“The Alternate Asimovs” Isaac Asimov

I was a bit surprised when I saw this book was still on the shelf – I know I’ve boxed up some Asimov before (my librarything account lists a couple that aren’t on the shelf) and I’m a little surprised that this one made the cut. It’s a collection of three previously unpublished stories, one of which became “Pebble in the Sky”, one of which became “The End of Eternity” and one of which was published with an alternate ending. And the stories have forewords & afterwords explaining their history & how Asimov felt about them now (ie 1987 when this was published).

It’s an interesting idea for an anthology because it shows how the stories evolved, and I think this was probably my first proper introduction to the fact that books aren’t written by someone just sitting down and putting one word after another from beginning to end. That actually stories might be written in one form and then get re-drafted more than once before they get to the reader. But even though it’s interesting it’s still two stories that got rejected then turned into better novels, and one reasonable short story that got a happier ending for publication. Interesting rather than good.

I think I read this anthology before I bought or read “Pebble in the Sky”. So “Grow Old Along with Me” was my introduction to that story (and I still prefer the original title). The novel is next in my re-read so I’ll have to wait until then to discover if I like the story better in that version (pretty sure I do), but structurally speaking this one isn’t great. Asimov makes a big song & dance in a prologue, intermission and epilogue about how he’s telling the story from both ends at once … and it’s not as interesting or entertaining as he clearly thought it was at the time. The afterword says that’s what he thinks by 1987 as well. The thing that struck me most when reading this so soon after reading “Nemesis” was that there are no real women characters in this story – there’s a couple of wives & a daughter but they’re plot devices not people, they only exist to be love interest or to have one conversation that lets someone exposition at the reader then they vanish from the story again.

“The End of Eternity” is one of the Asimov books my mother owns, and as a result I both read it over & over & over when I was in my early teens … and I don’t have a copy of my own. So now the version of the story in this anthology is the only version I have, and that’s probably why the book was still on the shelf. It’s not as good, though. The basic premise is that there is a secret collection of people living outside time in Eternity, and they can move between Reality & Eternity as well as move uptime and downtime in Eternity. They police Reality, making tiny changes which ripple through time to effect big changes later on and change Reality to make it “better” for people (better as defined by the people who live in Eternity, not necessarily anyone else). The plot has to do with the beginning of Eternity, and the novel version (as I remember it) is much more interestingly complex but this story has one of those neat “gotchas” of time travel tales so it’s still pretty good. My favourite of the three here.

“Belief” in its original version is a terribly depressing story of a man who discovers he can levitate but no-one will believe him. I like it in that form, and the happy ending that Campbell wanted instead strikes me as false feeling. But it’s hard to tell how I’d feel if I’d read the two versions the other way round.

Asimov’s bits & pieces in between the stories were informative, but as with his autobiographical stuff in the “Before the Golden Age” books (post) I’m less keen on the tone than I used to be. He comes across as a bit smugly self-satisfied and lacking in self-awareness. There’s a bit right at the end where Asimov says that he doesn’t get rejections or editorial insistence on change any more because he’s just that good & his editors all love him and would of course ask him to change things if it was necessary. This is more than a little undercut by the long section earlier devoted to talking about how he & one particular editor (Horace Gold) rarely saw eye to eye and throughout it Asimov comes across as someone who would be hell to work with. It contains sentences like this one talking about Gold requesting revisions:

“He was quite apologetic about it because by that time he knew very well that requests for revision would be met by me with the sternest possible resistance and that he might have to wait a long time before I was willing to try him again.”

Not quite the rosy picture Asimov paints in the afterword to this book then … There was also a somewhat unpleasant little story where Asimov is self-righteously saying how Gold had asked him to put a female character in a particular story. Asimov just can’t see why there’s any need for that (“since the plot didn’t demand a female”) but he doesn’t want to seem “totally unreasonable” so he writes in a shrewish wife to one of the main characters & Gold was “forced to run the story as revised”. This happened in the 1950s, but clearly in the late 80s he’s still trotting this out as an amusing little tale of how he put one over an editor. Seems a little odd that the man who wrote “Nemesis” (post) with all its female characters (who after all aren’t demanded by the plot to be female) around the same time as he wrote these autobiographical bits was still so smug about how he avoided having a woman protagonist back in the old days.

Overall, interesting but not good sums it up for me. I’ll hang on to it (in a box) because it’s interesting but I don’t think it needs to sit on the shelf.