I bought this book fourteen years ago during an especially gluttonous trip to a book sale not long after my youngest was born. It would have been the autumn after my mother’s diagnosis and but, what, four months before her death? Eleven months before our move to Springfield? A long time ago, to be sure, but sometimes (often) books languish on the to-read shelves for decades. I got 94 books that weekend, and I wondered if this was the first of that lot that I read. Apparently not, as I have already read:
- The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant
- 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America by Bernard Goldberg
- A Friend Forever by Susan Polis Schults
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
- The First Immortal by James L. Helperin
- The Legend That Was Earth by James P. Hogan
- You Can’t Get There From Here by Ogden Nash
- Fatherhood by Bill Cosby
I also started Linda Chavez’s Betrayal for one of the library reading challenges this year in the Hispanic author category, but I didn’t get too far into it because the early 2000s concern about the power of unions in politics seems a little quaint now.
So, at any rate, this book collects nine short stories from Asimov’s magazine work in the 1950s. We’ve got:
- “I Just Make Them Up, See!”, a poem about where he gets his ideas.
- “Profession”, wherein future humans get tested for professions and get instantly trained for them, but one young man is told he cannot be taught this way, so he goes to a special home where the residents learn from books. Later, he learns that this is not without status, but has the highest status of all, as he can think creatively.
- “The Feeling of Power”–in the far future, a lowly technician has a weird hobby–doing math by hand–and he is brought before the elites who do not believe that a mere human can replicate the magic of computers. The story was very familiar to me, and I thought that I might have recently read it. Well, when you get to my age, recently can be 8 years ago.
- “The Dying Night”, a murder mystery wherein one of a trio of astronomers who have been stationed off-planet has killed an old classmate who apparently learned the secret of teleportation.
- “I’m in Marsport Without Hilda” wherein a secret agent of sorts is on Mars without his wife. He plans an assignation with a local woman, but he’s roped into an assignment looking into drug-running.
- “The Gentle Vultures”–a spacefaring race that generally swoops in to help societies after their nuclear wars in exchange for tribute grows frustrated as Earth’s nuclear war has not occurred.
- “All the Troubles of the World”, a young boy is sent on a series of tasks ultimately designed to destroy the super-powerful computer, and the ultimate planner who almost leads him to success turns out to be the computer itself.
- “Spell My Name with an S”–a scientist goes to see a “numerologist” to become successful, and the numerologist suggests he spell his name with an S–which leads to a series of investigations and events that averts a nuclear war and leads to a plumb professor position.
- “The Last Question”, wherein mankind asks Multivac and its successors how to reverse entropy, and the far-evolved computer ultimately does. I’d read this story as a young man, and I’ve remembered the last twist since then.
- “The Ugly Little Boy”, wherein a company has learned to create a stasis field that can grab something from the past and maintain it in the present. They demonstrate by grabbing a neanderthal child, and they bring in a nurse to help with the child. Over time, as their funding and success grows, the boy becomes less important to the company.
- “Rejection Slips”, a poem about rejection slips. I bet my collection dwarfs Dr. Asimov’s.
So great classic science fiction. A lot of worry about nuclear annihilation that we don’t tend to fear as much since the 1980s. But imaginative and quick to read.
I marked a couple of things. The first was the main character in “Profession” is named George, and it mentioned that he grew out of “Jaw-jee” and into the monosyllabic “George,” which made me think about how I pronounce the name. I guess it’s a dipthong, eeor, and technically that’s one syllable, but it feels like it should be two.
In “I’m In Marsport Without Hilda”, I got an allusion:
Of course, the one I wanted might be the first one I touched. One chance out of three. I’d have one out and only God can make a three.
That’s a pun based on the movie Groundhog Day. Asimov was so future-sighted, he made an allusion to a film that would be made forty years in the future!
Just kidding. It’s from a Joyce Kilmer poem, as I am sure you remember.
I liked the book, and, man, am I reading the science fiction short stories this year or what (the rest are the James Blish Star Trek books, but still).
And please remind me, if anyone were to ask me whom I would invite to dinner if I could invite anyone living or dead to dinner, that after my departed family, I should choose Isaac Asimov.