Comments about “Nightfall”, “The Dead Past”, “The Last Question”, “The Bicentennial Man”, and “The Ugly Little Boy”.
To finish up commenting on my rereading (or in a few cases, reading for the first time) some 100 short stories, novelettes, and novellas by Isaac Asimov, over the past couple months. In part 2 I mentioned some general conclusions: Asimov’s stories are often puzzle stories; they are almost always very methodical, in that they proceed from a premise to a conclusion in step-wise fashion; and his best stories either excel along those lines, or confound that pattern. So.
“Nightfall” is still, I would guess, Asimov’s most popular story, though it was one of his earliest stories, and one which Asimov came to resent — he felt that he must have improved as a writer over the subsequent decades (the story was published in 1941, just two years after his first-published story) — and was perplexed by how fans kept gravitating to this early story.
My take is that the impact of “Nightfall” is a combination of its striking premise, which almost everyone since its first publication in 1941 has gleaned even before reading the story — that a civilization that has never seen all of its multiple suns set, until when the suns do and they see darkness and stars in the sky, it triggers mass insanity — and Asimov’s very methodical build-up to describe how that could happen.
When I reread this story a few weeks ago, I of course remembered the conclusion, and wondered, as I picked up the book, how it took Asimov nearly 40 pages to reach that conclusion. The answer is: Asimov’s characteristic method. He establishes the astronomical situation: a planet in a system of six suns, with a complex pattern of orbits that currently is leaving just one sun in the sky, and that one sun is about to be eclipsed; he establishes a history (via a religious cult!, whose records are a contorted history of what has actually happened [an idea echoed in Heinlein’s “Universe”, which I’ve also just reread recently]; he establishes ideas about what people of this world have suffered while experiencing total darkness. The story is initially dramatized as a reporter challenges the astronomers who are making the prediction of complete darkness. We are given to understand how, on this world, complete darkness, via an amusement park ‘ride’, does in fact drive some people mad. (They call the effect “claustrophobia”!) The religious angle appears as a Cultist breaks into the observatory, angry that the astronomers have ‘explained’ the passages from their “Book of Revelations”, because such explanations would remove the necessity for absolute faith. (!) And by the time Asimov invokes all these themes, and describes how the light goes out in the sky, you are convinced that the darkness — and those tiny “stars” in the sky, so inexplicable — might drive social chaos into a convulsion that destroys their entire society. Again.
The story aligns to a couple basic themes: about the end of the world, and how, despite all planning, it can’t be rebuilt; and of course science vs. religion, with the irony that the cult was right after all, but only in a vague superstitious way, that resents the details of what actually happened, or what will happen.
“The Dead Past”, on the other hand, is exceptional because it is so different from the standard Asimov story. In this story something called Chronoscopy has been discovered, a way of viewing the past, but which is tightly controlled by the government. An historian, Arnold Potterly, with a passion for validating ancient Carthage [Asimov, you might recall, was a history buff, and published several books of timelines about history (and about Shakespeare and the Bible)], applies for permission to use the device, and is summarily refused.
He pursues his passion and , with the help of a physics instructor at his university, he sets about building his own time viewer. Potterly is also obsessed by the thought of viewing his own recent past, a house fire in which his young daughter was killed. They discover that the time viewer works only to about 150 years back, which means the government’s story is a fraud. Why?
The finale involves the physics instructor releasing to public view the plan for building a time viewer — and a government official confronting them, and making them understand the implication of what a time viewer means: (–spoiler!–) that looking back in time includes looking back a minute or an hour ago, which means privacy is utterly destroyed. It’s not a “dead” past — it’s the minute-ago past. The story ends as the government official, having explained this, consigns the historian and the physics instructor to hell.
Again, Asimov’s style is still rather pulpish—his characters are so impassioned, histrionic. However this is the rare Asimov story that has elements of emotional involvement, and moral complexity. As well as the cleverness that is his most common characteristic, as he follows the arguments on both sides step by step, and finds implications that lesser sf authors would not.
(I also recall a very different take on this premise: the 1976 Damon Knight story, “I See You”, which involved a similar device (in which you could view everyone’s personal space at any time in the immediate or distant past — *everyone’s* space, including all those daily activities one usually conducts in private — and decides the consequences would ultimately be benign.)
One of Asimov’s most famous stories, and his own personal favorite, was “The Last Question”, which is effective in its narrative but bizarre and perhaps repulsive in its conclusion, from a modern perspective. The story is one of Asimov’s stories about Multivac, the computer (miles and miles across) that runs the world. It has succeeded in harnessing the power of the sun. Two of its operators speculate about how long that power will last, and they query it. The whole universe will run down in 20 billion years, says Multivac. They ask, is there any way around that? Can entropy be decreased? Multivac answers that there is “insufficient data for a meaningful answer.”
Subsequent episodes advance the timeline with similar requests: to a shipboard ‘microvac’ [the ‘ac’ is for ‘automatic computer’, we’re told; it’s not that ‘vac’ is short for vacuum tube]; to Galactic AC in a time when humanity has expanded (largely due to immortality) to fill the galaxy within five more years, with the prospect of filling a new galaxy in another 15,000 years; to a Universal AC, in a time when minds float free of bodies left back on physical planets; and finally to a Cosmic AC, in which the ethereal minds of Man have become one. At all of these stages, the answer is: “insufficient data” or “still working on it”.
In the final passage, the cosmic minds of Man have fused with the Cosmic AC, which thinks even more, and finds the answer: “Let there be light.”
Final line: “And there was light–”
What’s impressive about this story is about how Asimov keeps upping the stakes in each episode, to imagine higher and higher states of human existence. At the same time — for humanity to inhabit every available planet in our galaxy, and then fill up every adjacent galaxy in just another 15,000 years, ad infinitum — is that creepy, or what?
It’s true that mid-20th century science fiction presumed a sort of manifest destiny about humanity’s expansion into the universe. But I think in recent decades this presumption has been severely moderated. We are on the verge of expanding to such an extent on our own planet, that we are threatening its climate and our own viability. And recent science fiction has been moderating its assumptions about the presumed ease of our species’ expansion into interstellar and intergalactic space. (E.g. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.)
And then there’s “The Bicentennial Man”, a late robot story, a very sentimental one, and an example of how the many robot stories Asimov wrote in latter decades discovered conclusions different from those established in his canonical collection I, Robot. In this one, a robot wants to become human, at least in a legal sense. In a number of other late robot stories, different conclusions are reached, about the relationship between robots and humanity. This is such a well-known story — it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards — that I’m not taking the time just now to detail it. (And ignore the film version!) Details in a future post, maybe.
Finally, “The Ugly Little Boy”, an uncharacteristically emotional and non-puzzle story, with a heartbreaking conclusion. The set-up is about a woman, Edith Fellowes, who takes a job at Stasis, Inc., a government installation that employs a time travel “stasis” field to retrieve objects or people from the past into chambers inside their facility. Fellowes is brought in to care for a Neanderthal boy who’s been retrieved from 40,000 years ago, to care for him as best she can within the confines of the stasis chamber. Over several months she bonds with the boy, whom she names Timmie, in spite of interference from psychologists. She comes to understand the limitations of the stasis fields, but then is told that the previous limitation of retrievals limited to more than 10,000 years ago has been overcome, meaning that her Timmie will be given up, returned to the past, in favor of more recent subjects of interest to historians. And then what she does.
As always, the premise and its consequences are explored in methodical detail. What’s different here is that Asimov isn’t trying to justify some clever conclusion. Instead he’s following the consequences of the situation in terms of its human emotional impact.
Of the stories discussed here, there are a couple whose conclusions I remember after 30 or 50 years — “Nightfall” and “The Ugly Little Boy” especially — and others, like “The Dead Past”, which I did not remember as such, but upon rereading respect them more intellectually.
I have notes on all the other nearly 100 stories by Asimov I read or reread over the past couple months, and may comment about some of them eventually, but for now this is my last Asimov post.