the spy thriller.
Most of all, while using the above detective or mystery story conventions, Asimov has not, for the most part, neglected to give his readers scientifically solid science fiction stories. Notable in this effort is his description of setting, both physical and psychological. Often he may interrupt the action to insert needed scientific information in the form of exposition or dialogue between two characters. This habit is not incompatible with the mystery genre, which also relies heavily on the reader's knowing all the facts, some of which must be given in exposition. If the facts happen to be scientific ones, Asimov is most capable of supplying these in understandable prose that does not talk down to his readers. (pp. 57-8)
Hazel Pierce, "'Elementary, My Dear …': Asimov's Science Fiction Mysteries," in Isaac Asimov, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (copyright © 1977 by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg; published by Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York; reprinted by permission), Taplinger, 1977, pp. 32-58.
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Asimov is a science fiction novelist with no pretensions toward innovative techniques, hidden allusions, or occult symbolism. He is, as he professes to be, a popular writer whose work is immediately accessible to a wide audience.
It is worth asking, then, what it is about Asimov's writing that accounts for his popularity…. My argument is that Asimov's characters are at the center of appeal in his major fiction because they enrich and enliven the science fiction worlds he creates. (p. 135)
In Asimov's view, the stuff of science fiction is the human response to what science and the future have wrought, and this is indeed what his own novels are about.
The Foundation trilogy poses two special problems for a study of Asimov's characterizations—fatalism and fragmentation. First of all, the omnipresent specter of Seldon's Plan gives rise to the objection that Asimov's is a determined universe, and that genuine characters cannot come to life within such a fixed environment. Since the inhabitants of the trilogy cannot act outside the statistical probabilities of psychohistory, so the argument goes, the individuals Asimov dramatizes in the Plan must of necessity be flat, acted upon, unidimensional. Even if this argument were accurate, the success of Asimov's characterizations need not everywhere depend upon whether or not his galactic population is fated. Sophocles' Oedipus and Chaucer's Troilus are, to varying degrees, fated characters who are nonetheless aesthetically sound and very much alive. (p. 136)
Many of the important characters in the trilogy exhibit various traits and idiosyncrasies which distinguish them as stimulating personalities whether their probable world history has been foreplotted or not, and sometimes even whether their individual responses to certain situations have been rigged or not. Manipulated though many of the trilogy's characters are, their individual initiative and resourcefulness are often necessary to guide or to repair the great Plan. In this, the Foundation books introduce us to a number of memorable characters in the Asimov canon.
The second problem the trilogy poses for a reading of Asimov's characters is their fragmentation. The three novels span some four hundred years in future history. As a result, it is impossible for Asimov to remain very long with any of the characters because he must maintain the extended chronological perspective…. As in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, the long temporal scope of the trilogy limits the amount of development Asimov can allow for individual characters. Despite this, Charles Elkins is perhaps too severe when he says [in his essay in Isaac Asimov, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg] the trilogy's "characters are undifferentiated and one-dimensional." One may concede that Asimov does often fall back upon stereotypes, but some of the lead characters achieve memorable life in spite of their creator's self-imposed restrictions.
In the first book of the trilogy, Foundation, too many of the characterizations are, admittedly, incomplete or simplistic. (pp. 136-37)
But these mediocre stereotypes are incidental to the succession of thundering Asimov heroes in Foundation. Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin, Limmar Ponyets, and Hober Mallow dominate their respective sections, and though Seldon and Ponyets are sketches, Hardin and Mallow are well-executed portraits, with Mallow coming close to life-size dimensions despite some of his comic-strip gestures. These men exhibit considerable ingenuity as they master the psychology of their opponents…. Those scenes dramatizing Hardin's crafty psychological infighting against Haut Rodric and Wienis are surely one source of Asimov's broad appeal in the trilogy.
Mallow, though, in his rough pride and robust cunning, is the climax and the triumph of Foundation's heroes. He combines the attributes of a Viking chieftain and a Mississippi riverboat gambler. (pp. 137-38)
A character such as Mallow must be seen in the perspective of Asimov's early career. As Asimov embarked on his career as a science fiction writer, he came to know John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Stories, well enough to recognize the new realism Campbell encouraged among his contributors…. Asimov credits Campbell with seeking to people his stories with "business men, space-ship crewmen, young engineers, housewives, robots that were logical machines." Mallow is perhaps a good example in Asimov's early writings of just such a credible character. Through Mallow's meeting with Onum Barr and his tactful handling of Joranne Sutt, the reader receives further insight into his character. Foundation offers a series of forceful heroes, ably capped by the figure of Mallow, who improvise sensibly within Seldon's benevolent Plan for the survival of civilized man.
Though uneven in the quality of its conception, Foundation and Empire, the second book in the trilogy, contains some of Asimov's best characterization. The first part of the book, presenting Lathan Devers' abortive efforts to thwart the young Empire general, Bel Riose, pales next to the longer second half, with the striking figures of Bayta and the Mule. Devers is supposed to be Mallow's heroic successor but, while Asimov portrays Devers' cover as an unconcerned, self-serving trader well enough, Devers' swashbuckling mien is a little too close to the arrogant, free-wheeling Army sergeant of World War II movies.
Bel Riose is probably a better characterization…. But the true hero of this section, Ducem Barr, is not given sufficient breadth for the character development which potentially exists.
Notably enough, Asimov here takes pains to assure his readers that his characters are not predestined…. These reminders come at the right time in the trilogy, for Asimov's explanation of the inevitability of the Foundation's victory over Riose and Brodrig will strike some readers as being much too pat.
The second part of Foundation and Empire is another story. The Mule's rise to power under his disguise as Magnifico the clown is intriguing enough by itself, but the real interest here is Asimov's excellent variation on the legend of Beauty and the Beast. Asimov makes the tale especially convincing by the care with which he draws Beauty's—Bayta's—character. Bayta is a complex, full-blooded person, perhaps one of the more carefully developed female characterizations in science fiction before Alexei Panshin's Mia Havero in Rite of Passage. We see her at the opening of "The Mule" twitting her new husband Toran for his lapse into sentimentality. Conversely, we find she is protective and kind toward the deformed clown Magnifico. Playful and assertive, she is an informed historian, an ex-member of a rebel group on Terminus, an efficient factory supervisor on Haven…. Her shooting of Ebling Mis consummates Asimov's characterization of her. It is an unexpected action which is nonetheless consistent with her development in the story.
Also perfectly consistent with her character is her enchantment of the Mule and her gradual penetration of his cover as the clown. Unwittingly, she appeals to his human emotion, for which the Mule spares her his powers of mental interference. He explains his defeat to her and Toran: "I cherished the natural feeling too greatly."… The Mule, with his beaked face, spidery body, and "all but prehensile" nose, possesses the horrid traits of his mutation, but his soft, sad attraction to Bayta makes him effectively pathetic, understandable if not forgivable. He remains uncomfortably at the edge of stereotype, although he is more fully presented than Ebling Mis or that inconceivable bureaucrat, Mayor Indbur. But Bayta leavens and enlivens Foundation and Empire with the many-angled features of her character.
Second Foundation is in many ways the weakest of the three books in the trilogy. Asimov has admitted that by the time he reached their later stages the Foundation stories were becoming a burden to him. There are signs of its author's flagging interest throughout Second Foundation. The story of the search by the Mule, the first part of the book, is clever rather than convincing. The heart of "Search by the Foundation," the second part, is a lengthy diversion, the Stettinian war. Asimov's handling of the historical materials and his style in presenting the Second Foundationers are alike awkward. (pp. 138-40)
Yet Second Foundation has moments when its characters are sharply etched. Channis is a good creation if only because the reader is not sure whether to like him or not. His cockiness with Pritcher balances well against his agony before the Mule, surely among the most powerful and dramatic of Asimov's confrontations…. Too, the portrait of Arcadia in the second part of the book sustains much of the reader's interest, offsetting in part Asimov's reliance upon hackneyed stereotypes in Callia, Stettin, and "Momma" Palver…. Though [Arcadia] has been controlled, Asimov succeeds in evoking the reader's affection for this precocious adolescent, and his humor does enrich his early presentation of her, even to the point of making delightful fun of his own grand manner.
But she is finally right in admiring her grandmother, Bayta. Arcadia's characterization does not match Bayta's, nor does the last book of the trilogy match the first two.
The robot books are Asimov's two collections of short stories about robots, I, Robot and Stories from the Rest of the Robots, and the two science fiction detective novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The short story collections require a place in a study of Asimov's characters chiefly because of Susan Calvin, who appears in many of the stories and links them into a loosely united whole. The detective novels of the 1950s center upon Elijah Baley, Asimov's greatest character….
As Asimov points out, "dear Susan" is the central bond knitting together the stories in I, Robot…. (p. 141)
Dr. Calvin will on surface impress readers as "a caricature of the so-called female Ph.D. as they were believed to behave in the 1940's," but something there is about her that teasingly rounds her into a real person. Asimov sprinkles his descriptions of her with a liberal number of suggestions that she is not quite the life of the party. (p. 142)
The main charge against Dr. Calvin is that she has no human feelings. Bogert, in "Lenny," says he would not apply the adjective "feminine" to any part of her. He thinks robots are all she loves, and he believes her long association with them "had deprived her of any appearance of humanity. She was no more to be argued out of a decision than was a triggered micropile to be argued out of operating." It seems fitting that the robot Lenny be "the only kind of baby she could ever have or love."
On the other hand, there is much to suggest that Susan Calvin's severity is a carefully sustained protective measure, not a mask or a pose, but a means of securing herself against the greed and folly of humankind. In I, Robot she possesses a "schooled indifference" …; in The Rest of the Robots her office reflects "her own frigid, carefully-ordered personality."… The implication is that she must keep herself under tight control, she must ward off all temptations to partake in the abundance of human weakness which surrounds her.
That she fails sufficiently often to avoid such temptation and thereby proves herself human after all is what makes her character attractive. (pp. 142-43)
A last feature of Susan Calvin's character, and one which must have been instrumental in Asimov's confessed love for her, is her scientific idealism. One might even suspect Asimov has other characters mock Dr. Calvin because of his own built-in defense mechanism: she often voices ideals Asimov must cherish, and he perhaps wishes to deflect hurtful criticism from his most sensitive areas of thought. (p. 143)
Susan Calvin, then, is a deft character creation, loosely spanning a number of related short stories, though of course neither collection of robot stories is a novel. Asimov's best sustained character portrayal is Elijah Baley in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Dr. Calvin's character is too diffuse over the broad range of the stories, but Baley is in both of the detective novels very intensively drawn. Dr. Calvin conveys Asimov's message too explicitly—the didactic content of the robot stories is too obvious and intrusive, often jarring with the action. In The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun the message melds smoothly with the natural growth and development of Baley's complex character.
Baley's characterization is quite well done. Tight and elaborate, sustained and credible, Baley challenges Dua in The Gods Themselves as Asimov's top creation (and Dua, of course, is nonhuman). The opening chapter of The Caves of Steel establishes Baley's complex, realistic character. (p. 144)
[The] combination of weakness and strength helps make Baley a stimulating character. Baley is a psychological caveman, a man entrapped in the womb-tomb cities of Asimov's future by his hostility, bias, and narrow-mindedness. Baley's relationship with his robot partner, Daneel Olivaw, is a serio-comic study in human frustration and jealousy. Olivaw's mechanical perfection accentuates Baley's vulnerability…. In his human eagerness to outwit his competition, Baley twice offers wrong solutions to the case of the murdered Spacer. It is entirely consistent with his character that Baley would strain matters to accuse first the Spacers and then Olivaw of the crime.
The problem with Baley's characterization in The Caves of Steel is his conversion. The turning point of the novel occurs when Fastolfe explains his great hope of joining City people with progressive Outer Worlders to inject a new and vigorous strain into the human race. Fastolfe, we learn later, uses a drug to render Baley's mind more receptive to life outside the protective caves. This device is as weak a crutch as the one [Robert] Heinlein uses in Double Star to remove Smythe's prejudice against Martians. Asimov seems to realize the fundamental evasion of his ploy, for he has Olivaw assure Baley the drug would not make him "believe anything that was foreign to the basic pattern of your thought."… But this is not enough to convince us that Baley's conversion is a direct result of his character because Asimov does not give us really sufficient evidence, early in the story, of Baley's innate potential for his enlightened change of mind.
Nonetheless, the effects of Baley's exposure to a widened view of life are convincingly presented…. In fact, Baley's inherent reluctance to accept any argument at face value strengthens Asimov's portrayal of his development. The blunt honesty of his prejudices does render more effective his dawning recognition of the inhuman walls they have built around him. Because he is so stubbornly pragmatic, Baley's enlightenment on the colonization of space and his grudging admiration of Olivaw make a rather compelling conclusion for the novel. (pp. 144-45)
The Naked Sun …, a companion piece to The Caves of Steel, was the last novel Asimov wrote before turning seriously to nonfiction. The Naked Sun encompasses most of the qualities of The Caves of Steel and avoids its major defect. In The Naked Sun Asimov creates a novel where the inner workings of his lead character's mind and motives match, if not exceed, the outer story of detection. Put another way, Baley's adventure is an exploration of his individual self as well as an investigation of interstellar crime.
Baley in this novel is a fully conceived character. Asimov gives him a diversity of human moods and impulses. He is at once proud and frightened, reflective and quick-tempered, sensitive and tough, intelligent and vulnerable. (pp. 145-46)
These many sides of Baley are necessary to balance his growth as a hero in the book. For in The Naked Sun Asimov achieves with his main character a substantial development, with continuity, momentum, and a certain depth. Baley's heroism consists of his gritty battle against his "cave" fixation, against his need for "the feeling of being safely and warmly enclosed in the bowels and womb of the City."… He also wants his independence from Olivaw, he wants to snap "this nurse-infant relationship" between himself and Daneel…. But his exposure to the opposite phobia of the Solarians spurs Baley to see that a return to initiative and risk is essential to the future of the whole race of man.
Baley's attraction to Gladia encourages him in his struggle. Her inclusion in The Naked Sun is an inspiration by Asimov, for she adds far more than the predictable love-interest. There is a gentle tenderness in the later scenes between Baley and Gladia, the tenderness of two people groping for human contact to help them out of their psychological prisons. (p. 146)
The climax of Baley's internal drama occurs when he rips down the curtain to get a full view of unobstructed night: "Walls were crutches! Darkness and crowds were crutches!"… It is perhaps too melodramatic that at this instant Baley gains the insight which solves the case. But his newly found freedom in the outdoors, his liberation from the womb-like caves of the City, his rebirth under the naked sun do not lack credibility. Baley's tenacity and courage dramatize Asimov's heartfelt belief that man will not, must not become the victim of inertia, that he must meet the challenge to inquire, to explore, and to learn.
Baley's character goes deeper than Susan Calvin's and transcends the inhabitants of the Foundation trilogy. His development in The Naked Sun is free of the pharmaceutical artifice which mars The Caves of Steel. Attractive and richly drawn, Baley of The Naked Sun stands at the peak of Asimov's characterizations in his longer fiction.
For better or for worse I have grouped Pebble in the Sky, The Stars, Like Dust, The Currents of Space, and The End of Eternity under the general heading of Asimov's lesser novels. Characterization in most of these novels is halting and negligible by comparison with Asimov's major achievements. In Pebble in the Sky …, for instance, Asimov makes a fair beginning on Schwartz's character, but the subsequent development is sketchy and uneven. The Synapsifier, which brings this book into the realm of gadget science fiction, intensifies Schwartz's mental acuteness to the point where he aggressively defeats the book's villain, but his growth from a comfortable old man to a psychological wizard is too abrupt to be really credible. Of the other characters, Pola is a pretty face, Shket a harried scientist, Ennius a weak-willed ambassador, Arbin a plain farmer, and Balk is a monomaniacal despot. Only Arvardan comes close to assuming real status as a character, and he is often immature. His heroism too frequently devolves into scenes, as with the hate-filled Lt. Claudy, resembling a rather low-grade western. (p. 147)
The End of Eternity contains without question the best characterization of Asimov's lesser novels. Andrew Harlan comes close to rivaling some of Asimov's top characters…. Harlan's development in the novel is logical, sustained, and forceful. Asimov creates a well-executed tension between Harlan's cool pride in his position and abilities and his instinctive doubts about the justice of tampering with time. Harlan's emotional range—his anger and jealousy with Finge, his guilt and anxiety as a wayward Technician, his love and fear for Nöys—lend the novel a genuine vitality. Harlan's decision to accept Nöys' position grows persuasively out of his character. He is malleable (and perhaps indistinct by comparison with Elijah Baley), but there is charm and credibility) in his confused love for Nöys. He is always "in character," even when surprising in his abrupt, peevish way. If not quite as rounded as Baley, Harlan still strikes us as a real person, not a cardboard stereotype. Nöys, slightly less realistic, is a rather impassive sort of future Eve seducing Andrew-Adam to taste the apple of Infinity. Neither as icily provocative as Susan Calvin nor as gay and assertive as Bayta, Nöys borders on the stereotypical misty and mysterious female creature from the beyond. Still, The End of Eternity is on almost every count several notches above the other books briefly mentioned in this section, and it shows what Asimov can do when he devotes real care to a character. In this respect The End of Eternity anticipates The Gods Themselves. (pp. 148-49)
The Gods Themselves is an uneven novel, but it has such off-setting richness to compensate for its weaknesses that it may well qualify as Asimov's masterpiece. To come right to the point, The Gods Themselves contains—no matter what problems may be caused by its anthropomorphism—what must be ranked among the top creations of alien character in science fiction. Of particular note in this book is Asimov's craft in the integration of science, plot, and character into a pleasing and persuasive whole. In Opus 100 he says one of the special delights in writing science fiction is "mastering the art of interweaving science and fiction—keeping the science accurate and comprehensible without unduly stalling the plot."… Asimov masters this art with uncommon skill in The Gods Themselves. Not only do action and setting coordinate well with each other, but indeed the scientific content becomes a necessary condition for an understanding of the alien characters. This bears some explanation because it is crucial to a grasp of Asimov's achievement in creating his aliens.
The Gods Themselves follows a careful A-B-A pattern in its structural organization. Its three sections divide, for their respective headings, the quote from the German dramatist Schiller: "Against stupidity, / the gods themselves / contend in vain [?]." The question mark, absent in Schiller, is added by Asimov to the title of the final section. (pp. 150-51)
One point about this arrangement is that the inferences made in Part One about the physical composition of the para-Universe prepare the reader with remarkable detail for the shapes in which the aliens are discovered in Part Two. Another point is that the blindness and stupidity which characterize the Earthmen of Part One are effectively modified by the imagination and stability of the human hero in Part Three. This intricate dramatization of sentient, intelligent life, both human and alien, is the heart of The Gods Themselves. Moreover, characterization in this novel conveys the essentials of Asimov's view of human nature. Through his handling of his characters here, as in the robot detective novels, we may deduce Asimov's scientific meliorism and his implicit philosophy of life.
Part One of The Gods Themselves is a good study in Asimovian realism. The overriding Asimov theme of our urgent need to combat human short-sightedness, so dominant in the Foundation trilogy and the Baley novels, here receives even more intensive treatment. This section analyzes various human motives in its spectrum of unrelieved spite, careerism, greed, and assorted pettiness. (pp. 151-52)
Vainglory, wounded pride, and narrow self-interest govern all the significant decisions made by the characters in the first section of the book. (p. 152)
[The] presentation of teapot conflicts and peevish concerns grounds the narrative in an unflattering but realistic account of the scientific/political Establishment. Out of this nest of human vanity emerge the telling inferences of Hallam and Lamont about the physical nature of the para-Universe. In the scientific background of the story (which may pose a sturdy challenge to the comprehension of the lay reader) are two pieces of information which contribute powerfully to one's preparation for the aliens of Part Two. First, since the nuclear interaction is ten times stronger in the para-Universe than in ours, matter is held together there with ten times less the atomic density. This renders scientifically credible the interpenetration of physical bodies during certain phases of life in the para-Universe. The second crucial bit of information is that while nuclear fission is likely in our universe, nuclear fusion is likely in the alien universe. This prepares the reader for the merging of the triad into the composite Hard One, Estwald.
In Part Two the relationship between Dua's ethereal nature and the act of sexual intercourse through "melting" is a brilliant stroke by Asimov. (pp. 152-53)
Especially fine is the wealth of consistent detail giving the reader an impression of the physiognomy of the aliens. Odeen, for example, is pleased with his bodily traits as a Rational. He is "satisfactorily solid," with a "nice, sharp outline, smooth and curved into gracefully conjoined ovoids." He lacks "the strangely attractive shimmer of Dua, and the comforting stockiness of Tritt."… Dua's Parental, on the other hand, stands "squat and flat-surfaced. He wasn't all smooth-curved like a Rational or shuddery uneven like an Emotional …"…. With these descriptions of the Rational and the Parental frame, one can easily see why the rarefied body of an Emotional is necessary to complete a triad. And Dua is the most rarefied of Emotionals. Asimov creates a charming portrait of Dua, spreading herself out laterally to absorb the pale rays of an evening sun, slithering with adolescent promiscuity over rocks and letting her edges overlap theirs, trying to dissipate in rebellion when her Parental says he must "pass on." The reader soon feels he has come to know this alien imp who, as she grew older, "retained a girlishly rarefied structure and could flow with a smoky curl no other could duplicate."…
Although Dua is the center of Asimov's accomplishment in Part Two, what he does with the triad as a whole is its own sort of triumph. For the difficult task Asimov undertakes is to create each of the triad's members as an individual character and yet render plausible the blending of the trio into the composite personality Estwald at the end. That he succeeds to such a large extent is a measure of what The Gods Themselves has added to science fiction. (pp. 153-54)
Dua is probably Asimov's consummate piece of original characterization, if only because her impulses and her actions follow so credibly from her physical identity. (This is not to say that Asimov's characters are determined by their environment). But in spite of the depiction of traits that may strike some readers as too human for genuine aliens, Asimov does succeed in rendering the impression of a different sort of life evolved in accord with the physical principles of a different sort of universe. And Dua is the nub of Asimov's success.
She is from the start a perimeter person. Mercurial in her moods and aberrant in her behavior, Dua's very strangeness, as Odeen recognizes, is linked with her "infinite capacity to induce satisfaction with life."… If the child's-eye view of sexual growth is overly cute at times, the relationship between Dua's thin-energy diet, her extraordinary sexiness, and the augmentation of her sensing powers by the socially taboo action of melting into rocks is tight and convincing. She is the curious member of the triad, combining Tritt's direct approach with Odeen's native intelligence. Her conclusion that the energy exchange will have ruinous effects on the other universe is inevitable, as is her guerilla campaign against the Hard Ones. Asimov creates in Dua a character with innocence and integrity whose growth to maturity encompasses responsibility as well as rebellion. At the close of the section the reader regrets the loss of Dua's ethereal youth but accepts, as she does, the obligations of social leadership which come with adulthood.
Yet, with all the traits of individuality Asimov gives the separate members of the triad, their melding into Estwald makes good sense…. One is tempted to apply a Freudian reading to Asimov's triad as a test of its validity as a composite personality. Odeen is the Ego, regulating the impulses from Dua, the Id, while Tritt is the Superego who serves as the conscience, overseeing the group with an insistence on maintaining tradition and continuity. There are clear limits to such a reading, but perhaps this approach can suggest how well the triad coheres into its own single entity.
The greatest problems with The Gods Themselves begin with Part Three. At the close of Part Two the reader is not sure about Estwald's attitude toward the threat posed to our universe by the energy exchange. We wonder why in Part Three, Bronowski's absence notwithstanding, there is no mention of further messages from the para-Universe—are we to assume the permanently formed Estwald will pursue the policy of letting our universe explode? Some further communication between humans and aliens would satisfy our curiosity and remove our sense of incompletion. But in the third section we are transferred to the Moon and to the tale of Denison. Part of the letdown is that we get no further word at all about the para-Universe and, especially, how Dua's position affects Estwald's progress. Another part of the letdown is that the last section seems to lack the tension, the drive, and the economy of the other two parts.
If anything in Part Three counterbalances these weaknesses, it is the character of Denison. The way Asimov juxtaposes Denison against Neville as companions of Selene is a trifle too pat, but the developing relationship between Denison and Selene is possibly Asimov's most interesting love story. Lowkeyed and mature, Denison surpasses the stereotypical intelligence older man (of the mold of the 1950s Cary Grant) who by his steady charm wins the perky young woman…. Throughout his relationship with Selene he is considerate, gentle, and tolerant. Denison's sanity and his scientific detachment are qualities fit for the hero of The Gods Themselves.
There are, nevertheless, other problems with the book's third section. For example, Neville's plot is less mysterious than it is vague. Much of the time it does little more than prevent Asimov from developing the situation we most want to hear about, the effect of the energy exchange and what can be done about it. Further, the tour device which gives Denison and the reader a fuller picture of the Lunar society defers for too long the resumption of the central story. Such a device is traditional and effective in introducing a new society, but by this time the reader is anxious to pursue the established story line. Asimov dangles tantalizing hints before the reader concerning some unwritten parallels between this section and the para-Universe section. Selene's intuitionism is like Dua's, exceeding the limits of the rational. Denison's character is not unlike Odeen's, and there are some similarities also between Neville and Tritt. Is this a coincidence, or is Asimov engaging in subtleties which escape most readers (including this one)? Asimov seems to toy with the number three and combinations thereof, but one finds it difficult to know precisely what to make of it all.
One leaves The Gods Themselves with a sense of resolution which is scientifically pleasing but aesthetically fragmented and not quite satisfying. The Moon is, we discover, convenient for the double-pump plan because it has its natural surface vacuum far enough removed from the Earth-based Electron Pump. But the fine and intriguing science context of Part One and the imaginative creativity of Part Two seem largely absent from this long final section.
For all its weaknesses, though, The Gods Themselves is a remarkable book. Asimov conventionally is grouped with the older wave of science fiction writers who allegedly do not achieve the sophistication of the later generation. But the integration of scientific imagination with character development in The Gods Themselves, at least in Part Two, rivals the accomplishment of Ursula Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness and does not suffer in comparison with Alexei Panshin's superb creation of Mia Havero in Rite of Passage. If in The Naked Sun Asimov has written a more smoothly executed, less flawed novel, in The Gods Themselves he has set his sights higher. The Gods Themselves rises above its unevenness to occupy a place at the top of the Asimov canon.
Asimov's characterizations dramatize and give life to what he has claimed to be the significance of science fiction…. The real Asimovian hero is the person who looks critically at his society, its technology, and himself—and is eager to modify, to learn, to improve. Asimov's constant concern is the effect of science and future advance upon the well-being of humanity…. Asimov casts a cold eye upon self-serving human ambitions, upon unholy allegiances to bureaucracy, and upon the abuse of technology to the stagnation of humankind. Asimov places his faith in the adventuresome spirit of human nature. He founds his best hope on the eternally inquiring human mind.
Among the dozen or so books which thus far make up his major contribution to science fiction, one finds character creation of widely ranging quality and accomplishment. Asimov's fiction offers a galaxy full of people. Many are thin stereotypes plucked out of the popular images of the mid-twentieth century, others are real enough to bump into on a downtown subway. What is perhaps surprising is that in a type of fiction which reportedly eschews the art of character depiction, we find in Asimov so many people with real hang-ups and with genuinely interesting personalities. Asimov is a shrewd psychologist in his characterizations. Surely his tart portrayal of human conflicts and his realistic handling of human motives are essential ingredients of his appeal as a writer. A reading of Asimov's major fiction leaves one with a sense of a wider universe not yet fully explored. (pp. 154-58)
Donald Watt, "A Galaxy Full of People: Characterization in Asimov's Major Fiction," in Isaac Asimov, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (copyright © 1977 by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg; published by Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York; reprinted by permission), Taplinger, 1977, pp. 135-73.
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Isaac Asimov's previous collection, Buy Jupiter!, was largely a selection of Asimovian trivia, outrageous puns and shaggy dog stories. The Bicentennial Man, however, shows him to be once more the master of science fiction that has written the Foundation trilogy and "Nightfall"….
Four of the stories are of his famed positronic robot series. One of these, "Feminine Intuition", even has Asimov's favorite character, Susan Calvin. The others are: "That Thou Art Mindful of Him", which … is about the final solution to the robot problem; "The Tercentenary Incident" is similar to his other positronic robot story "Evidence" in that both deal with suspicions that an important public figure is in fact a robot; and finally, "The Bicentennial Man"…. It is among the best things Asimov has ever written, being a tale of freedom and humanity as told through the eyes of a robot who wanted to be free and to become human. It is a touching story…. (p. 43)
Another excellent story is "The Winnowing", which is about a biochemist who is forced to turn over virus-like material to government officials who plan to use it to kill off 70% of the human race so the remainder won't face famine. There are excellent reasonings on both sides of the question, and the ending is a shocker….
Rounding out the collection are two small items. "Birth of a Notion" was written for Amazing Stories' 50th Anniversary, and describes how a time-traveller managed to get Hugo Gerns-back not to call his magazine Scientifiction. The other item is "The Prime of Life", a poem which seeks to disprove for all time that Isaac Asimov is over a hundred, several people, or a science fiction-writing computer.
Besides the excellent stories, there are Asimov's notes to each story, telling how they came to be written, and interesting facts about them. This running dialogue has come to be a trademark in Asimov's collections, and some people enjoy them as much as the stories themselves. This collection is not to be missed by anyone who enjoys science fiction, or who just likes good storytelling. (p. 44)
Mark Mansell, in his review of "The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories," in Science Fiction Review (copyright © 1979 by Richard Geis; reprinted by permission of Richard Geis and Mark Mansell), Vol. 8, No. 1, January-February, 1979, pp. 43-4.
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Asimov, who has written a virtual galaxy of excellent popular science books,… achieves something valuable [in Extraterrestrial Civilizations] by making a fresh, rigorously statistical analysis of the universe as we "know" it. In a sequence of short chapters he discusses possible habitable planetary systems that may be found in the cosmos; by well-argued processes of elimination he narrows his analysis down to a startling statement: "The number of planets in our galaxy on which a technological civilization is now in being" is roughly 530,000. For all the mathematical nature of his approach, Asimov's speculations are intriguing, although his closing guesswork on far-future cosmic exploration seems a papering over of our current state of ignorance.
A review of "Extraterrestrial Civilizations," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the April 16, 1979 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company; copyright © 1979 by R. R. Bowker Company), Vol. 215, No. 16, April 16, 1979, p. 65.
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[Saturn and Beyond is another] in Asimov's series of astronomy books for junior high, misleadingly titled as always. The first three quarters of the book deal only with the planets known to the ancients, one supposes in order to use a historical approach, but then Asimov talks of the 1977 discovery of Chiron (an asteroid between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus) before admitting that Uranus was discovered in 1781. He spends a great deal of time on the various moons, discussing what one could see from them as well as the usual statistics about size and orbits, which makes the lack of mention of Pluto's newly discovered moon more noticeable. Asimov's Jupiter: the Largest Planet … is better organized to tell about the outer planets, but is becoming seriously dated as new information piles up, and should be replaced with Saturn and Beyond.
Margaret L. Chatham, in her review of "Saturn and Beyond," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the May, 1979 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1979), Vol. 25, No. 9, May, 1979, p. 69.
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Isaac Asimov's In memory yet green, [volume] 1 of a two-volume autobiography, suffers from the faults that mar Asimov's fiction; it is long on plot (708 pages of revised diary entries) and short on characterization (few of his acquaintances emerge as anything but foils for Asimov). While Asimov is candid, as in revealing his own foibles and in exploring the effects of his immigrant background and previous early life on his attitudes and actions, he too often resorts to a parody of his legendary egomania. Finally, Asimov becomes his caricature of himself. This failing is particularly disappointing since Asimov, as the indexes of names and titles clearly indicate, is at the center of the "golden age" of science fiction. His accounts of his dealings with J. W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, are ample evidence that Asimov might have explored the way he and the science fiction community of the late 1930s produced that golden age. (pp. 652-53)
A review of "In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920–1954," in Choice (copyright © 1979 by American Library Association), Vol. 16, Nos. 5 & 6, July-August, 1979, pp. 652-53.
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[Saturn and Beyond] consists of a historical description of what we know about the outer parts of the solar system and how we found the information. The author is very careful to indicate what sort of data are still uncertain, such as the sizes, and hence the densities, of the smaller satellites of the outer planets. He also points out fallacies in various theories of the origin of the system, which are apparent if the supposedly measured values are right; and he doesn't try to push us toward a favored choice of his own…. The book is sufficiently up to date to have the information on Pluto's moon, though the author either missed or didn't trust the radar evidence that the particles in Saturn's rings are about snowball size (I'm not sure how far I trust it myself). I caught only one slip; it is true that eclipses of the sun as seen from Titan occur in roughly one quarter of that satellite's revolutions, but Asimov does not indicate that they are not randomly distributed in time. When Saturn is close to its equinox, they occur in every revolution; when it isn't, they don't occur at all. There are numerous useful tables for science-fiction writers, which tell how big and bright the sun looks from various planets and how big and bright the planets look from their various moons. I'm keeping the book; I can figure out all these things for myself, but why should I work harder than I have to?
Harry C. Stubbs, "Astronomy," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1979 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LV, No. 4, August, 1979, p. 450.
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Like a black hole, Extraterrestrial Civilizations contracts, moving from a billion trillion possibilities to imaginable probabilities as Asimov shows how the origins of life and the conditions that permit it to evolve limit civilization to 540 planets in our galaxy. The information, ranging from early speculation about space to pulsars and red giants, is impressive and is lucidly presented; but the chain of logic leading to the title's assertion is as unstable as a mile-long game of crack-the-whip. While I respect Asimov's resistance to UFOs, a drunk's sighting of a purple saucer is, finally, as credible as Asimov's argument.
Asimov does wonder "where is everybody" from these civilizations. In the last chapters he discusses the presently insurmountable difficulties of interstellar travel and communication. We are not alone, but we might just as well be. Even so, Asimov ends with a Battlestar Galactica vision of the future. A hundred years ago people believed there were holes at the poles. Using Asimov's probabilistic methods, one can believe those holes just haven't been found yet. (pp. 58-9)
Thomas Leclair, in his review of "Extraterrestrial Civilizations," in Saturday Review (© 1979 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 16, August, 1979, pp. 58-9.
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[In Extra-Terrestrial Civilizations] Asimov turns his talents for clear explanations of complex scientific subjects to the question of the existence of extraterrestrial life…. The chemical and physical bases for life are discussed in detail but never beyond the comprehension of high school students. If alien life exists, as Asimov believes it does, why have we not found any evidence of it? Asimov theorizes that cosmic distances between even the nearest stars, not to mention galaxies, are so great that visitations are highly unlikely…. This clearly written discussion of a topic of interest to many young people joins other good books on this subject such as Who Goes There? by Edward Edelson … and Ian Ridpath's Messages from the Stars….
Mary Jo Campbell, in her review of "Extra-Terrestrial Civilizations," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1979 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1979), Vol. 26, No. 1, September, 1979, p. 168.
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With more than 200 books including science fact as well as science fiction and mysteries to his credit, it is not surprising that [in Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts] Asimov has finally turned to assembling systematically some of the facts he has accumulated. He offers 3,000 odd bits of information here to entertain as well as inform, setting them down in categories ranging from kings and eccentricities to fashions and the Civil War. Presented with a bit of Asimov's characteristic sparkle, this is a find for browser and trivia addict. Asimov invites contributions for his second fact hodgepodge—a certainty for the future.
A review of "Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1980 by the American Library Association), Vol. 76, No. 12, February 15, 1980, p. 798.
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Heavy enough to produce bursitis and double the price of standard sci-fi, the second installment of Asimov's autobiography appears formidable. It turns out to be even more entertaining than Volume I, In Memory Yet Green. Covering the years between 1954 and 1978, [In Joy Still Felt] is a detailed account of the writer's literary recognition, his marital failure, his thyroid cancer, his heart attack and the trauma of turning 40…. The book may tell more than anyone wanted to ask about the life of America's most accomplished explainer. But it does it so disarmingly that readers should be almost as fascinated with its subject as he is with himself.
A review of "In Joy Still Felt," in Time (copyright 1980 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 115, No. 19, May 12, 1980, p. 81.
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[Isaac Asimov] is fluent, possessed of meticulous records and journals going back to the days of childhood, impressively organized in his thinking, and apparently tireless. This and more is all apparent at the surface of his massive two-volume autobiography [In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt], which we hope will someday be at least three. Nor is he a stranger to any F&SF reader. Nor, in fact, is it possible to believe that anyone with the slightest interest in SF, in science, or for that matter any portion of the universe of intellection, doesn't already have some depth of friendship with him.
That, I think, is the outstanding one of all of Asimov's qualities as a writer. He is the reader's friend. His concern for your clear understanding of his message, his fondness for you and his trust in your ability to make good use of his message—that gestalt of qualities rises warmly from every paragraph he writes, whatever the mode or the subject.
He is at times bumptious. At times, he does something in his autobiography that he has rarely done elsewhere—he goes on too long after a particular point has been fully made. He displays one or two other less than impeccable aspects of behavior. But he is your friend, and he is paying you the highest compliment of all.
No fool at all, he knows—he knew from the beginning of the project—that no man can be the perfect hero of his honest autobiography, and he trusts you to understand that. You want to know about him, or you wouldn't have opened the book. All right—a wordsmith of his skills could readily have devoted his effort to some dazzling footwork. He could have sailed off on glittering flights of generality and statesmanly pontification, as many do. Or he could have danced an intellectual fan dance with you, replete with enigmatic references to dark nights of the soul, quasi-confidences about famous names whose privacy he could (Ho! Ho!) compromise, delicious scandals he would retail if he weren't so discreet, might retail at some future time…. You know how that goes; you've seen the technique often enough. It's a species of orchestrated performance.
Asimov doesn't do that. He tells you about the events in his life, his responses to them, day after day, plateau after plateau of development, and it's all there. Make of it what you will; there he stands, your friend, paradoxically in the limelight yet, in all this wordage, never "on stage."… He could have done us a tour de force novel about his life, and few of us would have been the wiser. Instead, he hands us his diary.
Oh, some of the pages are glued together lightly. Again paradoxically, although he uses hundreds of thousands of words, some of them devoted to confidences, he eschews gossip. He has apparently made a meticulous effort never to say anything for the sake of poking fun, to make a "harmless" joke at the expense of an uninvolved party, to titillate us with the sort of anecdote that's the stuff of life for the late-night party.
It's not party time in these books. We sit in the afternoon sunlight coming through the windows of a conservatively furnished parlor; we sip tea, and our host responds to our query. Therefore, since life itself sometimes pokes fun, sometimes juxtaposes us with circumstances that are inherently salacious in some sense, there are things our friend does not detail. Given the choice between not telling us the whole of the truth or including even the appearance of deliberate gossip-mongering, he gives us a sufficient outline of the truth and goes on to the next thing in detail. (pp. 68-9)
Let me tell you what I wanted to know. I wanted to know what goes on inside a genius. What I got, of course, is what a genius is willing to say about what he thinks is going on inside himself. This is all anyone can ever get from such a source. But because Asimov has chosen this diarist's approach, standing back and letting us form our own judgments from the proferred data, he has made his essential self fruitlessly accessible in the sense that he rebuts hardly any synthesis one might arrive at. There he is, make of him what you will, and the acuity of whatever you make must depend entirely on its own internal logic. You're dealing with a man who has deliberately drawn no conclusions of his own. So yours have nothing to push against, and had better be self-supporting….
His technical accomplishment in the construction of these books is awesome to me, and few things are truly awesome. (p. 70)
Despite having read [these books],… I still know nothing about his creative methods or about his actual writing procedures.
He tells us about sitting down at the typewriter and working hard; about looking things up in reference books; about editorial conferences in which projects are shaped…. The man sits down, begins to type, continues to type, and when the manuscript is complete, lo, it has effective form and purpose which the mind, through some automatic mechanism of synthesis, imposed on the forebrain which was selecting the particular words and paragraphs. A mind which has produced over 200 books certainly ought to be able to do that.
But what a mind in any case, because look at the result: A structure which is the only structure a multiplex person like Asimov could have used without getting lost in himself, and the only structure which can be friendly and yet preserve our friend's essential core of privacy.
Did he do it that way consciously? Of course he did! A mind of this caliber, doing the thing for which it is particularly trained, does not kid itself. A mind may avoid or distort responses to conscious self-examination—slippery mind—but some totally rectitudinous portion of it delivers an objective running report on what is going on, and I'm sure that Isaac is in excellent contact with all facets of his personality. (p. 71)
[Read his column in the September, 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.] Chatty, informative, witty, useful; you are getting what you came for. The professional writer has delivered what was wanted. He has gone out and examined some external aspect of the universe, and brought back a description of it which we can all handily take away with us. Point to anything—anything at all, in or under the starry sky—express interest, and he will satisfy that interest. Or he will, alternatively, come to you and say "I noticed this aspect of reality, and I thought you might like to hear about it. Now, look where I'm pointing … you see that?… let me tell you what that is."
Not this time. Not this one time, of all the times he has written for us, our friend. There is nothing we can point to, in the infinite reaches of the human mind, that does not first have to be located for us by utterances from the person possessed of that mind. It has no objective reality; all the evidence for its existence is circumstantial. Similarly, he can tell us he is pointing to it, but there is no way we can confirm that. Again, similarly, the very nature of the mind is such that not even the person most intimately connected with it can be objectively sure that what he sees in it now is the way it was.
How much easier, how much more comfortable, how much more satisfactory it would have been for us if someone who was not Isaac Asimov, but in all other respects exactly like Isaac Asimov, had been given the assignment of writing these volumes on Isaac Asimov! But then, of course, we would have been nagged by the thought that this was, after all, only a biography; we would have wanted to hear the same events, or almost certainly more accurate descriptions of those same events, recounted by Asimov himself.
The paradoxes are inescapable, and spiralling, because Asimov could not have helped but know from the very beginning that though there was tremendous interest in having a life of Asimov, once we had it there could only be heightened interest in really having a life of Asimov, no matter how real he made it.
And he did it anyway.
What would you like to know? Would you like to know how it sounds?
It sounds like an earnest, meticulous, ultramethodical person bumping through life…. It sounds like a person directing all his intelligence and energy toward forging places for himself in a sometimes circumstantially obstinate universe. It sounds like a man attaining conditions which ought by all prior logic [to] be happy conditions, but reveal themselves not to be. Or, conversely, benefiting from unpredictable fortune.
It sounds, in other words, like a human being's story. But this is not any other human being. This is a public figure whose stature is founded on public intellection. (pp. 71-2)
[We] don't read a life of Asimov to find out how to write 200 books. The chances of any of us writing 200 books are worse than our chances of landing on the Moon. Nor is writing 300 or 400 books the objective of Asimov's life. The objective of Asimov's life is to think. And, as it happens, to communicate. But there is no one particular thing he thinks about, or even one particular area. He is not a philosopher, not primarily a scientist in the common understanding of that term, not except incidentally a titled expert, not any of the classifiable things. He is, when you come down to it, a child in a room full of unlabelled objects and unexplained events; a room so huge that the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor are immensely far away and lose their features in shadow. He is like us. But he has more energy. Those who preceded us in the room sent out search parties, explorers and librarians who, channeling their energies as they must, proceeded along defined paths and send back messages only about what those paths intersected. The messages come back at us from all sides, linear, narrow, each claiming priority. We don't know what to make of it.
Isaac tells us. Bounding happily from one thing to another, his caracolings intersecting path after path, he puts things together for us. Others tell us what is on the paths. Isaac tells us what is in the room.
And of course that is what we all desperately want to know. So Isaac is valuable to us, rightly held in great esteem, and fully entitled to the rewards we ungrudgingly give him. (pp. 72-3)
Algis Budrys, "The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 59, No. 3, September, 1980, pp. 68-73.
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Isaac Asimov is deservedly regarded as the father of robot stories in SF. He has produced more robot and computer stories than any other writer, and the quality of his fiction is consistently high. (p. 54)
Asimov has been both comprehensive, thoughtful, and imaginative in creating his substantial body of fiction.
Asimov is optimistic about the relationship of man and intelligent machines. Asimov has labeled the fear of mechanical intelligence the "Frankenstein complex." He does not have this fear, nor does he approve of those who do. He believes that machines take over dehumanizing labor and thus allow humans to become more human. (p. 55)
In his robot stories most of the population resents robot research and resists the use of robots, so most of the development and testing goes on in outer space. In "Profession" … he summarizes this phenomenon of resistance to change by creating a future world where the phenomenon has become part of the system. In this imaginary world most people have their brains wired to tapes and are programmed like machines to function in a routine, nondeviating fashion. Rare, creative individuals are set apart in a special house where they follow the creative thrust of their imagination. Asimov's view is clear: Most members of society are rigid, like machines, and resist change; the rare individual with a creative mind is the exception. (p. 56)
Asimov's cybernetic fiction can be divided into three phases. During the first, from 1940 to 1950, he wrote a dozen stories primarily about robots, with only two computer stories. Nine of these stories were collected and published as I, Robot in 1950. During his second period, from 1951 to 1961, he wrote another dozen or so stories and the novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Many of the stories and the two novels were collected and published under the title The Rest of the Robots…. The Bicentennial Man … contains a half dozen stories marking his third period and demonstrates the evolution of his ideas about the key role computers will play in man's future.
The Asimovian view gives a kind of unity to all his fiction about computers and robots, from the first story in 1940 to the last in 1976. This view holds that man will continue to develop more sophisticated technology; he will become more skillful at solving societal and environmental problems; he will expand outward and colonize space. Many of the stories share the same characters and settings….
The stories are often concerned with the same themes: the political potential of the computer, the uses of computers and robots in space exploration and development, problem solving with computers, the differences between man and machine, the evolution of artificial intelligence, the ethical use of technology. This last theme is explored through Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, first fully stated in "Runaround," Asimov's fifth robot tale. They appear in many other stories and are crucial to three stories in The Bicentennial Man.
Asimov handles machine intelligence both realistically and metaphorically. In stories about computers, technology functions very much like existing technology. Large stationary machines store, process, and retrieve data; do mathematical calculations at incredible speeds; play mathematical games; make logical decisions. Asimov is knowledgeable in the concepts of computer science, and his portrayals are always intelligent and accurate. He has been wise enough to omit specific descriptions of computer technology, and consequently the material does not become dated—something that can easily happen if the writer portrays details of the technology because it is changing so rapidly in the real world. Asimov's robots are much more metaphorical than his computers. In the real world no robots comparable in form to those he pictures have been built, nor is there much possibility that they will be in the near future. Only specialized industrial robots performing limited functions are being developed. The all-purpose robots that Asimov pictures might be possible, but the specialized ones are economically more feasible. It is more meaningful to regard his robots as a metaphor for all the automated electronic technology—in a variety of forms—that will replace most of man's physical and routine mental work in the future.
Asimov rarely uses dramatic conflict to develop his plots; instead he relies almost entirely on puzzle or problem solving to create suspense and to move his plot forward. Through all his fiction runs the theme of faith in the ability of human reason to solve problems. His fiction is cerebral, grounded in sound science and logic. The action is more often mental than physical. In a typical story a problem or puzzle is defined; as much data as possible is collected and evaluated; a hypothesis is formed, providing a basis for a set of predictions about the solution to the problem; finally the predictions are tested. If they are incorrect, the process is reexamined until the difficulty is discovered. This procedure, of course, is the scientific method. The universe for Asimov is more mysterious than threatening. His use of the puzzle paradigm, rather than the conflict paradigm, seems related to his optimistic view of computer and robots. His short story "The Evitable Conflict" reflects his attitude toward conflict. The future world is one in which society has learned to avoid war. In his fiction Asimov also avoids the conflict mode.
Asimov's earliest cybernetic fiction, "Robbie," is set on earth at the end of the twentieth century, where robots are manufactured as playmates for children…. Asimov's robots in "Robbie" are programmed with the First Law of Robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, let a human being come to harm. Robbie, the hero of the story, is a dependable playmate for an eight-year-old girl named Gloria, even though her mother dislikes him because she distrusts robots. The robot eventually saves Gloria's life.
The next group of robot stories are set in space. Feelings against robots have grown so strong on earth that they are banned. In these stories two engineers, Powell and Donovan, solve a set of problems and puzzles using robots. The robots serve a variety of functions in space. They help maintain a space station, they perform ore-mining operations on an asteroid, they operate a spaceship sent to explore Jupiter. Because these stories are set in space, not on earth, little conflict between man and robot occurs. In the hostile environment of space, machine intelligence is vital to man, and so he welcomes it.
The situation is different on earth, where the later stories are set. In "Evidence" …, one of Asimov's most profound cybernetic stories, the general population resents robots. Stephen Byerly, who is running for mayor, is charged by his opponents with being a robot and therefore unsuitable for public office. Two questions arise: Is Byerly really a robot? If so, can a machine govern effectively?
The first question gives Asimov a good opportunity to explore the logic of proof, and here he demonstrates his education and intellectual inclination. He is ever the scientist, using the scientific method of hypothesis and proof. To the second question Asimov answers yes. His robots and computer are programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics, which ensure that they will always aid and serve man. "Evidence" contains a substantial discussion of those laws. Byerly points out that they incorporate the ethical principles of the world's great religions. Because a robot mechanism cannot violate these laws, it is a more reliable device for governing than a poltician, who may be motivated by ambition and greed. (pp. 57-9)
"The Evitable Conflict" is one of science fiction's most superbly imaginative stories in envisioning the creative use of machine intelligence. In this story, set in the twenty-first century, the world has been divided into four geographic regions, with the economy of each maintained in balance by a huge computer. As a result war has been eliminated. But small errors in production schedules begin to occur. The question is whether the resulting imbalance is caused by machine error or by human error—deliberate or otherwise. An antimachine group has arisen, and its leaders may be trying to sabotage the computer by feeding it inaccurate data. Byerly's problem is to explain and then correct the imbalance in production.
As it turns out, the computer—programmed to operate heuristically—soon corrects the problem itself. It detects the inaccurate data, and then dictates the removal of the economic supervisors opposed to machine control. They are motivated not by a concern for the good of the whole but by a drive to dominate and control, a drive that will lead to war. The computer's capacity for detecting and removing the potential creators of conflict before they can cause trouble thus prevents war. Conflict is evitable; only the machine is inevitable. Asimov in this story suggests that machine control is superior to economic and sociological forces, the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war. Mankind, he intimates, has never been free; machine control is just a different—and superior—form of control. (pp. 60-1)
Asimov's cybernetic fiction uses the electronic brain in a variety of ways, none malignant. The computer is an aid in the research and development of space travel; it performs all mathematical calculations for society, predicts election results, aids in the educational process. It solves a variety of problems, and the greatest problem it undertakes is that of decreasing entropy in the universe. In what is often considered the classic computer story, "The Last Question" …, it reverses the entropic process and recreates the cosmos. In this tale man keeps asking the computer, How can entropy be reversed? He asks it six different times, first on earth, then on various galaxies, as he continually expands through the universe. The computer keeps answering, Insufficient data to give meaningful answer. Finally, trillions of years later, as entropy becomes absolute and the last star goes out, he asks it the seventh time. The computer finally has sufficient data to give the answer: Let there be light! The story is a beautiful myth of cyclic creation. Man—himself once created—creates the machine. The machine, a greater creator, finally acquires all the information in the universe. Then, omniscient like God, the machine is able to re-create the universe. (p. 62)
In his early fiction Asimov assumes that man and machine intelligence share many characteristics—hence the continued use of the human-appearing robot as a symbol of artificial intelligence. At first glance man and robot look alike, but deeper probing reveals the difference. Machines do some things that a man can, but man possesses unique characteristics that make him more than a machine. This is why a machine is always subservient to a machine, as assured in the Second Law of Robotics.
The differences between humans and machines provide subject matter for a number of stories. One difference is that human intelligence is coupled with emotion; machine intelligence is not….
Another difference is that machines cannot handle ambiguity. In mathematical logic one symbol can denote only one thing. A figure of speech, where the individual meanings of a group of words are different from their sum, creates havoc for the computer. In this respect human language is unlike computer language. Any human easily grasps the meaning of a figure of speech from its context. Not so a computer. Asimov loves to play with this difference, just as he delights in puns, which are also beyond the capacity of the computer. The delight in incongruity or contradiction is the essence of humor, and Asimov's puckish humor often shimmers just above his hard, scientific thinking. But his robots are incapable of laughter because they take everything literally and thus have no sense of humor. Asimov often uses this fact as the basis for a story. (p. 63)
Creative problem solving is another area in which machine intelligence differs from human intelligence. Asimov explores this difference in "Risk" …, in which a robot is used as a test pilot in an experimental spaceship. When difficulties develop on the ship, the robot is replaced by a man because the robot can solve only problems it has been programmed to solve, while a man is able to solve unanticipated problems.
One of the differences between human and artificial intelligence is that machines do not possess consciousness or self-awareness. They may perform operations that humans define as intelligent, but they are not aware of what they are doing. They do not observe themselves in the process of thinking as humans do.
In the fiction of his first two periods Asimov raises but does not pursue the question of consciousness in his robots…. When Asimov was later asked about consciousness in his robots, he replied that he does think of his robots as being conscious. But the fiction of his first two periods fails to probe the ethical and moral implications of consciousness in artificial intelligence. If a robot does have consciousness, in what significant way is he different from a human being? If he is not significantly different, is it ethical to treat him like a nonhuman? Is it moral to use him as a slave when humans value their freedom so highly? What about death? Should the robot be portrayed in SF as dying or merely wearing out? Can a human "kill" a robot? In "Liar" Susan Calvin deliberately programs a robot so that he collapses and goes insane. Should she be condemned for driving him insane? These are complex questions that have never been considered because man has never moved so close to the technological reality of constructing artificial intelligence. Asimov raises them in the fiction of his first two periods, but not until the fiction of his recent period does he give the thoughtful reflection that consciousness, death, and freedom—either in human or high-level artificial intelligence—deserve.
The Three Laws of Robotics have attracted more attention than any other aspect of Asimov's cybernetic SF. In SF religious tales are rare. So are stories debating the niceties of various moral codes. SF has traditionally based itself on the natural and social sciences, which aim to be analytic not normative. Certainly no writer grounds his fiction more solidly in science than Asimov, yet he has formulated an ethical code now famous in and out of SF…. The laws are as follows:
1. A robot may not injure a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the 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 Law.
Several of Asimov's most recent cybernetic stories, collected in The Bicentennial Man …, explore the Three Laws on a more profound level than did the works in his first two periods. Thirty-five years after his early stories, his knowledge and perceptions have evolved considerably. So has the level of machine intelligence he describes and the implications of the Three Laws for that intelligence. The most significant aspect of the Three Laws, however, is not the ways that Asimov uses them fictionally but the influence they have had in the real world. He has suggested that man needs to consider ways to implement the ethical use of technology and has provided models for doing this. Mere fictional model? Certainly fiction, but much more than that. As Asimov's stories are always grounded in accurate scientific fact, so here his ethical possibilities rest on actual capabilities of computer programming. (pp. 66-7)
Any discussion of computer programming of ethics is still highly speculative. But there is no reason why speculations could not someday become realities. Asimov's significant accomplishment is that the drama he has created with the Three Laws has set us thinking. Perhaps in the real world ethical concepts could be operationalized in computer technology. No other science fiction writer has given the world that vision.
Asimov's imagination constantly spirals forward into new possibilities. Robbie, his first robot, was a giant toy programmed to entertain and protect a child. Later his robots labored in space. In his most recent writing robots acquire characteristics previously ascribed only to humans—characteristics like creativity and the capacity to make judgments. Finally the complexity of the robots leads Asimov in The Bicentennial Man to suggest that ethical considerations concerning man may need to be extended to include machine intelligence.
Several of the short stories in The Bicentennial Man pair with earlier fiction; comparison shows how Asimov's thinking has evolved over the last thirty-five years. "Evidence" (1946) considered whether a robot might not be as efficient a mayor as a human. In "Tercentenary Incident" (1976) a robot serves as president of the United States. In both instances the general public is unaware of the substitution of machine for man but enjoys the benefits that result from more efficient government.
Another pair of stories pictures a world governance structure operated by computer. In the early story, "The Evitable Conflict," the world economy has been stabilized, underemployment and overproduction have been eliminated, and famine and war have disappeared. The recent "Life and Times of Multivac" also pictures a world system operated by computer…. (p. 68)
In "The Life and Times of Multivac," as in all his other stories, Asimov has a comprehensive grasp of the issues raised by the development of artificial intelligence. Machine systems can remove the drudgery of work; they can be used in planning and decision making; they can store and process vast amounts of information, thus augmenting man's mental power. But these benefits have a cost. Man must replace his image of himself as a rugged individualist free to do as he wills with an image of himself as a systems man living in symbiosis with his machines. In The Caves of Steel Asimov calls this supportive relationship a C/Fe culture: carbon (C) is the basis of human life and iron (Fe) of robot life. A C/Fe culture results from a combination of the best of the two forms.
In the stories of the third period artificial intelligence has evolved substantially beyond its level in the earlier works. The goal of the computer scientists in "Feminine Intuition" … is to develop a creative robot. The principle of uncertainty, explains Research Director Bogert, "is important in particles the mass of positrons." If this unpredictability of minute particles can be utilized in the robot design, it might be possible to have a creative robot…. If the uncertainty effect can be introduced into the robot brain, it will share the creativity of the human brain. The research is successful, and U.S. Robots produces the first successful design of creativity in artificial intelligence. (pp. 69-70)
"That Thou Art Mindful of Him" … pictures the development of the positronic brain with the capacity for judgment. Judgment is developed in the robot because it is required to cope with conflicting orders from two humans. The Second Law says he must obey—but which order? The answer is that he must obey the human most fit by mind, character, and knowledge to give that order. However, once the capacity for judgment is designed into the robots, they begin to use it in unanticipated ways. The robot George Nine decides he will "disregard shape and form in judging human beings, and … rise superior to the distinction between metal and flesh."… He concludes, after exercising his judgment, that his fellow robots are like humans, except more fit. Therefore they ought to dominate humans. The possibility that machine intelligence may be both superior to human intelligence and likely to dominate human intelligence appears for the first time in this story. Asimov's robots have now evolved a long way from that first clumsy Robbie in 1940.
The last design for the evolution of artificial intelligence appears in "The Bicentennial Man."… Here pure intelligence, irrespective of carbon or metal form, appears. This story … is Asimov's finest fictional work. It is the longest story (fifteen thousand words) that he has produced in seventeen years. Despite its length, it is still very terse—dense with ideas—and might well benefit from expansion to novel length. Told in twenty-three episodes, it covers two hundred years in the life of the robot Andrew Martin. Asimov's approach to the puzzle of intelligence, human or machine, gives the story its power. Inverting the obvious approach—man examining artificial intelligence—he has Andrew explore the nature and implications of human intelligence. As the story opens, Andrew is an obedient household servant for the Martin family, much the role of Asimov's early Robbie. But Andrew is a mutant robot form with an unusual talent: he is creative. He produces exquisite wood carvings. Just as he has transcended the patterns of previous robots, so he aspires to transcend the limits of the role they occupied in society. He desires to be free, not a slave to man, but this seems a clear violation of the Second Law.
Andrew's struggle to evolve beyond his programmed obedience is dramatized with great economy. The Martin family represents the small group of humans who realize the potential of artificial intelligence and take actions to foster and expand it. The U.S. Robots Corporation symbolizes the economic system supported by the mass of men who wish only to exploit robot technology for profit. They feel no ethical responsibility to this emerging form of intelligence.
After a long struggle the courts declare Andrew free. Then, bit by bit over the ensuing years, Andrew moves toward fulfilling his aspiration to become like his masters. His potential, his determination, and the support of a few dedicated individuals yield slow progress. (pp. 70-1)
"The Bicentennial Man" is a powerful, profound story for several reasons. Foremost is what Asimov leaves unsaid. The story follows the movement of mechanical intelligence toward human intelligence and death. But Andrew's progress toward manhood and death unfolds against man's development of technology and movement toward artificial intelligence and immortality. Knowledge or information eventually dies in the organic brain, but it can survive indefinitely in a mechanical brain. Thus the inorganic form may well be the most likely form for the survival of intelligence in the universe. As machine intelligence evolves to human form, human intelligence is evolving toward machine form. A second implication of "The Bicentennial Man," again unstated, is that a line between the animate and the inanimate, the organic and the inorganic, cannot be drawn…. If the fundamental materials of the universe are matter, energy, and information patterns (or intelligence), then man is not unique. He exists on a continuum with all intelligence; he is no more than the most highly evolved form on earth. This view implies that ethical behavior should extend to all systems because any organizational pattern—human or nonhuman, organic or inorganic—represents intelligence. A sacred view of the universe, the result not of religious mysticism but of pure logic, emerges from this reading of "The Bicentennial Man." (pp. 73-4)
Patricia S. Warrick, "Science Fiction Images of Computers and Robots" in her The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction (reprinted by permission of The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; copyright © 1980 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology), The MIT Press, 1980, pp. 53-79.∗
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[In Asimov on Science Fiction] Asimov's forthright views are presented in a crisp and witty style. His lifetime of experience in the field provides mature judgments. Readers of all ages who have any degree of interest in science fiction will enjoy listening to Asimov discourse on the topics he knows so well.
Katherine Thorp, in her review of "Asimov on Science Fiction," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, April 1, 1981; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 106, No. 7, April 1, 1981, p. 797.
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[In Venus: Near Neighbor of the Sun] Asimov uses the description of a single astronomical object to relate much basic astronomy in a direct, easily understood manner. The text presents a significant amount of the content of an introductory astronomy and planetary physics course clearly, and without mathematics. The wealth of figures and tables complements and clarifies the descriptions of the relative sizes of the planets when viewed from different distances, the orbital characteristics of planets and satellites, and the appearance of objects as viewed by an observer located on another planet. Most of the astronomical history and observations that constitute the story of Venus have been described before. However, Asimov uses new data, particularly from Pioneer Venus (launched in 1978), to show that astronomy is an alive scientific field, with many theories to be tested and observations to be explained. The ploy of seeing the night sky as a Sumerian astronomer did, and following the development from astronomical observation to theory, works well in leading beginners from their own casual observations of the skies to an understanding of the elementary theories. The book's subtitle is initially confusing; however, the confusion ends when Asimov takes up the description of Mercury, asteroids, and comets—other near neighbors of the sun—in the last four chapters. As a bonus, readers lulled by the regularity of terrestrial phenomena might modify their mundane geocentric world-view; the realization that there are other, comparatively bizarre phenomena (e.g., the playful, hesitant sunrises that can occur on Mercury's surface) may surprise many readers, and start them wondering about the universe. (pp. 876-77)
A review of "Venus: Near Neighbor of the Sun," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1981 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLIX, No. 14, July 15, 1981, pp. 876-77.
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It is tempting to say that [Asimov on science fiction] has been assembled by a robot, but accuracy—and the state-of-the-art—blames the more prosaic computer printout. Asimov has scrutinized his prodigious output of over 200 volumes on diverse subjects, and culled from them these 55 pieces on science fiction. His incentive is a sense of the historical occasion. Rather surprisingly, Asimov has never exclusively devoted a volume to the subject. Sadly, this effort is, for the most part, mechanical and superficial. More than half of these pieces originated from Asimov's own magazine and were editorials. They convey an artificial jocularity that makes for oppressive reading after a while. This is a pity, since Asimov remains a major force in the genre, and his contribution deserves more than this bland tinkering over familiar ground. Half a dozen pieces stand out in the collection, among them a wonderfully perceptive essay on [George] Orwell's 1984 and an epistemological piece on the myth of the machine, which has the freshness and vigor expected from the author of I, robot. (pp. 1538-39)
A review of "Asimov on Science Fiction," in Choice (copyright © 1981 by American Library Association), Vol. 18, Nos. 11 & 12, July-August, 1981, pp. 1538-39.
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That peerless science writer Asimov here presents [Change!], a collection of short essays (most about three pages), all but one of which first appeared in American Way magazine, the inflight publication of American Airlines. The selections offer insights into what the world of tomorrow may be like, based on the knowledge and trends of today, all presented with that remarkable lucidity which is the author's trademark. And there are many messages about contemporary issues, such as that coal is a dangerous, and solar an impractical, substitute for nuclear energy, and that attempts to inhibit population growth are pernicious in the extreme. There are all manner of glimpses into space exploration and colonization and conjectures about what we may learn from meteorites, quarks and black holes. An exciting and thought-provoking book. (pp. 48, 50)
A review of "Change!: Seventy-one Glimpses of the Future," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the September 4, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 220, No. 10, September 4, 1981, pp. 48, 50.
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Asimov's new book on Venus [Venus, Near Neighbor of the Sun] is in much the same vein as his earlier works on Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They are all compendia of the latest information on the planets. Unannounced in the title is the fact that almost 40% of this book deals with topics other than Venus, namely Mercury, asteroids and comets. It would have been more honest to have included this information in the title or on the cover. If nothing else, Asimov is thorough, providing us with just about every conceivable bit of information on our planetary neighbors. In fact, one wonders if children are really curious about the apparent diameter of the sun as viewed from Venus …, the oblateness of the planets …, and the separation of the planet's orbital foci…. These are probably of more interest to older students and those with strong interest in planetary astronomy.
But Asimov does write beautifully. Even when he is discussing the most esoteric aspects of his subject, the reader is carried along by his prose. The book is of doubtful interest to the great majority of elementary children, but probably useful at the junior high and older levels.
David E. Newton, in his review of "Venus, Near Neighbor of the Sun," in Appraisal: Science Books for Young People (copyright © 1982 by the Children's Science Book Review Committee), Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1982, p. 17.
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[The Complete Robot] collects everything from "Robbie" (1940), which was the first robot story of this the most famous series of robot stories in the world, down to "The Bicentennial Man" (1976), which is the last of any significance, and just about the best story Asimov has ever written. (This may not be saying a great deal. It has become clearer and clearer over the years that Asimov is a much better novelist than storyteller, and that his best treatments of the robot theme are in two novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, which are not included here.)
The trouble with most of the short stories lies in Asimov's fidgety preoccupation with the famous three laws of robotics, which he concocted round about 1940, which have been an imaginative inspiration to roboticists over the years. (p. 6)
As take-off points for speculations about how to construct an artificial intelligence with feet, the laws are fine stuff; but as any close analysis of the wording would show (and has often shown), they are full of some very deep semantic pitfalls indeed. Unfortunately, Asimov has been unable to leave these pitfalls alone, and most of his robot stories are dramatized seminars about one loophole or another. So many are the loopholes, and so devastating the consequences of any robot taking advantage of them, that many readers (myself included) would do almost anything to avoid living next door to one, three laws or no three laws. (p. 8)
John Clute, in his review of "The Complete Robot," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), April 25, 1982, pp. 6. 8.
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Isaac Asimov displays a portion of his impressive store of science information in Venus, Near Neighbor of the Sun…. Five of the nine chapters are devoted to Venus, two to the planet Mercury, one is on asteroids, and another on comets. The information is solid on physical attributes such as circumference, surface temperature, density, axial inclination, and orbital eccentricity of the various bodies. Fifty-four tables of facts and 39 figures help organize and clarify the information, including historical accounts of how the facts were obtained. Compressing all this into 210 pages and presenting it as clearly as Asimov does is a remarkable feat.
David W. Moore, in his review of "Venus: Near Neighbor of the Sun" (copyright 1982 by the International Reading Association, Inc.; reprinted with permission of the International Reading Association and David W. Moore), in Journal of Reading, Vol. 25, No. 8, May, 1982, p. 812.
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The title [of Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos], though accurate, does not catch the flavor of this latest Asimov—which reveals his fascination with limits and man's "restless desire" to push beyond. As preamble, Asimov reviews human physical limitations: horizons defined by human eyes, legs, and so on. Then, in true Baconian scientific spirit, he celebrates the experiments, methods, and measurements that have extended human horizons in space, time, matter, and energy. The result is a bird's-eye view of history and invention, science and industry…. He's said many of these things before, of course; but they are condensed and tied together here in highly satisfactory fashion, with the earthy wit (black holes as "cosmic subways") and the usual scattering of Guinness record-type tidbits. Vintage Asimov that will please fans—and also a lively introduction to science for teens or pre-teens. (pp. 563-64)
A review of "Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1982 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 9, May 1, 1982, pp. 563-64.
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[The Complete Robot] brings together 31 of Asimov's robotics stories from "Robbie" of 1940 to several which were published in 1977, including some which have never been collected. Susan Calvin, Powell and Donovan, the Three Laws of Robotics—all of these and more old friends appear in this book.
As Asimov's theories of robotics have had a profound influence upon recent industrial development, this volume can be read as more than a mere work of fiction; however, the work is flawed in terms of its arrangement. Instead of arranging the stories chronologically, so that Asimov's development of robotics could be more easily perceived, they are ordered by arbitrary and conflicting classifications: non-human robots, immobile robots, metallic robots, humanoid robots, etc. Many of the stories reveal a lesser importance upon style, especially characterization, than social commentary.
Eugene La Faille, in his review of "Complete Robot," in Voice of Youth Advocates (copyright 1982 by Voice of Youth Advocates), Vol. 5, No. 3, August, 1982, p. 39.
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[Foundation's Edge] takes place several hundred years after the close of Second Foundation…. The First Foundation on Terminus and the Second Foundation on Trantor suspect each other of manipulating the Seldon Plan for the restoration of Galactic to its own advantage. Each sends out agents, and the adventures of these agents (including their search for Earth) make up the bulk of the novel. This is Asimov's longest novel and is distinctly uneven; the opening is positively sluggish and many settings and characters fail to come to life. On the other hand, a large part of the book is essentially a cross between sf and the detective story, where Asimov's skill is as great as ever. Asimov also appears to be planning future Foundation novels as part of a grand scheme to tie together into one future history his robot novels, the Foundation saga, and the Galactic Empire novels. A book in which the author's reach appears to have exceeded his grasp, but certainly destined for extreme popularity.
Roland Green, in his review of "Foundation's Edge," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association: copyright © 1982 by the American Library Association), Vol. 79, No. 2, September 15, 1982, p. 73.
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In some respects Foundation's Edge is not simply a continuation of the earlier stories, but is a redirection. A certain amount of past history has had to be rewritten, notably the career of Asimov's famous Napoleonic character, the Mule. But more important is the shift of Asimov's own position toward the ideas in the stories. The previous stories, it is now clear in retrospect, emerged from the milieu of Hitler's Germany and World War II. The Foundations were a parable on Judaism: the sacred text and its rabbinical exegetes; xenophobia; persecution; existence under cover; chiliasm and the double ghetto of the Foundations. These elements have now been minimized. The Seldon Plan is now revealed to be a fraud. The Second Foundationers, despite their paranormal abilities, are no longer pious saints but humans weighted somewhat on the down side. And the female Mayor of Terminus (chief magistrate of the Foundation Federation) is an arrogant horror. The walls, it is clear, are coming down….
Foundation's Edge reveals many improvements over the earlier work. The ideas are better worked out; the plotting is better; the writing is superior; and Asimov has outgrown his tendency to trick endings that didn't always work. Instead of good guys and bad guys, we now find credible motivations like arrogance, ambition, suspicion, and feelings of insecurity—all of which take form in manipulation. I could register a minor complaint, though, about some repetitiousness, and a stronger complaint about characterizations that sometimes do not gel. But suspense is high, and there is the usual Asimov clarity of expression. It will be an unusual reader who will put the book down unfinished.
E. F. Bleiler, in a review of "Foundation's Edge," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), September 26, 1982, p. 10.
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An overview of man's search for knowledge of his world, the prolific Asimov's new book [Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos] deals with exploration of space (e.g. continents, oceans, atmosphere, solar system), time (e.g. calendars, life spans, time travel), matter (e.g. electrons, vacuums, size of the earth), and energy (e.g. high temperatures, absolute zero). This is a book which sparks the imagination and gives the reader a sense of the human need to discover. It is NOT an in-depth study but rather a reprise of explorers' journeys and scientific investigation throughout history. It's loaded with bits of information (e.g. a "lustrum" is a period of five years) that will delight trivia buffs.
High school students will find this useful in many ways. Its chapters are brief and well-organized, offering concise information about subjects frequently studied in secondary school. Its detailed index includes such varied topics as grandfather clock, lunar probes and bathysphere, making it a useful ready reference source. Most important, Asimov has assembled a history of ideas and exploration which will give YAs ideas for term papers and science projects.
Janice Toomajian, in her review of "Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos," in Voice of Youth Advocates (copyrighted 1982 by Voice of Youth Advocates), Vol. 5, No. 4, October, 1982, p. 52.
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Asimov's most recent book, "Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos," might well have been titled, "Everyman's Condensed Encyclopedia of Scientific Knowledge." It is the essence of science technica in novel-like form. It reads like the script of a feature-length NOVA.
Although Asimov lacks Carl Sagan's eloquent gift for appealing to our imaginations and for inviting personal speculation about time and space, he has compiled an awesome collection of science facts woven together with the thread of understanding the human animal, his origins and his destiny. This book will not make one dream, but it may change one's perspective, and will certainly give one more than enough ammo for the next cocktail party. This is essentially a book geared to adults, but the inquisitive, top-level high school science student may have the tenacity to stick with it in order to perceive the larger meaning.
L. J. Murphy, in his review of "Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos," in Young Adult Cooperative Book Review Group of Massachusetts, Vol. 19, No. 1, October, 1982, p. 1.
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I am relieved to report that ["Foundation's Edge"] is a worthy sequel in every way. As before, the First Foundation wields the power of the physical sciences and technology, and the Second Foundation has the power to cloud men's minds and predict mass behavior through the statistical insights of psychohistory. Also as before, the fate of all humanity is at stake as these mighty adversaries clash—and the focus is on the actions of a handful of people who are earnest and articulate and likable even when they do bad things (for what seem to them good reasons). Mr. Asimov gives us adversaries but no villains; this is future history portrayed as a great game. The danger of such a concept is that the reader will cease to care who wins or loses. Mr. Asimov sustains interest by keeping us guessing just which side each player represents. He writes much better than he did 33 years ago [when the first novel in the series was published]—yet he has lost none of the verve that he brought to this series when he and the galaxy were much younger. What more could one ask?
Gerald Jonas, "Other Worlds than Earth," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 19, 1982, pp. 13, 18.∗
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The Foundation Trilogy is a basic work upon which a vast structure of stories has been built. Its assumptions provided a solid footing for a whole city of fictional constructions. The way in which it was created, then, and the way in which it came to prominence may be useful examples of the process by which science fiction was shaped in the magazines. (pp. 27-8)
How to explain the continuing popularity of the Trilogy? Why has the Foundation become a foundation? The student of science fiction who can understand the appeal and influence of the series may understand much that differentiates science fiction from other kinds of literature, and something about the basic appeal of Campbellian science fiction. The failure to provide adequate answers to these questions is the central problem of scholarship about science fiction. The circumstances of creation, for instance, may provide some measure of understanding, but much contemporary scholarship chooses to ignore such ephemera, preferring to apply to science fiction the same criteria applied to Henry James or William Faulkner or John Updike.
Another view might argue not for lesser standards but for different standards, for more useful standards. How can traditional criticism understand the Trilogy, for instance, if it does not take into consideration that it was a series written for one to two cents a word by a part-time writer for the readers of a single science-fiction magazine with a strong-willed editor over a period of years in which the author aged from twenty-one to twenty-eight?
Most traditional criticism consists of textual analysis. In magazine science fiction, textual analysis finds little to work with. The important aspects of science fiction are the characteristics that transcend the text. The first of these is narrative. When the Trilogy was being published in Astounding Science Fiction, piece by piece, the story was the thing, if not the whole thing, at least the main thing. An entertaining style, a bit of wit, characters who had some resemblance to real people could be added, but those elements were not essential. (p. 29)
Story in The Foundation Trilogy is plentiful. Events move on a grand scale, beginning with the approaching dissolution of a galactic empire that has ruled 25 million planets inhabited by humans who spread out from Earth, although they have long forgotten their origin. The Empire has brought 12,000 years of peace, but now, according to the calculations of a psychologist named Hari Seldon, who has used a new science for predicting mass behavior called "psychohistory," the Empire will fall and be followed by 30,000 years of misery and barbarity. Seldon sets up two Foundations, one of physical scientists and a Second Foundation of psychologists (about which nothing more is heard until the last book of the Trilogy), at "opposite ends of the Galaxy" to shorten the oncoming dark ages to only a thousand years. The Foundation Trilogy covers the first four hundred years of that interregnum and tells how the Foundation meets one threat to its existence after another and alone, or with the help of the Second Foundation, preserves Seldon's Plan. (pp. 29-30)
Asimov abandoned The Foundation Trilogy with "Search by the Foundation" because it had grown too difficult to bring the reader up to date on everything and because he was tired of it. In his autobiography he reveals that while he was writing "Search by the Foundation" ("… And Now You Don't") he "disliked it intensely and found working on it very difficult." Even [John W.] Campbell's persistent demand for open endings that would allow sequels could not persuade Asimov. The future history that had envisioned one thousand years of Seldon's Plan ended after less than four hundred (more than thirty years later Asimov agreed to write a fourth volume). Nevertheless, Asimov used his concept of a humanly inhabited Galaxy, of an outward movement of humanity from Earth until Earth itself was forgotten, and of the rise of an Empire and its eventual fall as the background for half a dozen later novels and several dozen shorter stories.
Other authors have used the background as well, taking it not so much directly from the Trilogy as from the assumptions about the future (to which the Trilogy contributed) that became the shared property of a generation of science-fiction writers…. But Asimov said it best and most completely in his series of stories published in Astounding between 1942 and 1949…. Moreover, Asimov described a totally human galaxy, partly to avoid Campbell's prejudice against relationships between humans and aliens in which the humans were inferior. In some ways readers may have preferred an all-human galaxy. This, however, does not completely explain the Trilogy's popularity. The reader must delve into what the series is about and how its narrative is handled.
One significant aspect of the series is Asimov's invention of psychohistory, with its implications for determinism and free will. Psychohistory was put together out of psychology, sociology, and history—not hard sciences, which Campbell had a reputation for preferring, but at best soft sciences: a behavioral science, a social science, and a discipline that has difficulty deciding whether to define itself as a social science or a humanity…. Psychohistory is the art of prediction projected as a science; later it might have been called "futurology" or "futuristics."
The ability to predict or foresee the future has been a persistent notion in science fiction almost from the genre's beginnings. Hundreds of stories have been based on various mechanisms for doing it and the various outcomes of attempts. One might cite as examples Robert Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line," Lewis Padgett's "What You Need," and James Blish's "Beep." What Asimov brought to the concept was the science of probabilities as a mechanism, the element of uncertainty for suspense, and the philosophical question "what is worth predicting?" for depth. His method—statistical probability—prohibited the prediction of any actions smaller than those of large aggregates of population…. [Asimov] defines psychohistory, in the epigraph quoted from the Encyclopedia Galactica, for Section 4 of "The Psychohistorians," as "that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli…. Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment…. A further necessary assumption is that the human conglomerate be itself unaware of psychohistoric analysis in order that its reactions be truly random." Finally, Asimov answers the question "what is worth predicting?" Not individual human lives but a great event whose consequences might be avoided, such as the fall of an empire and the dark ages of barbarism, war, hunger, despair, and death that would follow. (pp. 37-40)
Exactly what Asimov had in mind may affect the critic's judgment of the work. He had not, for instance, thought out all the different permutations in idea and story; they were built, one on another, as the years passed and the Trilogy developed. But he must have discussed with Campbell the implications of prediction. Some critics have tried to explain "psychohistory" on philosophical bases, as "the science that Marxism never became" [Donald Wollheim] or "the vulgar, mechanical, debased version of Marxism promulgated in the Thirties" [Charles Elkins]. (p. 40)
Psychohistory had its origins not in Marxism (Asimov has called Wollheim's speculation "reading his bent into me," for Asimov has "never read anything about it") but in John Campbell's ideas about symbolic logic. Symbolic logic, if further developed, Campbell told the young Asimov …, would so clear up the mysteries of the human mind that human actions would be predictable. Campbell more or less forced Asimov to include some references to symbolic logic in the first story, "Foundation"—"forced," because Asimov knew nothing about symbolic logic and did not believe, as Campbell insisted, that symbolic logic would "unobscure the language and leave everything clear." Asimov made a comparison to the kinetic theory of gases, "where the individual molecules in the gas remain as unpredictable as ever, but the average action is completely predictable."
The spirit of the early stories, however, is determinedly anti-deterministic. If intelligent, courageous, and forceful individuals do not attempt to retrieve the situation, most crises—all but one, perhaps—will not be resolved satisfactorily. Seldon's predictions, like God's will, are hidden from all the characters except the psychologists of the Second Foundation, as they are from the reader. Seldon's prophecies are revealed only after the fact, and even the solutions that he or others say are obvious are obvious only in retrospect, as in all good histories. At the time, they are not obvious to anyone but Salvor Hardin or Hober Mallow; the reader has no feeling that the crises would have been resolved if persons such as Hardin and Mallow had not been there. Moreover, the predictions of psychohistory are expressed as probabilities, and one of the necessary ingredients of Seldon's Plan, discussed in detail in "Search by the Foundation," is the exercise of normal initiative.
As a matter of fact, Asimov has the best of both determinism and free will. Psychohistory and Seldon's Plan provide the framework for diverse episodes about a variety of characters over a period of four hundred years, and those episodes feature a number of strong-minded individuals seeking solutions to a series of problems as they arise. If determinism alone were Asimov's subject, the Trilogy would reveal characters continually defeated in their attempts to change events, or manipulated like puppets by godlike prophets, or unable to fight the onrushing current of necessity.
A work in which characters were inexorably defeated by psychohistorical necessity would be so depressing that it would not have remained popular for more than a quarter of a century. Bel Riose is the only character who stares into the face of determinism; only he is frustrated by psychohistorical necessity rather than by the actions of an individual. But in "The General," Bel Riose is not the viewpoint character. The basis of the story is not Riose's predicament but how he is to be stopped, and the resolution does not celebrate the victory of determinism but the survival of the Foundation, even though the efforts of the Foundation are not involved. The reader, whose sympathies are with the Foundation, sees the events as an ally of the Foundation, not as an opponent. The Foundation's unusual power of survival, however, influences both itself and its enemies; it supplies to the Foundation confidence in ultimate victory (which can become overconfidence, and thus a problem), and it discourages the Foundation's attackers (but never enough to eliminate challenges entirely). Asimov seems to be more interested in the psychological impact of Seldon's Plan than in its philosophical implications. Indeed, it is only to those looking from the outside that Seldon's Plan seems like determinism; from within, the Foundation leaders still must find solutions without Seldon's help.
Even in the second half of the Trilogy, questions of free will raised by the events of the story relate not to Seldon's Plan but to the psychological manipulation of minds such as that effected by the Mule and the Second Foundation psychologists. Nothing in the story happens unless someone makes it happen; the reader is told on several occasions that "Seldon's laws help those who help themselves."
The Biblical parallel is significant. Psychohistory is no more restrictive of free will than the Judeo-Christian deity. Christians are given free will by an omniscient God; characters in the Trilogy receive free will from an omniscient author, as an act of authorial necessity. At the end of Second Foundation, Seldon's Plan has been restored, events are back on their ordered course, the rise of a new and better Empire to reunite the Galaxy and the creation of a new civilization based on mental science seem assured. The Second Foundation psychologists have won; that victory, benevolent as it seems, may have ominous undertones, but if we are to accept Asimov as being as benevolent as he is omniscient, the reader can assume that the benefits of mental science will be available to everyone.
Determinism, then, is not what the Trilogy is about. The structure of the episodes is anti-deterministic, for the outcome of each critical event is not inevitable. The basic appeal of the stories is problem-solving, an essential replacement for the more customary narrative drives of action and romance. Each episode presents a problem, in a way much like the formal detective story, and challenges the reader to find a solution. In the first published story, "Foundation," the solution is withheld until the next episode, a strategy of Asimov's to ensure a sequel (published in the very next issue) that almost accidentally reinforced the problem-solving quality of the stories. For the reader, the fascination lies in the presentation of clues, the twists of plot, and the final solution that makes sense of it all. In the final episode of Foundation, Jorane Sutt says to Hober Mallow, "There is nothing straight about you; no motive that hasn't another behind it; no statement that hasn't three meanings." He might have been speaking of Asimov.
The series of searches for the Second Foundation, the various clues pursued to inconclusive ends, the near revelation by Ebling Mis of its location (though he may have been wrong), and the succession of incorrect solutions shows Asimov imitating methods of the detective novel. (pp. 41-4)
But even the problem-solving aspect of the Trilogy does not account completely for the success of the series. Other aspects, more peripheral to the central structure, might be cited: the characters, for instance, though scorned by some critics, engage the reader's sympathies. They are similar to each other, it is true, mostly by being men and women of action. They do not let events happen to them (as might seem more appropriate if the theme of the Trilogy actually was determinism); they make things happen. The Trilogy, after all, is a history, and history is about people who have made things happen. The characters may not be strongly differentiated—Salvor Hardin, Limmar Ponyets, Hober Mallow, and Lathan Devers may seem interchangeable—but they may be as differentiated as the personages in most histories. They got into histories by being men and women of action. Clearly Asimov's characters are adequate for the purposes they serve in the Trilogy.
Asimov also provides some of his philosophy of history in his storytelling…. Some of what Asimov says about history comes from his model, [Edward] Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, little seems to derive from Marxism or whatever impressions of it were in the air when the Trilogy was being conceived and created, and a good deal seems to be Asimov's own observations. Government, for instance, never is what it appears to be: in the Trilogy figureheads and powers behind the throne proliferate. Every innovation rigidifies into sterile tradition, which must, in turn, be overturned: the grip of the Encyclopedists, for instance, must be broken by Salvor Hardin, and the political power of the Mayor must be broken, in its turn, by Hober Mallow, and the economic power of the Traders must then be modified by the incorporation of the independent traders, and so on. There is, to be sure, a narrative necessity to keep the series going, but the reader cannot ignore the inevitable feeling of continual change, which seems a philosophy: one generation's solution is the next generation's problem. Asimov probably would agree that this is the case in real life.
On top of this, and perhaps the most important aspect of Asimov's writing, is his rationalism. More than any other writer of his time (the Campbell era, as Asimov calls it) or even later, Asimov speaks with the voice of reason. Avoid the emotional, the irrational, the Trilogy says. Avoid the obvious military reaction to threats of military attack, says Salvor Hardin. Do not throw the slender military might of the Foundation against the great battleships of the Empire, says Hober Mallow, whose continual retreat before the attacking Korellian forces is considered treason.
Rationality is the one human trait that can always be trusted, the Trilogy says, and the reader comes to believe that that is Asimov's conviction as well. Sometimes rational decisions are based on insufficient information and turn out to be wrong, or the person making the decision is not intelligent enough to see the ultimate solution rather than the partial one, but nothing other than reason works at all. Even the antagonists are as rational as the protagonists and therefore cannot legitimately be called villains. In the stories that Asimov likes best, rationality does not triumph over irrationality or emotion but over other rationality, as in the conflict between the Mule and Bayta (though the Mule is betrayed as well by an element of emotion unnatural to him), between the Mule and the First Speaker, and between the Second Foundation and the First Foundation.
Asimov's confidence in rationality must have been comforting to him not only in personal terms but in terms of the times when the stories were written and published. He was only twenty-one when he started writing "Foundation" and had passed through a difficult adolescence. He was still ill at ease with women and society in general, and he was writing largely for maladjusted teenagers who had sublimated their sexual and social frustrations into various kinds of intellectual activity, including the reading of science fiction. The belief that reason could solve problems not only was desirable, it may have been necessary. Moreover, events in the larger world, though they did not encourage a belief in the rationality of human behavior, nourished the hope that rationality would prevail. The United States had just pulled itself out of the incomprehensibility of the Depression to plunge itself into the insanity of war. Just as the theory of psychohistory was for Asimov a way to make Hitler's persistent victories bearable—no matter what initial successes the Nazis managed, the logic of history (psycho-history) would eventually bring about their defeat—so reason had to eventually prove its supremacy. Later, as the Foundation stories began to appear, the success of the Allies, aided by products of scientific laboratories, confirmed that earlier faith.
The Trilogy also offers more isolated insights into history, politics, and human behavior. Often these surface in the epigraphs that precede most of the chapters in the form of excerpts from the 116th edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica published in 1020 F.E. (Foundational Era) by the Encyclopedia Galactica Publishing Co., Terminus. But Asimov also includes some illuminating concepts within the text of the stories…. "Seldon assumed that human reaction to stimuli would remain constant," Mis comments in "The Mule."
The statement by Mis sums up Asimov's own attitude toward character. His characters have been criticized for being "one-dimensional," and unchanged from contemporary people by the passage of time and the altered conditions in which they live. But this occurs by choice rather than from lack of skill or failure of observation. Asimov divided "social science fiction" into two widely different types of stories: "chess game" and "chess puzzle." The chess game begins with "a fixed number of pieces in a fixed position" and "the pieces change their positions according to a fixed set of rules." In a chess-puzzle story, the fixed set of rules apply but the position varies. The rules by which the pieces move (common to both types) may be equated, Asimov says, "with the motions (emotions?) and impulses of humanity: hate, love, fear, suspicion, passion, hunger, lust and so on. Presumably these will not change while mankind remains Homo sapiens." Basic human characteristics remain the same.
Asimov may not be right, but his choice is defensible against the opposing Marxist view that character will change when society becomes more rational. In addition, the Trilogy is concerned not with the revolution, or even the evolution, of character but with the evolution of an idea. There is also a strategic narrative value in the maintenance of contemporary characteristics. The recognizability of characters reflects that the characters accept their world as commonplace. This is the technique that Heinlein perfected as an alternative to the "gee whiz!" school of writing about the future, which introduced a character from the past in order to elicit his wonder at each new future marvel.
A story of the future is not much different than a historical novel, and its problems are similar to those of a translation from a foreign language. The decision a writer must make is not of verisimilitude alone but how much and what kind. Asimov chooses what might be called the verisimilitude of feeling over the verisimilitude of language or of character, just as a historical novelist or a translator might choose the flavor of the original over a literal representation. Science-fiction stories about changes in humanity or its language have been written, but the Trilogy is not one of them and does not pretend to be.
Asimov creates a sense of reality in another way: by choosing appropriate but unfamiliar names for characters, objects, and processes. Every name seems foreign yet credible. The science-fiction reader values this above subtle differentiations in character. The non-science-fiction reader often finds it puzzling at best, repulsive at worst. "Psychohistory" has proved so apt a name that it has been picked up as terminology for an academic discipline, though not, to be sure, the discipline Asimov had in mind. The names of characters are subtly altered, by changing the spelling, or dropping or rearranging letters, to suggest evolution within continuity, and the subtlety increases as the series progresses: Hari Seldon leads to Hober Mallow leads to Han Pritcher leads to Bail Channis and eventually to Arkady Darell. (pp. 44-8)
[Asimov] was the master of the epigraph. Models of imitation, clarity, and dramatization, they offer some preview of his later skill at science popularization. The epigraphs serve as a medium for exposition, which became increasingly burdensome as the series continued—a long essay Arkady writes for school in "Search by the Foundation" serves this function (but also convinced Asimov that the series had to end there)—but which helped Asimov provide essential background information. They also provide a framework that puts events into context and lends to the structure the verisimilitude of a future perspective.
The final virtue of the Trilogy, and perhaps the most important to its extended popularity, is its exhaustive treatment of an idea. That idea was not psychohistory or even determinism: it was the Foundations. Each story examined one aspect of the Foundations and their relative positions in the Galaxy and in the events happening around them. In "The Psychohistorians," for instance, the problem for the Foundation is how to persuade the Empire to let the Foundation be set up on Terminus and how to persuade 100,000 Encyclopedists and their families to leave the comfort and security of Trantor for the rigors and uncertainties of the frontier. This problem, of course, is concealed until the conclusion, even until after the resolution. "The Encyclopedists" presents the next problem: how is the Foundation to survive the power of the barbarians that surround Terminus as the Empire slowly begins to lose its control of the periphery? The first solution is to play each group of barbarians against the others; the second, to supply the barbarians with atomic energy within a religious framework centered around Terminus.
In "The Mayors" the problem has become: what will happen to the Foundation when the barbarians are completely equipped with atomic weapons and are restless to use them? The answer: the priests of the scientific religion will not permit an attack on Terminus. In "The Traders" the question has changed to how Foundation hegemony will spread once the religious framework is recognized as a political tool of the Foundation. The answer is: by trade. Economic motivations can succeed where religion fails. Sometimes two problems converge in one story, as in "The Merchant Princes." The political and religious structures have rigidified into useless tradition, and the location of the Foundation has been discovered by the Empire. The solutions to those problems are that the Traders seize political power and that war against the Foundation is clearly linked with economic deprivation.
Each problem solved strengthens the Foundation and its progress toward ultimate reunification of the Galaxy, but each solution contains the seed of a new problem. In "The General," the Foundation faces the problem of its own success, which has made it an attractive prize for the Empire. But it is protected by the essential nature of a decaying Empire—a weak Emperor cannot permit strong generals. In "The Mule" and its sequel, "Search by the Mule," Asimov strikes out in a new direction. With its victory by default over the Empire, the Foundation has no clear challenges to the eventual extension of its power throughout the Galaxy and the final realization of Seldon's Plan. But what about the unexpected, developments that Seldon's psychohistorical equations could not predict because they involve elements of the unique, like the genetic accident that creates the Mule and his unpredictable and Plan-destroying power? The answer: the Second Foundation. Asimov planted mention of the Second Foundation in the first Foundation story, not because he had anticipated the function of the Second Foundation but as a safety measure, a strategic reserve in case something developed in the plot and he needed a way out. In "The Mule," the Second Foundation emerges as a group of psychologists to whom Seldon's Plan was entrusted and who were charged with responsibility for protecting it. Finally, in "Search by the Foundation," two new questions are raised by the revelation of the Second Foundation: what will happen to the Foundation now that it knows of the existence of the Second Foundation and suspects its custody of Seldon's Plan (which destroys one of the basic requirements for the effectiveness of psychohistorical predictions), and what can the Second Foundation do to restore the previous condition and rescue Seldon's Plan? The answer is dual-purpose: the Second Foundation deceives the Foundation into believing that it has located and destroyed the Second Foundation.
In "There's Nothing Like a Good Foundation," Asimov wrote that "in designing each new Foundation story, I found I had to work within an increasingly constricted area, with progressively fewer and fewer degrees of freedom. I was forced to seize whatever way out I could find without worrying about how difficult I might make the next story. Then when I came to the next story, those difficulties arose and beat me over the head." The difficulties are not apparent: each story seems designed to arise out of the earlier ones, and each develops with an air of inevitability appropriate to psychohistory itself. But it is critical folly to assume that the Trilogy is an organic whole, conceived before it was begun, crafted in accordance with some master plan, and produced in full consideration of the contribution of each part to the whole. External and internal evidence demonstrate that Asimov moved from story to story, solving the problems of each as they arose and discovering, on his own or with the help of Campbell, new problems on which to base the next stories. The Trilogy succeeds by its ingenuity, and it is a tribute to Asimov's ingenuity and cool rationality that it seems so complete, so well integrated.
Foundations should be solid. They should leave no important areas uncovered. That The Foundation Trilogy is so solid may be the major reason it has survived and why so many later science-fiction stories have been built upon the "central myth" that it and earlier works pioneered. (pp. 48-50)
James Gunn, in his Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (copyright © 1982 by James Gunn; reprinted by permission of the author and Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, New York, 1982, 236 p.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2021
In 1982 Isaac Asimov returned to the science-fiction world of the 1940s to produce the long-awaited fourth volume of the Foundation series [Foundation's Edge]. Reasons (of many kinds) for a sequel have been clear for many years; most important of them, the Trilogy itself stopped after 400 years of the thousand-year saga envisioned in Hari Seldon's psychohistorical predictions, and concluded with some uncertainty about the situation in which it left the Foundation universe. (p. 15)
[A brief summary of Foundation's Edge would give] little suggestion of the flavor of the novel. In style it belongs to the 1940s—not simply to science fiction's 1940s but to Asimov's 1940s. It is no novel of character—not even a Caves of Steel or a Gods Themselves—but a discursive novel of ideas, much like the rest of the Foundation stories As the first extended treatment …—in fact the longest novel Asimov has written—it hangs together well.
Like the stories that make up the Foundation Trilogy, Foundation's Edge is largely dialogue, like them it contains little action, and like them it is readable, involving, and intellectually complicated. In "The Merchant Princes," the final story in the first volume of the Trilogy, Jorane Sutt tells Hober Mallow, "There is nothing straight about you: no motive that hasn't another behind it; no statement that hasn't three meanings."
So it is with Foundation's Edge. The suspense of the novel is sustained by repeated examples of motivations within motivations, wheels within wheels. (pp. 15-16)
[Deviousness] is common to all the characters. It comes naturally to the Speakers of the Second Foundation, who are revealed in Foundation's Edge as intriguing for power as relentlessly as any non-mentalist. Most important, it is characteristic of Trevise, who is the most important person in the novel, if not, indeed, its hero. Trevise is continually re-evaluating the actions of other characters, particularly in his conversations with Pelorat, whose major function in the novel is to act as confidante for Trevise…. Pelorat, though he is better characterized and plays a more substantial role, is Trevise's "Bigman" Jones.
The motivation-behind-motivation method is appropriate to the subject of the novel. When psychological control of people's actions and even of people's thought occurs, the hiding—and questioning—of motivation is natural. Moreover, Foundation's Edge operates both as a novel of intrigue and as a mystery. The various political intrigues that are at work in the First Foundation's councils on Terminus and that are found on Sayshell and, by implication, on every other planet in the Galaxy thrive on actions taken ostensibly for one reason but actually for another.
More significantly, the novel functions, in characteristic Asimovian fashion, as a mystery that begins with the apparent goal of locating the Second Foundation (the mystery that sustained the last half of the Trilogy) and then is diverted to locating the power that has kept galactic events impossibly close to Seldon's Plan, with subsidiary mysteries along the way, such as why information about Earth has disappeared from the Second Foundation's (computer) library, why Gaia is feared on Sayshell and why it is not recorded in Foundation files, etc. As a mystery the major question of the novel is who (or what) done it? Various characters are presented as suspects…. And, indeed, more than one turns out to be something other than what he or she seems.
Some reviews noted the increased role given to women, but the women of Foundation's Edge are not significantly female. The leader of the First Foundation, Mayor Harla Branno, is a woman, but she is cast in the same mold as Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow. Though she makes a critical error in judgment, it would be a mistake to categorize this as a feminine mistake; it is motivated by ambition, and the other characters, mostly male, make similar mistakes. Novi, though more complex than she appears, has a public persona much like that of Valona March of The Currents of Space. Bliss, the Gaian young woman with the fast quip and the erotic outlook, is a bit different from most Asimov characters, but she may or may not be a robot. Bayta of "The Mule" and Arkady Darell of "Second Foundation," though they are not socially or politically liberated, are at least as sympathetically drawn.
In Foundation's Edge Asimov had to cope with the same problem he had faced in the later works of the Trilogy: how to bring the reader up to date on preceding events…. Foundation's Edge handles the situation with a prologue, as he did with "Search by the Mule," but he abandoned the quotations from the Encyclopedia Galactica. In fact, the prologue is a bit like the synopses that used to precede later episodes of serials in the old Astounding. Asimov is good at this; it is a process of abstracting and communicating that he has perfected for his non-fiction. But he also devotes a considerable portion of the early chapters, including a substantial amount of the dialogue, to exposition, and it still seems awkward. At one point Compor asks Trevise, "Why are you telling me all this, Golan?" And the reader is tempted to ask the author the same question. I suspect that the question no longer bothers Asimov….
Early reviews pointed out that Asimov in the new novel updated his Foundation universe scientifically. This is true. Just as, in later editions of Asimov's "Lucky Starr" juveniles …, he pointed out the scientific inaccuracies that later discoveries had revealed, so in Foundation's Edge he made his Foundation Galaxy more scientifically plausible without going back to revise the earlier stories.
In the world of Foundation's Edge, however, Asimov is tidying things up. It is not so much that the Trilogy universe is scientifically inaccurate as that scientific accuracy is not that important; the speculation about future history and the prediction of events through psychohistory is what matters, and the limited use of computers (which Asimov was contemplating in greater detail in his robot stories) seems more irrelevant than a failure of the imagination. But at the age of 62, Asimov is another man with a different sense of values. He turned to the writing of science popularizations after Sputnik with a sense of urgency and dedication to increasing the general store of scientific knowledge. Now he cannot be as casual about separating the fiction writer from the scientist who knows better. In Foundation's Edge the computer plays a significant part—and perhaps one, if Asimov continues the series, that will grow even more significant. Asimov also neatens up the Foundation Galaxy with recent knowledge about galactic evolution and black holes, indicating in one place that the center of the galaxy is uninhabitable because of the huge black hole there, and in several other places that most of the planets in the Galaxy are inimical to human life.
Asimov also includes in Foundation's Edge references not only to the earlier Foundation stories but to other Asimov works: the robot stories, the Robot Novels with their future history of space colonization and robotic civilization that differs in significant respects from the other novels that fit more neatly into the Foundation future history, Pebble in the Sky, and The End of Eternity. (p. 16)
Asimov has returned the reader not just to The Foundation Trilogy universe of the 1940s but to the Asimov universe of the 1940s and 1950s. Asimov himself has returned, however, with a greater conviction about the importance of accurate science and of public understanding of science, and of the importance of ecology. Gaia, for instance, is ecology carried to the ultimate degree of self-awareness; it is ecology personified.
More important, Foundation's Edge alters the message of the Trilogy—the message that rationality is the only human trait that can be trusted and that it will, if permitted to do so, come up with the correct solution. That message is embodied not only in Seldon's psychohistory but in the actions of the men and women who work to preserve the First and Second Foundations and Seldon's Plan, and even those who try to destroy them. In the new novel, however, Asimov has allowed to creep in (or purposefully has included) a significant element of mysticism. Mysticism is present in Gaia, the planet that acts as a gigantic mind made up of variously sentient parts (although an explanation is proposed that the robots—perhaps going back to the unfortunate Herbie of "Liar!"—have perfected telepathy and are continuing their guardianship of humanity, as in "The Evitable Conflict"), and mysticism is evident in Trevise's grasp on correctness—when he is "sure" he is always right, like Paul in D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner."
Hari Seldon and his rational psychohistory are accordingly de-emphasized. Even though Seldon's thousand-year Plan is preserved as Trevise chooses the status quo and even though Gaia (which is the mysterious force both Trevise and Gendibal have suspected) has acted to restore Seldon's Plan after the disturbances caused by the Mule (who is revealed as a Gaian renegade), the Plan seems a bit inconsequential when compared to the Gaian vision of "Galaxia!… A living galaxy and one that can be made favorable for all life in ways that we yet cannot foresee…." It is a concept that rivals that of Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, but it is transcendence reached by faith rather than by reason. (pp. 16-17)
The book has a few minor flaws. On the plot level, for instance, the First Foundation's development of the "mental shield" catches the Second Foundation by surprise. Though it is described as the most secret of projects, it is the very thing—following Toran Darell's invention of the Mental Static machine in "Search by the Foundation"—that the Second Foundation psychologists would have kept closest watch on and would have sabotaged.
The Mule's origin on Gaia seems inconsistent both with what we know about the Mule and what we know about Gaia. His sterility, for instance, which was revealed so dramatically at the conclusion of "The Mule," is a logical outgrowth of his origin as a natural mutation. But there is nothing about origin on Gaia that would make sterility anything more than accidental, unless it was the reason for his becoming a renegade. But surely in a planetary gestalt dissident feelings and thought are impossible to conceal, and why would sterility disturb a member of the gestalt, who is survived by the entire planet. An elderly Gaian points out that "there is no more desire to live past one's time than to die before it."
Finally, on the level of ideas, Foundation's Edge features a significant and unhealthy emphasis on the control of others. Perhaps this was an inevitable outgrowth of the abilities of Second Foundation psychologists. Perhaps it is implicit in Hari Seldon's manipulations and even in his psychohistorical predictions. But … Seldon's manipulations are resistable and … it takes rational and determined people to make Seldon's Plan work. The logical persuasion practiced by Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow, and even the subterfuges resorted to by Harla Branno, are not fearsome and repellant in the way the reader (and Asimov) views the Mule's powers, and the similar powers exercised by Second Foundation psychologists seem little more benign. That is why I expected the First Foundation to restore the balance overthrown by the success of the Second Foundation plot in "Search by the Foundation." I thought Asimov dreaded the Second Foundation's "benevolent dictatorship of the mentally best" as much as I did.
In a way he did. The analysis performed near Gaia points out that the Second Foundation, if successful, would create "a paternalistic Empire, established by calculation, maintained by calculation, and in perpetual living death by calculation." On the other hand, Asimov seems to have lost his confidence in the First Foundation's rational men and women: the First Foundation would create "a military Empire, established by strife, maintained by strife, and eventually destroyed by strife." So we are left with Gaia's solution of "Galaxia."
Or perhaps not. Asimov promises a sequel, and perhaps it will resolve these quibbles. (p. 17)
James Gunn, "Son of Foundation," in Fantasy Newsletter (copyright © 1983 by Florida Atlantic University), Vol. 6, No. 4, April, 1983, pp. 15-17.