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And here we are with Part Two of our journey through Isaac Asimov's latest opus, the anthology Nine Tomorrows! One of my readers made the observation recently that if Asimov has a flavor, it's "light vanilla." It's not outstanding, but neither is it objectionable.

I think that's an astute observation (though I really like vanilla, so perhaps it's not fair to that poor, maligned spice). In any event, I've now finished this collection of Asimov's most recent work and shall resume my full report.

The Gentle Vultures came out in the December 1957 issue of Super-Science Stories, one of the few magazines that came out in the second boom of digests stating 1956. Devoted largely to "monster stories" now, it seems to be hanging in there, surprisingly. In Vultures, Hurrian representatives of a galactic federation have been monitoring our planet for the past 15 years, waiting for the inevitable nuclear apocalypse. I say inevitable because in the universe of Vultures, no race, with the exception of the vegetarian and thus non-competitive Hurrians, has managed to harness atomic energy without using it to destroy or nearly destroy itself.

You can argue with the premise or the basic assumptions if you like. I wouldn't, since the point of the story is that humanity sort of turns these assumptions on their head. So now you've got these Hurrians impatiently waiting and wondering whether or not they should, you know, give things a little push...

Skewing the data to fit a premise, indeed!

All the Troubles of the World also came out in Super-Science. Imagine the crime-stopping precogs of Dick's Minority Report are actually a big computer. Now imagine that this computer is sick of predicting crimes (and sicknesses and other species malaises). Now imagine that this is an amazing, groundbreaking story.

Two out of three ain't bad.

Spell my name with an 'S' came out in Star Science Fiction (I've never head of them either). This one came so close to being good as a satire of confirmation bias leading to self-fulfilling prophecy, but the end is a typical and uninspired gotcha. I do enjoy when Asimov writes close to home, culturally, however. He's a lanzmann after all.

I may get flak for this next one. The Last Question is one of Isaac's favorite stories, and my wife liked it a lot when it came out in a 1956 Science Fiction Quarterly. It is a trillion-year history of humanity, the computer that people built, and the universe. The story ends with the universe's heat-death and rebirth. While I admire the scope, the ending doesn't make a lot of sense for several reasons, which I won't detail here for fear of spoiling it, but about which I'd be happy to discuss over coffee and/or beer.

And now for something quite different. I read The Ugly Little Boy when it came out as Lastborn in Galaxy last year. This one may be the best thing Asimov has ever written, and it's a fine swansong to leave on if he's going to wear his non-fiction hat full time. The ugly boy is actually a Neanderthal child plucked from the Pleistocene and held (for sound scientific reasons) as a prisoner in a lab. His only friend is the protagonist, a woman doctor, who essentially adopts him. It's a lovely, touching story whose only fault is that it is too short. Isaac, I didn't know you had it in ye.

So there you have it. Asimov completists should pick up this representative sample of what may someday be known as his "Late Fiction Era." Who knows--maybe if he goes back to fiction in twenty years or so, he'll have learned how to end a story properly.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
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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 fiction 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!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)


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