Isaac Asimov: THE EARLY ASIMOV (1972)

This is a book I’d never read before, and debated recently about whether to ever read it. On the one hand, life is too short to read every book one might have accumulated, and this book consists, frankly, of all the stories from Asimov’s early career that had not already been included in 10 earlier collections — all the leftovers. (Those 10 include I, Robot as well as the three Foundation “novels,” since those were largely comprised of earlier magazine stories.) Thus I had passed over it several times before. On the other hand, I kept noticing early stories by Asimov in various anthologies, and realized that I’d never read those stories, or only a couple of them via those anthologies. So why not catch up on the others and just read through this 1972 book? An attraction is the substantial, autobiographical notes Asimov provides, detailing how each story was written and submitted; the book is subtitled “Or, Eleven Years of Trying.” Such notes proved so popular here that he provided similar notes in subsequent books (like the anthology BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE) and then in two lengthy volumes of autobiography over the next eight years.

So before considering individual stories, here are the broad takeaways from reading this book.

  • Some of these stories are really bad, in awkward, embarrassing ways, while a few of them are quite good, making one wonder why they hadn’t been included in earlier books.
  • Considering why the bad ones are bad, and why the good ones are good, you can see that what Asimov did in his early career was gradually figure out what *kind* of stories he was good at telling, and avoiding those he wasn’t. Thus, his eventual characteristic stories that are largely conversation and/or about explaining things; thus his penchant for mysteries.
  • Many of these stories involve themes he also dealt with in his more famous stories, but differently worked out. I noticed this when I read THE REST OF THE ROBOTS a while back, which included stories about robots which weren’t consistent with the premises or conclusions of the canonical set of robot stories gathered in I, ROBOT. So in EARLY ASIMOV we have stories about galactic empires that aren’t consistent with the Foundation stories; stories about futures with alien races; stories about galactic colonies with positronic robots. Taken together, Asimov was writing variations on a small handful of themes, and his variations gradually became reduced to one set of canonical robot stories and another set of canonical foundation stories, with the inconsistent variants left to mold away in old magazines with no expectation of ever being read again. Until Asimov’s popularity in subsequent decades made books like THE EARLY ASIMOV feasible. (Asimov makes the point several times that through the decade of the 1940s, his only ambition was to write stories for the magazines, which were ephemeral; the notion of publishing books, or that these stories would ever be seen again, was unthinkable.)
  • There’s also recurring thoughts in several of these stories about “mob psychology” in how to understand humans, or aliens. These thoughts would later crystallize into the “psychohistory” of the Foundation stories.

These stories were all published from 1939 to 1950, the same span of years in which Asimov published of the Foundation and robot stories that went into I, ROBOT. The appendix has a numbered, chronological list of the 60 stories from this era, including several stories that went unsold and were lost, and the 27 stories included in this book.

Some examples of cringe-worthy stories:

  • In early story “The Callistan Menace” (2nd story written, published 1940) the menace which has caused previous expeditions to the Jovian moon to never return is… giant caterpillars that emerge from a lake! This time the mission succeeds because, as is offhandedly mentioned early in the story, the spaceship’s hull is made of beryl-tungsten, not steel. Comic book stuff.
  • “Ring Around the Sun” (#5, 1940) concerns a pair of wiseacre spaceship pilots testing out a new deflection shield that allows a course from Earth to Venus to go tightly past the sun. Things go wrong because, it turns out, the pilots didn’t bother to read the instructions for adjusting the field strength.
  • Similarly, “The Magnificent Possession” (#9, 1940) concerns a pair of inventors who don’t bother to test their new device before announcing it to the press, even as various con men and politicians try to get control of it. This story and the previous were attempts at comedy; they’re just dumb.
  • Perhaps most peculiarly, “Half-Breed” (#15, 1940) concerns a lone inventor, Jefferson Scanlon, attempting to perfect atomic power, and a race of Earth/Mars half-breeds that look like humans except for having spiky white hair. These half-breeds are normally kept in asylums. The inventor rescues a runaway Tweenie boy, Max, from torment by street kids and takes him into his house, despite the outrage of his housekeeper—“How dare you bring such a thing into this house! Have you lost your sense of morals?” Max, having some natural inborn genius, subsequently takes apart and fixes the atomic power device, and Scanlon becomes world-famous. Later Scanlon decides the boy is lonely, and sets off on a tour of Tweenie asylums to find Max a girlfriend.
    • The story is creepy on a couple levels. First, there’s absolutely no background about where the Tweenies came from. Why are they in asylums? Who were their parents and where are they now? Worse, the supposedly enlightened Jefferson Scanlon treats Max like a pet, going to a kennel to find him a mate. Doesn’t Max have any say? Max’s reaction when he meets the girl, actually, is like that of a nervous pet.
    • While at the same time, Max’s genius in fixing the atomic energy device is taken as evidence that the half-breed race is superior to both humans and Martians.
    • And Asimov wrote a sequel, about the “half-breeds” setting up a new civilization on Venus, that’s all action-adventure and still no explanations. (#20, 1940)

Examples of absurd stories:

  • “Black Friar of the Flame” (#13, 1942) is Asimov’s earliest story of interstellar intrigue. It involves lizardlike creatures from Vega who once captured Earth, and who are now planning a final drive to exterminate humanity. Rebels on Earth learn of this plot by the happen-chance encounter of two offworlders serving duty as “guardians of the flame” at a memorial to human courage in New York City, while two of the alien Lhasinu happen to have snuck into that memorial, on a bet, and then just happen to discuss the plot against humanity – in English, apparently – for our humans to overhear.
    • Riots and space battles ensue, with the climax featuring human “needle-ships” that literally have needle-like spires at their fronts which then literally skewer the alien ships.
    • This is comic book space opera, yet notable because it prefigures the Foundation stories in some ways – the shifting scenes from one group of characters to another, the far future characters with odd names, the competition among factions unwilling to cooperate. The name Trantor is mentioned two or three times! Asimov notes the story went through several drafts, and earlier drafts had a religious angle that editor John W. Campbell asked him to take out… and then rejected the story anyway.
  • Only slightly better is “Homo Sol,” (#19, 1940) another Galactic Federation story. This begins as 288 delegates of the Galactic Congress meet to discuss the admission to the Federation of humans in the system Sol, now that they have developed interstellar travel. An expedition of psychologists is sent to Sol and returns with the news that the humans have refused, and that their behavior contradicts Federation theories of psychology. One of the psychologists develops a new idea about mob psychology, and sets about testing it on the humans. The result is the unsettling realization that humans will catch up with the rest of the Federation real soon now.
    • Campbell loved the implication that humans were somehow superior to the lordly galactic aliens—that was a prejudice throughout his career—and Asimov’s discomfort with the idea inspired the human-only galaxy of the Foundation stories. Otherwise, it’s a hodgepodge of a story, with an odd and irrelevant side-plot about why a Draconian squid, given a specific sequence of colors and sounds, should fall asleep.
  • “Heredity” (#23, 1941) concerns twin brothers raised apart, one in cosmopolitan New York, the other on the frontier world of Ganymede, who are brought together on Mars at age 25 and obliged to cooperate. Their attitudes conflict; a series of accidents and catastrophes (a huge sandstorm *and* a huge earthquake on the same day) tests their respective skills; and they earn grudging respect for each other. This is action-adventure that Asimov wasn’t good at writing; the incidents are arbitrary and implausible. The kind of story Asimov eventually stopped trying to write.
  • “The Hazing” (#30, 1942) is another action-adventure about a pack of humans dropped off by fellow students at Arcturus University on a primitive planet. The ship breaks down; the humans become tribal gods to the natives (in eight days), and so on. More thoughts about “mob psychology” but otherwise crude and cartoonish.

Two odd-ball pieces are fantasies co-written with Frederik Pohl (for a time Asimov’s agent) under the pseudonym James MacCreigh.

  • “The Little Man on the Subway” (#27, 1950) is about a subway car that magically enters the realm of a god-in-training, whose disciples bicker about the extent of his powers. Here we get some Asimovian takes on religion. P302m, how the subway conductor Cullen is “an intelligent Irishman. That is to say, he admitted the existence of banshees, leprechauns, and the Little Folk, and kept an open mind on poltergeists, werewolves, vampires and such-like foreign trash. At mere supernaturalities, he was too well-educated to sneer.” And discussing a potential heresy, p306t: “Imagine trying to create a god that would be under the thumbs of the creators. It was anthropomorphic heresy (where had he heard that word, now?) and struck at the roots of all religion.”
  • “Legal Rites,” (#34, 1950) oddly set in a cabin and small town near the Sierra Nevada, concerns a man arriving to claim the house his late uncle left him, only to find it inhabited by a ghost. The centerpiece is a trial where, with typical Asimovian detailed argument, points and counterpoints, results in the legal right of ghosts to haunt houses.

Other curious stories:

  • “Death Sentence” (#44, 1943) reads like a Foundation outtake, about a rumored world full of psychotronic robots created with a simplified psychology allowing them to be manipulated, unlike humans. But it’s a twist story, and so completely non-canonical. —- spoiler —- When the planet’s discoverer returns there (to the planet where the robot natives don’t know they’re not flesh and blood creatures) he lands in their main city: New York.
  • “Super-Neutron” (#31, 1941) is Asimov’s first “club” story, that is, a story consisting of conversation among a group of men at a club, a form Asimov used endlessly for his “Black Widowers” non-SF mystery stories, and in many of the stories that went into his 1968 collection ASIMOV’S MYSTERIES. It’s about a man who begins by claiming that the world will end in an hour or so, and then backfills with his discovery of a nearly transparent star that, analogous to how a neutron triggers a nuclear reaction, is about to hit the sun and trigger it to nova.

And then there are several pretty good stories, worth reading on their own terms, or at least significant in the context of Asimov’s development.

  • The early story “Trends” (#10, 1939) concerns a visionary and inventor, John Harman, obsessed by building a rocket to go the moon. He’s opposed by public opinion, and “tub-thumping revivalist” evangelist Otis Eldredge, who distributes pamphlets that accuse him of profaning the heavens and risking damnation. Even Harman’s supporters wonder if he might suspend his project until public sentiment settles down. History exhibits trends, it swings back and forth, and the present 1973 is a new Victorian Age, where science may soon be regulated. But Harman is determined, and prepares for launch. His ship is sabotaged and explodes.
    • Harman survives and goes into hiding for five years, building a new ship in secrecy, then taking off unannounced … and returning to be greeted a hero. The pendulum has swung back.
    • This is a significant story in its consideration of social trends visible in our own day, and far less corny than the other early stories. Asimov admits he was inspired by work he did, one summer at college, for a sociologist studying social resistance across history to technological innovation. The theme is apt regarding space travel, though the depiction here is extreme. It’s a theme that would recur in Asimov’s fiction and essays, the opposition to discovery and progress by the religious. Another point entirely is that Asimov, here an in other stories, like other sf writers of the day, blithely assumes a project like going to the moon will be the work of a single genius.
  • “Not-Final!” (#33, 1941) concerns humans on Ganymede worried that an intelligent civilization discovered on Jupiter, where pressure and gravity are high, have vowed to destroy human “vermin.” But is that threat even possible? That is, even though the Jovians have atomic power and thus can generate force fields, can they ever escape their planet? Human experiments on powerful force fields indicate a limit on stability; the field buckles. And so they conclude fields powerful enough to enable the Jovians to escape their planet simply aren’t possible. And that’s final!
    • The ironic final scene shows a new transparent spaceship approaching Ganymede…a ship using powerful force fields.
    • Asimov underplays the contrast between the theoretical conclusions of the first group and the practical trial-and-error methodology of the spaceship designers. The more general point anticipates one of the Clarke’s Laws—when a scientist declares something impossible, he’s more likely wrong that right; technology often prevails theoretical objections.
  • “The Red Queen’s Race” (#58, 1949) is an excellent example of how Asimov can present a mystery – in this case a scientist found dead inside an atomic power plant that has been completely drained, and parchments among his effects on which modern chemistry has been translated into ancient Greek – and then proceed, step by step, laying out pieces of the puzzle (not always in the systematic order one would marshal in a formal argument) to justify a remarkable conclusion. He even seems to undermine that conclusion at one point, only to then demonstrate that something subtler has occurred. It involves time travel, and also ideas about historical development that echo the historical speculation he had been doing, for six or seven years already, in the Foundation stories. He even uses the word “psychohistory,” figuratively, here.
  • Finally “Mother Earth,” (#59, 1949) the last story here, published in 1949, is a big, substantial galactic empire story very similar in its themes to the Foundation stories. We have a human-only terrestrial empire consisting of Earth and some 50 Outer Worlds, once colonies and now independent nations. These Outer Worlds are paradises compared to the overcrowded Earth, and have set up strict, racist immigration policies to keep Earth contained. Now rumors of something called the Pacific Project suggest that Earth is about to wage war against the Outer Worlds. One theme here is how Earth forbids robot labor, artificial foods, and abortion (“the slaughter of unborn children”), without which it cannot control its population; a counter-theme is that the racially pure Outer Worlds consider Earth to be populated by “disease-ridden, ignorant and subhuman remnants” of humanity. As tensions rise trade restrictions are put into place; war breaks out and Earth quickly surrenders; and then, in a move familiar from the Foundation stories, it all turns out to have been planned that way for the sake of longer-termed goals.
    • The eugenics theme recalls the contempt with which Earth is regarded by colony worlds in PEBBLE IN THE SKY, which, as it happens, Asimov had just drafted a couple months before.
    • Quarreling colonies, events that occur across light-years as if space travel is instantaneous, restrictions on free trade, the use of robots—a remix of familiar Asimov themes and devices.
    • Asimov mentions that Campbell accepted the story but wanted more Foundation stories from Asimov instead—and so Asimov wrote the second part of what became SECOND FOUNDATION.

There are a few other stories in the book that I haven’t mentioned, but any points I might make about them have already been made.

Finally, here’s a broad take-away. Reading the lesser works by an author helps you to better appreciate their best works. This is a scalable conclusion. The “classics” of any author or era are often the exceptions — that’s why they’re exceptional — and reading only those misses the standards against which they’ve been compared. That’s why in my retrospective reading and reviews, while I generally focus on “classic” novels and short fiction, from a perspective of 50+ years, I occasionally visit more ordinary works. They provide insight into the standard themes and assumptions of an era, or an author, that are just as fascinating, in a different way, as the exceptional classics.

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