For twenty years, Isaac Asimov (spelled with an “s”) has been a name synonymous with science fiction. Quite recently, Asimov has been making a name for himself as a science fact writer a la Willy Ley. It’s a natural transition, I think, so long as you can swing it. Thus far, I’ve preferred Asimov’s defunct column in Astounding to the one he does for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but that doesn’t mean the latter one is at all bad.
But today, I’m going to focus on Asimov the science fiction writer. I’ve a confession to make: I recognize that Asimov is one of the field’s major icons, but I’ve always found his work, well… workmanlike. Unlike Dick or Sturgeon or Sheckley, there’s not much flavor to his stuff, and the writing and concepts are still rooted in the Golden Age of Campbell. I have a suspicion that his stuff will date poorly.
Why do I pick this particular moment to faintly praise my colleague in age, ethnicity and interests? Nine Tomorrows, an anthology of recent Asimov fiction was just published, and I thought you’d like to know what I think. I’ll cover the first half today.
Being an avid digest reader, several of the stories were already familiar to me. To wit, I read the lead novella Profession in Astounding back in June of ’57. In the story, it’s the far future. Humanity has spread across the stars, and the demand for specialized knowledge is so acute that people now have a college degree imprinted in their brains at age 18. Yes, it’s another “everyone does the job they are best suited for, and the one who can’t be programmed ends up running the game.” I liked it better the second time around, but it is hard for me to swallow that there can be sufficient innovation at the hands of so very few innovators. I am not surprised to hear (through the grapevine) that this was a Galaxy reject before Campbell took it.
The Feeling of Power came out in IF about a year ago, and it covers similar ground. In a world where all mathematical computations are done by computer, manual/mental arithmetic is seen not only as wasteful but impossible! It’d be good satire if Asimov meant it as such, but I don’t think it is. Interestingly, Asimov posits that computers will have a minimum effective size and, as such, missile guidance will always be limited to a subhuman level of accuracy and responsiveness. In Power, it is concluded that the best use of the rediscovered human computation ability would be to employ humans as pilots for spacecraft and missiles.
It is such a strange point for the author to assert as even he concedes in other stories that computer logic components, if not computers as a whole, are trending toward the smaller. From mechanical switches to vacuum tubes to transistors. I don’t know what’s next, but I suspect it’s not far off. Oh well.
If you like Asimov’s scientifically inspired mysteries, you might enjoy The Dying Night. It’s a straight whodunnit with the key to the puzzle being the environment in which the murderer has lived. Not bad. Apparently, it came out in one of the F&SF issues I missed before I started reading them regularly (July 1956).
Finally, for today, is I’m in Marsport without Hilda, which came out in Venture in the November 1957 issue (after Robert Silverberg made me stop reading it with his vile, misogynistic tale, Eve and the Twenty-three Adams–it’s right up there with Queen Bee). It has the potential to be cringeworthy, but it degenerates (evolves?) into another decent whodunnit with a slightly dirty, somewhat silly solution.
I note and applaud that Asimov makes a conscious effort to include an international cast of characters in his stories. If only he’d recognize that women are people too…
So, thus far, a solid 3, maybe 3.5 stars out of 5. Not at all bad, but not the work I’d ascribe to a master, either.
See you on the 28th!
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