All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.
"Bridle and Saddle" by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/18/2018]
"Bridle and Saddle", by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1942): This was rewritten somewhat and renamed "The Mayors" and was the third section of the novel FOUNDATION. At least "Foundation" (see below) was able to give some back story; "Bridle and Saddle" assumes (not unreasonably for the time) a familiarity with the earlier story, and no real ending. (Then again, one can claim that "The Foundation Trilogy" has the same problem, and all the later books Asimov wrote did not really solve it--nor the books by Greg Bear, Greg Benford, David Brin, or Donald Kingsbury.)
I am bothered by Asimov's notion (expressed through his characters) that Hari Seldon's predictions are basically inviolate, that what they should do is take no action at all until they have no choice in what action to take. I am not a trained diplomat, but this seems like a terrible plan. (And why if later on the secrecy of the existence of the Second Foundation is so important, does Seldon go out of his way to point it out during his appearance?
THE CAVES OF STEEL by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/18/2004]
Isaac Asimov's CAVES OF STEEL (ISBN 0-553-29340-0) still holds up well. Oh, a lot of the social conventions and attitudes are somewhat dated, but I find that adds to the "charm" of it all. Asimov was one of the first authors who managed to meld science fiction with mystery and not have either suffer as a result. I may even go back and re-read the sequel, THE NAKED SUN. (Asimov eventually tied these into all his other works--unwisely, in my opinion.)
To order The Caves of Steel from amazon.com, click here.
THE END OF ETERNITY by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/09/2012]
While the time travel in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT is classic "time machine" stuff (minus the actual machine)--go to a different time and deal with it--THE END OF ETERNITY by Isaac Asimov (ISBN 978-0-765-31919-7) uses the "time police" structure. That is, there is an organization whose job it is to make sure that things proceed according to a plan, that no rogue time travelers, or even just random chance, messes it up. THE END OF ETERNITY precedes Poul Anderson's "Time Patrol" stories, but comes after H. Beam Piper started writing his "Paratime Police" series, so Asimov did not invent the concept.
But if Asimov did not invent the concept, it was one that fit in very well with themes that he did invent. Psychohistory, for example, is all about being able to project long-term effects from a given set of circumstances, and also about how to change those effects. Hari Seldon calculates how to cut the coming "Dark Ages" from 100,000 years to just 1,000 years by making certain changes; the Eternals in THE END OF ETERNITY calculate the Minimum Necessary Change to bring about Maximum Desired Response. The difference, of course, is that if the Eternals make a mistake, they get to do it over, but Hari Seldon gets only one chance.
There is a lot of talk about the fact that changes will eliminate some people, or result in some work of literature not being written, or other negative effects, but there is not much talk about how the changes will add some people, or create new works of art. Asimov does explain why this is so--the Eternals are always making changes toward safety and stability, and this is not conducive to art. ("In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love--they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.")
It is not conducive to progress either. By postponing space travel for 125,000 centuries (never let it be said that Asimov does not think big--that's over twelve million years!), the Eternals set up a situation where by the time humanity got to the stars, there was no place that had not already been claimed but other races. So a group of humans decide to block the Eternals' plan and put humanity back into its "Basic State" so that it can colonize and control the galaxy. But as Joseph Patrouch notes in THE SCIENCE FICTION OF ISAAC ASIMOV, Asimov's characters (and presumably Asimov) have a very jingoistic attitude. They may worry that a change in the 625th century will eliminate a great symphony, but they do not seem to care that they are basically condemning all the other races in the galaxy to die out the way humanity did in the Eternals' timeline.
Note that there seem to be only two alternatives: Earth gets there first and "establishes itself throughout the Galaxy", or all the other races get there before us and so there is no place for us. But the latter implies that there is room for multiple races. So when they talk about changing time so that humanity gets there first, they are condemning not just one other race to extinction, but all of them.
To order The End of Eternity from amazon.com, click here.
"Foundation" by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/18/2018]
"Foundation", by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1942): This was rewritten slightly and renamed "The Encyclopedists" and was the second section of the novel FOUNDATION. Even though it ran as a stand-alone story, it really had no ending. In ISAAC ASIMOV PRESENTS THE GREAT SF STORIES 4 (1942), Asimov says that was deliberately left open-ended, to make Campbell ask for more stories, but I mean more than this: Asimov just tells you the immediate problem was solved, without telling you how. (He does reveal the answer in the next story, "Bridle and Saddle" (see above).)
The "Foundation" Trilogy by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/01/2008]
THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY by Isaac Asimov was our January science fiction discussion book. This has been discussed endlessly, but I will make a few observations. First, everyone seems to be smoking. When there is one character who doesn't smoke, a big deal is made of it. There are still newspapers with sports and comics pages, and one paragraph describes how tens of millions of them are being printed each day. All the names are European--and western and northern European at that--with an occasional Latin or Egyptian one in the Empire. There are no names that might have been Japanese, or Indian, or African. And everyone in a position of power or authority is male. (Asimov tried to fix that in FOUNDATION'S EDGE, written much later, by making some of the minor female characters more important than they appeared in the first three books.)
Scientifically, everyone is stuck in the 1950s. Asimov refers to "that kindergarten toy, the logarithmic Slide Rule" ["The Conspirators"]. It is not clear that in even just another fifty years anyone will know what a slide rule is, much less consider it a toy. (Oddly, in "The Psychohistorians", Seldon has a calculator--we seem to have regressed rather than progressed through the series.) Computers seem strangely absent (though ships have them), and even such basic (to us) items such as video recorders and personal electronic equipment are practically unknown. People carry briefcases with sheaves of paper in them.
Two questions I have not seen before: Where does Trantor get its oxygen if all but 100 square miles are covered with buildings ["The Psychohistorians"]? And where does it get its soil when it reverts to agriculture ["On Trantor"]?
Another problem is psycho-history itself. Psycho-history "reached mathematical maturity with one man, Hari Seldon, and died with him, for no man since has been capable of manipulating its intricacies." ["The Dead Hand"] So nobody really has any proof that it works, and no falsifiability. Or rather, the whole episode with the Mule does falsify the theory--clearly Hari Seldon's predictions failed when the Mule came along. In fact, even when Seldon's Plan does work, it often works because of chance occurrences--a derelict spaceship is found, or some such. On the one hand, Seldon claims one can only predict in the macro sense, but it seems clear that a lot of the changes we see are driven by micro events.
For that matter, after a while people keep saying that they will know they have reached a Seldon Crisis when their actions are completely determined--when they have no options left. And they refuse to take any action until they do reach a Seldon Crisis. So the question arises, why should anyone do anything? Well, obviously Joe Average--or Joh Avron, to pick a more Asimovian name--has to go to work, plow his field, or whatever. But the politicians get into a mindset where they have determined that the correct action is either no action, or whatever action is inevitable.
And as Joseph Patrouch points out, Asimov often conceals key plot points or produces a deus ex machina to solve each short story's situation. "Oh, I just happened to be taping that room--and I also just happened to decide to flood the room with undetectable ultra-violet light--and the suspect just happened to turn his hand a certain way so that we got a split-second glimpse of his tattoo."
It is a sign of differing standards of prose that Asimov could use a word like the French "ci-devant" without Campbell telling him to change it--I suspect that it would no longer appear in this sort of fiction.
[Prepared for Philcon 2009]
In preparation for my panel on Philcon on Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION, I re-read it, and made a few notes. The page numbers refer to the Science Fiction Book Club omnibus volume containing the "Foundation Trilogy".
(page 3) "Born to middle-class parents": Tens of thousands of years in the future, will people still have the same concept of middle class as we do now? I know that some will say that having them speak and write in English is inaccurate, and that such terms as "middle-class" is merely a rendering of their concept into something we can understand. But it still jars.
(page 3) "tobacco grower": As I had said earlier, the amount of smoking here is indicative of the 1940 and 1950s, and has not aged well. See also pages 29, 45, 56, 70, 73, 79, 81, 85, 90, 109, 136, 137, 181, 200, 220, and 226.
(page 4) "hyper-space": Clearly, Asimov needs some faster-than-light travel, and so uses the classic hyper-space. However, he wrote so long ago that he apparently felt that he needed a paragraph of expository lump to explain it.
(page 6) "ship's gravity": Well, they obviously also have artificial gravity, though one wonders how they determine what setting to use, because on page 6, we discover that (for example) the gravity of Trantor is a bit greater than that of Synnax.
(page 9) Trantor has 75,000,000 square miles of land surface. First, they seem not to be using metric units. Yes, it is a translation from Standard Galactic, but on page 110, temperature is given in "centigrade". This area is about 25% more than Earth has, but there is no indication how much of Trantor is ocean. The population is 40 billion, six times Earth's current population of 6.8 billion, but sixteen times what it was when Asimov was writing (2.5 billion).
(page 10) "The rate of planetary turnings differed": Having said this, Asimov then drops the subject. There is no indication later than any of the many planets with people living on the surface have a day's length markedly different from any other.
(page 11) Apparently the hundred square miles of the Emperor's palace grounds is the only green on the planet. One wonders where the oxygen comes from (or the soil, when it reverts to agriculture in a later book).
(page 12) Trantorians seem to suffer from agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors) the same way Earthers do in THE CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN.
(page 13) Seldon is referred to as "Raven" because he is always predicting disaster. I'm assuming this is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's poem, but isn't that a rather unlikely allusion to have survived tens of thousands of years?
(page 14) Seldon says that the conglomerate must be unaware of psychohistory's predictions or the predictions will fail. Donald Kingsbury picked up on the in his novel PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS, noting this means that the rulers must therefore keep the population in ignorance. But Asimov, or rather Seldon, breaks his own rules when he tells the government his predictions. Now that they have this knowledge, won't they disturb the predictions?
(page 15) Seldon has a "calculator"; I guess the term pre-dates the "four-bangers" of the 1970s.
(page 17) Seldon claims psychohistory cannot predict the fate of individuals, but then sets a probability of 1.7% that he will be executed. On page 21, he gives Dornick a probability of 77.2% of being freed, and on page 31 he assigns probabilities to Chen being alive at the end of the year.
(page 19) Dornick has a "right to a lawyer". This sounds very twentieth century American to me.
(page 22) I had earlier said that all the names were European, and there were no names that might have been Japanese, or Indian, or African. There was, however, one Chinese name I missed, Linge Chen. Also, Joseph Patrouch notes contradictory reports of the press coverage of Seldon's trial on pages 22 and 30.
(page 27) The Empire is 12,000 years old. By comparison, the Egyptian Dynasties lasted about 3500 years.
(page 35) "Most will leave for Trantor, but some will stay. It will be easy to arrange." It sounds as though Asimov had plotted out the whole series at the beginning. However, the other five parts of FOUNDATION were written between 1942 and 1944, and the stories in the other two books in the trilogy between 1945 and 1949, while this section ("The Psychohistorians") was written in 1951--after all of them. So inserting this "clue" was, to quote Asimov, "easy to arrange."
In fact, if one reads "The Psychohistorians" without knowing that it was written as an introductory section to a story cycle, one may well end up thinking, "What kind of a story is this? There's no real resolution or ending to it."
(page 40) Pirenne is using a "stylus" and "paper". These seem inconsistent. A stylus uses pressure, not graphite or ink. Also, everyone is still using coins, which we are pretty much phasing out now. (I suppose one might argue that the Empire is reverting to earlier technology, but I am not convinced.)
(page 42) "freedom of the press": Again, a very twentieth century American concept.
(page 44) "peasantry" and "nobility": One might argue about whether this is the model that people would revert to. Also, Patrouch points out that Rodric is already apparently interested in acquiring land on page 44, while on pages 48-49 it is presented as something that just occurred to him then.
(page 50) "Back to oil and coal, are they?": This seems unlikely. If the Empire has been expanding for 12,000 years and has had atomic power for 50,000 years (according to Alexei Panshin), why would people even know about coal and oil. And if they did, wouldn't those resources have already be depleted?
(page 65) "a thing no so-called gentleman would do": This seems even odder than the other anachronistic phrases. Even today, we have abandoned this notion, at least expressed this way.
(page 74) "Terminus and its companion Foundation at the other end of the Galaxy": Although "The Psychohistorians" was written last, this makes it seem as though Asimov always had a Second Foundation in mind. (Of course, this may have been inserted later as well.)
(page 75) "You see, then, that you are faced by hard necessity, and that action is forced on you. The nature of that action--that is, the solution to you dilemma--is, of course, obvious!" If Seldon were not just a hologram, someone would surely have reached out and strangled him. If it is so obvious, why does Seldon not just say what it is?!
(page 80) "comic-opera": Even now, this art-form is fairly obscure. In 12,000 years ....
(page 85) "Insulin will bring a diabetic to normal without the faintest need of a knife, but appendicitis needs an operation." Contrast this with STAR TREK's premise that invasive surgery is pretty much gone in just three centuries from now. In any case, it seems reasonable to believe that by the technological peak of the Empire, they would have found a cure (perhaps some sort of gene therapy) for diabetes rather than relying on insulin.
(page 88) "Thou, too, Brutus": Like the Poe reference, this seems unlikely to survive 12,000 years, especially since no one even remembers on which planet humanity originated.
(page 92) The entire course of history seems to depend on the finding of a derelict ship--surely a random, unpredictable event.
(page 94) They apparently still have printed newspapers, which should re-assure all the current newspaper that are dropping like flies.
(page 96) Again, there is a long discussion of how the masses must be unaware of the predictions of psychohistory, yet the government (or the Foundation) seems to think that their knowledge will not be disruptive. (Admittedly, they do not know the full plan, but it is not clear why they cannot train psychohistorians to figure it out.)
(page 100) "I remember the time ... when the cities of Anacreon were warmed by the burning of coal and oil." See note on page 52 above.
(page 101) "By Seldon[!]": I'm not convinced a regent on Anacreon would use this oath.
(page 111) "thirty pieces of silver": Again, an anachronistic reference. This is like someone in modern Chicago making a casual reference to someone having their soul weighed against a feather.
(page 112) "March 14th": I really find it hard to believe that they are still using the same Earth-based solar calendar. If they are, they should certainly be able to figure out the origin planet. Also, it is not clear how soon after the events of March 14 Seldon re-appears. Is it possible that he appears on the Ides of March?
(page 122) The "ultra-wave relay" is the first of many dei ex machinis, including the microfilm-recorder on page 154 and the Visual Record receiver on page 211. (page 141 Ace version) Asimov gets a bit carried away at times; there are four exclamation points in just fifteen sentences.
(page 160) "Atomic power can be conquered only by more atomic power": Is this necessarily true? Vietnam, and other recent conflicts seem to indicate that this need not be the case. Indeed, later Hober Mallow uses a boycott to defeat a world with atomic power.
(page 181) An oven that can cook the toughest roast in two minutes sounds like a microwave oven to me. Also, there is yet another mention of coal.
(page 183) Many people have said that Asimov doesn't do very well with women in the original "Foundation" books. This page is an example.
To order Foundation from amazon.com, click here.
To order Foundation and Empire from amazon.com, click here.
To order Second Foundation from amazon.com, click here.
FOUNDATION'S EDGE by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/07/2013]
I recently (again) listened to the BBC adaptation of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy" and was inspired to continue by re-reading FOUNDATION'S EDGE by Isaac Asimov (ISBN 978-0-553-29338-8). You know how when someone asks on Usenet in what order to read the "Foundation" series, the answer is almost always, "Read the Trilogy, then stop"? Well, they're right. And why are they right? Let me count the ways.
Asimov wrote the initial trilogy over nine years, from 1942 to 1951. Then thirty-two years went by before he wrote FOUNDATION'S EDGE. In the interim, a lot happened, including "Women's Lib". Asimov felt he had to update his series to have more women in positions other than loving wife or precocious teenager. This might have worked, but when he tried to retro-fit it to include Preem Palver's wife, it just seemed very forced. And he seems to have forgotten how to write strong female characters. Harla Branno is just not convincing in the way that Susan Calvin was.
In addition, Asimov decided he needed be explicit in tying all his novels together in a single "Future History". So he wrote hooks for the robot novels, and even for THE END OF ETERNITY. (Admittedly, the novels THE CURRENTS OF SPACE, PEBBLE IN THE SKY, and THE STARS, LIKE DUST already contained passing references to Trantor et al.)
To order Foundation's Edge from amazon.com, click here.
THE GODS THEMSELVES by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/05/2007]
THE GODS THEMSELVES by Isaac Asimov (ISBN-13 978-0-553-28810-0, ISBN-10 0-553-28810-5) is so old that the hardback I checked out of the library had a cover price of $5.95. But that's the way it is with the library discussion books--we cannot request current books via interlibrary loan. The irony is that most of the older books have been "de-accessioned"--i.e., gotten rid of. Only classics like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein seem to avoid this fate. (We wanted to read a Robert Silverberg, but there were not enough copies of any one Silverberg book to go around.)
Asimov has one of his characters say, "It is a mistake to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not encourage cancer. When it became clear that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines." This was true in 1972 when he wrote it and it is true now. Sugar is bad, so we don't cut back on sweeteners--we invent cyclamates, and saccharine, and Equal, and Splenda. We want sugar with the bad effects. Fat is bad, so we don't cut back on fat--we develop Olestra. But why not? There is nothing inherently wrong with cigarettes or internal combustion engines. If one could make an internal combustion engine that ran on grass and did not pollute, why not? People used to get sick drinking water until they figured out how to purify it--should they have just given up on water?
But my real problem with this book is its treatment of gender. The first section has no female characters. The second has a "three-sex" alien race, except that it is obvious that two are male and one is female. And the males are the "Rational" and the "Parental", while the "Emotional" is the female. Now, the main "Emotional" is exceptional, but the rest of the "Emotionals" are flighty ditzes. This is what passed for well-written gender roles back then? (There is a female character in the third section. She is a tour guide, sort of a glorified stewardess.)
THE GODS THEMSELVES was supposedly Asimov's way of showing that he could write alien aliens, and sex scenes. Reading it now (and probably even then), it is clear he could not, but this still won a Hugo for its year. Go figure.
To order The Gods Themselves from amazon.com, click here.
I, ROBOT by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/28/2004]
Isaac Asimov's I, ROBOT, unlike the "Nancy Drew" books, has not been revised since the original 1940s and 1950s publication of the stories, and remains extremely readable even now. And while many of the stories are "mere" puzzle pieces, several had deeper philosophical issues that remain pertinent even today. (And I may have more to say after our science fiction discussion group discusses it.)
To order I, Robot from amazon.com, click here.
PEBBLE IN THE SKY by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/17/2011]
I recently listened to an audio book version of PEBBLE IN THE SKY by Isaac Asimov (read by Robert Fass) (ISBN 978-1-602-835931). People have been saying for a long time that Asimov was not very good at writing female characters, and in this they are right; Pola Shekt is barely one-dimensional and is more a walking stereotype than a character. But the fact is that Asimov's male characters are no better. Dr. Shekt, Joseph Schwartz, and especially Bel Arvardan are just as one-dimensional and just as stereotypical as the female characters. This was the first Asimov work in a long time not published in ANALOG, supposedly for two reasons. One, Asimov wanted to show that his writing was his, not John W. Campbell's. And two, Asimov was distressed at the direction ANALOG was taking with the Dean Drive and various paranormal concepts. The latter reason is why it is ironic that what brings about the solution in the novel is a pseudo-scientific process that gives Joseph Schwartz all sorts of psychic powers: telepathy, mind control, and so on. The "Foundation" series has its problems, but it is much better than this. I probably loved it when I first read it, but it has not aged well.
To order Pebble in the Sky from amazon.com, click here.
THE RETURN OF THE BLACK WIDOWERS by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/30/2004]
Isaac Asimov's THE RETURN OF THE BLACK WIDOWERS (ISBN 0-786-71248-1) collects some stories from each of the previous "Black Widowers" volumes as well as some previously uncollected stories. The Black Widowers is a men's club which meets monthly for dinner and somehow always gets a puzzle to solve from whoever their guest is. When I started this volume, I found myself knowing the solutions early on in each story, but I thought it might be because I remembered them from the earlier volumes. But this continued even in the stories that I hadn't read before, so unless Rupert Sheldrake is right about morphic resonance, the only explanation is that the puzzles are really pretty obvious. Or maybe I'm getting better at this. I can remember liking this series years ago, but it seems fairly simplistic now.
To order The Return of the Black Widowers from amazon.com, click here.
"Robbie" by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/22/2016]
"Robbie" by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, Sept 1940): Last year Loncon 3 decided not to award Retro Hugos, which is a pity because it meant that Eando Binder's short story "I, Robot" could not be nominated. Had it been, people might realize how derivative "Robbie" was. And the imitation came full circle when the television show THE OUTER LIMITS did then episode "I, Robot" dramatizing the Binder story, but taking the gist of the Asimov ending. (And now the television show "Humans" has also dramatized Asimov's story--uncredited.) Still, the Asimov version is a classic in its own right, or rather, as the beginning of Asimov's Susan Calvin cycle.
To order "Robbie" in I, Robot from amazon.com, click here.
"Runaround" by Isaac Asimov:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/25/2018]
"Runaround", by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942): This is one of the stories that make up the linked collection I, ROBOT, and like many of those stories, it is a puzzle piece. A robot is acting strangely, and the protagonists have to figure out why. In this case, the explanation is a bit of a cheat on the Three Laws of Robotics, although the solution still depends on them. The rest of the story--setting, characters, and so on--are there merely to pad the puzzle out into a story. At the time, it may have seemed clever, with the very science-fictional setting of Mercury, but now it shows its age.