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

Next: a new investigation of the Asimov Reality
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