“Nightfall One” Isaac Asimov

The final book by Isaac Asimov on my shelves is another anthology. Nightfall One is the first half of a two volume collection of stories by Asimov, first published in 1969 (as a single volume). There are five stories in the book originally published between 1941 & 1951, with introductions by Asimov. One thing that struck me about these stories are that they have aliens in them, which is relatively unusual for Asimov. They’re also further demonstrations that Asimov is more of an ideas storyteller than a character one. I’d prefer to have both but at his best Asimov’s ideas are good enough to carry the somewhat shallow characters (and it’s not a surprise that the story I think is the weakest in this volume also has the least “Big Idea” to it).


This is (as Asimov points out in his introduction) often regarded as Asimov’s best story – he finds this a bit irritating because he wrote it in 1941 and feels that surely with practice he should’ve improved. The story is set on a planet which orbits one of a cluster of six stars. Every couple of thousand years there’s an eclipse when there’s only one sun in view and the people who have evolved there see darkness & the stars for the first time. Civilisation collapses, the people return to barbarism & the cycle begins again. Technically these are aliens, but it’s more an exploration of what people & society would be like if this was the case than any attempt at creating aliens. It is the best story in this collection, in my opinion. Partly because of the idea itself and the way Asimov plausibly extrapolates what effect never seeing darkness would have on society. And partly because of the little touches that show just how hard it can be to overcome cultural & biological conditioning with your intellect, like the various characters trying to insist that they themselves aren’t affected by darkness. And how even when you think you’re thinking outside the box you can still be blinded by your assumptions – like the scientists who are going to photograph these “stars” they’ve theorised the existence of talking about how there might even be as many as a dozen of them because they have no comprehension of the scale of the universe.

“Green Patches”

Second best story of the collection, for me. They’re actually ordered in publication order, but for me it was almost in order of quality as well. This is a Bradbury-esque tale of a human spaceship that has gone to an another planet and an alien lifeform has stowed away on the return trip with intent to convert Earth life to the gaia-esque existence that the alien life has. The captain of the previous spaceship to investigate this planet had blown up his ship when he realised that the alien lifeforms were converting his crew. Best bits are the segments from the perspective of the alien, which is satisfyingly not-human. It’s disguised as a piece of wire & is having to hold itself back from rescuing these “life fragments” as it thinks of earthlife – it is trying to wait till it reaches Earth.


A future where we have interstellar travel, and have met five alien species. All share several characteristics that humans don’t, and in fact humans are more like diseased aliens (in some specific ways). This is one of those “awful truth” stories – by the end of the story we find out why humans are different & it’s not because we’re wonderful 😉 The protagonist is Rose Smollett, a biologist in her mid-30s, and also central to the story is her husband. She’s only been married a bit under a year, and is still (mostly happily) surprised her husband should’ve wanted to marry her. This personal plot intertwines with the interstellar politics, and by the end of the story we & Rose know the “awful truth” about her marriage, too. Very very 1950s social mores, in a way that dates the story so much that is has to be “alternate history” rather than “set in the future”. But still reasonably good.

“Breeds There a Man … ?”

This is a “what if” story where the universe is not quite the way it seems – makes me think of some of the 1930s stories in Before the Golden Age where the planets are eggs or other such flights of fantasy. This isn’t as extremely fantastical but it’s still in that sort of category. The main character is an atomic physicist but we never get his perspective, instead it’s all told via the various police & mental health professionals he encounters when he has a breakdown. He’s figured out what the world really is, and is driven to suicidal thoughts because of it. I liked it better than “Hostess” – although the “awful truth” here is equally as implausible I thought it was a cooler idea to base a story round.


For me this was the weakest of the stories in the anthology. Several men are on a spaceship when it’s captured by an alien race with whom humanity are at war. They aren’t comrades, but are flung together by circumstance so there is much tension and eventually one of the least likely of the men to do something heroic manages to carry out a daring plan & they rescue themselves. As I said in my intro paragraph to this post wasn’t really a “Big Idea” to this one so all there was to carry it was the characters, but sadly I found them shallow & the story boring.

“Second Foundation” Isaac Asimov

This isn’t quite the post I thought I’d be writing when I started the book, I thought I’d be concentrating on the details of the plot or the characters. Instead there was a scene in the middle that shifted my perception of the overall arc in an unexpected way.

I’ve always thought of this book as ending the trilogy on an upbeat note – the Second Foundation has wrenched the course of the civilisation of the galaxy back on track to form the Second Empire in accordance with Seldon’s Plan. The first section of the novel is about how The Mule was defeated and changed from a conquering dictator to a benevolent despot whose empire would fall apart after his death. The second section follows a group of Foundation citizens who are searching for the Second Foundation – they are tricked into thinking they’ve found & removed it. This is necessary for Seldon’s Plan to come to fruition in part because it relies on the majority of humanity being unaware of the details of the plan. And also because “We still have a society which would resent a ruling class of psychologists, and which would fear its development and fight against it”, in the words of the First Speaker of the Second Foundation. Which is a summary of the plot of this section of the novel.

And the sentence that I’ve quoted just above is part of the scene which changed my perception of the story, and I’m not sure if it was supposed to or not. Here’s a description of the Second Empire that the Second Foundation is working towards, extracted from a longish conversation that’s part of the examination process for a new member of the ruling elite of the Second Foundation:

[…]it is the intention of the plan to establish a human civilization based on an orientation entirely different from anything that ever before existed. […] It is that of a civilization based on mental science. […] Only an insignificant minority, however, are inherently able to lead Man through the greater involvements of Mental Science; and the benefits derived therefrom, while longer lasting, are more subtle and less apparent. […] such an orientation would lead to the development of a benevolent dictatorship of the mentally best – virtually a higher subdivision of Man […] The solution is the Seldon Plan […] six hundred years from now, a Second Galactic Empire will have been established in which Mankind will be ready for the leadership of Mental Science. In that same interval, the Second Foundation in its development, will have brought forth a group of Psychologists ready to assume leadership.

So the Seldon Plan is actually the blueprint for the ruling elite of the Second Foundation to take over the galaxy. They will rule by Psychology – which is like our science of psychology but has been developed in this far far future to include mental powers. Including the ability to alter the memories and the emotions of other people, by directly tampering with their mind in a way they can’t protect against unless they too have this training and the ability to use it. The first section of the novel makes it clear that The Mule is conquering the galaxy using a cruder (mutant) version of this power, and the Second Foundation are both more powerful than him and subtler & more sophisticated in their use of these powers. The Mule is explicitly said to be able to change people from non-loyal to loyal and fix their minds there. The Second Foundation aren’t that crude, but it’s implied that’s within their capabilities just they prefer not to be that obvious. They are explicitly said to be able to alter someone’s memories such that they can’t tell it was done. The Mule isn’t stopped because what he’s doing to people is an atrocity (and I think it is). He’s stopped because he’s getting in the way.

The Second Empire will be a place where if you’re not one of the elite then your mind could be changed by an external force, against your will and without your ability to stop it – if you’re one of the elite it could still happen but you’d be more likely to know it was being done (until they altered your memory of it having happened …). The difference between it and the society of The Mule’s empire is that in the Second Empire it will be done with Science and For Your Own Good. I don’t see that as being a significant difference. So now I see the end of the book as a tragedy, the win by the Second Foundation is a loss for humanity in the long run.

But I’m not sure if I’m supposed to think that, what Asimov’s intent was. I can’t remember feeling that way about it last time I read it (20 or more years ago). I think I accepted unquestioningly that Seldon’s Plan was “the way things were supposed to work” and that it was a net good for humanity (reducing the time of barbarism between the two civilised Galactic Empires for instance). And the tone of the book still feels like that’s how I’m supposed to be reacting. I know in the later books (“Foundation’s Edge” and “Foundation and Earth”, neither of which I own) Asimov writes in a third way that’s not the First Foundation’s type of Empire and not the Second Foundation’s one either so perhaps he too wouldn’t want to live in the Second Galactic Empire? I can’t remember enough about them though to know if that addresses my issues with the mind control side of the Second Foundation’s plans (but from what I remember mind control and loss of individuality is still a part of the future of the galaxy). I think my mother owns the books, I shall have to borrow them next time I’m in Oxford and see what I think now (I certainly remember them as being stylistically more pleasing – being written in the 1980s rather than the 1950s so “current” for when I was reading them last).

“Foundation and Empire” Isaac Asimov

I was a bit wary about reading this book, after not enjoying the first in the trilogy very much when I read it a few days ago (post). But this one went better. I think the problem I was having with the first one was that each section had different characters & was so short that none of the characters really got a chance to expand beyond a name & a handful of traits. There are only two sections in this book, and so the characters have more room to breathe. Oddly this is most strongly the case in the second part, even tho in this story several of the characters end up under someone else’s emotional control they still feel more like people.

The plot is another couple of episodes in the history of the First Foundation. The first one deals with the last gasp of the Old Empire before it decays into utter irrelevancy. The Foundation has finally grown big enough & powerful enough to be noticed by at least some factions in the decaying Empire, who desire to put it back in its “proper” place – subordinate to the Emperor. The Foundation survives the crisis, but not really because it does anything (the story is about the people trying to do things and never seeming to get anywhere) – it’s because the Empire is now so unstable that internal politics get in the way of conquering ambition. The Foundation now has a sense of invincibility – the “dead hand of Hari Seldon” or the “Seldon tidal wave” will sweep away any & all forces that oppose it.

And that is where the second part of the book leaps off from. The Foundation is now a totalitarian state, ruled by a hereditary Mayor. Its people, in particular the descendants of the Traders of an earlier age, plot against the government. It’s predicted that a Seldon Crisis is nigh, but the authorities think the best thing to do is just to keep on keeping on – they’ll win, won’t they? And out on the periphery the rumours of The Mule grow – he’s conquering all in his path and heading for the Foundation. He does indeed conquer the Foundation and most of the rest of the galaxy (technically that’s a spoiler but the book has been out for 60 years …). Now he’s searching for the Second Foundation set up by Seldon, and just when the secret is in his grasp a woman saves the day. I particularly liked this because she wins because of who she is. She isn’t under emotional control because she’s genuinely kind – the mistake the Mule makes is to revel in this unforced kindness, rather than control her under general principles. She’s also shown as observant, intelligent and capable of doing what needs to be done, so it’s not a surprise when she figures out what’s going on and then does something about it. So having complained about the paper thin characters of the last book, it was nice to see someone whose character was shown rather than told and whose actions grew out of their character.

One other thing that struck me about this second section was how reading it from this perspective of 60 years later undermines one of the main plot points. The plot revolves around how the Seldon Plan is not infalliable – the Mule is a mutant and so was unpredictable. And his powers of emotional control mean that people stop acting like autonomous people – they are bent to do what the Mule wants. So the Seldon Plan can no longer predict them accurately, and when Seldon’s image appears he talks about the wrong crisis – the one that would’ve happened if the Mule had not been born and disrupted the galaxy. At one point one of the characters pontificates about the two ways that the predictions could fail. The first is if technology changed significantly and the second is if the nature of people changed. The first hasn’t happened in 300 years, so it must be the second. And yet looking at how technology has changed between when this book was written & now, it seems unimaginable that in 300 years as a Galaxy descends into chaos & wars between kingdoms no-one has invented a better weapon than the last of the Old Empire’s tech. So how could Seldon’s Plan have predicted anything well enough to last 300 years before being brought down by a super-powered mutant? Not that I think our current rate of technological change is necessarily sustainable, but over 300 years of “anarchy” with a power like the Foundation trying to assimilate its neighbours, well, you’d think there’d be an incentive to concentrate on out thinking them. I guess the “science as religion” trope of the last book is part of why this doesn’t happen immediately around the Foundation – but further afield you’d think it would.

And on that sort of amusing note – one major way society has changed in the last 60 years is smoking. I expect to handwave past manual calculations of interstellar navigation in a story of this vintage, but somehow the “everyone smokes” thing took me by surprise. Asimov even uses “won’t let other people smoke in his office” as a shorthand for “this character is prissy & officious”. All the other men lights up cigars here, there & everywhere, the women smoke cigarettes.

Overall this volume has aged better than the first in the trilogy in terms of storytelling & my enjoyment of it, let’s hope that’s also true for the third one 🙂

“Foundation” Isaac Asimov

This isn’t one of the Asimov books we own – we’ve got the next two in the trilogy and I’ve had to get this out of the library so I could read it first. J bought the other two, in a second hand bookshop somewhere many many years ago. I did think about buying this one but as I’m just about to put the rest in a box it seemed silly to buy something only to box it up.

I believe Foundation started off life as a series of short stories, and this makes the novel very episodic. But this isn’t a flaw, as a structure it works for the story Asimov is telling. The first section is set just before the fall of the Galactic Empire after about 12,000 years of stability. Hari Seldon has perfected the science of psychohistory which makes statistical predictions about the future behaviour of people. He predicts the fall of the Empire and sets up two Foundations “at opposite ends of the galaxy” to reduce the period & depth of anarchy that would follow & hasten the setting up of a new galaxy spanning society. The following sections follow the fate of the first Foundation on the planet Terminus across about 150 years & each details a crisis point that they face & overcome. These crises were all predicted by Seldon & he left time-locked recordings for the future.

I’m not sure if it’s just because I’ve been reading about China recently or if the resonance is intentional on Asimov’s part. The old Empire feels like a China analogue, and the crumbling into Kingdoms round the periphery makes me think of one of the various bits of Chinese history where the Empire shrank back to a core leaving autonomous territories at the outskirts. That resonance serves to highlight the oddities of timescale in the novel, however. 12,000 years of stability is an incomprehensible amount of time. When I think of long lived civilisations on Earth China & Ancient Egypt spring to mind, but both of them have been periods of stability lasting a few centuries punctuated by periods of breakdown of the central government. So the Galactic Empire has lasted unimaginably longer than these, yet within 50 years the planets at the periphery have lost significant amounts of vital scientific knowledge. That’s within the lifetimes of the people who previously ran this tech! And by 150 years even the centre of the old Empire has lost a lot of knowledge (that’s a plot point in the last section of the book). And that just feels too quick. It’s like suggesting that during the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian civilisation they all forgot how to irrigate their fields because the central governmental structure had broken down. And the Galactic Empire was a literate educated society, surely instruction manuals would survive and other educational materials. Of course there’s other manipulation going on via the Second Foundation, and I can’t remember if that explains some of this – I’ll find out when I get there in the series.

It’s interesting how much of this book was about religion and the power of religion to manipulate. Terminus is weak compared to its neighbouring kingdoms but they manage to turn their scientific knowledge to their advantage. Instead of teaching their neighbours how things work they train them as priests who follow ritual procedures to operate the atomic generators etc. And they dress it all up with talk of the Galactic Spirit & so on. The priests can only learn by coming to Terminus, and the High Priests on each planet are actually Foundation diplomats. It’s a religion entirely designed to deceive and manipulate people. And it has its parallels in the over-arching plot of the novel. Hari Seldon sets up the Foundation on Terminus, but lies to them about their purpose initially. Then he appears at critical moments and effectively bestows his blessing on them. In fairly generic terms, saying things like “the solution is of course obvious”. The only thing that makes it clear he’s not a charlatan is that he appears at the right time, but even that isn’t much – it was only a Seldon Crisis if Seldon appeared, obviously if there’s no recording then it didn’t meet the criteria. The other parallel is that the Foundation is deliberately not educated in psychohistory because it would affect their actions and spoil the predictions.

Overall the book feels like “an interesting idea for a novel, now he just needs to flesh it out a bit” 😉 The characters feel a bit thin & like they’re only there to allow Asimov to write out the cerebral exercise of the plot. In some ways it’s more like reading thinly fictionalised history than reading a story, which is (I think) a stylistic choice by Asimov for this story. But it means that for me it’s not aging well.

“Pebble in the Sky” Isaac Asimov

Pebble in the Sky was Asimov’s first novel, published in 1950, and is one of the few Asimov novels I actually bought. My mother owns most of the ones I’ve read, and J brought copies of the Foundation ones that I’ll be getting to next into the house so I’ve never actually got round to buying many.

Having just read the short story version it grew out of (post) I think this is a much better telling of that story, but it’ll still never be a favourite. There’s still no women, really, although Pola Shekt gets a bit more on-screen time however she’s still very much “the love interest”.

The plot is much the same as the short story. Josef Schwartz, one of our two main characters, is transported from 1949 to the far far future. There he suffers culture shock & gets caught up in the politics & conspiracy of the time. Earth is now radioactive and can only barely support the population which means when you get to the age of 60 you get euthanised. So much time has passed since the 20th Century that no-one knows that Earth was the original planet that mankind came from, and the Galactic Empire treats Earth & Earth people as an insignificant cultural backwater. The Earth government smarts under this, and there are plans afoot to Do Something About This (these are the antagonists). Our other protagonist is a brilliant young Galactic archaeologist, Bel Arvardan, with theories about the origins of humanity – and on his visit to Earth he gets caught up in the political situation along with Schwartz.

However behind the plot, what I think the book is about is colonialism and racism. It’s probably been 15 years since I last read this book and I can’t remember if that struck me before, it surely must’ve done tho as it’s seemed obvious this time. The Procurator of Earth – i.e. the Galactic Empire’s representative/ruler on the planet – reminds me of a British Governor in India during the days of the British Empire. He lives in a palace that’s a little part of the Empire on Earth, and takes pills to reduce his chances of getting local diseases while bemoaning the lack of “civilised” company. Arvardan comes from a planet that’s particularly bigoted against Earthmen and starts with the sort of self-deceit you’d expect – he thinks of himself as enlightened, why he thinks he’d even employ an Earthman in one of his archaeological teams but the other chaps would refuse to work with one so such a shame he can’t. And then reacts poorly to meeting actual Earth people in the actual flesh, going back to his culturally conditioned ways. But he falls in love with an Earthgirl and changes his mind – about her, her Dad & Schwartz at least, we don’t get quite enough time in his head after to believe he’s completely changed. Arvardan’s theories about the origins of humanity are clearly analogues for the debates in archaeology of the time – did Homo sapiens evolve once in Africa and spread, or did we evolve in each region separately. Just switch “in Africa” for “on one planet, that just so happens to be the one that’s looked down on”. And the second hypothesis is used to justify racism as “scientific” in the same way in the book as in real life.

I think it’s painted with too broad brushstrokes, practically hitting you over the head with the analogies. But equally it’s hard for me to see it the way it would’ve been read at the time – in 1950 in the USA segregation of races was still legal (my grasp on this subject is hazy, but poking on wikipedia it seem that the major milestone for the start of desegregation is 1954 and a court decision that ruled that separate schools for blacks & whites was unconstitutional). Prohibition of interracial marriages isn’t declared unconstitutional till 1967 … so in that light hitting the reader over the head with the Bel Avardan/Pola Shekt relationship as being an analogy for an interracial relationship is possibly what was needed to make the point. Would more subtlety have let people ignore the parallels too much? Asimov does a good job of making sure there’s people to sympathise with on both sides of the divide – people are people and some of them are bigots, some of them are not, and all of them are products of their culture. And obviously by putting the whole of Earth as the targets of the racism he puts us on their side at first, but then he counterbalances this by making the way the antagonists plan to rise up against the Empire & fight back be morally wrong. I’m not quite sure if that works or if it ends up too close to “so you should stay in your place”.

Which brings up the way this book definitely doesn’t feel current – it’s so short! Just a couple of hundred pages. And it does feel a little like it’s been kept short by keeping it just a touch too shallow. Everything gets tied up very neatly at the end with an air of “and now they all lived happily ever after” but it clearly can’t be true – you don’t solve millennia of bigotry with one foiled coup & a marriage. I exaggerate a bit, but it definitely feels overly optimistic as an ending to me.

Not a favourite, but there was more to it than I remembered.

“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.

“Nemesis” Isaac Asimov

Nemesis is a book by Asimov written late in his career, published only a few years before his death. I think I might’ve bought it new (the edition I have says published in 1990, originally published 1989), and I’m not sure if I ever read it more than once. Certainly I had only the haziest recollection of the plot when I started reading it this time round – “something about a star on the way to the solar system”, which is about as much as the blurb on the back says.

It opens with a slightly bizarre author’s note, bizarre because I don’t know why Asimov felt it necessary to explain the two points he makes. Firstly it’s not part of one of his other series, and is an independent story. Secondly it’s not entirely linear, with two narrative strands one in the “present” of the story and one starting the story-past and advancing to meet the first. And really, couldn’t he have trusted the reader to figure that out? Neither are exactly strange things for a book to do.

Our first protagonist, whose story takes place in the story-present is Marlene Fisher a 15 year old girl who is both extremely plain and extremely intelligent. She’s gifted with an ability to read body language that goes far beyond the human norm (and there are hints here of a “supermen among us” type plot, but much more subtly done than the 1948 stories I’ve just recently re-read (post)). And our second protagonist is her father, Crile Fisher who split up with her mother when Marlene was still an infant. He doesn’t share her plain looks or her body-language reading skills, but she’s very like his long dead sister.

The story is set in a future where Earth is ruled by a single government and is fairly over populated, and there are self-sufficient space station colonies called Settlements orbiting the Earth. For all that this is a standalone universe it reminds me of the later books in the Robots series – where Earth is a dirty crowded place with people of all sorts living cheek by jowl and having to make the most of it, but the colonies (planets in the Robots series) are cleaner and have more living space, and are more homogeneous. And are rather smug about their superiority to Earth people. In this book Asimov is pretty pessimistic about humanity’s ability to get beyond racism. On Earth it’s socially unacceptable, and officially frowned upon, but the text makes the point explicitly that even despite this the Settlements have tended to segregate themselves into sorts. Rotor (the Settlement that Marlene lives on) is all white, all Euro in the parlance of the book. Not by fiat or anything, just that if you manage to get permission to move to a Settlement and you’re not the same as the other people there then you are just made to feel unwelcome and eventually you move out to somewhere more “friendly”. I guess Asimov felt (or rather, wrote into this book) that even if you try and move beyond racism in a society once you get back to a situation where there can be small self-contained groups then people will inevitably tend towards xenophobia.

The plot starts with Rotor using new tech to travel at lightspeed to a nearby star. This star, Nemesis, is actually closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri – Marlene’s mother (an astronomer) discovers it, and its proximity wasn’t discovered before because it’s behind a dust cloud when viewing from Earth. Marlene’s story takes place 14 years later when they’ve been in Nemesis’s solar system for about 12 years. Marlene has become fascinated with Erythro, a planet-sized moon around a gas giant in the system. A moon that they are trying to colonise, but there have been some curious effects on people’s minds. Crile’s story starts from his leaving his wife & child & returning to Earth when Rotor leaves and moves forwards till it meets up with Marlene’s storyline at the end. He didn’t meet Marlene’s mother by chance, he’s actually a spy for the Earth government detailed to figure out what Rotor’s new tech is. He’s then assigned to a new project, persuading another Settlement physicist to come to Earth to help them develop better tech than Rotor has.

I enjoyed reading the book, but it felt just on the edge of being dated. It also felt curiously like a YA book, although I don’t think it was marketed as such. Perhaps that was just because Marlene is a teenager, but also her arc seemed to me to be a coming of age story. Her mother is over-protective & treats her like a child, and Marlene is flexing her wings and taking her first steps as an adult. Marlene is the key to the end of the story, and it’s not just because of what she is but also because of her actions, and because she takes responsibility and does things.

The antagonist is interesting in the light of Asimov’s other work. Janus Pitt, who is the leader of the community that lives in Rotor, is fixated on the idea of isolating them from other human societies and engineering some sort of better society. So he’s picked Nemesis for them to go to hoping that no-one else will realise and follow. His obsession isn’t presented sympathetically, and he’s clearly depicted as not really treating other people as people – they’re game pieces for him to manipulate or get rid of (mostly by exile) as he sees fit. Which I found an interesting contrast to the Foundation books where the engineering of the future of a society & of the future of humanity is something shown as a good thing (I’ve not read the Foundation series for years, I may regret saying this when I get there in my re-read!).

Having read so much 1930s & 1940s fiction over the last two or three months it really jumped out at me that the two foregrounded brilliant scientists are both women (which includes Marlene’s mother who is very much characterised as astronomer who happens to also be a mother, rather than the other way round). And the people who are good with people (including Crile) are men. But having said that, the people who are actually in charge are all men, on Earth, on Rotor & on Erythro. I think that’s actually part of what makes it feel a bit dated – I think a more modern story would’ve had a woman as one of the people in charge given the rest of the society. Personally I’d like to swap out the man in charge of the Terrestrial Board of Inquiry (which is effectively in charge of the Earth, in a power behind the throne style) for a woman, I think. One other nice touch was that Marlene is frustrated about people judging her on her looks (not that great) rather than her personality or intelligence – so far so stereotypical, but the person who sympathises the most is the administrator on Erythro because that’s how he felt treated as a teenager too.

While I was reading the book it seemed a bit slight, but thinking about it afterwards to write about it I think there’s more depth there than first meets the eye. I’m still going to put it away in a box rather than leave it on the shelf, tho. I’ve not read it in over 20 years, and I don’t think I’ll want to re-read it in the next 10 years.

“Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories #10 (1948)” ed Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg

It turns out that this is where I picked up my ideas of what John Campbell looked for in a story when he was an editor. Asimov’s introductions to a few of these stories refer to Campbell’s liking for stories about supermen among us (preferably our descendants) and about plucky Earthmen outwitting the aliens. I think I liked those plots a bit more when I was a teenager, and certainly the dodgy biology irritates me more now. I can’t help but feel there’s a strong element of wish-fulfilment in the supermen ones too – you know, the “I’m so misunderstood, but one day I’ll find my own kind and we’ll rule the world” thing. And I’m afraid that makes me roll my eyes a bit now (tho I suspect that’s exactly what I was enjoying about them as a teenager … 🙂 ).

Interesting contrast between this anthology and the one for the previous year (post) in that the last one had a few stories that were very “we’re doomed and will die horribly” but this is more about superman mutants or unexpected weird effects of nuclear weapons. Perhaps not significant at all, perhaps an artifact of the editors’ choices? But still interesting. And I think this anthology has more paranoid stories than the last.

“Don’t Look Now” Henry Kuttner

Paranoid story about someone who can see the aliens among us. Not sure if I spotted the twist early on because I’ve read this before & remembered it or because it was obvious. It only occurs to me on this reading to wonder if all these paranoid stories about Martians are to do with the ramping up of the Cold War and the whole rooting out of the communists amongst us rhetoric? Or maybe this is too early.

“He Walked Around the Horses” H. Beam Piper

Alternate history, based on an actual disappearance – in 1809 Benjamin Bathurst walked around his horses in an inn courtyard in Prussia and vanished. This is the story of where he walked to – a Europe almost but not quite the same – told through the letters & witness statements of the people who saw him appear & had to deal with him. Possibly the first alternate history I ever read? One of my favourites in the anthology.

“The Strange Case of John Kingman” Murray Leinster (a pseudonym of Will F. Jenkins)

A man in a lunatic asylum has been there longer than seems possible, and has many other odd things about him. It’s both a “supermen/aliens among us” story and a story about not meddling with things you don’t understand. I find it a little too pat – it’s a trope Campbell was fond of as an editor, and I’m not so keen. At least in this case there’s not also a dodgy understanding of evolution/genetics to make it irritating.

“That Only a Mother” Judith Merril

Haunting story about a mother at the end of her time being pregnant & the first few months of her daughter’s life. The sense of ominous doom is built up well with the protagonist worrying about places she or her husband may’ve been exposed to radiation. And then the child is clearly different – extremely clever, faster developing brain – but still the sense of impending doom, only resolved at the very end. Nicely done.

“The Monster” A. E. van Vogt

Aliens arrive on a desolate Earth – and resurrect long dead humans to figure out why the Earth is empty (after all, if you’re going to colonise somewhere you want to make sure it’s fit for habitation). Things don’t go entirely to plan as one of our far future descendants out manoeuvres them.

“Dreams are Sacred” Peter Phillips

Bit of an odd story this one, tho quite fun. Some SFF writer has gone nuts, mind cracked under the strain of an illness, and he’s withdrawn from reality & in his imagination is living out the sorts of plots he puts in his books (very very pulp SF). Our hero is hooked up to a machine that inserts him into the man’s head so he can participate in the dreams and hopefully snap him out of it & back to reality. Afterwards there are indications of some effects on reality too, which seemed to come out of nowhere to me (and spoil the story a bit I think). I preferred the humorous puncturing of the plots in the dream.

“Mars is Heaven!” Ray Bradbury

The first manned landing on Mars, but some how it all looks like Earth circa 30 years earlier. As the crew explore they meet their dear departed loved ones – this must be heaven! Obviously not all is as it seems. I think this is the Bradbury story I remember when I think of him – paranoid Martian stories.

“Thang” Martin Gardner

Funny short-short about things bigger than us in the universe. I like it.

“Brooklyn Project” William Tenn (a pseudonym of Phillip Klass)

The Brooklyn Project is set up to make a device that can travel in time – and this is the demonstration. At each stop the apparatus takes a picture, and inevitably displaces whatever objects previously occupied that space. We start off one way and end quite differently, but our protagonists don’t notice they’re not the same. I think this is my favourite in this collection. And I want to read something set in the initial world (before it changes/without it changing) as it seems an interesting dystopia.

“Ring Around the Redhead” John D. MacDonald

Told as a murder trial – where the defendant turns out not to’ve murdered the victim, but instead the victim has meddled where he should not. The defendant has acquired (by some strange side effect of a nuclear weapon) a device that lets him reach through into other dimensions. He gets a girl (accidentally) from a time/place where tech etc is much superior to ours so that’s the romance subplot, and the victim tries to get gems & gold but his greed is punished. Fun, but you’ve got to approach it like Doctor Who – handwave the plot device & enjoy the ride, don’t pick at the details.

“Period Piece” J. J. “Coupling” (a pseudonym for John R. Pierce)

A 20th Century man brought forward through time attends an endless stream of parties talking to the people of the 31st Century about his own time. Or is that really what’s going on? Obviously it isn’t, and the inevitability of his discovery of the real truth is there from the very beginning of the story. The very end reminds me of a philosophical essay I read sometime ago, but I don’t want to explain as it would spoil the story a bit.

“Dormant” A. E. van Vogt

A remote island in the pacific ocean hosts an old device/creature that has been dormant for a very very long time indeed. This story both shows us the perspective of the people trying to figure out what on earth is going on with the very odd rock, and the device itself as it wakes up and tries to remember its purpose. A story of failure to communicate because of both sides not even seeing the other as communicable with.

“In Hiding” Wilmar H. Shiras

Another “supermen among us” story – a sweet and cheerful one about a teenage boy with extremely high intelligence. He’s hiding this to fit into school/society but opens up & trusts a psychiatrist and tells him about his real life & enthusiasms. I like the story while I’m reading it, and I liked it a lot when I first read this collection. But now I get stuck at the end of the story where there’s this supposedly optimistic note that perhaps there are others like him because he’s the result of a mutation because his parents were exposed to radiation. And it’s just not plausible – even if you accept that as how he came to be, the likelihood of a second identical mutation in another child is pretty much impossible. So it stops the story being quite as upbeat, and makes the end rather sad – he’ll never find an intellectual peer. (And I don’t think the author intended that.)

“Knock” Fredric Brown

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …”. In this case, aliens have destroyed all creatures on the earth except for a pair of each. Plucky human man outwits the aliens and get them to leave, whereupon he, she and the other animals will repopulate the world (I guess the plants were all left alone …). I didn’t much enjoy this, not sure why – tone or style or something just didn’t sit right.

“A Child is Crying” John D. MacDonald

Another “supermen among us” story, this time disturbing and creepy. The highly intelligent child with mental superpowers is not sympathetic, and he and his cohorts are quite sure they’ll inherit the Earth when they’re good and ready. It’s also strongly influenced by the spectre of all out nuclear war. I liked this, even despite the dodgy biology.

“Late Night Final” Eric Frank Russell

Aliens (very human-type ones) come to conquer a far future Earth. But instead they go native. This is both “humans are better than aliens” and “hippies are better than warmongers” in flavour. It also reminds me of Bradbury’s Martian story, only we’re the Martians & it turns out the paranoia is wrong, going native really is the right answer.

“Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories #9 (1947)” ed Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg

This series of anthologies was published in the 1980s and was a retrospective of the best stories from years gone by as picked out by Isaac Asimov & Martin Greenberg (I possibly unfairly have the impression that Greenberg probably did most of the legwork, then Asimov made final decisions & wrote quirky little intros – no evidence for that tho). I picked up volumes 9 and 10 second hand at some point after I’d bought the “Before the Golden Age” anthologies (my first post about those books) – I don’t know if they were even published in the UK as what I have are US editions. I used to look for others of the series in secondhand bookshops but I’ve never seen any of them (and probably now wouldn’t bother buying them).

This volume covers 1947, and there’s a little introduction that reminds us of what was going on in that year in “the world outside reality” – i.e. what most of us call the real world – and “the real world” – i.e. the world of SFF publishing. I think when I first read these two I found that switch of “real” designation amusing, but I find it rather twee now.

One thing that struck me while reading these stories this time round was that they feel closer in style to more modern fiction than the anthologies I just read. For instance, gone are the “lone gentleman inventor and his machine” type stories (a la H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine”) that were still popular in the 1930s. Even when the subject of the story is an invention it still seems to take place in the world rather than off in some secluded mansion somewhere. Of course one thing that’s happened in the decade since the end of the 30s is the Second World War, and that does have an impact on the subject matter of these stories – one of the intros notes that of the 14 stories in the anthology 4 of them deal with nuclear warfare & its effects. I remembered this as a higher proportion of the book, I think partly because two of the stories that have stayed with me the most are of that type.

“Little Lost Robot” Isaac Asimov

This story is one that I know inside out, as well as being here it’s in a collection of Asimov’s robot short stories that my mother owns that I read over & over as a teenager. Basic plot is that someone tells one of his robots to “get lost” in strong terms, and it does so – it goes & hides in amongst identical looking robots. For plot reasons it’s necessary to find that specific one, and Susan Calvin (robot psychologist) does so via logic. To be honest I’ve never been that fond of the story – it’s about the logic puzzle of the idea rather than the characters or even the plot. But when I was reading it this time, I had a bit of an epiphany. It’s a bit of a “well, duh” moment, but still a genuine paradigm shift for me. Look at these bits of dialogue, one of the engineers talking to one of the robots as part of the set up of the logic puzzle solution:

“Sit down, boy.”
“Mm-m. Well, boy, gamma rays will kill you instantly.”
“The only thing I can advise, boy, is that if you detect […]”

The humans call all the robots “boy” and do so frequently, and I’d pretty much not noticed. It stuck out this time, tho, coz I’ve learnt since I last read the story that that would be the way a slave-owner would address their male slaves in the US. Which made it ping into focus that the robots are explicitly replacement slaves, written by someone whose country had fought a civil war over slavery about 80 years earlier. Which, well, duh. But I’d never parsed it like that before – I read the robots as servants, which has different connotations. And now I’m wondering if I’d see different things in the later robot novels (which I always preferred to the short stories). I’m thinking of the ones with R. Daneel Olivaw – who is indistinguishable from a human, but still treated like a robot (coz he is). Is there stuff in those books that went over my head because I wasn’t coming at them from the perspective of robots=slaves? (I don’t own those books, maybe I’ll borrow them from my parents when I next visit.)

“Tomorrow’s Children” Poul Anderson

Story of the aftermath of a nuclear war, and the efforts of what little is left of the US government to find out just how bad it is. Short answer – very bad. It’s a well-written & depressing little story although these days the science feels off (the sorts of “mutants” that are being born since the bombs, for instance, don’t feel right).

“Child’s Play” William Tenn (the pseudonym of Philip Klass)

A parcel containing a child’s christmas present from 2153 is mis-delivered to a struggling lawyer in the 1940s. It’s the futuristic equivalent of a chemistry set – a biology set that lets you build living organisms & do things like twin a person. The protagonist is fascinated & tries things out. The ethical implications aren’t dodged by the story and the ending makes that clear, but you’re firmly in the protagonist’s head and he has no qualms (and squashes any that start to raise their heads). The protagonist is also very sexist, but I’m not sure if the story is or not – I read it as disapproving of the way he sees the woman who’s in the story. I did enjoy this, and I vaguely remembered it once I started, but it’s not really a story I expect to stay with me.

“Time and Time Again” H. Beam Piper

Man dying in explosion in 1975 (in a war) wakes up inside his 13 year old body in 1945. Figures out how to prove to his father this is true & plans to avert the war. This is a kinda neat story, but it feels like it’s all premise & no pay off – like this is chapter one of a longer story. Very boys own club too – I don’t think there’s a single woman with a speaking part.

“Tiny and the Monster” Theodore Sturgeon

The title of this is rather well done – Tiny is a dog, a Great Dane (and thus not tiny), and the monster is only revealed later in the story but it’s not a monster either. Tiny shows an unexpected interest in the work of Alistair Forsythe, a young woman who is a gifted metallurgist (mostly a theoretician, but practical ability too). The story is primarily told from her perspective, and tells us how she (and her mother & Alec who was Tiny’s original owner) figure out what Tiny (and the monster) want and how to give it to them. The romance sub-plot wouldn’t be out of place in a Nora Roberts novel, which means it’s still sexist as hell but at least they’re both people with actual personalities and they have chemistry between them. (Faint praise I guess, but this story does contain the line “a woman is only forty percent a woman until someone loves her, and only eighty percent until she has children”. Yes this is in a character’s mouth, not the narrator’s but it sums up the all pervading sentiment around that subplot.) They’re even presented as complementary & equal in the work that’s done in the story – he’s mostly the brawn & she’s mostly the brains but not only are both important for the solution but also she’s stated to be cleverer than him. I rather enjoyed this one despite eye-rolling at the sexism – it’s quite charming.

“E for Effort” T. L. Sherred

A man invents a time viewer that can look at (but not hear or feel or affect) anything anywhere in the past. Together with the narrator they make a series of films of things like the life of Alexander the Great, but historical drama isn’t the endgame they have in mind. Unfortunately, things don’t work out as well as they hope (I don’t really want to spoil the end of this one) – hence “E for Effort”. It’s a well thought out story – the difficulties of making money out of the device, of getting their films released, are all thought through as are the various ramifications of the device. I enjoyed it.

“Letter to Ellen” Chan Davis

How would you feel if you discovered you were artificial? Two young men working in a big bio-engineering company putting together organisms discover the truth about themselves. The science just feels wrong all over, which detracts from the story a lot for me. They’re basically building an organism from bits like you’d build a house – like there’s a lab doing “the ultramicrosurgery of putting the nuclear wall together around the chromatin and embedding the result in a cell”. And I suppose you could do that to make an organism if you knew everything about every cell in it (I’m thinking with a 3D printer, perhaps?) but the direction real biotech has gone in is growing things & cloning organisms using a cell of an existing organism (which is persuaded to behave like a fertilised egg & put into a womb to develop). So it felt too bizarre for the emotional impact to really come through.

“The Figure” Edward Grendon (the pseudonym of Lawrence L. LeShan)

This is more of a vignette than a story, and on the surface it’s the closest to the “man invents machine” plot in this anthology. But underneath it’s about the world, and it’s one of the nuclear war influenced stories. It’s one of the stories from this anthology that I always remember – it’s chilling, depressing and understated. I think I’d pick it as the best one in the book. I don’t want to say any more, because I think that would spoil the initial impact if you ever have a chance to read it.

“With Folded Hands …” Jack Williamson

This story is in conversation with Asimov’s robot stories, and given my revelation about robots=slaves in “Little Lost Robot” I wasn’t surprised that the robots (“humanoids”) in this story were black in colour. Of course they are, robots=slaves & in the US slavery=black. The point in this story is to explore what it would be like if robots took the first law of robotics (the Prime Directive here) to extremes: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”. For instance these humanoids won’t let a person in the kitchen – knives are sharp you might cut yourself, the oven is hot you might burn yourself. They also do all the work, leaving humanity a purposeless coddled species. Disturbing in implication but not particularly plausible I thought, I don’t think I believed either the setup or the ramifications.

“The Fires Within” Arthur C. Clarke

What if there were a non-human civilisation living 15 miles down in the depths of the earth. A vignette really, told mostly as a letter describing the discovery. With a somewhat predictable twist at the end (not helped by being the second story in the collection to use a similar twist). Felt a bit pedestrian to me.

“Zero Hour” Ray Bradbury

The new game craze for pre-pubescent children is “Invasion” and somehow they’re all playing it across the world at once. 7 year old Mink even says things to her mother like “Mom, I’m sure you won’t be hurt much, really!” or talks about fifth columns, but the adults all ignore it as just yet another incomprehensible kid craze, whatever will they think of next. As the reader you know exactly where it’s going from early on, but Bradbury still manages to make it compelling.

“Hobbyist” Eric Frank Russell

A probeship, manned by a single man & his pet parrot (to talk to, to keep from going nuts with the solitude), crash lands on an unknown planet. In the process of exploring to try & find fuel to get back off again the protagonist finds something that might be our creator. I liked this, particularly the exploration bits & the relationship between the man & his parrot. Tho I did find the creator thing a bit twee.

“Exit the Professor” Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore)

Described in the anthology as a “whacky story” and that’s what it is. A professor comes to a remote rural town to investigate the reports of a family with strange powers. We see the story through the eyes of one of the Hogben family, as they avoid being taken off to be “studied” or put in the circus, or otherwise treated as freaks. A sample:

[…] that time, it all started because Rafe Haley come peeking and prying at the shed winder, trying to get a look at Little Sam. Then Rafe went round saying Little Sam had three haids or something.
Can’t believe a word them Haley boys say. Three haids! It ain’t natcheral, is it? Anyhow, Little Sam’s only got two haids, and never had no more since the day he was born.

It’s a fun story that kinda fits into the “there’s supermen among us” sub-genre.

“Thunder and Roses” Theodore Sturgeon

Post-nuclear war story set in an army base that’s got some of the remaining living people as they basically wait to die. This is the other nuclear war story that stuck in my head – it’s actually the story that I think of first when I think of this book. Depressing, with maybe a note of hope at the end if you squint at it (and very much the counter-example to anyone who thinks SFF is escapism, this is so not ignoring the reality and implications of the time it was written in). I hesitate to say it’s a favourite of mine, because it’s not precisely enjoyable to read – but reading it as a teenager in the 80s it felt as relevant as it must’ve done in 1947.

“Before the Golden Age 3” ed. Isaac Asimov

The third and final volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographical anthology of short stories from the 1930s covers 1935-1938. And as with the other volumes it’s a bit hit & miss. Some of the misses have aged poorly, some I suspect I’d never’ve enjoyed even if I were a young lad in the 1930s.

I’ve been re-reading this with an eye to diversity – partly, I confess, because it’s easier to see here than it is in fiction from my own era. The original impetus is that there’s a fair amount of conversation around SFF fandom in the last few years about this sort of issue – like this post in Elizabeth Bear’s livejournal which addresses the idea that somehow if you have a protagonist or primary character who isn’t able-bodied/white/Western/straight/cis-male then you need to justify it otherwise you’re just “being PC”. Rather than, you know, writing a story about a person who’s as much of a person as any other person. And as I say, it’s easier in general to pay attention to in these stories because I’m not steeped in the culture of the 1930s like I am in my own (and the only difference between me & the “default” is that I’m female so it’s easy to have a blind spot). Sort of practising the thought patterns for future use.

So I’d been looking for women or lack thereof in these stories. And the racism jumped out at me, and would’ve done if I was looking or not – that’s something where we’ve really come a long way since the 30s. But I haven’t really mentioned the other sorts of categories where people get elided into non-existence or caricatured. People with disabilities & transpeople are mostly Sir Not Appearing in this Universe – although there’s some pretty poor portrayals of mental illness (like the madman in “Minus Planet”). And really I’m not sure I can say much more than that about it.

Sexuality is an odd one though – in the vast majority of these stories it doesn’t feel like any of the people have any sort of sexuality, they’re not even asexual it just isn’t a thing. Even some of the ones with “romance subplots” (like the dreadful Meek stories in volume 1), you aren’t left with an impression that these people fancy each other, or even like each other. It feels like the author is aware that people get married, but has no idea why. A large part of that is style, of course, and differences in the culture of what’s appropriate to talk about. But some of the stories do manage to build that feeling even without anything explicit – taking an example from this volume “Proxima Centauri” has a love match that feels like a(n overwrought, fairly chaste) love match. And then there’s the ones like “Minus Planet” where to my modern eyes the two male protagonists read as gay (in a chaste & understated way). Particularly in comparison to “Proxima Centauri”. In both cases the main character goes off on a mission/trip that may well end in death, and in each case the “love interest” goes with him. The woman because she can’t live without him, the man because he can’t let him go alone. And I’m left wondering if that’s a modern reading pushed back inappropriately, or if it was a deliberate but subtle hint that would’ve been picked up by someone of the time. I’m not sure where, if anywhere, I’m going with this but it’s something that struck me.

A note on the notes that follow – I read this on the plane to & from Berlin, and only took notes on the way out so the second half are written after a few weeks gap.


“The Parasite Planet” Stanley G. Weinbaum

Tale of derring do on the frontier – this frontier being Venus. Strength of the story is the exotic, alien & deadly wildlife. Weakness of the story is the romance plot, although if the last paragraph about how they would get married immediately wasn’t there then it’d be a little less out of nowhere.

“Proxima Centauri” Murray Leinster

Ship travels to other star to colonise. Might not be a generation ship as it was only 7 years, but that’s the feel. Tedium leads to social breakdown, leads to segregation between officers & crew – this sets up the “love triangle” as the daughter of the commander is in love with a crew member but the second in command would like to marry her. Main plot is more interesting – the planet is inhabited by intelligent carnivorous plants who value animal flesh more than we value gold. Death & Doom follow (though our plucky heroes win the day, kinda).

“The Accursed Galaxy” Edmond Hamilton

Meteor lands, turns out to be a strange polyhedron. Reporter who finds it calls in a scientist who opens it under instruction from the being within, who tells its story before being freed. And reveals the “awful truth” about our galaxy. Neat but implausible explanation for the expanding universe. Back to “women what are they?” tho, but at least that means no 1930s romance subplot.


“He Who Shrank” Henry Hasse

Lab assistant to a mad scientist is injected with a potion that makes him perpetually shrink (and includes all sorts of things that keep him alive too). The atoms of each universe are the solar systems of the next. This is one of the stories that stuck in my mind over the years since I last read this – it holds up, I think.

“The Human Pets of Mars” Leslie Frances Stone

UFO lands, aliens have a look around, take a motley crew of humans back as pets. Eventually our plucky hero organises an escape. Too many of the secondary characters felt like types to me – the pompous privileged politician, the older organising matron, the shiftless black workman, the half-crazed black spiritual woman, the sweet girl child etc etc. The protagonist and the other primary characters aren’t much better, to be honest. I think this falls into the “neat idea, shame about the execution” category.

“The Brain Stealers of Mars” John W. Campbell, Jr

This reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury and of Philip K. Dick. Claustrophobic paranoid story about chameleon type aliens living amongst the Martians. The (human) protagonists land, and discover these creatures who start mimicking them – 20 of each man, how do you tell which one was the real one? The solutions felt a little too neat (and the story feels like it worked, rather than being ambiguous), but this is Campbell and as I recall he liked the human protagonists of stories he bought as an editor to win. (And now I’m trying to remember where I’ve picked up my ideas about Campbell’s preferred tropes – maybe I’ll find a book on my shelves during my re-read that tells me.)

“Devolution” Edmond Hamilton

Pessimistic little story about the “true origins” of the human race. This seems to be a Hamilton theme, and he does do them well. Completely preposterous, mind you.

“Big Game” Isaac Asimov

Short-short by the man himself, as of age 21 – written in 1941 and unpublished before this anthology. It’s the “true story about what killed the dinosaurs”, and is as pessimistic as Hamilton (by whom it was inspired).


“Other Eyes Watching” John W. Campbell Jr.

Non-fiction article about Jupiter. I confess to skimming this, and I think I’ve done so every single time I read this anthology. It’s in the purplest of purple prose, and I just can’t be bothered to pick the facts out of the flowers. It starts:

All space was flamed with an intolerable incandescence; for two thousand million miles, titanic streamers of flame shot out, wove and twined, streamers that flared dull-red and cooling where they stretched to breaking, then great clots that swirled in blue-white heat of new creation. Dimming slowly in the distance, the Wrecker was vanishing, the vagrant star that had lashed worlds out of the Sun as it swept by.

It makes my over-use of commas and run-on sentences look tame … Apparently it, and others like it, inspired Asimov to further being interested in science, tho.

“Minus Planet” John D. Clark

Antimatter planet approaches the Earth and will hit & cause catastrophe, but our plucky heroes spot it in time and save the day. Despite the best efforts of a random madman who’d like to stop them. Suffers terribly from “women, what are they??”. Not that memorable to be honest, I preferred “Born of the Sun” in the last volume (which was more science fantasy/horror than this, but at least it had a fun catastrophe).

“Past, Present and Future” Nat Schachner

Man of ancient Greece who winds up in the future Inca lands uses the “secrets of the Egyptians” to enter suspended animation looking for a better future. He’s joined (accidentally) by a (white) man of the 1930s. They wake up in the far future in an enclosed habitat because “the rest of the world is destroyed” – it’s a dystopia reminiscent of Huxley’s “Brave New World” with its castes of people for particular societal functions. Our heroes are better because they’re not stratified like this, they’re more human. And along with a throwback from the upper echelons of the future society they escape to explore the outside world. Interesting premise, but it feels like the story stops before it starts.


“The Men and the Mirror” Ross Rocklynne

It’s a shame this is the story that ends the anthology, because I’ve never liked it. Two men, one a policeman chasing the other an outlaw. They are perfect gentlemen, being gentlemanly. And they discover an impossible physics problem in outer space, having gotten into a pickle they get out of it again by co-operating and using their superior intelligence. They are gentlemanly gentlemen once more. I tend to forget the plot between readings, because the soulless physics problem is actually marginally more interesting despite my general lack of interest in physics.