I’ve always had a little difficulty reviewing short story collections – in part because I don’t do it enough to have developed a clear method. So how about this: I’ll give a few words in general, then give some words about each story, then go back to the general again for a conclusion. OK?
Isaac Asimov was indisputably one of the most popular and most influential science fiction authors of the 20th century. He saw his first story published (“Marooned Off Vesta”) in 1939, and continued writing until soon before his death from AIDS in 1992 (he had contracted HIV during cardiac surgery a decade earlier, but doctors insisted his cause of death be kept secret, to protect his family from public villification). Writing most famously for John Campbell’s Astounding (later Analog), he was one of the authors who defined the Golden Age of the sci-fi pulps; but, in his insistence on what he called ‘social science fiction’ – science fiction focused not on the mechanics of a ‘gimmick’, nor on the adventures surrounding the gimmick’s invention, but on the effects a gimmick could have on social structure and on culture – he also lead the way toward what came after. His Foundation Trilogy, a collection of linked short stories, won a one-off Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series”, and his short story “Nightfall”, in this anthology, was voted the greatest ever science fiction story at the Nebulas. His ‘Robots’ stories (he invented the term “robotics”), of robots with “positronic” (another coinage) brains following Three Laws, have been an inspiration for generations not only of authors but of real roboticists. He influenced a generation as a popular science writer, and helped shape the SF genre as an anthology editor. In total, he wrote or edited over 500 books, on a bewildering variety of subjects, and nearly 400 short stories – mostly science fiction (including children’s SF), although he also wrote voluminously in the mystery genre, and sporadically in whimsical fantasy.
Asimov’s career was not homogenous. The bulk of his core SF works in the short story form came in the 1940s and very early 1950s; the 50s began with the three Foundation fix-up novels and the I, Robot anthology/fix-up, and ended with two more major anthologies (Earth is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows); in between he also wrote his three Empire novels and his first two Robots novels, as well as his YA novels, and a handful of his most acclaimed short stories. From the late 1950s on, however, his career was diverted, and other than the occasional story and some editing, he largely put SF aside to concentrate on popular science. In the 1980s, he returned in a major way to SF, with sequels and prequels to his earlier works.
Nightfall was an anthology published in 1969. As such, it basically contains most of the vaguely-worthwhile stories Asimov wrote between 1940 and 1969 that hadn’t already been anthologised. Which, in practice, basically means a bunch of stories from the early 1950s, a few later stragglers, and Nightfall (1941), which Asimov, out of pique, had refused to allow to be anthologised until that point. It’s frankly a peculiar anthology, and an even more peculiar Asimov anthology: since these are the stories that hadn’t fitted in to the themes of his earlier anthologies, essentially all that unites them is that, by Asimov’s standards, they’re odd.
Asimov is famous for writing stories about robots with Three Laws; here there’s only one robot story, and the robots lack the Laws. Asimov notoriously avoided ever writing about aliens, but four or five of these stories have aliens in them. Asimov rarely wrote outright “downers”, preferring happy (if sometimes unsettling) endings, but many if not most of these stories end on a downward note.
Although the stories are all very different, some things can be said about the generality of them. Asimov tends to lead with an unsettling or confusing situation, and follow up with exposition; things like ‘plot’ and ‘characterisation’ take a back seat. He’s also not a great master of prose style; when he gives himself a moment to wax poetical in his descriptions, he’s honestly not bad at it, but that’s not his area of interest, and in general his stories are driven by dialogue. Which unfortunately he had no ear for – and which in any case quickly became dated as styles of speech developed over the years.
The reliance on dialogue, with descriptive passages mostly used to set scenes, clarify actions and bolster the atmosphere here and there, brings to mind a screenplay. And there’s some truth in that. But where many modern writers seem to be writing as though composing some great, sprawling multi-season drama, Asimov’s stories are more in the vein of an anthology show like The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror (indeed, many of his stories have been adapted for such shows). There’s no time (or frankly interest) in meaty, relationship-based drama, or even for expansive action set pieces. Instead, Asimov’s general modus operandi is to construct a situation and an atmosphere – and most often finish on some mildly unsettling twist. The result is underwhelming if you’re expecting Game of Thrones – that’s not what he’s aiming for. Instead, Asimov is writing stories people can read on their morning commute, that will stay latched in the back of their brain uncomfortably for the rest of the day.
That said, how do these particular stories measure up?
- Nightfall (1941 – Astounding)
If the stars should emerge one night in a thousand years…
With his iconic Nightfall, Asimov begins with a bang – or rather, with a slow but consuming fire. Asimov, ironically, never felt Nightfall was his best work, and indeed was rather irritated to be told so, again and again – he wrote the damn thing when he was 21, after all, and would have liked to have thought he’d learnt something since then. That’s probably why, although it’s the story that made his career, he didn’t allow it in his earlier anthologies. And to be honest, Asimov might be right. It’s probably not the best SF story ever, and it may very well not even be Asimov’s own high water mark.
But you know what? It’s still pretty darn good. Even going in to this knowing exactly what happens, and knowing it’s so ridiculously hyped, I was still pleasantly surprised. It’s hard to say why, exactly. The core of it is just a really great concept, but beyond that I think the execution is very accomplished: Asimov builds the claustrophobic tension up at almost exactly the right rate, until the final explosion, allowing no real moments of slack. Ironically, the dialogue has to bear the weight of so much infodumping that Asimov’s weakness with dialogue is obviated – there’s no spare room for him to go wrong in. Likewise, the events depicted and the scenario explained are so gripping that they don’t need the help of any long descriptive passages, and there’s no time to go deep into character. Indeed, Asimov manages to sketch out his characters quite clearly, and uses them to effectively hammer home the stakes of his story. And that story is – while superficially unlike anything else he ever wrote – in its own way a perfect distillation of what he was trying to do as a writer. It’s situationally minimalist, perfectly Aristotelian – almost all the action takes place in two adjoining rooms, in something not far away from real time – but conceptually rich, with images and concepts that pluck at the emotions and tease the intellect. Everything spins out of Asimov’s conception of ‘social science fiction’ – the core concept of the piece is a simple astronomical speculation, but the story itself is about how this society, from whose eyes we see, has been shaped by and reacts to that speculative scenario. It’s a very specific what-if, that also manages to feel as though it has universal relevance. [It reminds me at times of a trend in Stephen Moffat’s Dr Who stories, in which ordinary things, like blinking, become primally fearful – here, we are reminded of why we all start out afraid of the dark]. It’s a spare piece of worldbuilding in which nothing is wasted, but which still creates the feel of a world outside itself (readers who want more can read Silverberg’s novelisation).
Is it perfect? I guess not. Some dialogue is a bit out-of-date (but then again, these are all aliens speaking!); a more experienced author might have been able to edit it a little, particularly tightening up the first few pages. Maybe a less youthfully enthusiastic author might have made deeper cuts to up the pace – but maybe that wouldn’t have been a good idea. Maybe, relying more on dread than on thrills, it needs that slow, deliberate drumbeat of a pace. I don’t know. To be honest, whether you love it or not, it’s hard to give concrete, uncontroversial examples of ways it could be improved (other than by replacing everything and writing a different story), beyond a little polishing – and that’s usually the sign of a really good story. There’s even a beautiful symmetry between the experience of reading the story and the experiences of the characters experiencing it…
Because indeed, “Nightfall” is a gem. I mean that – it feels like one of those stories that must have just landed in the author’s head one morning, perfectly formed in all its details. I don’t honestly know if the gem is a diamond or only a ruby, but it’s a gem – and sometimes you’d rather take a well-cut ruby over a heap of unshaped diamond.
The story may not deserve its legendary title as the greatest of all works of science fiction; but it’s a story from 1941 that still (the odd cobwebbed word aside) feels just as relevant, just as fascinating, today, and that’s no mean feat – and it’s a story that still deserves its place in anthologies of the genre.
- Green Patches (1950 – Galaxy)
The second expedition to Saybrook’s Planet hopes to avoid the fate of the first. To that end, its human crew is entirely male, and its holds are filled with female animals, monitored night and day. But why are humans so warped, so damaged, to want to avoid the best of all possible fates?
“Green Patches” is no “Nightfall”; it doesn’t try to be. It’s not perfectly-formed; it’s odd, and accidental. Its also only half the length – but although it maybe could be longer, it makes its brevity work in its favour. There’s not actually a lot of depth in the scenario here – just an infectious idea and a little practical suspense – and Asimov wisely tries to break in, deposit the unquiet thought, and get back out again before he outstays his welcome. Much of the success of this story comes from the way Asimov is willing to consider both sides of the question, giving us half the story from the “villain’s” point of view, and using that point of view as a way to recontextualise the oddities of human nature. Tellingly, although (perhaps influenced by the politics of his day) he more or less comes down on one side here, he revisted variants of the scenario twice in the 1980s (in Nemesis and in Foundation’s Edge) in a much more welcoming way.
“Green Patches” isn’t a story that’s going to blow anyone’s mind – particularly today, when every aspect has been worn thin by imitators (most recently, by Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2…). You wouldn’t build an anthology around it. But as an interesting and atmospheric, not that long, piece, it’s a really effective little story.
- Hostess (1951 – Galaxy)
As an academic biochemist, Rose Smollett is a career woman in a man’s world. And she has some questions to consider. Why, for example, is a hay-eating alien medical researcher visiting Earth all alone? Why does he want to stay at her house? Why does he want to visit the Missing Persons Bureau? Why is her husband being so boorish about it all? And why DID he marry her, anyway?
John Campbell insisted that when his Astounding writers write stories about aliens, they must make clear that humans are unique and racially superior (an ideology that has remained ubiquitous in most SF ever since). As a result, Asimov generally refused to write about aliens. But for “Hostess”, published in the eighth issue of H.L. Gold’s new, rival Galaxy (which quickly rose to lead the field), he took on Campbell’s prejudices head-on. “Hostess” is a story about a human race that is indeed unique among the galaxy’s intelligent species… in a rather unsettling way. It’s also an inversion of Asimov’s usual practice of ignoring women (though far from the first – it came a decade after the introduction of his most famous female character, Dr Susan Calvin, heroine of his robot stories) – “Hostess” is as much about Rose’s awkward home life as it is about aliens. To the modern eye, it’s all a little bit patronising – could Asimov not realise that thousands of years from now, a woman having a job would be so commonplace it wasn’t worth mentioning? In the USA in 1951, however, going as far as this was already rather radically feminist for the pulp fiction market. And there are a few amusing/disheartening moments of continued relevance – such as when Rose’s husband remembers that oh, didn’t she do something relevant to something he’s interested in, and maybe could understand the issue?
He said, as though making a discovery, ‘Why, you’re an expert in this!’
Was she? Did he find that out only now that he needed her? Her nostrils flared and she said flatly, ‘I am a biologist’.
He said, ‘Yes, I know that, but I mean your particular specialty is growth. Didn’t you once tell me you had done work on growth?’
‘You might call it that. I’ve had twenty papers published on the relationship of nucleic acid fine structure and embryonic development on my Cancer Society grant.’
[Asimov’s sympathy for those being patronised in this way may also, of course, have had a personal edge: he was, after all, a mere science fiction scribbler in the public mind, though at the time of writing this story he too, like his heroine, was an academic biochemistry researcher in his day job]
In any case, the feminist angle adds an interesting, if rather dated, twist to an otherwise creepy but over-intellectual story. It has some interesting ideas about the nature of humanity, but they’re muffled by an overly talk-y plot that doesn’t really get going until just before it ends. The result is an interesting piece for fans of the era, genre or author, but not a must-read for the general public.
- Breeds There A Man… ? (1951 – Astounding)
Elwood Ralson, noted atomic engineer, does not want to kill himself. But he may not have a choice – because there are some truths in the universe that man was never meant to know…
Asimov’s intro to this story remarks on the effect of the first atomic bombs on science fiction: hipster disdain. How dare reality start having cool things like nuclear apocalypses – SF authors had been into them WAY before they were physically possible! But after the initial feeling of being burgled by reality, many SF writers responded by shifting away from the far-future, spaceships-and-aliens stories that had been the mainstay of the Golden Age, and toward what Asimov disparagingly called “tomorrow fiction” – science fiction that only projects into tomorrow what is already coming into being today. It was a genre Asimov had little interest in – hardly any of his stories are set less than a century in the future, which may be one reason they often still feel relevant – but one notable exception was this story (which also, incidentally, begins this anthology’s theme of collecting stories with titles trailing off mid…)
It’s a story that is in some ways very unlike Asimov; but it’s an oddness that helps clarify a recurring theme. That is: if there’s one theme linking most of the stories in this anthology, it’s that they’re secretly, surreptitiously, horror stories. Nightfall, Green Patches and Hostess would all be horror stories if simply written from a different angle – but Breeds There A Man…? goes further. Breeds There A Man…? is one of the best H.P. Lovecraft stories that H.P. Lovecraft never wrote.
There are, of course, no tentacles. And no folklore. Indeed, the suggestion of a similarity between the two authors seems, on the face of it, absurd. Lovecraft, the arch-conservative with the baroque diction, screaming about the dangers of knowledge, fixated on dark woods and little villages; Asimov, the liberal with functionalist prose, exploring the wonders of science in a world of space travel and world-cities. But… if you take the colder, calmer Lovecraft of The Colour Out Of Space, and the brooding Asimov of Breeds There A Man…?, suddenly a lot of similarities appear.
That said, the story itself is not brilliant. It misses at least two possible better endings (that Lovecraft would have spotted) – Asimov never had the instinct to cut deep that good horror needs. And, like a lot of his stories, it feels perhaps too long (my back-of-envelope estimates suggest that Nightfall, Hostess, Breeds There A Man…? and the following C-Chute are all in the 13-17k word-count range, easily novelettes and pushing the lower limit of a novella) – while that length is in some ways necessary in creating the slowly horrifying atmosphere, there’s still a feeling that the destination doesn’t really justify the journey, particularly because, as with many Lovecraft stories, the concept itself is underwhelming and (unusually for Asimov) bettered by the execution.
That said, Breeds There A Man…? is an uneasy and interesting story that offers another side of Asimov, and that might well appeal to fans from beyond ‘proper’ science fiction.
- C-Chute (1951 – Galaxy)
Five men remain on a captured starship, waiting for imprisonment on the alien homeworld. Each has their own desperate reason to escape and to return home to Earth – but can any reason be powerful enough when only an act of heroism can save the day?
Another alien star wars story, of the kind popular in the era, but that Asimov never wrote. The real surprise, however, is how he goes about writing it. The subgenre is generally high in derring-do and action, and low in characterisation and description, and that should suit Asimov to a tee, because characterisation and description are two things he’s not interested in.
Except that he decided to take on this genre by… minimising the action, magnifying the claustrophobia, and concentrating on character and description!
The former is hit-or-miss. The five men are all broad stereotypes, and the ‘blustery old English colonel’ type in particular is at times painful in his thinness; but the story is rescued, even made to stand out, but Stuart’s cliché-but-well-drawn bitter cynic, and Mullen’s inscrutable accountant. The characters are the heart of the piece, not novel perhaps, but nonetheless relatable.
Yet the strength of the story lies, strangely, in its descriptive passages, particularly in the second half, where Asimov takes the tropes of these spaceship-dramas and writes a scene we’ve all seen a dozen times in SF shows on TV, but subjects it to the cold light (or darkness) of physics, and somehow makes the result more beautiful and intimidating in the process.
The lack of development of secondary characters, the slenderness of the actual plot, and some really clunky dialogue prevent C-Chute from being a truly great story; but it’s a story worth reading nonetheless, because what it gets right, it gets really right.
- ‘In a Good Cause – ’ (1951, New Tales of Space and Time)
In a good cause, there are no failures; imprisonment, even execution, are only forms of delayed success. Human planets are engulfed in continual internecine conflict, while the hay-eating Diaboli construct a vast, homogenous, empire; one man stands up to unify mankind.
‘In a Good Cause –’ is a story that, accidentally (he claims) directly goes against Asimov’s own beliefs; that, indeed, is it’s chief virtue. It’s a story with a lot going for it: an almost epic passage of time, big ideological clashes, and a fantastic twist ending; but none of it would work if it didn’t have the edge of a confession of doubt – an ideological man recognising the potential limitations of his own perspective. That’s what leaves that ending feeling poignent and unsettling, rather than blasé and triumphalist.
Unfortunately, the ambition of the story outpaces the time and attention given to it. The key incidents that make up the story are perfunctorily conveyed, the broader worldbuilding that is needed to provide the stakes is lacking, and so, so much is conveyed through as-you-know-Bob infodumps and political lectures. That it works at all is an accomplishment – and it does, in a way, work. But there’s a great story to be told here, and this telling is no more than good.
Ironically, this was a commission with only one request: the story needed a happy ending. This is one of the most tragic happy endings you’re likely to find in a short story…
- What If – (1952 – Fantastic)
A man and his wife meet a very peculiar stranger on a train, and consider an unusual question: what if their own meeting on public transport years before had not gone as it did? Would their lives be different?
As I’ve said already, this is a collection of stories that are atypical for Asimov – and few more so than this! ‘What If –’ is a whimsical fantasy story, a pure romance, about ordinary people in the modern world. One day, Asimov and his wife were on a train together, and to pass the time his wife dared him to make up a story about the journey they were on. This is the result (at least, the resulting story was typed up and presumably edited a little to produce this).
Given its origins, and how out of Asimov’s usual skillset it is, it’s actually surprisingly good. But that’s not really saying much. It’s pleasant, and rather sweet, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about either its execution or its ideas.
Of course, it doesn’t help that what might have been a striking idea in 1952 – revisiting the alternate timelines arising from a single decision – has been so thoroughly mined by imitators in the intervening years. It’s not even the only alternate-timeline romcom story with a point-of-divergence centred on public transport!
[There’s a cringeworthy but historically illuminating remark in the intro, that explains why Asimov generally has few female characters: “Sometimes I do have women in my stories. On rare occasions, as in ‘Hostess’, the woman is even the protagonist. But even then romance is a minor factor”. In Asimov’s era, the presence of women in a story (at least in the popular press) was assumed to indicate automatically that this was to be a romance story – why else would a woman be mentioned? It’s important to bear in mind however that at the time this was a commercial demand from female, as well as male, readers…]
- Sally (1953 – Fantastic)
When an intelligent car is past its prime, some owners don’t want to send it to the scrapheap. Instead, they send it to live on a farm upstate. There, a custodian looks after them, repairs them, upgrades them, admires them. Most beautiful of them all is Sally…
Nothing, as the saying goes, ages faster than the future. Science fiction has a way of rapidly becoming dated. Occasionally, however, a story can actually become more relevant as time goes by, and ‘Sally’ is one of them, not just because this is a moment in which autonomous vehicles are transfering from science fiction into commercial fact, but because we live in the era of #MeToo (an era in which, it should not go without mention, some of Dr Asimov’s own public behaviour has been found sadly wanting). ‘Sally’ is not a story about sexual harassment and consent; but as Asimov knew, the best stories are the ones that evoke resonances without having to overtly address them; and perhaps now more than at any point in the past, the line ‘a car with a sense of privacy shouldn’t go around with its top down’ can really resonate with all the icky echoes that Asimov intended.
(and if there are questions about what Asimov intended – well, the intro to the story is a condemnation of armchair psychologists thinking that they can see through his stories into his psyche. It’s a waste of effort, Asimov says, because “none of that was put in by my unconscious mind. It was all carefully and deliberately inserted by my conscious mind, because I wanted to.”)
In any case, ‘Sally’ may not be an ambitious story – it’s a near-future (and hilariously wrong) setting, and its themes are perfectly familiar (though some are unusual for Asimov). But it is a beautifully-formed story – there’s an actual plot and not too much dialogue, and there’s just enough thematic and worldbuilding detail to disconcert without over-explaining.
- Flies (1953 – F&SF)
Three men meet again at a college reunion: a priest in search of meaning, a jaded expert on animal communication, and a bitter insecticide researcher plagued perpetually by flies. Perhaps there are some things man was never meant to know…
Asimov always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about style. He was continually told he was ‘not a stylist’ by reviewers, and admitted freely that he actually had no idea how to write stories, never having had any education in the matter whatsoever. As a result, he was anxious about his first submission to the new F&SF, which had quickly developed a reputation for ‘stylish’ stories.
From that anxiet sprang ‘Flies’, a story that is all style and no substance. It sees Asimov return to the Lovecraftian well of bitterness and the cruel jokes of the uncaring universe – bitter and jaded were what passed for ‘style’ in the fifties – but on a scale so petty as to make the whole thing an accidental self-parody. The value in the story – other than seeing the misanthropic side of Asimov more clearly than almost anywhere else – is in the writing, as he forced himself to focus on characterisation and to deliver a string of bitter, jaded, epigrammatic observations. The problem is, while there are a lot of quotable lines in this story, the unremitting succession of them, paired to an almost complete lack of any actual story, quickly becomes tiresome. It’s a good display of what Asimov could do… but also an argument for why he was right to rarely do it…
- ‘Nobody Here But – ’ (1953 – Star Science Fiction Stories)
Bill Billings is a handsome, intelligent electrical engineer with a problem: he just can’t pluck up the courage to propose to the feisty Mary Ann! Also, less importantly, he’s just called his friend Cliff at their computer lab and had a conversation with him… even though Cliff was on the way to Bill’s house at the time… *DUN DUN DUUUUNNNNN*
“‘Nobody Here But – ’” is a total mess. What readers need to work out quickly is, it’s meant to be. The key context is provided by Asimov in his intro, where he talks about the character of the ‘big lug’ or ‘big galoot’ popular in films of the day: a man tall, lean, strong, handsome, and fearless, and invariably semi-attached to a feisty heroine frustrated by the big lug’s inability to propose to her (in this story, she expresses her love by, for example, stamping on his feet – women in the 50s weren’t allowed to be more explicit in their emotions than that)*. Asimov, unlike many of his contemporaries, never wrote characters like that – except just this once. The result of this is essentially a parody of a 1950s B-movie: the characters are ridiculous, the science insane, and the events just silly. As a parody, however, it’s actually not bad – utterly disposable, but passably amusing.
*Asimov notes in the intro that such pairings in reality invariably provoke onlookers to ask what on earth a woman could see in someone with no great intellectual virtues. He actually addressed that prejudice more directly in “Hostess”, where he notes the double standard: an intelligent professional man can marry a beautiful young woman of little academic attainment and nobody blinks twice, but when an intelligent woman – an academic, for instance – marries a man who is not her intellectual equal, society reacts with horror and bafflement. How could a woman (the sex motivated, at least in America, only by the higher spiritual and emotional passions) possibly be attracted to a male representing, as it were, an intellectually lower life-form?
- It’s Such a Beautiful Day (1954 – Star Science Fiction Stories)
One morning, Mrs Hanshaw’s teleporter develops a fault. This has a terrible psychological impact on her son.
A very attractive little story, and a prime example of the ‘social science fiction’ approach. Forget the mechanics of teleportation, or even the philosophy: what does it do to the psychology? The un-Asimovian element here is simply that a teleporter failure could be entertained as anything other than a catastrophe – Asimov hated the outdoors almost to the point of agoraphobia, and a teleporter would be a wonderful contraption for him.
The story is straightforward, the pleasure being in the unpacking of the concept, rather than the concept itself, and there are some evocative passages. However, the what-if is shallow, its consequences predictable and far from radical, and the story itself lacks any particular twist, or really any stakes, and at nearly 30 pages it feels like it’s sustaining too little for too long. It’s a story that’s unobjectionable in terms of what it does – and I can see why people might list it as a favourite – but that, in my opinion, is disappointing in what it doesn’t do.
- Strikebreaker (1957 – The Original Science Fiction Stories)
On the asteroid-world of Elsevere, the society is happy. But to what extent can the happiness, indeed the very safety, of society be permitted to rely on the unhappiness of even one man?
Asimov was surprised this wasn’t a hit. On the surface, you can see why: interesting setting; important and (perpetually) relevant political issues. The final piece, however, is missing something. Perhaps it’s just too conceptually complicated – Le Guin had a greater impact, for example, isolating out just one element of this thought experiment. This version, by contrast, is tied up in questions of pragmatism and idealism, castes and taboos, the moral position of anthropologists, industrial relations, the nature of harm and so forth. It makes it a very interesting story, for its length, but perhaps saps some of its impact. I also think that, while Asimov found a clever ending, he failed to find the even cleverer double twist that the story is crying out for. As a result, “Strikebreaker” is a very worthy story, but not a must-read.
Mention must be made, incidentally, of the title. It’s striking, no pun intended, and it’s descriptive, and it’s Asimov’s original intended title. Now, not all his stories made it to print with their original titles – “Green Patches”, for instance, was originally published as “Misbegotten Missionary”. It happens. But “Strikebreaker” has a great claim to fame: perhaps the stupidest name-change in publishing history. The editor disliked the name “Strikebreaker”, and instead insisted it be renamed to… “Male Strikebreaker”. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for this in the story. [he is indeed male, as is almost everybody else in the story, but this is not in any way relevant to the plot]. Possibly the idea of strikebreaking was so controversial that he felt audiences needed to be soothed by a comforting reminder of masculinity? Asimov, in any case, quite rightly re-imposed the original title whenever he could.
- Insert Knob A in Hole B (1957 – F&SF)
If only there were some way around the limitations of flat-pack, self-assembled space infrastucture. Some way that could be narrated in 350 words or fewer…
The structure of a short story is often very similar to the structure of the joke. Lengthen the joke, or shorten the story, and the line between the two becomes blurred. And this is a very short story.
It’s a short, short story because Asimov wrote it live on television one day, and didn’t have much time.
For a story so short, and written in such a hurry, it’s rather good – but of course, the limitations of its creation mean that it can’t be more than a well-written joke.
- The Up-to-Date Sorceror (1958 – F&SF)
What if Gilbert and Sullivan’s first full-length operetta had a slightly different ending? A professor invents a love potion.
Not being enough of a Gilbert and Sullivan fan to recognise the in-jokes, this is an unobjectionable but rather pointless story for me.
- Unto the Fourth Generation (1959 – F&SF)
Somebody keeps seeing variations on the same surname one day. Jewish things happen.
This is apparently Asimov’s only “Jewish story”. Very little happens, and then everything suddenly takes a sharp left turn for no reason. Not being Jewish, I feel I’m missing about 50% of the story. I actually quite like the effect, like reading genuine folk tales: things follow a logic that may make sense within a particular culture, but that seem sudden and unmotivated to the external observer.
- What is this Thing Called Love? (1961 – Amazing)
Hapless aliens abduct two humans and attempt to observe their mating rituals – their knowledge of which derives entirely from 1930s erotic science fiction stories about aliens abducting humans and observing their mating rituals
First published as “Playboy and the Slime God”, this is a complicated, multi-tiered parody. See, Playboy wanted to write an article parodising the sexuality of science fiction; but this was very difficult because, as Asimov notes, prior to the 1960s, no genre of fiction “save perhaps the children’s stories printed in Sunday School bulletins” was as puritanical as sci-fi. So Playboy discovered a little-read semi-pornographic sci-fi magazine that ran for a few issues in 1938 and 1939, and pretended it represented all of science fiction. Asimov, in turn, wrote a parody of the parody, which is also a parody of the target of the orginal parody.
Weirdly, it works. Sex and humour are two areas of weakness for Asimov, but somehow, putting both of them together here works fantastically – probably because for once he lets the humour of his scenario speak for itself, and limits himself to a deadpan flippancy that he’s actually pretty good at (and because any cliché moments in dialogue and characterisation are justifiable through appeal to parody). The result is certainly not a surprising work – you can work out most of the jokes yourself from the description – but it’s a fun one, that takes a timeless scenario and does very well with it. I couldn’t help noticing the fore-echoes here of The Simpsons – if Kang and Kodos abducted Marge and Homer to ‘observe’ them, the result could well be something like this.
Nobody’s likely to come away thinking that Asimov was one of the great comedians of the century, but it’s a smile-inducing twenty pages of silliness.
- The Machine That Won the War (1961 – F&SF)
The great computing machine, Multivac, has finally won the war against the evil Denebians. Which is surprising, because, as the Chief Programer and Chief Interpreter of the machine discuss with the Executive Director of the Solar Federation, the process has a number of small flaws…
This story is not actively awful. It makes some nice points and is moderately amusing. That said, it’s just three people sitting around infodumping at one another, with no characterisation or worldbuilding or plot, and not a lot of overt humour either. It’s the sort of story that gets put into the rear pages of an anthology to fill up some pages – nobody objects, but nobody particularly celebrates either. It’s worth reading, if you happen to have the book open in front of you anyway.
- My Son, the Physicist (1962 – Scientific American)
I’m not going to dignify this one with a tease…
Even if you have the book open in front of you anyway, this story is not worth reading. It’s execrable. Its greatest virtue is its brevity. It can claim a moderately interesting technical idea – but it’s just a moderately interesting technical idea attached to a sexist, Jewish-mother cartoon.
The most interesting thing about it is actually its copyright notice – copyright was held by an electronics company, because it was published originally not as a story per se, but as a covert advert: the company commissioned sci-fi stories tangentially related to telecommunications (their market area), and ran them as double-page spreads, with one column set aside as the actual advert for the company. It’s a creative advertising strategy, particularly for the sixties, but apparently it didn’t really work.
- Eyes Do More Than See (1965 – F&SF)
A model of a head; parts are labelled
As with several of the later stories in this collection, written after Asimov had turned from fiction to a popular science career, this story came not from his own creative impulses but from a commission. In this case, it was commissioned by Playboy, one of three stories to accompany an unusual photograph. It was, however, rejected – “with muscular vigour”, as he puts it – and was instead sold to F&SF.
It’s a strange story – I gather opinions on it vary from “it’s one of Asimov’s greatest stories” through to “it’s absolute rubbish”, and I can see both sides of the argument. It all rests on, on the one hand, what you want out of a story, and, on the other, your tastes in prose. This is probably the closest Asimov gets to poetry, and personally, I think I really like it. But if you’re a hardcore genre reader, who wants sensible science and a clear plot and functional writing, then this little prose-poem will seem like a waste of time to you. On the other hand, if you’re a serious literary fan, for whom the juxtaposition of science-fiction scenarios and terminologies with a somewhat purple prose-poetic style is just inherently ridiculous to the point of offensiveness, you’re going to be contemptuous of the decline of western civilisation as represented by this offal. Personally, as someone horribly unfashionably middlebrow, I find it a moving, elegaic little meditation that’s more than worth the handful of pages it takes up. But your mileage may vary.
- Segregationist (1967 – Abbottempo)
A surgeon has some reservations about the operation they are to perform
Another fascinatingly-commissioned piece: this one, first published in a free glossy magazine distributed only among the medical community of Europe, effectively as advertising for a pharmaceutical firm. The story is also notable for its incredible timeliness – it was written before, but published immediately after, the first heart transplants, and shortly before passage of the Civil Rights Act in the US.
As a story it’s… well, its virtues are its vices. That is: it’s an extremely sparse, minimal story, conveyed almost entirely in a series of dialogues over a small number of pages, with virtually no description or characterisation or worldbuilding beyond the very limited scenario with which it deals. That’s a vice, because it means it’s a shallow, limited story that’s also somewhat dull. But it’s also a virtue, because it means it’s a taut, focused story that delivers its core scenario and does not overstay its welcome with undue ornamentation.
SO! Many, many words later, what can we say overall?
Nightfall and Other Stories is at times a frustrating collection. It’s likely to be the first thing of Asimov’s that many people read, but that’s probably not a good thing – it serves better as a collection that gives the reader a more rounded, more interesting impression of Asimov’s career, without containing much of what most makes him distinctive and acclaimed. The length and quality of the stories both decline throughout the anthology, reflecting Asimov’s turn from “science fiction author” to “popular science author who occasionally wrote science fiction stories because people nagged him to” – notably, although there are 20 stories in this collection, the first five stories alone make up about half the page-count, and the final eight make up only a quarter or so.
Where would I rank the stories individually? Well, I wouldn’t call any of them genuine, absolute must-reads, that I’d recommend to any reader. Some, however, are clear should-reads, particularly for anyone with an interest in the genre.
I think if I were compiling an anthology, I’d rank them this way…
“Nightfall”, for all the hype, remains a story that needs to be in any ‘best of’ Asimov anthology, and that would be an appropriate addition to any general SF anthology at all. And although it’s shallower and more conventional, I’d include the punchy and polished “Sally” in that category as well.
In the second tier, “Breeds There A Man…?” and “Green Patches” are fine stories that just don’t quite hit home in my opinion, but other readers may disagree.
“Strikebreaker”, “Hostess”, “C-Chute” and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” have more flaws; they might hit it off with a particular reader, or they might miss entirely. They’d certainly be worth considering for an Asimov anthology, however.
Three further stories – “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, “Insert Knob A in Hole B” and “Eyes Do More Than See” would also be worth anthologising, less for their literary ‘quality’ and more just for being fun and not that long.
Any out of “The Machine That Won the War”, “Segregationist”, “In a Good Cause”, “What If”, and in the right mood “Nobody Here But” are back-catalogue works that could be used to fill any remaining pages in an anthology. I feel I’ve gained by having read them; but I don’t feel I’d have lost much if I hadn’t.
“Flies”, “The Up-to-Date Sorceror” and “Unto the Fourth Generation” aren’t entirely without value, but will mostly be of interest to completists, or people really in to the relevant subgenres.
“My Son, the Physicist” will probably be of interest to nobody but serious Asimov scholars.
Finally, we should also touch on the other content here: Asimov’s intros to the stories. I feel that these are generally worthwhile – some offer useful or just interesting context, others are just amusing – but I can’t honestly say that they’re essential.
And where does that leave the anthology as a whole? I find it, as I started out by saying, difficult to review anthologies. Do you go by the strength of the strongest story, or of the weakest? Cumulative strength? Average strength – in which case, average by number of stories, or by page count (because in this case, average quality per page is much higher than average quality per story, because the better stories are longer)? Or maybe an anthology can be better even than the sum of its parts?
Well, is this anthology “Brilliant”? No. I reserve “brilliant” for all-time classics that I feel everybody should read. Nothing here hits that level.
“Very Good”? By this, I mean broadly something that’s a must-read for fans of the genre, and that I’d recommend for sympathetic non-genre readers too. You could maybe argue that “Nightfall” is in this category, but it’s certainly not sustained throughout the book.
“Good”? To me, a “good” book is above par, not just OK but better than that – a book I might well recommend to non-genre fans, and that I’d certainly recommend to genre fans. A bunch of stories here certainly reach that threshold, but many others don’t.
“Not Bad”? A “not bad” book is a solid piece in its genre, likely to please the right fans, but unlikely to convert many outside its target audience. I think, on balance, this is the proper level for this anthology. I think if I recommended this book, it would probably be on the basis of “there are some stories here you might like… and I guess you could read the others too”. It’s a vehicle for some good stories, but I’m not convinced it’s a good book as a whole – too much of it is basically filler. If you took out half the book and filled it with stories from other Asimov anthologies, you’d certainly have something ‘Good’, if not ‘Very Good’. But that’s not what you’ve got here.
So… on balance, 4/7. Not Bad. But the individual stories do have quite a range.