Jan 24, 2018

Wanted: Vestal Robots

cover art by Arnold Kohn
In this blog post I report on my journey back in time to the year 1939 for an investigation of the first story published by Isaac Asimov. I'm actually more interested in Asimov himself and how he developed into a famous writer than that particular old Sci Fi story. What kinds of stories did Asimov read as a boy?

Venus Attacks
Asimov was apparently intrigued by "Tumithak of the Corridors" when he first read it (1932). Of course, we are now far past the days of the previous millennium when people could still imagine cities on Venus populated by Venusians. Charles R. Tanner called his imaginary Venusians the "shelks".

When humans built a spaceship and went to explore Venus, it was discovered that the shelks were fairly sophisticated technologically, but due to the cloudy conditions of their world, they had never developed their own science of astronomy and had never even tried to develop their own space travel technology.

in the Ekcolir Reality
Of course, as told by Tanner, these shelks who had evolved without any exposure to sunlight, upon learning about spaceships, immediately went and conquered Earth. The defeated humans, in turn, had to move underground and start living in their caves of steel, the titular corridors.

In addition to the caves of steel themselves, Asimov was probably impressed by Tanner's insistence that the underground dwelling humans had a technology for converting rocks into food. Asimov would later write his own stories about sub-surface yeast-growing facilities, such as those of the planet Trantor.

The Venusian vampires fatten their pet humans.
Interior art by Leo Morey
There is also a scene in "Tumithak of the Corridors" where our hero, Tumithak, is surrounded by dogs. Asimov put a similar scene into his Foundation Saga.

Heaping biological implausibility upon scientific nonsense, readers of "Tumithak of the Corridors" learn that the Venusian masters of Earth are blood suckers who keep a herd of tame humans near the surface so as to provide a continuous source of human blood.

Tumithak fighting his way through the corridor's.
"Tumithak of the Corridors" was reprinted in Amazing Stories, February 1967 (download), an issue of the magazine that also held "Born Under Mars" (Part 2 of 2) by John Brunner. The juxtaposition of Tanner's story from 1932 about imaginary Venusians and Brunner's more modern Sci Fi story makes me glad I grew up when I did, reading what I did, and makes me reflect with a profound sense of wonder on the fact that Asimov read so much nonsense as a child, yet he still grew up to write relatively level-headed science fiction.

in the Ekcolir Reality
I'm happy that I grew up reading more up-beat stories of encounters with space aliens. For example, "Encounter in the Dawn" (Amazing Stories the June-July issue of 1953) is a short story by Arthur C. Clarke in which contact between two humanoid species from different worlds is peaceful. "Encounter in the Dawn" is actually an "ancient aliens" story in which human civilization gets a boost from alien visitors to Earth.

Mars Attacks
One of the joys of looking back at old Sci Fi magazines is discovering unexpected surprises. "Raid from Mars" by Miles J. Breuer was this type of surprise waiting for me when I finally went to read Isaac Asimov's first published story. Breuer had also helped write "The Girl from Mars", published in 1929.

Martians on Earth - 1929
In "The Girl From Mars", several Martians are born on Earth, with a plot similar to the story of Superman arriving on Earth from Krypton. The Martians grow up on Earth and eventually two male Martians battle for the girl from Mars.

in the Ekcolir Reality
I feel that "Raid from Mars" could have been used as the basis for an episode of The X-Files. The FBI must investigate the sudden disappearance of all radium from the U.S.A. The investigation leads to a high school student who is pals with the local Mad Scientist, Doc Brown Dragstedt.

Dr. Dragstedt has been secretly in communication with Martians, arranging to trade radium for the Martian secret of immortality. The story ends with Dr. Dragstedt blasting off from Earth in a martian spaceship, headed for Mars...

Vesta video
interior art by Robert Fuqua

Amazing Stories, March 1939
Isaac Asimov's first published story "Marooned off Vesta" appeared in Amazing Stories, March 1939. In addition to "Raid from Mars" there was also an autobiographical blurb from Asimov in that issue. in which he mentions his favorite story: about an off-shoot of Atlantis, "Drums of Tapajos".

Space Walk
"Marooned off Vesta" reminds me of Asimov's Donovan and Powell stories, which I read long before reading "Marooned off Vesta". What the Donovan and Powell stories had going for them were their robots and some problem arising from the way that the robots had been programmed. In the case of "Marooned off Vesta", the problem of the story is a technical one related to space travel. Rather than show Donovan and Powell struggling with a robot-related problem, "Marooned off Vesta" involves the plight of Moore, Brandon and Shae, three men trapped in the remains of a spaceship after it was hit by a meteor while flying through the asteroid belt. Moore saves the day by getting into a spacesuit and going outside for a spacewalk. In this story, Asimov included details of space travel technology such as an artificial gravity device.

Richard Clayton; interior
art by Julian S. Krupa
"Raid from Mars" is not really concerned with the details of space travel, but in the same issue there was also "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" by Robert Bloch; the "flight" is supposed to be a trip to Mars. Compared to "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton", "Marooned off Vesta" presents an imagined situation on a spaceship that successfully meshes with what we know about space travel from our perspective here in the 21st century. In contrast, "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" reads more like fantasy than science fiction.

I won't try to argue that Asimov, writing in the late 1930s managed to get everything right about space travel and Vesta. Asimov even has one silly scene in which he forgets that sound waves can't be transmitted through the emptiness of outer space. However, "Marooned off Vesta" has the feel of a science fiction story that was written by a nerdy budding scientist. He wrote a warning to the world in his autobiographical blurb: "More stories are on the way!"

Only a few years older than Asimov, Bloch was a writer of fantasy and horror. It might be argued that Asimov's story with a wrecked spaceship and only three survivors from the crew is more horrific than the death of one man in Bloch's story, but I'm not convinced. Bloch was trying to write a horror story while Asimov was writing a futuristic technopuzzle.

I only became interested in the life of Asimov after I decided to include him as a character in the Exode Saga. In trying to understand how Asimov managed to become a scientist and a writer of hard science fiction, it is informative to learn what kind of stories he read and enjoyed as a boy. But also of importance were the stories that he read and disliked.

Future Science Fiction 1955
cover art by Rudolph Belarski
Asimov was appalled by the many stories he read in which robots were depicted as evil clanking destroyers. He came to believe that his positronic robot stories were his greatest contribution to science fiction. Early science fiction stories like "Marooned off Vesta" completely failed to anticipate the role that computers and robots would play in space exploration.

In some sense, Asimov's stories about positronic robots as artificial life helpers of we humans provide science fiction fans with a more satisfying "alternate history" version of the space age than what we actually got in reality. "Marooned off Vesta", as an early Asimov story, feels like it is dull, lifeless and contrived; written to the specifications of an editor who believed that the formula for science fiction stories is to depict something going wrong with technology in the future, something that the clever hero can fix. I suppose Asimov had to write and publish some conventional pulp stories before he could strike out in new directions. Asimov began writing his first robot story three months after "Marooned off Vesta" appeared in print.

It is fun to imagine that in another Reality, Asimov's story about Vesta was one of his robot stories.
Related Reading: Asimov's 1959 sequel to "Marooned off Vesta"
More 2018 Retro-Reading: 1953, 1934, 1929
Retro-Reading from 2017

Next: exploring the fragility of memory in Sci Fi
visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers.

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