Saturday, June 19, 2021

Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity; The Gods Themselves; The Complete Robot; Robot Dreams; Nightfall and Other Stories


Opening Passages: Since three of the works are short story anthologies, I'll just give the opening passages for the other two. From The End of Eternity:

Andrew Harlan stepped into the kettle. Its sides were perfectly round and it fit snugly inside a vertical shaft composed of widely spaced rods that shimmered into an unseeable haze six feet above Harlan's head. Harlan set the controls and moved the smoothly working starting lever. (p. 7)

From The Gods Themselves:

"No good," said Lamont, sharply. I didn't get anywhere." He had a brooding look about him that went with his deep-set eyes and the slight asymmetry of his long chin. There was a brooding look about him at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. His second formal interview with Hallam had been a greater fiasco than the first. (p.3)

Summary: In The End of Eternity, Andrew Harlan is a brilliant member of Eternity, a time-travel organization established at some point in our future (the 27th century, to be exact) that is capable of shifting through the centuries by means of a time machine, called a 'kettle', powered by our sun's nova at the end of its life. (We now know that our sun is not actually large enough to nova; the lower limit for a star to have mass enough to nova is a bit less than one and a half times the size of our sun. But it still makes for good story.) The Eternals are nominally an organization for allowing trading of essential items through time; that is the guise under which they interact with those centuries with which they interact. However, their real work is choosing among alternative Realities; if you can move through the centuries, you can change the later centuries by manipulating the prior centuries, and although doing this with any precision is difficult, Eternity has a great deal of practice at it. The Eternals guide their work on broadly utilitarian principles, aiming at avoiding large-scale suffering.

Several themes are interwoven throughout the work. (1) Manipulating Realities is shown to be quite damaging to the psyche, in that it degrades one's attitudes toward and relations with other people. Harlan's status as someone directly involved in this leaves him isolated, vulnerable, and resentful, creating a crisis that will put put himself and everyone else at great risk. (2) The Eternals, despite messing with Realities, fail to know a great many things about them. For instance, they can pass through the centuries all the way to the end of the solar system, and know that the human race consistently has gone extinct by the 150,000th century. They do not know why, however, because they know nothing about the centuries from 70,000 to 150,000 -- they can access the Eternity stations at those centuries, but they are somehow prevented from leaving them. (3) Over and over again throughout the centuries, in every Reality, societies reinvent the technology for real space travel. However, over and over again this technology leads to inevitable wars and conflicts, so the Eternals repeatedly change Reality to erase the technology from existence. One of the implications of the book is that the Eternals are, despite their intention, actively harming humanity by this particular manipulation; the suggestion is that perhaps the human heart longs not for Eternity but for Infinity, so much so that we must seek it out even at the cost of great suffering. (4) There is a mystery at the heart of Eternity, beside these things, which structure the story as an early form of time-loop story; the structure is handled quite cleverly, although after so many decades of time-loop stories since, not in a way that would startle anyone today. It is nicely done enough, however, that it is not surprising that The End of Eternity was one of the novels for which Asimov was originally most famous, for a long time a very popular one for book clubs and science fiction libraries -- and still perhaps my favorite science fiction time-travel story.

The Gods Themselves is about progress despite -- and sometimes because of -- stupidity. We begin in media res -- the first chapter is chapter 6, and we come back to earlier chapters later -- with Frederick Hallam lionized as the greatest scientist ever to have lived, having singlehandedly solved all energy problems with an inexhaustible energy source. We learn over time that Hallam is not, in fact, the great genius everyone thinks. He was a radiochemist, barely even a mediocre one, who happened one day to discover that a container of tungsten that he had often seen had changed; he gets into an argument about it with the much more brilliant radiochemist, Denison, who dismisses the matter with a disparaging put-down of Hallam's intelligence. While Hallam is in fact every bit of the idiot that Denison thinks, he has an immense capacity to be motivated by petty personal resentment, and he sets out obstinately, and without any regard for proportion, to prove that the tungsten has indeed changed. As it happens, it has turned into plutonium-186, an isotope that should not exist, and is later able to serve as a source of limitless energy. Hallam skyrockets into scientific superstardom, Denison's career dissolves into nothing -- not entirely naturally, because when the man generally recognized as the world's greatest genius has a grudge against you, it will inevitably harm your career prospects. Of course, Hallam is actually responsible for nothing attributed to him; he 'discovered' the change by accident, 'proved' that it was changed by handing it over to the lab technicians to test, and 'found' an application for it in the sense that some much more brilliant people suggested the possibility and he advocated it. Hallam's primary real talents are self-aggrandizement and leveraging his position to harm the careers of rivals and opponents. It may be all in scientific fields, but one of the things enjoyable about the book as an academic, even in another field, is that you know exactly the type of person of which Hallam is the slightly exaggerated and considerably luckier caricature.

One of the things Hallam 'discovers' is that the change is actually due to unknown aliens in an alternative universe, apparently one with a stronger nuclear force than our own, who will exchange tungsten for plutonium-186. Much of the first part, "Against Stupidity...", is concerned with a brilliant young physicist named Lamont whose career dissipates when he accidently gets on Hallam's bad side by suggesting, without any malice or intent to offend, that the aliens are the ones actually doing the hard work. Lamont in retaliation attempts to prove Hallam's 'invention' dangerous, but keeps finding himself blocked as the rest of the scientific community, at Hallam's instigation, treats him as a crackpot. He will manage to get a message across to the universe, receiving an ominous response in return; but he will fail entirely to unseat Hallam. People just have too much incentive to believe that Hallam has really discovered a limitless energy supply without consequences. 'Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.'

In the second part, "...the Gods Themselves..." we switch over to the alien universe. This part of the story has some of Asimov's very best writing. The aliens are extremely foreign but very relatable. There are two species, Hard Ones and Soft Ones; the Hard Ones seem to be dominant but have a benevolent and cooperative relationship with the Soft Ones. The Soft Ones feed by absorbing solar energy directly; the Hard Ones are more mysterious. The Soft Ones, so called because they can diffuse and flow, come in three types, Rationals, Emotionals, and Parentals. All three have to come together to reproduce. Oden, Dua, and Tritt are such a grouping, one that is treated as somehow especially important by the Hard Ones (and, indeed, they each show features that distinguish themselves from others of their kind), but they have difficulty producing. Part of this is that Dua is often stubbornly uncooperative, but it's actually a general problem: because the strong force is stronger in this universe, the stars have shorter lifespans and are dying. This includes the sun for their own planet, which puts out less and less energy, resulting in fewer and fewer successful matings. Thus, once having numbered in the millions, they are now down to a few hundred Hard Ones and a few thousand Soft Ones. A new Hard One named Estwald is said to be on the track of solving the problem, but the relations between Oden, Dua, and Tritt may result in a chain of events that will put an end to that.

The third part, "Contend in Vain?", which is the least successful of the three, returns us to Denison, who, having independently concluded that there was a potential danger with Hallam's method for limitless energy, arrives at the Moon in the vague hope of pinning it down and finding an alternative. The Lunarites are doing interesting research, partly motivated by the fact that they cannot exchange tungsten with the aliens (who don't realize that there is another inhabited body nearby). Denison, with the help of the Lunarites (although sometimes despite themselves), is able to find an alternative that does not rely on the aliens and that avoids the problem. I always find this part somewhat disappointingly written -- it comes across as more juvenile than the other two -- but it does provide a satisfactory intellectual resolution to the problem: Denison succeeds because he doesn't contend with stupidity; having grown wiser from his mistake, he overcomes not by direct conflict (which he would lose) but by providing a better alternative. It also, despite its faults, combines well with the previous two parts to make Asimov's best expression of a theme that is consistent across his writings, that scientific progress requires intuition, i.e., an ability to complete patterns in advance of the evidence, as well as reason.

The other three works I read were short story collections; it was fairly easy to do them all because there is a fair amount of overlap:

(1) In all three: "Sally"

(2) In TCR and RD: "Little Lost Robot"; "Light Verse"

(3) In RD and NOS: "Hostess"; "Strikebreaker"; "The Machine that Won the War"; "Breeds There a Man...?"

(4) In TCR and NOS: "Segregationist"

Of these, both "Sally" (about artificially intelligent cars) and "Hostess" (about a parasitic species feeding on human emotions) are classics, and "Light Verse" and "The Machine that Won the War" are both nice little tales of the sort that made Asimov famous.

Of stories that are distinctive to the collecctions, the best stories that do not involve either Susan Calvin or Powell and Donovan are "Nightfall" (in NOS), "It's Such a Beautiful Day" (in NOS), "Jokester" (in RD), "The Last Question" (in RD), and "The Bicentennial Man" (in TCR). "Nightfall", of course, is the short story that first made Asimov famous, and rightly so, because it is still one of the great science fiction stories of all time. A planet in a system with multiple suns never grows dark except during a solar eclipse once every two millenia or so. The time is approaching and, while there are worries about how it will affect the social fabric (because there have always been myths that the darkness brings madness), the scientists are excited -- there is even the possibility of discovering something really new about the universe, even something really unlikely, like the bold idea put forward at one point that the universe could, in principle, have maybe an astounding two dozen suns in a volume of space that could even be as big as eight light years across. And then the dark comes, unveiling the actual starry heavens. It's a story that's beautifully done. "The Bicentennial Man" is one of the most famous robot tales, about a robot who becomes human.

Of the rest of the classic robot stories -- that is, the ones with either Powell and Donovan or Susan Calvin -- the best are "Reason" (with Powell and Donovan) and "The Evitable Conflict" (with Susan Calvin). In "Reason", a robot in an extremely important and potentially dangerous position starts acting strangely when, reflecting on himself, he concludes that the one thing he can be sure of is that, since he thinks, he exists, and that by pure reason he can establish from this that he could not be made by a human being. In "The Evitable Conflict", Stephen Byerley, the world Coordinator (and someone who may or may not be a robot himself), is investigating an apparent set of problems with the Machines that coordinate human activity across the globe; a problem with the Machines could be disastrous for the human race, and might even lead to a final conflict pushed forward by people resentful of the Machines. But sometimes conflicts that seem inevitable are entirely evitable.

At the beginning of The Complete Robot, Asimov notes that when he started writing his robot stories, most of the stories that were already in existence were either Robot-as-Pathos or Robot-as-Menace stories. Asimov wrote his share of those, too; but one of the things he contributed was a different take on them entirely, in which the robot is neither a put-upon symbol of oppression nor a monster-in-waiting so much as an object of curiosity, what we might call Robot-as-Puzzle-Mystery. Asimov is a greatly underappreciated puzzle-mystery author even in the conventional mystery genre, but in the science fiction genre, blending robot story and puzzle mystery, he has no peer.

Favorite Passage: How could it be otherwise than this passage from "Reason":

'I have spent these last two days in concentrated introspection,' said Cutie, 'and the results have been most interesting. I began at the one sure assumption I felt permitted to make. I, myself, exist, because I think--'

Powell groaned. 'Oh, Jupiter, a robot Descartes!'

'Who's Descartes?' demanded Donovan. 'Listen, do we have to sit here and listen to this metal maniac--'

'Keep quiet, Mike!'

Cutie continued imperturbably, 'And the question that immediately arose was: Just what is the cause of my existence?'

Powell's jaw set lumpily. 'You're being foolish. I told you already that we made you.'

'And if you don't believe us,' added Donovan, 'we'll gladly take you apart!'

The robot spread his strong hands in a deprecatory gesture, 'I accept nothing on authority. A hypothesis must be backed by reason, or else it is worthless -- and it goes against all the dictates of logic to suppose that you made me.' (pp. 284-285).

Recommendation: All Recommended.


Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity, Ballantine (New York: 1955).

Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves, Bantam (New York: 1972).

Isaac Asimov, The Complete Robot, HarperCollins (New York: 1995).

Isaac Asimov, Robot Dreams, Ace (New York: 1986).

Isaac Asimov, Nightfall and Other Stories, Ballantine (New York: 1969).