Oct 15, 2016


1941: Reason
Original cover art: Stephen Youll
Back in August, I got into my time machine and went back 75 years, traveling in my imagination to the year 1941, the year when Isaac Asimov's positronic robot QT-1 appeared in Astounding magazine.

I like to imagine that QT-1, Michael Donovan and Gregory Powell might have existed in a previous Reality, what I call the Foundation Reality. In that Reality, both space travel technology and artificial intelligence research zoomed ahead at a faster pace than in our universe.
Origins of the Science Fiction genre.
When I was a boy growing up during the Space Race, I was surprised to discover a book called Modern Space Science. As shown in the graph, above, the term "space science" was very new in 1961. I was intrigued by the idea that there might have been an earlier era of space science before the "modern" era of NASA and rocket ships going to the Moon.

The graph, above, also shows the time period in the 20th century when the term "science fiction" came into common use. In 1953, a book called Modern Science Fiction was published and it included an article by Asimov.

Asimov wrote about "Social Science Fiction", which he contrasted with earlier types of science fiction that might be called "gadget stories" or technology-oriented "adventure stories". There is nothing wrong about including cool gadgets and rousing adventure in science fiction stories, but Asimov was among a group of scientifically-literate authors who could think deeply and creatively about the impact of science on society. By including in their stories reasoned speculation about how science could impact human societies, authors such as Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke could take the science fiction genre to a new level of sophistication.
The origins of a science of space travel and space travel in science fiction.
Rockets? Who needs rockets?
1930 cover art by Hans Wessolowski
Long before the arrival of science fiction as a new and distinctive literary genre, some story tellers imagined travel through outer space (example). Those early stories included no suggestion of how such space travel might be possible. When The War of the Worlds was written by H. G. Wells in the late 19th century, the invading Martians magically traveled from Mars to Earth. In the early 20th century it finally became possible for scientists to imagine how rockets could be used to move spacecraft through space.

In 1920, Robert Goddard's early suggestion that rockets could function in space was ridiculed in a New York Times editorial. 49 years later, The New York Times finally published an apology for their ignorant dismissal of rocket-powered space travel, doing so just a few days before the first man walked on the Moon.

An early science fiction rocket ship
cover by Nick
Even after Goddard explained to the world that chemically fueled rockets could power space flight, many early science fiction stories continued to use imaginary propulsion technologies for space travel. One of the most famous of these fictional spaceship propulsion technologies was imagined by E. E. "Doc" Smith and published in the 1920s.

In 1924, Robert Goddard published an account in Popular Science of how chemical rockets could work in outer space. Soon there were science fiction stories that made use of the idea of a "rocket ship" that could travel to distant planets. Rocketry was taken more seriously in Germany than in the United States. In 1929, Woman in the Moon was an early film depiction of travel in space using rocket propulsion.

Rocket ships and ray guns.
Early Asimov; cover by Robert Sherry
Although there was censorship of rocket stories in Germany leading up to World War II, Clarke's "We Can Rocket to the Moon – Now!" (in 1939) was an essay that made clear the practical application of rockets for space travel (read Clarke's May 1939 article on page 24 of Urania: "The First Space Ship").

The young Isaac Asimov grew up right when the first science fiction magazines were available for him to read in his family's candy store. He started publishing his own stories when John Campbell had taken editorial control at Astounding. Asimov had become impatient with some of the tired old science fiction story plots of the pulp magazine era. For example, he disliked all of the clanking murderous robots that had been included in science fiction stories and he knew that it was silly to imagine the existence of human-like residents on nearby planets such as Mars and Venus. Asimov, as a writer of science fiction, was ready to be pushed in new literary directions by Campbell.

Science Fiction in 1953
a more mature Asimov
The year 1953 was an interesting milestone year for both science and science fiction. In 1953, Watson and Crick published the double helix model of DNA. Classical biology was transitioning into the era of molecular biology in which the nanoscale components of living cells could be studied and provide a mechanistic understanding of life.

in the Ekcolir Reality
original cover art by Henry Van Dongen
and Edmund Emshwiller
In the 1950s, the original science fiction era of pulp magazine publishing was transitioning into a new era of science fiction book publication. Looking back from the perspective of 1953 on the new type of science fiction stories that he had published in Astounding magazine during the 1940s, Asimov could take some pride in his contribution to the development of social science fiction as a literary form that appealed to readers who had interests in science and technology.

In 1953, Asimov published a short story called "The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline". In our Reality, this thiotimoline story was an opportunity for Asimov to have some fun. I like to imagine that in the Ekcolir Reality, when time travel still existed, it may have been possible for the Writers Block to medically intervene and extend the life of the Asimov analogue in that Reality... perhaps just long enough for Asimov to be present at the arrival of the Fru'wu on Earth.

1 Asimov - "Social Science Fiction"
2 Heinlein - "Speculative Fiction"
3 Clarke - Childhood's End

1953 in the Asimov Reality
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Oct 10, 2016

Alternate Asimov

As mentioned in my previous blog post, stories from the Golden Age of science fiction were sometimes re-published in magazines such as Fantastic Stories. In the case of Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust, a story which he created just after the end of the Golden Age, the first publication was in Galaxy magazine (under the name Tyrann) and then it also appeared in book format that same year.

In the 1950s, the pulp magazine science fiction was in decline and authors such as Asimov were experimenting with a newly developing system of science fiction book publishing.

My introduction to The Stars, Like Dust came in the 1970s when I had discovered printed science fiction by way of Asimov's novels. One day I came across a paperback copy of the book with cover art by Paul Lehr.

cover art by Paul Lehr
The Stars, Like Dust may have been one of the first science fiction books that I bought. I was in my own personal Golden Age of discovering the science fiction genre and The Stars, Like Dust helped teach me that I despise political science fiction. At the end of World War II, it was probably difficult for someone like Asimov to watch Eastern European nations be sucked into the Soviet Union and I'm not surprised that he would write some science fiction stories about the importance of freedom.

I still have in my possession some other novels by Asimov that I bought in the 1970s (such as his original Foundation Trilogy), but I long ago disposed of my copy of The Stars, Like Dust. It was not until the arrival of the Internet Era that I had any inkling of the many different published versions of The Stars, Like Dust that came out since 1951 (see this list).

Alternate Asimov
Alternate Asimov
I've long been amused that Asimov collected some alternate versions of several stories, including The End of Eternity. As a fan of Asimov's science fiction, I can't resist imagining alternate Realities in which he (or his analogue) wrote somewhat different stories. In general, those stories that I imagine get little further than an imaginary book or magazine cover. However, I suppose the ultimate sacrilege will come on the day when I try to write a newly imagined story in the style that I imagine Asimov himself would have employed had he actually written the story himself.

The Alternate Asimovs translated
by Gaetano Staffilano as "Fantasimov"
I love the recursive book cover by Vicente Segrelles that is shown to the right on this page. Imagine some future robot who is a fan of Asimov's fiction!

Blind Alley
For me, a tempting place to "re-write" Asimov is presented by his story "Blind Alley". During the war, while serving in the military, Asimov may have at times felt like he was expected to be an automaton with his life guided by the Three Laws of Bureaucracy. Of course, both Asimov and Supervisor Antyok were smart enough to find ways to escape from the confines of bureaucratic momentum.

Ángel Roffo
In "Blind Alley", Antyok finds himself assigned to supervise the only aliens ever found in our galaxy. Upon arrival on planet Cepheus 18, he meets Zammo, a smoking physiologist. By 1938, statistical analysis had shown that tobacco smokers, on average, had shorter life spans than non-smokers. By the early 1940s, tobacco tar had been shown to be carcinogenic. By 1946, physiologists could measure the deleterious effects of smoking on the cardiovascular system. By 1950, multiple studies were showing statistical correlations between tobacco smoking and cancers of the respiratory tract.

The Nicotine Laser
I like to imagine that the nicotine or other substances in tobacco were able to modulate the interface between human brains and their zeptite endosymbionts, with profound effects on human behavior.

By including characters who were smokers in his stories, was Asimov mocking Astounding editor John Campbell?

I've been blogging recently about the history of how telepathy came to play a central role in both Asimov's robot stories and his Foundation saga. Asimov set "Blind Alley" in his imagined future of a Galactic Empire that came to have Trantor as its capitol planet. In "Blind Alley", the aliens who Antyok must supervise on Cepheus 18 have some mysterious type of telepathic communication.

mechanism of telepathy
Zammo wants to study these aliens and reveal the secret of telepathy. Zammo asks: "What is the mechanism of telepathy? What is the physiology and the physics of it?" What marvelous questions for a science fiction story! And of course, Campbell was a sucker for stories about telepathy.

Zammo is unhappy with the fact that in order to experiment on the aliens, he must follow existing policy and get their consent. Only a few of the mysterious aliens have ever given consent. Antyok suggests a possible path forward. Since it is a matter of concern to the Emperor is that the aliens have stopped reproducing, if Zammo can find out why the aliens won't breed, then it might become possible to get a change in policy and imperial support for Zammo's desired program of more extensive experimentation on the aliens.

the Emperor
No changes in policy are envisaged
Of course, the default route for the bureaucracy of the Galactic Empire is to never change existing policy. Antyok does not even try to deflect the bureaucracy from its ponderous course.

Asimov's preferred writing style was to present to his readers two philosophically opposed groups. In opposition to the scientists like Zammo, Asimov placed supporters of the Aurelion Philosophy who advocated allowing the aliens complete freedom and gently fostering a relationship of cooperation between humans and the aliens. In contrast, Zammo wanted to be free to treat the aliens like animals, even dissecting them in order to study their telepathic ability.

"A capable man can work within the limits of the rules and accomplish what he wishes" -Antyok

Foundation and Aliens
Working quietly within the confines of existing policy, Antyok arranges to set the aliens free, sending them off to another galaxy where they will be able to establish their own interstellar empire.

The Foundation Reality
I like to think that it was not by chance that the telepathic aliens we meet in "Blind Alley" were the only non-human intelligent species discovered in our galaxy by the people of the "all human" Galactic Empire.

Not only did Antyok give the gift of freedom to the aliens, but these aliens were put in contact with him for a very good reason. At this time, Daneel was trying to develop the planet Gaia and his goal was to integrate humans into the group mind of Gaia.

cover art by Stephen Youll
Even while Daneel was guiding Humanity, behind the scenes, R. Gohrlay was guiding Daneel. R. Gohrlay's positronic robots had driven out of the galaxy all aliens who had not been strategically withdrawn by the pek. R. Gohrlay was able to reach a deal with the telepathic aliens of Cepheus 18: a trade of transport to the Magellanic Clouds for help in boosting the telepathic ability of some humans. In "Blind Alley", Asimov hinted that Antyok had some ability to make telepathic contact with the aliens. We can imagine that after the end of "Blind Alley", Daneel took Antyok off to Gaia where his alien-augmented telepathic abilities were put to good use.

in the Ekcolir Reality; original cover art
by Stephen Youll and Virgil Finlay
I love the cover art that Stephen Youll created for some of Asimov's novels.

Ekcolir Reality
In the Ekcolir Reality, Asimov was deeply involved with preparing humans for the arrival of the alien Fru'wu on Earth. In that Reality, he wrote a story called "The Aurelion Philosophy" that tried to explain the Rules of Intervention. That story provided an account of how replicoids in the Hierion Domain could communicate with humans via the Bimanoid Interface.

In the Ekcolir Reality, one of the major challenges facing Earth in the 20th century was global warming. In that Reality, science, technology and use of fossil fuels was accelerated in comparison to our world, here in the Final Reality.

in the Ekcolir Reality; original cover art
by Anna Montecroci, Boris Vallejo and Edmund Emshwiller
In the Ekcolir Reality, Asimov published To Cool The Sun, which told of using hierions to reduce the rate of fusion within the Sun. That novel was published simultaneously with Alien Empire by Roben Dee. Alien Empire described the role that Grendels had played in shaping the human species on Earth.

According to Gohrlay, "Roben Dee" was an alias for Roben Skapp.

Next: 1953 in science fiction
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