The Last Three Minutes by Paul Davies (1994)

The telescope is also a timescope. (p.127)

Davies (b.1946) is an English physicist, writer and broadcaster. He’s written some 25 books, and hosted radio and TV series popularising science, especially in the areas of cosmology and particle physics, with a particular interest in the links between modern scientific theory and religion – hence his books God and the New Physics and The Mind of God.

The Last Three Minutes was his sixteenth book and part of the Science Masters series, short, clear primers written by experts across all areas of science. The advantage of The Last Three Minutes is that it is a clear explication of all the theories in this area; the drawback is that it is now precisely 25 years out of date, a long time in a fast-moving field like cosmology.

On the plus side, although the book might not capture the very latest discoveries and thinking, many of its basic facts remain unchanged, and many of those facts are enough to make the layman gawp in wonder before Davies even begins describing the wild and diverse cosmological theories.

1. Doomsday

The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years – twenty-four trillion years – away. Our galaxy is named the Milky Way. Until the 1920s astronomers thought all the stars in the universe were in the Milky Way. The observations of Edwin Hubble proved that the Milky Way is only one among billions of galaxies in the universe. The Milky Way is estimated to be somewhere around 200 light-years across. It might contain anything between 100 and 400 billion stars.

Our solar system is located about 26,000 light-years from the Galactic Centre on the inner edge of the Orion Arm, one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust. The Milky Way is rotating. The sun and its retinue of planets take about 200 million years to rotate around the Galactic Centre.

The Earth could be destroyed by impact with any of the following:

  • asteroids, which are usually confined to a belt between Mars and Jupiter, but can be toppled out by passage of Jupiter’s mass
  • comets, believed to originate in an invisible cloud about a light year from the sun
  • giant clouds of gas won’t affect us directly but might affect the heat flow from the sun, with disastrous consequences
  • the Death Star some astronomers believe our sun may be part of a double-star system, with a remote twin star which may never be visible from Earth, but perturb elements in the system, such as our own orbit, or asteroids or comets

2. The Dying Universe

In 1856 the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz proposed that the universe is dying because the heat in it will eventually become so evenly distributed that no heat passes from one area to another, no chemical reactions are possible, the universe reaches ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’ and is dead. In English this became known as the ‘heat death’ theory. In 1865 physicist Rudolf Clausius coined the term ‘entropy’ meaning ‘the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system’. The heat death idea became widely accepted.

Davies points out that it’s odd that so many brainy people didn’t draw the obvious conclusion from the heat death idea, for if a) the universe is winding down towards a heat death and b) it has existed forever, then c) it would have died already. The fact that the universe is still full of wildly uneven distributions of energy and heat shows that it must have had a beginning.

Moreover, calculation of the mass of the universe should have indicated that a static universe would collapse in upon itself, clumps of matter slowly attracting each other, becoming larger and heavier, until all the matter in the universe is in one enormous ball.

The fact that the universe still has huge variations in heat indicates that it has not been around forever, i.e. it had a beginning. And the fact that it hasn’t collapsed suggests that a force equal or greater to gravity is working to drive the matter apart.

He explains Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle according to which ‘quantum particles do not possess sharply defined values for all their attributes’, and one of the odder consequences of  this, which is the existence of ‘quantum vacuums’ which are in fact full of incredibly short-lived ‘virtual’ particles popping in and out of existence.

3. The First Three Minutes

Davies recapitulates the familiar story that Edwin Hubble in the 1920s detected the red-shift in light which indicated that distant galaxies are moving away from us, and the further way they are, the faster they’re moving – overthrowing millenia of dogma by showing that the universe is moving, dynamic, changing.

Presumably, if it is moving outwards and expanding, it once had an origin. In 1965 astronomers detected the uniform background radiation which clinched the theory that there had, at some point in the distant past, been an explosion of inconceivable violence and intensity. The so-called cosmic microwave background (MCB) radiation is the remnant.

Further observation showed that it is uniform in every direction – isotropic – as theory predicts. But how did the universe get so lumpy? Astrophysicists speculated this must be because in initial conditions the explosion was not in fact uniform, but contained minute differentials.

This speculation was confirmed in 1992 when the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite detected ripples or unevenness in the MCB.

Complicated calculations predicted the likely ratios of key elements in the universe and these, also have been proved to be correct.

Taken together the expansion of the universe, the cosmic background radiation, and the relative abundance of the chemical elements strongly support the theory of a big bang.

Davies then explains modern theories of ‘inflation’ i.e. that the bang didn’t lead to a steady (if fast) rate of expansion of the early universe but, within milliseconds, experienced a short inconceivable process of ‘inflation’, in which anti-gravity pushed the exploding singularity into hyper-expansion.

The theory of inflation is called for because it solves problems about the existence and relative abundance of certain sub-atomic particles (magnetic monopoles), and also helps explain the unevenness of the resultant universe.

4. Stardoom

In February 1987 Canadian scientists based at an observatory in Chile noticed a supernova. This chapter explains how stars work (the fusion of hydrogen into helium releasing enormous amounts of energy) but that this outwards radiation of energy is always fighting off the force of gravity created by its dense core and that, sooner or later, all stars die, becoming supernovas, red dwarfs, red giants, white dwarfs, and so on, with colourful descriptions of each process.

Our sun is about half way through its expected life of 10 billion years. No need to panic yet.

He explains gravitational-wave emission.

5. Nightfall

Beginning with the commonplace observation that, eventually, every star in every galaxy will die, this chapter then goes on to describe some abstruse aspects of black holes, how they’re made, and unexpected and freakish aspects of their condition as stars which have collapsed under the weight of their own gravity.

John Wheeler coined the term ‘black hole’.

6. Weighing the Universe

If we all accept that the universe began in a cataclysmic Big Bang, the question is: Will it carry on expanding forever? Or will the gravity exerted by its mass eventually counteract the explosive force, slow the expansion to a halt, and then cause the universe to slowly but surely contract, retreating back towards a Big Crunch

Davies tells us more about neutrinos (one hundred billion billion of which are penetrating your body every second), as well as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPs.

The basic problem is that all the suns and other objects in the observable universe get nowhere near the mass required to explain the relatively slow expansion of the universe. There must be a huge amount of matter which we can’t see: either because it is sub-atomic, or hidden in black holes, or for some other reason.

Hence the talk over the last thirty years of more of the search for ‘dark matter’ which astrophysicists estimate must outweigh the visible matter in the universe by anything from ten to one to a hundred to one. Anyway,

Given our present state of knowledge, we cannot say whether the universe will expand forever or not. (p.79)

7. Forever Is A Long Time

Consideration of the nature of infinity turns into a description of the Hawking effect, Stephen Hawking’s theory that black holes might not trap everything, but might in fact emit a low level of radiation due to the presence of virtual vacuums in which quantum particles pop into existence in pairs on the event horizon of the hole, one particle getting sucked inside and producing a little flash of energy, the other escaping, and using that burst of energy to convert from being a temporary virtual particle into a real, lasting one.

This is one aspect of the likely fate of black holes which is to collapse evermore on themselves until they expire in a burst of radiation. Maybe.

He moves on to consider the periodicity of proton decay, the experiment set up in a tank of water deep underground in Cleveland Ohio which failed to measure a single proton decay. Why?

If protons do decay after an immense duration, the consequences for the far future of the universe are profound. All matter would be unstable, and would eventually disappear. (p.96)

He paints a picture of the universe in an inconceivably distant future, vast beyond imagining and full of ‘an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart’ (p.98).

8. Life In the Slow Lane

Davies undermines his credibility by speculating on the chances of humanity’s survival in a universe winding down. Maybe we can colonise the galaxy one star system at a time. If we can build spaceships which travel at only 1% the speed of light, it would only take a few centuries to travel to the nearest star. The ships could be self-contained mini-worlds. Or people could be put into hibernation. Better still a few engineers would take along hundreds of thousands of fertilised embryos to be grown on arrival. Or we could genetically engineer ourselves to survive different atmospheres and gravities. Or we could create entities which are half organic matter, half silicon-based intelligence.

He writes as if his book needs to address what he takes to be a widespread fear or anxiety that mankind will eventually – eventually – go extinct. Doesn’t bother me.

Davies describes the work done by some physicists (Don Page and Randall McKee) to calculate the rate at which the black holes which are predicted to become steadily more common – this is tens of billions of years in the future – a) decay and b) coalesce. It is predicted that black holes might fall into each other. Since they give off a certain amount of Hawking radiation, the bigger the black hole, the cooler at the surface and the more Hawking radiation it will give off and, Davies assures us, some technologically advanced descendant of humanity may, tens of billions of years in the future, just may be able to tap this radiation as an energy source to keep on surviving and thinking.

Apparently John Barrow and Frank Tipler have speculated on how we could send nuclear warheads to perturbate the orbits of asteroids, sending them to detonate in the sun, which would fractionally alter its course. Given enough it could be steered towards other stars. In time new constellations of stars – maybe entire galaxies – could be manipulated in order to suit our purposes, to create new effects of gravity or heat which we could use.

Meanwhile, back in reality, we can’t even leave the EU let alone the solar system.

9. Life In the Fast Lane

The preceding discussions have been based on the notion of infinite expansion of a universe which degenerates to complete heat death. But what if it reaches an utmost expansion and… starts to contract. In, say, a hundred billion years’ time.

There follows a vivid science fiction-ish account of the at-first slowly contracting universe, which then shrinks faster and faster as the temperature of the background radiation relentlessly rises until it is hundreds of degrees Kelvin, stripping away planetary atmospheres, cooking all life forms, galaxies crushing into each other, black holes coalescing, the sky turning red, then yellow, then fierce white. Smaller and hotter till is it millions of degrees Kelvin and the nuclei of atoms fry and explode into a plasma of sub-atomic particles.

Davies speculates that an advanced superbeing may have created communications networks the breadth of the universe which allow for an extraordinary amount of information processing. If it is true that the subjective experience of time is related to the amount of information we process, then a superbeing which process an almost infinite amount of information, would slow down subjective time. In fact it might cheat death altogether by processing so much information / thought, that it slows time down almost to a standstill, and lives on in the creation of vast virtual universes.

10. Sudden Death – and rebirth

If the preceding chapter seems full of absurdly fanciful speculation, recall that Davies is being paid to work through all possible versions of the Last Three Minutes. The book is sub-titled conjectures about the ultimate fate of the universe.

So far he has described:

  1. eternal expansion and the cooling of the universe into a soup of sub-atomic particles: in which case there is no last three minutes
  2. the preceding chapter discusses what a Big Crunch would be like, the physical processes which would degrade the universe and he has clearly taken as part of his brief trying to speculate about how any sentient life forms would cope

In this chapter he discusses a genuinely unnerving scenario proposed by physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank de Luccia in 1980. Davies has already explained what a virtual vacuum is, a vacuum seething with quantum particles popping in and out of existence. We know therefore that there are different levels of ‘vacuum’, and we know that all thermodynamic systems seek the lowest sustainable level of energy.

What if our entire universe is in an artificially raised, false vacuum? What if a lower, truer form of genuinely empty vacuum spontaneously erupts somewhere and then spreads like a plague at the speed of light across the universe? It would create a bow wave in which matter would be stripped down to sub-atomic particles i.e. everything would be destroyed, and a new value of gravity which would crunch everything together instantaneously. The Big Crunch would come instantaneously with no warning.

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees spooked the cosmology community by pointing out that the experiments in sub-atomic particles currently being carried out by physicists might trigger just such a cataclysm.

Conversely, Japanese physicists in 1981 floated the possibility of creating a new universe by creating a small bubble of false vacuum. The prediction was that the bubble of false vacuum would expand very quickly but – here’s the bit that’s hard to visualise – without affecting our universe. Alan Guth, the man who developed the inflation theory of the early universe, worked on it with colleagues and predicted that, although an entirely new universe might appear and hugely expand in milliseconds, it would do so into a new space, creating a new universe, and have little or no impact on our one.

Maybe that’s how our universe began, as a baby budding off from an existing universe. Maybe there is an endless proliferation of universes going on all the time, everywhere. Maybe they can be created. Maybe our universe was created by intelligent beings in its parent universe, and deliberately endowed with the laws of chemistry and physics which encourage the development of intelligent life. Or maybe there is a Darwinian process at work, and each baby universe carries the best traits of its parents onwards and upwards.

For me, the flaw of all this type of thinking is that it all starts from the axiom that human intelligence is somehow paramount, exceptional, correct, privileged and of immense transcendent importance.

In my opinion it isn’t. Human beings and human intelligence are obviously an accident which came into being to deal with certain conditions and will pass away when conditions change. Humanity is a transient accident, made up of billions of transient entities.

11. Worlds Without End?

A trot through alternative versions of The End. As early as the 1930s, Richard Tolman speculated that after each big crunch the universe is born again in another big bang, creating a sequence or rebirths. Unfortunately, a number of factors militate against complete regularity; the contraction period would create unique problems to do with the conversion of mass into radiation which would mean the starting point of the next singularity would be different – more degraded, less energy – than the one before.

In 1983 the Russian physicist Andre Linde speculated that the quantum state of the early universe might have varied from region to region, and so different regions might have experienced Alan Guth’s hyper-inflationary growth at different rates.

There might be millions of bubble universes all expanding at different rates, maybe with different fundamental qualities. A kind of bubble bath of multiple universes. We find ourselves in one of them but way off, beyond the limit of our vision, there may be an infinity of alternatives.

There is no end to the manufacture of these baby universe, and maybe no beginning.

Lastly, Davies re-examines the ‘steady state’ version of the universe propounded by Hermann Bondi and and Thomas Gold in the 1950s. They conceded the universe is expanding but said it always has. They invented ‘the creation field’ which produced a steady stream of new matter to ensure the expanding universe was always filled with the same amount of matter, and therefore gravity, to keep it stable. Their theory is another way of dispensing of an ‘end’ of the universe, as of a ‘beginning’, but it suffers from logical problems and, for most cosmologists, was disproved by the discovery of the microwave background radiation in 1965.


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The Triumph of Time by James Blish (1959)

The final instalment of James Blish’s Cities in Flight tetralogy opens with yet another prologue reminding us of the key dates in its ‘future history’ (pp.477-79):

Cities in Flight chronology

2018 discovery of the first anti-agathic drugs
2019 discovery of the gravitron polarity generator
2105 establishment of the Bureaucratic State
2289 first contact with the Vegan Tyranny
2394 IMT sack Thor V
2310 Battle of Altair with Vegans
2413 struggle with Vegans ends with scorching of Vega
2464 Battle of BD 40º 4048′ between Earth and Hruntans
2522 collapse of the Bureaucratic State
3089 Admiral Hrunta is poisoned / John Amalfi becomes mayor of New York
3111 Arpa Hrunta installed as ‘Emperor of Space’ / New York takes flight
3600 New York lands on Utopia
3602 ‘reduction of the Duchy of Gort’ / Dr Schloss boards New York
3900 collapse of the germanium standard for currency
3905 Battle of the Jungle in the Acolyte Cluster
3944 New York lands on the Blasted Heath
3948 Battle of the Blasted Heath in which New York defeats the IMT
3975 Battle of Earth attacked by Okie cities
3976 passage of anti-Okie law on earth
3978 New York leaves the galaxy for the Magellanic Cloud
3998 New York lands on planet in the Magellanic Cloud
3999 New York christens this planet New Earth
4104 ‘totally universal physical cataclysm’

In the series of events preceding this book and described in Earthman, Come Home, John Amalfi had steered the space-flying Okie city of New York through umpteen perils and finally out of the galaxy altogether to land, once and for all, on a planet in the Magellanic Cloud.

‘Once and for all’ because a) after the Battle of Earth, Okie cities had been outlawed b) at least two of the city’s spindizzy engines were fatally malfunctioning.

After defeating the incumbent inhabitants of this planet – the Intergalactic Master Traders who were the bad guys who had annihilated Thor V centuries earlier – the inhabitants of New York named the planet New Earth and settled down to make it home.

(NB some of the dates don’t match up. For example, in the prologue Blish says New York landed on this final planet in 3998 (p.479) but in the text he says they fought the Battle of the Blasted Heath by which they won control of the planet in 3948 (p.483) – fifty years earlier. They can’t both be right. Similarly, he says the Okies christened the planet New Earth in 3999 (p.479), and yet the novel opens with Amalfi sick and bored of life on New Earth, in ‘this year of 3995’, four years earlier (p.497). Either I’m misunderstanding something, or this was poor proofreading by Blish and/or his editors.)

So it is 3995 and legendary Okie city mayor John Amalfi, blessed or cursed with a very long life, is bored of his peaceful existence on New Earth, of fancy fashions and outlandish pets, and misses the old space-flying days. He goes poking around the now-abandoned city of New York, chatting to the city’s former chief astronomer, Jake Freeman, about maybe salvaging part of it and going roaming again… when he’s told a huge object is heading their way.

This turns out to be the planet He, which we last met in Earthman, Come Home, the planet with a primitive civilisation which was cursed with an oppressively tropical jungle climate. Amalfi had made a contract to change and improve it by fitting spindizzies to the planet’s cardinal points. He had intended to alter its spin a little to give it a milder climate but ended up miscalculating and sending the planet careering not only out of the orbit of its sun, but flying faster than the speed of light right out of the galaxy itself.

Now, by some miracle, He’s people have mastered the technique of steering their planet (!) and are heading straight for New Earth. Radio communication is made and it turns out the entire planet is now led by our old friend Miramon, who had been Amalfi’s lead contact in the original story. Miramon explains that they made it all the way to the next galaxy in the universe, Andromeda, but on the way discovered something: All of space and time is coming to an end!

The reason is something to do with anti-matter. The rest of the book is now dominated by page after page of detailed, would-be highly scientific discussion of the relationship between matter and anti-matter, with reference to all kinds of theories and explanations invoking Einstein, quantum physics, and so on. It’s all very impressive and features a number of mathematical equations, but remains incomprehensible to me, and could all be bluff as far as I know. Basically, the cleverest scientists on he and on New Earth discuss whether a) the universe really is running down heading towards an apocalyptic end b) what this end will look like c) if there is any possible way to escape it.

When Amalfi takes New Earth’s top scientists to He to discuss the situation, he takes along Dee, wife of his deputy Mark Hazleton, with whom he is himself deeply in love, and Mark and Dee’s grandson Webster Hazleton, along with his ‘friend’ Estelle Freeman (daughter of Jake the astronomer). Against the backdrop of the end of the universe is played out the growing puppy love between these two young teenagers. For example, there is a long and completely unnecessary scene where the two New Earth kids are shown complicated games with the kids their own age from He, both sides translating the complex rules of the games into pidgen English for the readers’ benefit.

In a sub-sub-plot Dee’s presence and contribution to the learned discussions vexes some of the scientists from He. Blish has to explain that this is because it was only within living memory that He’s womenfolk were raised from the status of naked animals, a feminist liberation largely carried out by Dee. Now here mere presence irritates them and so, reluctantly, Amalfi orders Dee, Webster and Estelle in a spaceship back to New Earth.

But while the physicists are discussing how and why the universe is about to end and the kids are playing truth or dare, good old power politics erupts when the leader of a religious cult – the Warriors of God led by Jorn the Apostle – rises up and storms New Earth, seizing Mark Hazelton. Not only that but we learn they seized the spaceship carrying Dee and the kids.

Amalfi uses one of Carrel’s little ‘proxies’ or remote control rocket ships to fly back to New Earth, landing in the now abandoned and empty Central Park and reactivating the old City Father’s namely the city’s ancient supercomputers. Using these he makes contact via a Dirac communication machine, with Jorn the Apostle. This man, wizened and canny, turns out to be more than a match for John Amalfi. Amalfi tries to bluff Jorn – in the way he has manipulated and bluffed so many antagonists in the earlier stories. This time he tells the leader of the fundamentalist army that New Earth is packed with believers in a lay philosophy named Stochasticism. Jorn doesn’t really believe him and, while Blish spends several pages mapping out Amalfi’s tortuous plan to outbluff the Apostle, the kind of convoluted semi-cunning plans we’ve got used to Amalfi spinning – when Jorn calls off his men and releases Dee and the kids.

Now time passes. Years pass. The New Earth scientists have all agreed the end is being precipitated by the winding down of the current universe and its interception or crash with a parallel universe of anti-matter. They have named the intersection of the two universes No Man’s Land. It was a casual suggestion of the child Estelle that they fire a bullet across No Man’s Land that set the scientists wondering whether they could make an anti-matter probe in this universe which could travel into the anti-matter universe.

Meanwhile Blish goes for pathos and human interest by glossing over the following few years during which Web and Estelle – the last human children to grow up – blossom and mature.

Our team send an anti-matter probe – very colourfully and cinematically described as a luminous sphere about six feet wide of neutrinos containing one grain of anti-matter – over to the other side. It reappears in the ancient control room of the city – which has been turned into a physics lab – with a burst of radiation which burns everyone, makes their hair fall out and gives mild radiation sickness – which they are advanced enough to be able to cure. The experiment shows that:

  1. someone else has sent a probe through and is conducting similar experiments
  2. it may be possible to survive the catastrophe but not in human form, maybe not with human consciousness
  3. the date of The End is precisely three years away, 2 June 4104

The main characters hold a valedictory meal at which Amalfi announces that he is going to travel on planet He as it heads towards the metagalactic centre, to which Mark announces that he wants to say on New Earth to put its affairs in order, Dee says she’ll stay with Mark, Jake the astronomer will also stay, but Estelle, Jake’s daughter, and Web, Mark and Dee’s grandson, announce that they want to accompany Amalfi on He.

The book contains complex emotional relationship elements which I struggled to give a damn about. Earlier we had learned that Mark and Dee’s marriage is hollow: he is too busy working and ignores her. She has taken a succession of waif and stray women into the household, I didn’t quite understand whether these were supposed to have been lesbian affairs. When they went to He together Amalfi declared her love for Dee and she told him all this, but refused to leave Mark. Now on this final evening on New Earth, Amalfi takes Dee for a walk and they have a lover’s quarrel, not least because Dee spots that Amalfi is in love with Estelle, who must be nearly a thousand years younger than him!

They agree to meet up in New York’s old control tower and ask the City Fathers. The City Fathers advices Mark and Dee, and Web and Estelle, and Amalfi to all go on with He to the metagalactic centre. But surprise the humans by saying that they, the City Fathers, should be taken too.

Somehow, not very logically but by narrative sleight of hand, Blish persuades us that it is vital that He get to the Metagalactic centre before the ‘opposition’, the rivals who had also sent a probe through into the anti-matter universe… do something, or win something, though that something is left vague. These rivals are named the Web of Hercules, although what that means is also left very vague.

The metagalaxy is described as the centre of the original Big Bang which brought the universe into being. Now planet He is hurtling towards it. The physicists speculate that, by being there at a place of stasis within a dynamic universe there might, just might, be some equivalent in the anti-universe, and might be some possibility of outliving the coming destruction.

The situation as we see it is this: Anything that survives the Ginnangu-Gap [the name they’ve given the annihilation of the universe] at the metagalactic centre, by as much as five micro-seconds, carries an energy potential into the future which will have a considerable influence on the re-formation of the two universes. If the surviving object is only a stone – or a planet, like He – then the two universes will re-form exactly as they did after the explosion of the monobloc, and their histories will repeat themselves very closely. If, on the other hand, the surviving object has volition and a little manoeuvrability – such as a man – it has available to it any of the infinitely many different sets of dimensions of Hilbert space. Each one of us that makes that crossing may in a few micro-seconds start a universe of his own, with a fate wholly unpredictable from history.’ (p.591)

First of all planet He arrives at the dead centre of the universe as indicated by the cessation of all external signals and information. All the controls in the control room on the peak of He’s highest planet go into overdrive and are cut off. Amalfi is consulting the City Fathers on what to do next, when the entire planet comes under attack from the Web of Hercules. So far as I understood it, they use tendrils of anti-matter to deliver fatal doses of radiation sent from control machines as much as a light year away.

In a twist, Miramon, leader of He, announces a physics-chemistry weapon they possess but hadn’t mentioned which eats away at these rays. They unleash it and watch the corrosive poison creep back up along the rays, eliminating them, presumably as far back as the control rooms, presumably eliminating the Web of Hercules.

It is is difficult to follow the hard science explanations but I think the Web of Hercules appeared, and was dealt with, in just a couple of pages. Hazleton announces that all the main characters have received fatal doses of radiation and have only a few weeks to live, but he and Amalfi bitterly joke that it’s alright – the universe itself is set to expire in ten days, and counting…

The final chapter is just four pages long and describes the end of the universe which is very simple. They go through the instructions one last time and climb into spacesuits. When the moment of annihilation of the present universe comes, the spindizzies will operate at peak performance for a few micro-seconds during which the half dozen of them, here at the core, the centre of the annihilating universe – Mark, Dee, Estelle, Web, Miramon and Amalfi – will have a split second to create new universes. The clock ticks down. The City Fathers say goodbye. The end comes instantly and completely. Amalfi is aware of the others and their human emotions. But he has lived long enough, seen the universe of human suffering, he wants to try something else.

What would happen if he just touches the detonator button on his spacesuit, blows himself up, and lets all the elements of which he and the suit are composed flash into the plasma which will form the basis of a new universe?

He touched the button over his heart.
Creation began. (p.610)

Quite a mind-blowing end.


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1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

A Life For The Stars by James Blish (1962)

From the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off.

As opening sentences go, this is a cracking introduction to this, the last-written but third-in-chronological-order of Blish’s four ‘Okie’ novels, about entire cities which take advantage of anti-gravity ‘spindizzy’ technology, to depart earth and go roaming around the galaxy (already well-colonised by humans), trading and dealing and getting into scrapes.

The central Okie novel is Earthman, Come Home, the first to be published (in fact a ‘fix-up novel’ of four or five earlier short stories, brought together in 1953), set around the year 4,000 and which features a series of cracking space opera adventures starring John Amalfi, ‘mayor’ of New York as it roams across the galaxy getting in and out of trouble.

Next in the series was They Shall Have Stars, published in 1956, set in the 2010s (from 2013 to 2020, to be precise). This ‘fix up’ of two long short stories gives us the origins of the two technologies which made interstellar space travel possible, namely

  1. the discovery of anti-death drugs, which allow humans to live for thousands of years
  2. and the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator which not only allows an object of any size to travel at any speed – faster, even, than light – but also secures a protective field around it enclosing water, atmosphere and so on

Rather than just plonk these discoveries down in front of the reader, Blish goes to great lengths to depict the way the West – specifically America – will, by the 2010s, have become an authoritarian regime dominated by an eavesdropping FBI, which is virtually indistinguishable from the repressive system in the Soviet bloc. Eventually the West, as such, will fall to Soviet domination… but not before a heroic few pioneers have used the spindizzy technology to escape to the stars.

Chapter one: Press gang

I expected this third novel to bridge the gap between those events, which climax in 2020, with the Amalfi era of 4,000 or so AD – but it doesn’t.

Instead the story is set in the 32nd century where anyone with any get up and go has got up and gone in a city to the stars. The entire (short) novel describes the adventures of young teenager Crispin DeFord (p.150, Chris to his family). He is one of the few last impoverished inhabitants of 32nd century earth, living with his father who was once a professor but now routinely suffers from diseases of malnutrition.

Chris comes from their shack to the perimeter of the raggedy old steel-manufacturing city of Scranton to watch it take off but, at the last minute, is caught by perimeter cops and press-ganged aboard. The city takes off, much to Chris’s amazement.

Chapter two: A line of boiling dust

He is dragged in front of the city’s mayor, Frank Lutz, who reminds him of a skunk and demands if he has a speciality (specialists in anything get to eat, non-specialists, not so much). On the spur of the moment Chris claims to know all about astronomy, and manages to answer some basic questions such as the order of the planets, so he is apprenticed to the city’s astronomer, Dr Boyle Warner. He spends a year studying but not getting very far.

Chapter three: ‘Like a barrel of scrap’

Then he and Boyle, attending one of the mayor’s endless public consultations, hear him saying he plans to do a swap with a much bigger city they’ve come in contact with. When he mentions that it’s led by someone named Amalfi, we know this is New York from all the stories we read about in Earthman, Come Home. New York will give them some tech and technies, plus directions to an iron-bearing planet, in exchange Scranton will hand over 300 or so of its least useful citizens.

Chris knows that includes him and finds a hiding place in a disused warehouse. But he’s tracked down by the leader of the press gang which shanghaied him, Frad Haskins (p.146), who has turned out to be a kindly protector of the boy, and persuades him it will be easier to go.

Chapter four: Schoolroom in the sky

So he joins the three hundred or so who take a rocket ship from Scranton to New York, his mind boggled by the awesome scale of the bigger city. Arriving, he is put in a cubicle and questioned by a computerised voice – the City Fathers no less – who reveal that

  1. the first anti-death drugs were perfected in 2018
  2. Mayor Amalfi was born in 2998

Chris is submitted to intense hypnopedia i.e. put in a trance while wearing a helmet which pumps him full of facts. This gives Blish a convenient opportunity to write a prolonged and factual history of spindizzies and anti-agathic drugs which links the years described in They Shall Have Stars (the 2010s), follows through the collapse of the West, the creation of the Bureaucratic State which banned spaceflight, how dissidents who kept secret spindizzies nonetheless set off into space where they bumped into the Vegan Empire (2289), which led to war (2310), how the spindizzy technology (repressed by the Bureaucratic State) was rediscovered by the Thorium Trust’s Plant Eight which promptly took off into space and never came back (2375), followed by other power plants, towns then cities. How the city of Gravitogorsk-Mars, calling itself the Interstellar Master Traders (IMT) annihiliated the earth colony on Thor V (2394) giving Okie cities a terrible reputation. The capital planet of the Vegan Empire was ravaged by earth cities, including IMT, in 2413. How the Third Colonial Navy under Admiral Alois Hrunta destroyed Vega II instead of subduing then fled and set up his own empire, naming himself Emperor of Space (after a battle in 2464). So many cities left earth that the Bureaucratic state collapsed in 2522. Succeeded by a police state which lacked real power, but sent out police forces to police the galaxy, giving rise to the situation whereby Arm II of the galaxy is economically underpinned by Okie cities trading and policed by the earth cops, but neither system is really efficient i.e. there’s lots of friction. And that’s where we are when the story begins.

We learn that in the middle 2000s all the fossil fuels ran out and the highlands around earth were returned to farmland.

Chapter five: ‘Boy, you are dumb!’

Chris is put in the class of the martinet Dr Helena Braziller, and meets classmate Piggy Kingston-Throop, which allows the pair to discuss issues surrounding Okie cities, the meaning of ‘citizenship’ and other backstory information Blish wants to convey. Bascially, to become a ‘citizen’, to enjoy the benefits of the anti-agathic drugs, Chris must study and must pass the citizenship exam.

Chris is made the ward of Perimeter Sergeant Anderson, who we read about in Earthman, Come Home: he is head of a sort of Marine corps which is sent out whenever the city lands.

Chapter six: A planet called Heaven

New York lands on a planet where it is always raining, broken by electrical storms – ironically named ‘Heaven’. Chris isn’t involved in any of this since he is still only 17 and still at school – intensive hypnopedia school – but his guardian being Sergeant Anderson he overhears a lot, such as the planet is ruled by a smallish (60,000) caste of aristocrats, named ‘archangels’, who lord it over a vast population of serfs.

The archangels have made a typical Okie deal, that they’ll provide food and raw materials in exchange for the Okies helping them inaugurate an industrial revolution.

Piggy and Chris hang round one of the wharves on the edge of New York, staring out into the endless rain of Heaven, lit by fierce lightning storms, and generally getting in people’s way. Chris learns that the archangels speak a debased form of Russian, ‘the now dead universal language of deep space’ (p.197) (to understand why you really have to have followed the repeated notion that the Soviet Union wins the Cold War by making the West turn into its mirror image, before finally subsuming the entire world in the Bureaucratic Rule.)

Impatient and curious, Chris tries talking to one of the Archangels who stomp back and forth across the wharves, offering him the ‘small cheap clasp knife with a tiny compass embedded in its handle’ in return for… a go on one of the kind of bubble boats the Archangels speed about in: these are boats but completely covered over in perspex to protect from the awful weather.

The Archangel laughs a big Russian laugh and agrees, they climb aboard the ship (they’re known as swan boats), the guy shows him the pretty simple controls and lets him try it out a little, pushing the accelerator and steering. There’s a call from his mates back in the cabin, so he tells Christ to be careful and goes abaft.

Chris has a happy time steering, but curiosity makes him lean back towards the door into the aft cabin and he hears snippets of Russian which he can just about understand are the six Archangels talking about a conspiracy to seize New York, mentioning hostages they’ve already taken, and a ‘Castle Wolfwhip’.

On impulse Chris throws the lock on the cabin door, takes the helm of the swan boat and sets it towards the homing beacon he’d noticed. It is Young Sherlock, Young James Bond.

Chapter seven: Why not to keep demons

Chris begins to wonder whether he’s doing the right thing and decides he better turn round and steer the boat back towards the New York wharf, when it is seized by the Archangel tractor beam and the controls stop functioning. He sees a huge building emerge from the rain and fog and then the swan boat abruptly sinks beneath the surface of the ocean, down down till its tracks hit bottom and then it clambers along, emerging back up above the surface in a sheltered cavern.

Here he is quickly arrested and thrown into the same cell as his guardian Sergeant Anderson, and a colleague Dulany, as per thousands of American adventure series and movies.

When he tells them that their ‘hover suits’ are hanging up in the main hall where he was interrogated. Anderson and Dulane break out of the cell, fight their way to their suits, and then tear ‘Castle Wolfwhip’ to pieces. Since he hasn’t got a suit, they put him in a swan ship and guide it back to New York.

Where his guardian reads Chris the riot act for being a very naughty boy.

Chapter eight: the ghosts of space

To Chris’s amazement Amalfi keeps on with the contract with Heaven’s Archangels. Business is business, and they need the raw materials.

Chris goes back to school for more densely packed hypnopedia sessions, which Blish summarises. He carries on chatting on quays with Piggy, who tells him the urban legend of the great Lost City of Los Angeles which landed on a remote planet where antiagathic drugs grow in the plants. Chris drops into a Library cubicle after school and quizzes a librarian i.e. one of the city father computers, which tells him about this kind of urban legend.

Then he discusses the idea with his guardian Anderson and wife Carla, and they end up reeling through a number of aspects of their world which are basically backstory which introduce various legends or entities we will meet in Earthman Come Home, such as:

  • cities that go rogue, named ‘bindlestiffs’
  • specifically the city of the IMT which genocided Thor V
  • the Vegan orbital fort

This handy little bit of exposition, or reminder, is threaded through with a bit of home-made Freud: namely that some of these stories may be true (they will, in fact, all prove to be true in Earthman, Come Home) but there is a deeper psychological force at work, namely that we make up bogies to scare us about things we ourselves actually want to do.

‘It’s always themselves that people are scared of.’ (p.207)

Chapter nine: The tramp

New York’s contract with Heaven is fulfilled and it takes off (we hear nothing at all about the supposed industrial revolution the city was meant to have organised).

Chris’s hypnopedia education continues regardless, and becomes so intense, he is being daily stuffed with so many facts via the hypnopedia headgear, that he begins to feel physically ill. He asks his tutor Dr Braziller if this is normal and she explains that the City Fathers (who run the hypnopedia) don’t care about individuals; pupils are stuffed with facts like geese with grain, because the Fathers are waiting to see what traits, what qualities will emerge, which the city can use in its eternal quest for survival.

Wistfully, Dr Braziller tells Chris she harboured hopes of becoming a composer but the City Fathers had never heard of a woman composer so that was that.

Chris is worried because the only subject he shows any gift for is history and the City Fathers are already, in effect, the city’s historians, since they contain a vast database of dates and events which he’ll never be able to match.

All this is interrupted one day when Anderson tells him the city has a new contract but it’s complicated. It’s with a planet, Argus III, to do mining, but it has slowly emerged that the planet already has another city on site, which was under contract but failed to deliver. That city? Scranton. The city which shanghaied Chris right at the start of the story. Not fulfilling your contract but squatting on the site defines you as a ‘tramp’. Theoretically Argus III could call the cops (cops always come into these city disputes) but then Scranton could counter-claim that their contract was being breached and/or New York was trying to poach the work, a serious breach of earth law and Okie tradition.

New York has picked up radio broadcasts by both parties, Scranton and the Argolids. John Amalfi himself wants Chris to listen in on the Scranton broadcasts and use every scrap of knowledge he gained on the city, to help interpret them.

Chapter ten: Argus asleep

New York lands on Argus III. There’s some nice science about how the stars of the system are relatively young and so full of metals, as are the planets. Good mining country. Chris begins to analyse Amalfi’s decisions which, of course, allows Blish to explain them to us, the reader.

Not only that he begins to make his own suggestions based on the little he picked up from seeing Scranton’s mayor in the flesh, namely that he is ruthless, treats passengers like scum, has a shortage of anti-agathic drugs. Also he points out that something must have been going wrong for a while if Scranton is so far from the planets of metal which New York recommended to her back when they did the passenger exchange.

Then the situation is transformed when it is revealed that Chris’s friend, Piggy, has defected to the other side, taking two women with him, one the unhinged wife of a New York cop who had been taught how to fly one of the city’s planes and then stole it. Piggy must have had some plan to become a big valuable man over there, but first thing New York knows is a message from Scranton saying the three are being held hostage.

Chris suggests sneaking over to Scranton on a solo mission, but his guardian emphatically rules it out.

Chapter eleven: The hidey hole

Chris does it anyway, with a plan. He meets up with Frad Haskins, the leader of the grab squad who press-ganged Chris onto Scranton right at the start of the story. Frad explains how even those close to him think Scranton’s mayor has gone nuts. He discusses with Chris what concessions and peace Amalfi would offer if Frad leads a coup to overthrow the mayor. then Chris hides away in his hidey hole in the disused warehouse, the one we saw him seeking refuge in back in chapter three, while a coup actually takes place.

When Frad comes to fetch him it’s something like a week later and Lutz has been overthrown. Frad is shabby, unshaven, dirty and has a black eye. Exiting back onto the streets Chris sees bulletholes and shell holes. Obviously the coup was violent. (It is, pretty simply, a cop-out of Blish’s part not to show any of it at all; all we get for the entire period of the coup is an account of Chris hiding, getting hungry, and trying to sleep. This reminded me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series where there’s a lot of talk about battles and political struggles, but precious little actual description of them. This, I think, is because the entire approach of space opera is surprisingly limited: the fate of the entire galaxy hangs in the balance – again and again – and yet turns out to hang on the confrontations of a few super-clever characters in a room. This is the opposite of history as we know it, where the fate of empires and nations has been decided by wars which drag on for years and about which vast multi-volume libraries can be written.)

Chapter twelve: An interview with Amalfi

Chris is brought back to New York, along with the new leaders of Scranton to negotiate a deal with Amalfi. With fairy tale simplicity the deadline for doing a deal with Scranton had expired on Chris’s 18th birthday, which was also when his citizenship exam, the one he’s been cramming for for the previous couple of years, was due to take place.

At a stroke Amalfi announces that Chris has shown all the qualities required by a citizen, and amazes Chris and his guardian and Frad by offering to make Chris city manager of New York. Happy ending.

Coda

Very casually, half way through the last book in the series, The Triumph of Time, Blish tells us that DeFord was shot by the City Fathers for crooked dealing ‘seven centuries’ before that story is set, so about 3295 (p.559). Since The Triumph of Time was published in 1959, three years before A Life For The Stars, anyone who’d been reading the books as they came out, will have known Chris’s ultimate fate throughout their reading of this narrative.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by embittered working class narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – a mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish –

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Earthman, Come Home by James Blish (1953)

‘We’, said the golden giant, ‘are the Margraf Hazca, Vice Regent of the Duchy of Gort under his Eternal Eminence, Arpad Hrunta, Emperor of Space.’ (p.269)

Reading space opera like this means accepting the absurd, the grandiose and the preposterous. At moments Earthman, Come Home teeters on the edge of Terry Gilliam absurdity or Douglas Adams-style pastiche. But I found it very enjoyable, with a fast-moving plot of adventure and excitement, accompanied by a steady flow of discoveries or revelations about galactic adventurers 1,000 years in the future, which jolt and tickle the imagination.

James Blish (1921-75)

Blish was born in 1921 in New Jersey, and while at school published a science fiction fanzine. His first published story was in a pulp sci-fi magazine in 1940. His first successful stories were only published after the war, and it wasn’t till 1950 that he hit his stride with the first of the stories which was to develop into the ‘Okie’ series, describing entire cities which used ‘spindizzy’ technology to launch themselves and travel into space.

The first two stories, ‘Okie’, and ‘Bindlestiff’, were published in 1950, by Astounding Science Fiction magazine. ‘Sargasso of Lost Cities’ appeared in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books in April 1953. ‘Earthman, Come Home’ followed a few months later, also published by Astounding. In 1955, Blish collected these four short stories into an omnibus ‘novel’ titled Earthman, Come Home.

More stories followed, namely ‘Bridge’ and ‘At Death’s End’ which tell how the spindizzies were developed and the early era of space exploration. In 1956 these two were published together in the volume titled They Shall Have Stars. In 1958 Blish released a third ‘Okie’ novel, The Triumph of Time. Four years later, he returned to the subject for the last ‘Okie’ novel, A Life for the Stars.

The sequence of four Okie novels was edited together into an omnibus edition, titled Cities In Flight, which was first published in October 1970. This version was then republished as part of Orion’s large-format, yellow-spined SF Masterworks series in 1999, and this is the version I borrowed from my local library.

Are these stories literature? No way. A glance at the cover of the 1953 Two Complete Science-Adventure Books which featured ‘Sargasso of Lost Cities’ tells you everything you need to know about the cultural level of its first publishers and readers. Pulp, with scantily clad young women threatened by purple-skinned aliens is about the level. (As far as I can tell, nothing like that scene with a woman in a red bra takes place in any of the stories: the ‘Jungle’ chapter based on the Sargasso story contains nothing like it.)

Cover of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books featuring Blish's novella 'Sargasso of Lost Cities'

Cover of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books featuring Blish’s novella ‘Sargasso of Lost Cities’ (1953). $5 value for just 25 cents!!!

Which order to read them in?

Before you start reading there’s a snag: the Cities in Flight omnibus volume doesn’t present the stories in the publishing order outlined above, but according to the order of their internal chronology, namely:

  • They Shall Have Stars
  • A Life For The Stars
  • Earthman, Come Home
  • The Triumph of Time

So, should you read them in the order published, or in the chronological order of the narrative? Well, in his introduction, Adam Roberts says the first-written stories remain the most thrilling and visionary, so he recommends you do not read the novels in the order they’re arranged in the omnibus edition, but start with Earthman, Come Home, the freshest and most exciting tales. Alright.

Earthman, Come Home

It is about the year 4,000 AD, and two key inventions have transformed the human race.

1. The first is anti-agathic drugs which enable humans to live more or less forever. The central figure of Earthman, Come Home, John Amalfi, is nearly 1,000 years old, and as young and virile and clear-headed as ever.

He was now about nine hundred years old, give or take fifty, ; strong as an ox, mentally alert and active, in good hormone balance, all twenty-eight sense sharp, his own special psi faculty – orientation – still as infallible as ever, and all in all as sane as a peripatetic starman could be. (p.325)

2. The second invention was ‘the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator’, known colloquially as the spindizzy, an anti-gravity device. Because these project a protective field around anything using them, it was realised a) that things which went up through the earth’s atmosphere (or any planet’s atmosphere) needn’t be streamlined like traditional spaceships, but could be any shape, b) could be any size, as long as they had enough spindizzies to propel them.

In an earlier wave of colonisation immediately after their invention, set off to colonise other planets. Now, 1,000 years later, entire earth cities have abandoned the mother planet and ‘gone aloft’, journeying through space protected by hermetically sealed atmospheres, supplied by self-contained water and food systems. New York, we are told, was among the last to leave, in around 3111 AD.

These city-spaceships wander the settled galaxy looking for ‘trade’ i.e. looking for planets which need their particular skill sets. There are hundreds of wandering cities, each one specialising in particular areas. They’ve acquired the nickname ‘Okies’, copied from the impoverished farmers from Dustbowl Oklahoma who headed west to California looking for work in the 1930s. At last count there were some 18,000 Okie cities (p.350)

However, there are hazards. Not, surprisingly enough, from aliens because – just as in the contemporaneous Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov – it turns out that there are hardly any ‘alien’ life forms anywhere in the galaxy. (This is worth meditating on for a moment: in both the Foundation and Okie series there are no aliens. Despite the covers of Astounding Science Fiction always featuring giant insect or octopus monsters, nothing like that appears in the stories. The threat in both series always and only comes from other humans.)

So the threats are entirely human, and come from a) ‘bindlestiffs’ or Okie cities who have gone bad, gone rogue, become predators and murderers, or b) from the cops, Earth police who still, apparently, hold sway, even out on the edges of the galaxy and dislike or even hate Okie cities for their frequent rule breaking.

So this is the background and setting for a series of adventures featuring New York, more accurately the island of Manhattan, which can magically fly through space and land on any planet it fancies. The idea is wonderful, and Blish’s realisation of it is astonishingly convincing: the basic technique is ‘less is more’. New York City landmarks are sparingly referred to, the technology only fleetingly mentioned and, most conspicuously of all, there are hardly any characters. A quick Google search shows that the population of New York in 1950 was about eight million, but only a handful of characters ever appear in the stories – I counted about eight in all. Where are the teeming bustling millions of the actual New York? And how do any of them make a living drifting through space for months and years between planetfalls? The answer to these conundrums is – not to ask them.

Lead character is John Amalfi, the city’s mayor – tall, stocky (he has a barrel-shaped body), bald, it is he who takes the chances, assesses the odds and comes up with canny plans of action when the city gets into tight scrapes. Amalfi is advised Mark Hazleton, the city’s manager and trusted side-kick, who makes all the technical calculations but, more importantly, comes up with cunning plans.

Amalfi often refers to, or rings up and talks to, the City Fathers. It’s only in about the third story that we realise ‘the City Fathers’ are in fact a super-wise computerised database which Amalfi can consult whenever he wants to, but can occasionally turn off when he wants to override their Spock-like, logical advice in order to take another of his wild risks.

1. Utopia

New York, or just ‘the city’, arrives at a star system dominated by two warring planets, Utopia which is continually under attack from the brutish Hruntans. Amalfi lands on Utopia, Hazleton returns from a recce with a pretty native woman, Dee (who will end up accompanying them on all their subsequent adventures) and the rest of his team are drilling for oil and minerals when the Hruntans attack the planet. the plot is complicated (as the plots of all the stories will turn out to be) by the presence of the Earth police, the cops, who are just raring to catch an Okie city for the slightest technical violation of either a) space law or b) breaching its contract with a planet.

In this instance the earth cops have arrived to pacify the system which means crushing the Hruntan military. In a complex piece of Machiavellian manoeuvring, Amalfi orders the city aloft, leaving Mark and Dee back on Utopia, with a view to sucking up to the Hruntans.

2. Gort (the Duchy of Gort)

A Hruntan delegation arrives on the bridge, led by the thuggish Margraf Hazca. He informs them that other landing parties have landed at key locations around the city. Amalfi makes a deal to trade Hruntan resources (particularly oil) for the city’s knowledge of friction-field technology – although the Margraf thinly threatens that they plan to take the city’s technical know-how by force, anyway.

Blish the narrator takes the opportunity of explaining that:

‘The spindizzy or Okie cities are like bees, wandering around the galaxy of earth-colonised planets (the ‘pollinating bees of the galaxy’ p.345), spreading knowledge, new technology, minerals and resources. The earth police look down on them, and try to bust them if they break trading contracts with planets, but at the end of the day the Okies perform a useful service.’

Amalfi lays out a complex and not totally comprehensible plan: Mark will lecture the Hruntans’ leading scientists and military strategists on the cutting edge tech the city possesses and the Hruntans – way out here on the edge of the galaxy – don’t.

Amalfi assumes there’ll be one or two scientists who genuinely understand the city’s advanced tech. He assumes that, within any group of such scientists, there’s always jealousy, even unto assassination. He assumes that if the Okies favour one particular scientist, they will create dissension and jealousy among the Hruntan scientists. And this indeed does seem to occur, with a certain Dr Schloss a) understanding the city’s tech and, in short order b) being threatened by his peers.

(None of this makes much sense, but then a lot of the plot doesn’t really make much sense: entering the text is like entering another world where normal motivations, human psychology or behaviour have been twisted out of recognition.)

What happens next is even more bewilderingly weird: Amalfi has gone to the penthouse suite of the city’s tallest building which has been commandeered by the thuggish Margraf Hazca and his entourage. Amalfi is having a difficult conversation with him and the Margraf is just raising his blaster to threaten him, when Mark and his assistants turn on a ‘friction-field generator’, and turn it up to overdrive. Normally the machine works to create friction-free movement of surfaces, thus eliminating the need for oil in machines; in overdrive it does the reverse and makes ‘creates adherence between all surfaces’ (p.286).

I’m not sure that explains what happens now, which is that all the Hruntans in the penthouse are stuck to their chairs and seats, unable to move. For some reason Amalfi, standing, can move, runs to the lift but finds it stuck to its shaft walls, so runs back through the penthouse (past the furious Hruntans struggling to lift their arms from the chairs they’re stuck to), onto a ledge, and then – grips the side of the building (extra adhesion) and slides the 80 storeys back to the ground, which he hits with quite a bang.

When he recovers consciousness Dee is laving Amalfi’s blistered hands and forehead, while Mark explains that he had hidden good old Dr Schloss (the Hruntan scientist whose colleagues turned on him for being too clever) in the knackered old ‘invisibility’ machine which they’d been sold by inhabitants of the planet Lyra ages ago and had never got to work. (‘You remember that old Lyran invisibility machine, boss.’)

Well, clever old Dr Schloss got it to work, the entire city was made invisible for thirty minutes, and this was enough for it to beam aloft and escape the security net which was just being cast around the planet by the earth police.

Now they’re flying free, but Amalfi worries that the cops can now bust them for, technically, breaking a treaty they signed with the Hruntans. Therefore he instructs Mark to steer the city towards the Rift. Not the Rift!

3. The Rift

The Rift is ‘awesome beyond all human experience’, it is ‘a valley cut in the face of the galaxy’, a vast space devoid of stars. Amalfi is not sure any city has ever successfully crossed it from one side to the other, but he’s going to try. Amalfi has barely explained all this to Dee, than they see a flaring in space (Amalfi uses a big video screen to steer the city by) and hear over the radio screaming pleas of SOS.

A city has been attacked and destroyed by a bindlestiff. What is a bindlestiff? An Okie city that’s gone pirate. Where will the lifeships from the destroyed city go? Well, there’s only one freak star out here in the emptiness of the Rift, so Amalfi sets a course for it.

Obviously and inevitably the star turns out to have a planet circling it which is capable of human life (as they pretty much all are: earth gravity; earth air; all very convenient). As the city comes in to land on the planet they are surprised to pick up chanting on the radio: it is inhabited.

After the huge city has dropped onto the surface (rather roughly, since a recurring theme is that the 23rd Street spindizzy is playing up), they discover a primitive tribal-level civilisation.

As Amalfi and the others exit the city onto the plain they are surprised to see a great procession of locals dressed in gowns and head-dresses and what-have-you snaking out from the nearest settlement and approaching them with singing and signs of reverence. After a cohort of children, come men in symbolic dress, and then a huge cage full of naked, filthy, unwashed women (!), drawn by two giant lizards (!!) Do they have to be naked?

Most of [the Hevian women] had been stoned for inadvertently covering themselves at one time or another, for in Hevian society women were not people but reminders of damnation, doubly evil for the slightest taint of secretiveness. (p.328)

Attendants unshackle the lizards and lead them away, leaving Amalfi face to face with a cage full of naked women, and a tall impressive man comes forward and places in Amalfi’s hand… ‘an ornate wrought-metal key’!

4. He (the planet He)

Miramon is spokesman for the local people, and tellus Amalfi the planet is named He. It seems they had a very advanced civilisation until some kind of catastrophe 8,000 years earlier. Amalfi suspects he knows why (the key feature of this book is that Amalfi knows everything and is nearly always right; it is very comforting and reassuring to be on Amalfi’s side in all these conflicts and emergencies, since he always emerges unharmed and vindicated, and saves the city yet again.)

He has a Draysonian cycle i.e. every so often it abruptly changes the axis of its rotation. Amalfi guesses that’s what happened 8,000 years ago, destroying the old civilisation and turning the entire planet into a steamy tropical jungle. Miramon explains that a new religion arose and it is now universally believed that the inhabitants of He are in a steamy tropical hell because of their sins – the kind of standard, shallow, bubble-gum religion you get in all these space operas, which lingers on into Star Trek or Star Wars.

Meanwhile Amalfi’s techs have discovered that a lifeship from the attacked city landed in another settlement, one of the rebel settlements which have broken with He‘s orthodox religion.

Having made friendly relations with Miramon and his people, Amalfi is able to cadge a rocket ship off him and get it piloted to this other settlement, because although He suffered a collapse of advanced civilisation, some elements of hi tech survived. For example, they have automobiles, which Blish enjoys using in a comic scene where Amalfi and Hazleton are driven in one to meet the settlement’s head men, disbelieving the noise and smell and discomfort of a car, as compared with the city’s own smooth, friction-free computer-driven cabs.

In an exciting scene, the little local rocketship they’re flying in comes under sustained attack from the enemy settlement, with bullets and bits of shrapnel shredding its thin metal skin, nearly hitting Amalfi et al. An attack squad suppresses the locals then locates the prison where the survivors of the destroyed Okie city’s lifeship were being tortured to reveal their tech secrets. One begs to be killed, two have gone mad, one has had his tongue torn out.

The motive for saving these guys was that, in their brief distress call, the Okie city had claimed to have a fuel-free drive, something which would be worth a fortune to New York or anyone. But Amalfi has barely begun questioning the tongueless man (who has, in the magic way of these books, somehow learned a way of speaking without a tongue) before the top of his (tongueless man’s) head is blown off by a bullet.

Back at the city, they come under dynamite and gas attack. Amalfi realises that the bindlestiff – which they had thought had disappeared into deep space – has in fact landed on the planet and is aiding the rebels. In a modern movie-type scenario the entire vast city turns out to have buried itself deep in a muddy quagmire near the leading town of the rebels, which is called Fabre-Suith.

Two things happen to make this story fast-moving and almost incomprehensible.

1. While the attack is still on (by now we have grasped that the Fabre-Suith people are attacking the city, but with weapons given them by the bindlestiff) Amalfi orders Mark to take the wild naked native women (who we saw in an earlier scene being taken to a kind of underground bathing rooms and hosed down by Dee, who joined in!) now cleaned and washed and dressed, to a clearing in the jungle near where all the weapons are being fired at the city. I couldn’t quite believe this was meant to be a serious plotline, but what happens is that the native men leave off firing weapons at the city and rush towards this clearing full of nubile young women, where they start fighting among themselves for the women. Not only that, but the bindlestiff ship emerges from its muddy hiding place, and itself sends a party of men to grab the women. The two groups of men start fighting. Eventually the bindlestiff sends a missile which annihilates the nearest settlement (in, I think, a mushroom-cloud atomic explosion) and their men make off with the women prisoners.

But all this is a distraction from Plan Two which is that, without anything having been explicitly agreed between Amalfi and Miramon, Amalfi has taken it upon himself to correct the axis of spin of the planet. This involves quite a lot of cod engineering with 40-mile wide tunnels being bored right to the core of the planet and spindizzy technology inserted. You’d expect this to take weeks, maybe months or even years to accomplish, but for the purposes of the pulp plot it all seems to be done in a day or so.

Then, just as the bindlestiff is pulling free of the vast mud swamp it had hidden in and about to pose maximum threat to New York, Amalfi presses the button to activate the deep planet drivers: Moving Day has begun; the engines buried near He‘s core kick off.

In fact it turns out be wildly more effective than Amalfi had anticipated. The vast engines they’ve buried near the planet’s core don’t slightly adjust the planet’s spin, they blast the whole thing clean out of orbiting its star. Within moments He‘s star has flashed by Amalfi’s viewing screen, and the planet is coursing through the Rift at light speed. The bindlestiff was thrown clear by the blast but New York is still attached to He.

Amalfi asks Mark to find the planet’s old star (it is part of these stories’ charm that Mark does so using a slide rule. In a similarly sweet and naive way, Amalfi guides this vast flying city using… a master space stick..’ by hand… by touch and feel, while staring at the big screen in front of him.)

By the time Mark’s done that the planet He is leaving the galaxy, departing upwards from the dish-shaped galaxy, far too far to return to its host sun, and it will take thousands of years, even at light speed, to reach the next galaxy. ‘What shall we do, boss?’ (Mark always calls Amalfi ‘boss’.)

In the kind of grand, sweeping and insouciant gesture which we’re getting used to by now, Amalfi points out that the spindizzy field which is driving He will also protect it from space cold, and supply it with heat; that by the time they reach the next galaxy they should have figured out the technology required to slow the planet down and locate it in a star orbit. Yeah, He will be alright. So they can leave.

So he orders Mark to take the city ‘aloft’, leaving He to its fate, and heading back into our galaxy. Now, it has been a recurrent theme that one of the city’s spindizzy engines, the one sited at 23rd Street, is always malfunctioning. They skip off He and and their next priority is to look for a repair or ‘garage’ planet.

5. Murphy (the planet Murphy)

Mark and/or the City Fathers tell Amalfi that they are re-entering the galaxy in the zone run by the Acolytes. They identify a sun and an engineering and repair planet but are still only approaching it when they are pulled over by cops. But these are swaggering, edge-of-the-galaxy, provincial cops, Acolyte cops (I think the analogy might be with the swaggering bully stereotype of the Deep South American cop).

Amalfi gives their bully boy leader (‘Lieutenant Lerner, Forty-fifth Border Security Group’, p.347) a five hundred Oc dollar bribe to let them pass on to the repair planet (incongruously named Murphy).

As they approach they realise that parallel to the main sun (in fact a pair of circulating stars) is a red dwarf sun and that around this feeble heart source has clustered some 300 Okie cities. It is an Okie ‘jungle’.

They touch down on Murphy which they discover to be very discouraging. The vast bays designed to take Okie cities for repairs are empty. The equipment is rusting. It is almost abandoned. An engineer comes running and Blish blinds us with pseudo-science about what needs repairing, but then a little later he returns waving a blaster around. Once they’ve calmed him down, Amalfi and Hazleton are shocked to discover that their money is worthless.

All through the story up to now Amalfi and co have used the rare metal germanium as the basis for their deals, drilling it out of planets where they could (along with oil) in return for their technological know-how. Now, the engineer informs them, germanium has ceased to be currency. A great economic collapse has swept out from earth and the new currency is drugs, specifically the anti-agathic drugs which keeps them all alive. New York’s treasury is worthless overnight.

Amalfi’s techies had been examining the only other city in the garage, an apparently all-purpose city with several functioning spindizzies. Amalfi orders his teams to cannibalise them.

At which point they hear sirens of police spaceships closing in, ready to arrest them not only for their long list of violations but for bribing Lieutenant Lerner with money which, they now know, was worthless. So Amalfi presses the ‘Get out of here fast’ emergency button.

6. The Jungle (i.e. the Sargasso sea of knackered Okie cities)

New York reappears among the ruined Okie cities clustered around the red dwarf star. He and Hazleton quickly realise that the cities are being forced to bid for work grudgingly offered out by bullying Acolyte officials. It’s like those scenes from 1940s and 50s movies where dockers turn up at the docks and the favoured ones get given work and the unlucky ones go home hungry.

Over the radio the Acolyte woman holds an auction for various mining and dirty jobs the Acolytes want them to so, in which the desperate cities undercut each other. the cop spaceships approach and foolishly some of the Okies open fire on them, only to be wiped out.

Avoiding this chaos, Amalfi goes over to the Okie city which has established rulership over these waifs. It is the city of Buda-Pesht and is run by a ‘King’. He it is who tries to enforce discipline among the cities and makes them all hold to minimum wages.

There now follows a scene which, in its byzantine complexity but childish psychology, is strongly reminiscent of Asimov’s Foundation stories. The King has a grand plan which is for the 300 or so Okie cities to band together and fly to earth to ask for justice (and food).

In a long scene, Amalfi recruits the German mayor of a minor city, and then proceeds to interrupt the meeting, speak from the floor, demand to be heard from the platform, goes up and engages in head to head rivalry with the King, making a powerful counter-proposal. This is that the Okies should pool the knowledge of their City Fathers to develop new levels of hyper-technology, which they can then sell as a cartel to the galaxy. Amalfi sways the meeting, many of whom are attracted by the idea, but at the crucial moment, when the King asks him where he is from, Amalfi refuses to say. Hazleton is there in the wings, with Dee, urging him to utter the words ‘New York’, because the city has such prestige that just the mention of its name would swing the meeting.

But here’s the Asimov-like twist. As he explains to Dee and Hazleton as they leave, he didn’t want to sway the meeting. The plan to link up all the City Fathers would never work. He just wanted to present a strong enough counter-plan… to ensure that the King’s plan triumphed. Aha. Amalfi wants the so-called March on Earth to take place, because he wants to hide New York in among it.

This is the last straw for Amalfi’s sidekick Hazleton, but there’s a final last straw when Amalfi goes on to admit that he also is in love with Dee. Hazleton explodes and says the fateful words: I want off. He wants to permanently leave the city. it is a legal form of words no mayor can ignore and no starman can retract. Amalfi accepts it at face value. Only later will it become clear that this, too, is part of his plan.

What happens next is Amalfi orders his new city manager to take New York to one of the outermost Okies which seems to be abandoned. They communicate politely as they walk through the dark and empty city but one person holds out in one floor of a deserted building, firing on them incessantly until reluctantly, Amalfi’s attack team take it out. They then dismantle the city’s spindizzies and take them back to New York.

On the big screen they see that the King’s rebellion has been reported to the earth police who appear out of hyperspace to corral the Okies. Some foolishly fight back, but surprisingly manage to take out cop ships. While the battle proceeds, most of the fit Okies abandon the area, heading off into space.

7. Hern VI (the planet Amalfi steers across the galaxy)

The majority of the Okie cities have set out on the March on Earth. Luckily New York is equipped with ‘proxies’, ten-metre-long ships with cameras attached, and Amalfi has these proxies tail the March across the galaxy.

Meanwhile Amalfi’s men use the spindizzies from the all-purpose ship and from the outermost Okie which they plundered to fit them to a planet – to Hern VI, a chunk of rock circling the sun. You’d think it would take a while to equip a planet to be driven through space but, as usual in these stories, it only takes a few pages covered in dialogue and some bogus science and the job is done. Hern VI blast off into space, in pursuit of the March Okies.

Despite being ridiculous beyond words this sequence is actually very exciting, as Amalfi steers an entire planet which is travelling faster than the speed of light across the galaxy in pursuit of the Okie Marchers.

As they whizz by any number of star systems and spaceships put out warnings about a rogue planet flying across the galaxy.

The career of Hern VI from its native Acolyte cluster across the centre of the galaxy made history. (p.412)

The aim is to catch up with the Marchers. To cut a long (and exciting) story short 1. The Marchers approach the earth solar system, slow down and adopt a battle formation. 2. After radio warnings, all kinds of earth battleships appear out of nothing and start attacking them, the King orders the Okies to fight back, mayhem. 3. But Amalfi has seen something other people have noticed but not realised the significance of, that an unusual spherical object had got in among the Okies and was now in the vanguard of their approach to earth. Then 4. everyone hears a peculiar radio message given out by the sphere, in English, but a strangely mangled English threatening the ‘People of Earth’.

Barely has this taken place than there is a profound crash, seismic tremors across Hern VI, the glimpse of a blue pearly earth has gone, the sight of Sol in the big video screen has gone, Hern VI has entered and exited the solar system in seconds.

And only now does Amalfi reveal his plan. He knew that the strange ellipsoidal metal object in among the Okie Marchers, and which then threatened earth, was none other than the legendary Vegan Battle Cruiser. The Vegans ruled the galaxy thousands of years before humanity came along. Beaten back by humanity’s advance, they had retreated to their heartlands, but then sent out this cruiser to take revenge. Marching with the Okie cities gave it perfect cover.

Amalfi had realised all this, had engineered the King and other Okies to march on earth, had engineered his teams stealing the spindizzies from the other cities, equipping Hern VI and making its hot pursuit of the Marchers, and he had engineered Hern VI’s collision with the Vegan spaceship. He had piloted Hern VI half way across the galaxy in order to collide with the Vegan battle cruiser which was instantly reduced to a pile of steaming metals in a deep crater on the planet’s leading edge.

Not only was this all a cunning plan but – when Dee suggests they tell earth how they saved the planet, Amalfi reveals that they can’t. If they reveal that they defeated the Vegan ship, the Vegans will build a new one. Not publicising the fact that they blatted it will leave the Vegans uncertain what’s happened to it. Earth’s security depends on them keeping their mouths shut.

Unfortunately every cop in the galaxy will now be after them for breaching earth’s security borders etc. Which is why they are steaming on towards an area of the galaxy know as the Megallanic clouds.

One last thing. the City Fathers have made it quite clear that the 23rd Street spindizzy has had it, but so have several of the others. So their next planet-fall will be their last. So that solves the dilemma of his best buddy, Hazleton, wanting off. He will get off. But so will everyone else. Once it’s docked, New York will never fly again.

8. IMT

The city lands on a new planet in the Magellanic Cloud. They have been given permission by the planet’s ‘Proctors’. They land on a particularly barren stretch of heathland and come across ‘chocolate-coloured’ illiterate serfs ploughing the land. They take one, Karst, under their wing, and go to the nearest city to meet the ‘Proctors’ who allowed them to land. 1. the handful of Proctors use the native inhabitants as slaves. 2. this city was clearly itself once an Okie, with spindizzy tech hidden in its bowels.

Now all through the previous stories had been references to an atrocity carried back in legendary days by a particularly brutal Okie city on a planet named Thor V, I’m not sure the details are given anywhere but the general idea is the Okies massacred every man, women and child, and that this is one of the bases for the very bad reputation the Okies have across the galaxy and why the cops hate them.

What emerges slowly in this story is that – again very like an Asimov Foundation story – Amalfi knows something which we and all the rest of the characters don’t. The ‘Proctors’ are the very same men who carried out the atrocity on Thor V. Amalfi slowly reveals this to Karst, who has been undergoing hynopedia education sessions.

Karst sings an old slave folk song to him which has a refrain that IMT / made the sky / Fall – which Amalfi realises is a folk memory of the way the IMT city crushes opposition by literally landing on them.

9. Home

At the climax of the story, and the series, Amalfi fools one of the Proctors, Heldon, into letting him examine the city’s spindizzies. The pretext is that New York will trade its own tech in exchange for being allowed to settle there. The ‘Proctors’ realise Amalfi is up to something and corner him in the machine room where he’d been examining the ways the spindizzies were connected. Amalfi holds up two eggs. Very simple: they are full of plague bacillus. Shoot him, he falls, the eggs shatter, the Proctors would be dead of plague before they reach the doors.

Cursing, they let him exit the door, which he locks behind him and scampers up the main Proctor building, the Temple, to its highest point. Up here must be the control room. He discovers a secret entrance to a kind of attic, and discovers the controls to the city and just has times to make some vital alterations to the controls, before going back down to the room below and once again using the egg threat to get free.

Amalfi walked backwards out of the star chamber and down two steps. Then he bent, deposited his remaining black egg carefully on the threshold, thumbed his nose at the furious soldiery, and took off down the spiral staircase at a dead run. (p.471)

Flash Gordon. The Prisoner of Zenda. Douglas Fairbanks Junior. Mesotron rifles are fired at him, demolishing entire buildings, as he zigzags through the streets of the IMT city, eventually making it to the scrubland at the perimeter, the area which is obviously where the city joins the land. All the while the noise had been building up, the sound of screeching metal and the streets had been bucking and writhing.

Amalfi is just scrambling across the no mans land when a line of light appears all round the city’s circumference. it is wriggling free of its location ready to fly over to new York and squash it. But Amalfi fiddled with the controls, remember. Suddenly, with no warning, the IMT city rises but doesn’t hover and then head for New York… it keeps on rising uncontrollably, up up up, Amalfi had disabled the steering mechansim and jammed the engines, it is doomed to fly directly upwards and in an endless straight line.

The freed slave Karst helps Amalfi to his feet and both stand on the edge of the vast hole the IMT city left behind it, and Amalfi (and Blish) have one more trick up their sleeve. As relations with the IMT had soured, the Proctors had called the earth police (them again! they appear in pretty much every story) and warned them that the wanted Okie city of New York was likely to make a getaway from this planet.

Now as Amalfi and Karst look up into the sky at the dwindling light of the IMT city – suddenly it flares into a great white light. The earth cops were there waiting, and have vapourised it.

Thus 1. justice has been served on the genocidairs of IMT. 2. the earth cops now think they have destroyed New York and its population are now free of the threat of arrest and execution. 3. With the yoke of IMT slavery removed from their necks, the native chocolate brown people of the planet are now free.

Thus New York’s great odyssey, and the entire sequence of stories comes to a fitting end, with John Amalfi (rather like the psychohistorian Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation series) vindicated at every turn for his vast wisdom and strategic guile. And love of justice. Now he and Dee and Hazleton and all the other inhabitants of New York will turn to cultivating this planet, and making it a new Earth.

Around them, there was a murmuring of voices, hushed with disaster, and with something else, too – something so old, and so new, that it hardly had a name on the planet that IMT had ruled. It was called freedom. (p.474)

Cover art

Interesting how the same story can be illustrated so many different ways – starting in the 1950s with the half-naked woman pulp magazine cover shown above, through to just twenty years later, which saw the advent of stunning sci-fi art, like the dazzling 1970s cover shown below.

Cover of Earthman' Come Home, 1974 Arrow paperback edition, by Chris Foss

Cover of Earthman, Come Home, 1974 Arrow paperback edition, by Chris Foss


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction

Americocentric

It is Americocentric. There are no other countries worth troubling with on earth. Whether ‘man’ reaches out to colonise the planets, to settle on Mars or Mercury, invents hyperspace and travels to colonise distant planets, or stays at home to create the megacities of Caves of Steel – it’s Americans who do it, with American technology, and American culture.

And the home city is always New York: in the final story of I, Robot, it is New York which becomes seat of the new World Government and the World Co-Ordinator is, of course, American, as are the inventors of robots, and the hyper-drive, and anything else worthwhile that mankind comes up with. 3,000 years later, after billions of people have left earth to colonise the Outer Worlds, detective Elijah Baley lives in New York.

Everyone speaks English

With the result that everyone speaks English. It is one of the many ludicrous elements you have to overcome in order to read the Foundation trilogy, that 12,000 years in the future, and inhabiting planets scattered right across the inconceivable distances of the Galaxy – everyone speaks English. There’s a slight gesture towards reality, in that some of the humans on the more remote planets have an accent which is a bit hard for others to understand. But it’s always, everywhere, basically English that is spoken.

Planets become provinces

I can’t quite define it, but it’s the way all his (and other golden age writers’) universes consist of planets which just do one thing and are treated, in effect, like real-world people treat regions of their countries.

Thus a planet in the Foundation books is a ‘holiday planet’, as if one whole planet were made of beaches and cocktail bars. Another planet just supplies raw materials, in The Naked Sun Solaria is the planet with most advanced robotics. And that’s it. That’s what it does.

Planets – entire planets – are conceived of as one-trick ponies, which do just the one thing. Completely ignoring the evidence we have about the only planet where we know life exists – our own one – that planets are astonishingly diverse, in climates, life forms and so on.

It is a profoundly dumb way of thinking about planets. As if each one is a toy in a childish game. It is an example of the way Asimov and other Golden Age writers dismiss or ignore the mind-boggling diversity of life on our own planet. In Asimov’s fiction planet earth is reduced to American men arguing in rooms. It follows that his view of the entire galaxy is the same, but extrapolated to many more rooms.

It is this reductive gesture which makes so many of the planets in the Foundation stories end up sounding the same. They may be given a paragraph or so of cursory description – but they all have earth-type gravity and air, no radiation or dangerous environmental elements of any kind. They’re just variations of the same kind of futuristic room where Elijah Baley ends up meeting and arguing with people, or the protagonists of the Foundation stories end up meeting and arguing with people. In American.

A human-only universe

This imaginative reductionism is related to the way that there appears to be no other life in the galaxy.

Humans colonise all the other planets, and then hypertravel off to other star systems, and end up colonising pretty much every other planet in the galaxy and yet – encounter no other significant life forms.

It’s not only that this is unlikely (although it’s all completely unlikely). More to the point, it is extravagantly boring. It means that all Asimov’s fiction is about people, the same kind of people, a certain type of calculating adult, calculating the same kinds of odds and trying to figure out whodunnit.

They’re all detective stories

All the Foundation stories and the Elijah Baley stories are, in a sense, whodunnits. The Baley ones, obviously since he is a detective investigating murders. The Foundation ones in a more roundabout sense. In every Foundation story there is a dilemma or threat. Individual or group X think the best way to solve it is by doing Y. But the hero (or heroine) of each story knows better and all the stories end the same way: the secret of what really happened is revealed right at the end. So although they’re not overtly detective stories, they have a similar structure: dilemma – fake leads and red herrings – revelation of the true solution or meaning of events.

Simplistic politics

Having painted a childishly simplistic vision of a galaxy in which each planet does just one thing, in which there are no aliens to disrupt his whodunnits, Asimov only incorporates the most simplistic and child’s-eye version of ‘politics’ as is required to drive the stories.

If there are ‘political’ movements, they are a) perfectly understandable and b) perfectly rational and c) childishly simple.

Thus in The Caves of Steel there is a ‘party’ – the ‘Medievalists’ – which wishes to return humans to a simpler, earlier time. That’s it. There don’t appear to be any other political parties in America, there’s no mention of elections, with the vast amount of corruption and bullshit they usually throw up, let alone of the notion that there are different countries who might be economic or military rivals (as we know there have been throughout all human history).

No – magically, the entire world of national and international politics disappears with a wave of the magic wand, leaving behind just enough of a child’s cartoon version of ‘politics’ (a secret society who want to turn the clock back – about as sophisticated as the League of Red-Haired Men in Sherlock Holmes) as is required for make the hokey storyline.

Pretty much the same ‘party’ – really a conspiracy – appears in the final story if I, Robot where it is the Society for Humanity which opposes the rise of the robots.

Any other notion that people might disagree about fundamental principles of how to run the economy, how to redistribute wealth, whether to allow unchecked capitalism or moderate it or try and implement some kind of state economy, the usual nationalist, xenophobic and populist motivations for politics which we all know from the real world – gone, vanished, evaporated, cleansed – just like other nations or other languages.

Economics

Similarly, Asimov’s take on economics is raw materials are needed for factories on earth. That’s about it. The earth of The Caves of Steel is rigidly hierarchical but we don’t really get to see anyone at work except the police (we do meet a worker in a nuclear plant and the staff of a shop where an anti-robot riot nearly breaks out) and these police could come out of a Raymond Chandler novel or any of the thousands of other contemporary cop thrillers.

Real economics involves the continuously evolving exploitation of raw materials, and siting and building of factories, and the training of workforces to supply technologies which are constantly being invented solely to make money. America has been the world’s leading capitalist economy and society for at least a century. It is extraordinary that Asimov, for all his supposed intelligence, is blind to the disruptive energies of capitalism which always lead, everywhere, to the provision of a high standard of living for many, maybe a majority of a capitalist population, but also always involve low wages, unemployment and – a cardinal fact of untrammeled capitalism – the cycle of boom and bust, with periodic crashes leading to deep depressions every ten years or so.

In the real world it is difficult even to organise the workers in a particular industry to join together to take industrial action or bargain for better pay. In Asimov’s world entire planets truck along quite happily producing raw materials or being vacation planets, with no sense of struggle or exploitation or grievance or class or racial conflict.

All the things which we know absolutely dog the actual world – are excluded from his stories.

Wars

Similarly, real world wars break out for complex reasons and, once started, tend to develop a dynamic of their own and become very difficult to end.

As you might expect by now, wars in Asimov’s fiction are the opposite, as simply motivated and easily ended as his paper-thin notion of politics. Some of the Foundation wars do start for the time-honoured motivation that strong planets see an opportunity to conquer weak ones – but they are nearly always started by specific named individuals who, when we meet them, are portrayed as pantomime baddies.

I’m thinking of the story, The Mayors, in which the planet Anacreon is ruled by Prince Regent Wienis, who rubs his hand and cackles like a pantomime villain or Ming the Merciless, while bullying his whiney teenaged nephew, King Lepold I. It only takes Salvor Hardin to pull off a few tricks (he’s bugged the Anacreon fleet and also manages to turn off all power in Anacreon’s capital city) to overcome Wienis and the threatened war to end as quickly as it began.

My point is that, in the real world, wars are often supported by entire populations which have been whipped up top expect them – as all Europe expected World War One, as the Nazis whipped up the Germans or the Japanese military leaders organised their entire society for war. In Asimov’s fairy tales, the goody only has to eliminate the cackling baddy and the rest of the population instantly returns to being reasonable and peace-loving. Exactly the opposite of reality.

Women

It’s to Asimov’s credit that he gives a leading role to Bayta Darell, who grasps what is going on quicker than her husband in The Mule, and to her grand-daughter, 14-year-old Arcadia Darell, in Search By the Foundation, that Elijah Baley’s wife, Jessie, plays some role in The Caves of Steel and Gladia Delmarre plays the lead, a somewhat stereotyped romantic lead, in The Naked Sun. And not forgetting the way he places Dr Susan Calvin centre stage for the linked stories that make up I, Robot.

Still, Asimov’s failure to anticipate women’s lib and feminism is a good example of the way that, while he and his fans had their eyes fixed on the stars, real and profound social changes were transforming human relationships here on earth (in the West, at any rate) in a matter of just a few decades.

I’m not blaming him for failing to anticipate specific social changes: I’m pointing out that his fictions envisage basically unchanged social relationships stretching for thousands of years into the future and how profoundly misleading a view of human nature that is.

Race

Ditto race. In The Naked Sun the humans refer to the fleets of robots which do all the hard work as ‘boy’. Now this is the offensive, abusive term which white Americans used to blacks from the Reconstruction period onwards, and reached horrible aggressiveness as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Asimov couldn’t anticipate that only a decade or so after he was writing, America was to be seriously divided by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so on.

But that’s the point. While Asimov was extrapolating his neat and tidy Three Laws of Robotics, and anticipated them being carried 100, 3,000 and 12,000 years into the future by white English-speaking, Americans – meanwhile, around him, through the 1950s into the 1960s, the real world descended into a messy chaos.

Summary

This is why so many adult readers, writers and critics were, and are, able to dismiss and ignore most science fiction – it’s because science fiction itself simply excludes and ignores almost everything which makes up the actual world we live in, with all its difficulties and complexities and challenges and, by extension, its rewards and interest.


Reviews of books by Isaac Asimov

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’

1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)

I, Robot is a ‘fixup’ novel, i.e. it is not a novel at all, but a collection of science fiction short stories. The nine stories originally appeared in the American magazines Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950, and were then compiled into a book for stand-alone publication by Gnome Press in 1950, in the same way that the Foundation trilogy also appeared as magazine short stories before being packaged up by Gnome.

The stories are (sort of) woven together by a framing narrative in which the fictional Dr. Susan Calvin, a pioneer of positronic robots and now 75 years old, tells each story to a reporter whose been sent to do a feature on her life.

These interventions don’t precede and end every story; if they did there’d be eighteen of them; there are in fact only seven and I think the stories are better without them. Paradoxically, they make a more effective continuous narrative without Asimov’s ham-fisted linking passages. Calvin appears as a central character in three of them, anyway, and the comedy pair of robot testers, Powell and Donovan appear in another three consecutive stories, so the stories already contained threads and continuities…

A lot is explained once you learn that these were pretty much the first SF stories Asimov wrote. Since he was born in 1920, Robbie was published when he was just 20! Runaround when he was 21, and so on. His youth explains a lot of the gawkiness of the language and the immaturity of his view of character and, indeed, of plot.

So the reader has a choice: you can either judge Asimov against mature, literary writers and be appalled at the stories’ silliness and clunky style; or take into account how young he was, and be impressed at the vividness of his ideas – the Three Laws, the positronic brain etc – ideas which are silly, but proved flexible and enduring enough to be turned into nearly 40 shorts stories, four novels, and countless spin-offs, not least the blockbusting Will Smith movie.

Introduction

The introduction is mostly interesting for the fictional timeline it introduces around the early development of robots. In 1982 Susan Calvin was born, the same year Lawrence Robertson sets up U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. The ‘now’ of the frame story interview is 75 years later i.e. 2057.

  • 1998 intelligent robots are available to the public
  • 2002 mobile, speaking robot invented
  • 2005 first attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2008 Susan Calvin joins U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc as its first robopsychologist
  • 2015 second, successful, attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2006 an asteroid has a laser beam placed on it to relay the sun’s energy back to earth
  • 2037 the hyperatomic motor invented (as described in the story, Escape!)
  • 2044 the Regions of earth, having already absorbed and superseded ‘nations’, themselves come together to form a global Federation

What this timeline indicates is Asimov’s urge to systematise and imperialise his stories. What I mean is that other short story writers write short stories are always part of a larger narrative (systematise) and the larger narrative tends to be epic – here it is the rise of robots from non-talking playmates to controllers of man’s destiny. Same as the Foundation series, where he doesn’t just tell stories about a future planet, or a future league of inhabited star systems – but the entire future of the galaxy.

1. Robbie (1940, revd. 1950 first appearance in Super Science Stories)

It is and 1996 and George Weston has bought his 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, a mute robot and playfellow. The story opens with them playing and laughing and Gloria telling Robbie stories, his favourite treat. However, Gloria’s mother does not like the thought of her daughter being friends with a robot so gets her husband to take it back to the factory and buy a dog instead. Gloria is devastated, hates the dog and pines away. To distract her her parents take her on a trip to futuristic New York. Gloria is excited but, to her mum’s dismay, chiefly because she thinks the family are going there to track down Robbie, who she’s been told has ‘run away’. When told that’s not the case she returns to sulking. Dad has a bright idea, to take her to a factory where they make robots in order to show Gloria that Robbie is not human, doesn’t have personality, is just an assemblage of cogs and wires. Unbeknown to Gloria or his wife, George has in fact arranged for Robby to be on the production line. Gloria spots him, goes mad with joy and runs across to him – straight into the path of a huge tractor. Before any of the humans can react, Robbie with robot speed hurtles across the shop floor and scoops Gloria out of danger.

This story, like the others, is supposed to give rise to some kind of debate about whether robots are human, have morals, are safe and so on. Well, since it is nearly 2019 and we still don’t have workable robots, that debate is fantasy, and this is a sweet, cheapjack story, written with flash and humour.

2. Runaround (March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction)

It is 2005 and two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, have been sent to Mercury along with Robot SPD-13, known as ‘Speedy’. Ten years earlier an effort to colonise Mercury had been abandoned. Now the pair are trying again with better technology. They’ve inhabited the abandoned buildings the previous settlers left behind but discovered that the photo-cell banks that provide life support to the base are low on selenium and will soon fail.

The nearest selenium pool is seventeen miles away Donovan has sent Speedy to get some. Hours have gone by and he’s still not returned. So the story is a race against time.

But it is also a complicated use of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. The pair discover down in the bowels of the abandoned building some primitive robots who carry them through the shade of low hills as close to the selenium pool and Speedy as they can get. (If they go into the direct light of the sunlight they will begin to be irreparably damaged, even through spacesuits, by the fierce radioactive glare.)

They see and hear Speedy (by radio) and discover he appears to be drunk, reciting the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Three Laws of Robotics are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now because Speedy was so expensive to build, the Third Law had been strengthened to preserve him and he has discovered something neither spaceman anticipated, which is that near the selenium are pools of iron-eating gas – much of Speedy being made of iron. When Donovan sent him to get some selenium he didn’t word the command particularly strongly.

So what’s happened is that, in Speedy’s mind, the second and third laws have come into conflict and given Speedy a sort of nervous breakdown. Hence the drunk-like behaviour. He approaches the selenium in obedience to the second law; but then detects the gas and backs away.

The astronauts try several tactics, including getting their robots to fetch, and then lob towards the selenium pool, canisters of oxalic acid to neutralise the carbonic gas. Eventually they tumble to the only thing which will trump laws 2 and 3, which is law 1. Powell walks out of the shadow of the bluff where they’ve been sheltering, into full sunlight, and calls to Speedy (over the radio) that the radiation is hurting him and begging Speedy to help. Law one overrides the other two and Speedy, restored to full working order, hurtles over, scoops him up and carries him into the protective shade.

At which point they give Speedy new instructions to collect the selenium, emphasising that it is life or death for them whether the photo-cell banks are replenished. With the full force of Law One behind him, this time Speedy overrides Law three (self protection) fetches loads of selenium, they fix the cells, everyone happy.

3. Reason (April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A year later the same ill-fated couple of spacemen are moved to a space station orbiting the sun whose task is to focus the sun’s energy into a concentrated beam which is then shot back to a received on earth. They finish constructing one of the first of a new range of robots, QT-1, who they nickname ‘Cutie’, and are disconcerted when it starts to question them. Specifically, it refuses to believe that they made it. In a series of increasingly rancorous conversations, Cutie dismisses the men as flimsy assemblages of blood and flesh, obviously not built to last.

Cutie eventually decides that the main power source of the ship must be the ‘Master’.He dismisses all the evidence of space, visible from the ship’s portholes, and all the books aboard the ship, as fables and fantasies designed to occupy the ‘lower’ minds of the men.

No, Cutie has reasoned itself into the belief that ‘There is no Master but Master, and QT-1 is His prophet.’ Despite this it carried on going about its duties, namely supervising the less advanced robots in the various tasks of keeping the space station maintained. Until the guys realise, to their further consternation, that Cutie has passed his religion on to them and they now refuse to obey the humans. In fact they pick up the humans, take them to their living quarters and lock them in under house arrest.

Powell and Donovan become very anxious because a solar storm is expected which will make the immensely high-powered beam to the earth waver and wobble. Even a little amount will devastate hundreds of square miles back on earth. But to their amazement, and relief, Cutie manages the beam perfectly, countering for the impact of the solar storm far better than they could have. At some (buried) level Cutie is still functioning according the 1st and 2nd laws i.e. protecting humans. The pair end up wondering whether a robot’s nominal ‘beliefs’ matter at all, so long as it obeys the three laws and functions perfectly.

Although marked by Asimov’s trademark facetious humour, and despite the schoolboy level on which the ‘debate’ with the robot is carried out, and noting the melodramatic threat of the approach of the solar storm – this is still a humorous, effective short story.

4. Catch That Rabbit (February 1944  issue of Astounding Science Fiction )

It’s those two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, again. They’re jokey banter is laid on with a trowel and reeks of fast-talking, wise-cracking comedians of the era.

Powell said, ‘Mike — you’re right.’
‘Thanks, pal. I knew I’d do it some day.’
‘All right, and skip the sarcasm. We’ll save it for Earth, and preserve it in jars for future long, cold winters.’

The plot is comparable to the previous story. Now they’re on an asteroid mining station where a ‘master’ robot – nicknamed Dave because his number is DV-5 – is in charge of six little worker robots – nicknamed the ‘fingers’ – digging up some metal ore. Problem is they’re not  hitting their quotas and, when Powell and Donovan eavesdrop on the worker robots via a visi-screen, they are appalled to see that, as soon as their backs are turned, Dave leads the other six in vaudeville dance routines!

After much head-scratching and trying out various hypotheses – as in the previous story – they eventually tumble to the problem. The trouble seems to kick off whenever Dave encounters a slight problem. So it would seem that supervising six robots is simply too much of a strain, when an additional problem is added. Solution? Eliminate one of the robots. Dave can handle the remaining five, plus whatever issues arise in the blasting and mining operation, just fine.

There is, however, a typically cheesy Asimov punchline. So what’s with the chorus line dancing? Donovan asks. Powell replies that when Dave was stymied and his processors couldn’t decide what to do – he resorted to ‘twiddling his fingers‘ boom boom!

5. Liar! (May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Accidentally, a robot is manufactured which can read human minds. With typical Yank levity it is nicknamed Herbie, since its number is RB-34. U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc mathematician Peter Bogert and robopsychologist Susan Calvin, at various points, interview it. Now Herbie, as well as answering their questions, reads what’s on their minds, namely that Bogert wants to replace Lanning as head of U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc, and that Calvin is frustratedly in love with a young officer at the firm, Milton Ashe.

To their delight, Herbie tells Bogert that Lanning has handed in his resignation and nominated Bogert to replace him, and tells Calvin that Ashe is in love with her too.

Their happiness doesn’t last. When Bogert confronts Lanning with news of his resignation, the latter angrily denies it. Calvin is on the point of declaring her feelings for Ashe, when the latter announces that he soon to marry his fiancee.

In the climactic scene the four character confront Herbie with his ‘lies’ and it is Calvin who stumbles on the truth. Herbie can read minds. He knows what his human interlocutors wish. He knows revealing that those wishes are unrequited or untrue will psychologically damage them. He is programmed to obey the First Law of Robotics i.e. no robot must harm a human being. And so he lies to them. He tells them what they want to hear.

Beside herself with anger (and frustration) Calvin taunts the cowering robot into a corner of the room and eventually makes its brain short circuit.

Little Lost Robot (March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

On Hyper Base, a military research station on an asteroid, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive. One of their robots goes missing. US Robots’ Chief Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, and Mathematical Director Peter Bogert, are called in to investigate.

They are told that the Nestor (a characteristic nickname for a model NS-2 robot) was one of a handful which had had its First Law of Robotics amended. They learn that, as part of their work, the ether scientists on Hyper Base have to expose themselves to risky levels of gamma rays, albeit for only short, measured periods. They and their managers found the Nestors kept interfering to prevent them exposing themselves, or rushing out to fetch them back in – in rigid obedience to the first law, which is to prevent any humans coming from harm.

After the usual red herrings, arguments and distractions it turns out that a nervy physicist, Gerald Black, who had been working with the missing robot, had gotten angry and told it to ‘get lost’. Which is exactly what it proceeded to do. A shipment of 62 Nestors had docked on its way off to some further destination. Next thing anyone knew there were 63 Nestors in its cargo hold and nobody could detected which of the 63 was the one which had had its First Law tampered with.

As usual Asimov creates a ‘race against time’ effect by having Calvin become increasingly concerned that Nestor 10 has not only ‘got lost’ but become resentful at being insulted by an inferior being’, and might carry on becoming more resentful until it plans something actively malevolent.

Calvin carries out a number of tests to try and distinguish Nestor 10, and becomes genuinely alarmed when entire cohorts of the nestors fail to react quickly enough to save a human (placed in a position of jeopardy for the sake of the experiment).

Finally, she catches it out by devising a test which distinguishes Nestor 10 as the only one which has received additional training in dealing with gamma radiation since arriving at the Hyper Drive base, the other 62 remaining ignorant.

After Nestor 10 has been revealed, Calvin sharply orders it to approach her, which it does, whining and complaining about its superiority and how it shouldn’t be treated like that and how it was ordered to lose itself and she mustn’t reveal its whereabouts… and attacks her. At which Black and Bogert flood the chamber with enough gamma rays to incapacitate it. it is destroyed, the other 62 ‘innocent’ nestors are trucked off to their destination.

Once again, this story is a scary indictment of the whole idea of robots, if it turns out that corporations can merrily tamper with the laws of robotics in order to save money, or get a job done, well, obviously they will. In which case the laws aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Escape! (August 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Published in the month that the War in the Pacific – and so the Second World War – ended, after the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japan.

In that month’s issues of Astounding Science Fiction readers learned that U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. possess a Giant Brain, a positronic doodah floating in a helium globe, supported by wires etc. Reassuringly, it is a chattily American brain:

Dr. Calvin said softly, ‘How are you, Brain?’
The Brain’s voice was high-pitched and enthusiastic, ‘Swell, Miss Susan.’

A rival firm approaches U.S. Robot etc. It too is working on a hyperdrive and, when its scientists fed all the information into their supercomputer, it crashed. Tentatively, our guys agree to feed the same info into The Brain. Now the thing about the Brain is it is emotionally a child. Dr Calvin thinks that this is why it manages to process the same information which blew up the rival one: because it doesn’t take the information so seriously – particularly the crucial piece of information that, during the hyperdrive, human beings effectively die.

It swallows all the information and happily agrees to make the ship in question. Within a month or so the robots it instructs have built a smooth shiny hyperdrive spaceship. It is over to the two jokers we’ve met in the earlier stories, Powell land Donovan, Mike and Greg, to have a look. But no sooner are they in it than the doors lock and it disappears into space. Horrified at being trapped, the two men wisecrack their way around their new environment. Horrified at losing two test pilots in a new spaceship Dr Calvin very carefully interviews The Brain. Oh, they’ll be fine, it says, breezily.

Meanwhile, Mike and Greg undergo the gut-wrenching experience of hyperspace travel and – weird scenes – imagine themselves dead and queueing up outside the Pearly Gates to say hello to old St Peter. When they come round from these hallucinations, they look at the parsec-ometer on the control board and realise it is set at 300,000.

They were conscious of sunlight through the port. It was weak, but it was bluewhite – and the gleaming pea that was the distant source of light was not Old Sol.
And Powell pointed a trembling finger at the single gauge. The needle stood stiff and proud at the hairline whose figure read 300,000 parsecs.
Powell said, ‘Mike if it’s true, we must be out of the Galaxy altogether.’
Donovan said, ‘Blazed Greg! We’d be the first men out of the Solar System.’
‘Yes! That’s just it. We’ve escaped the sun. We’ve escaped the Galaxy. Mike, this ship is the answer. It means freedom for all humanity — freedom to spread through to every star that exists — millions and billions and trillions of them.’

Eventually the spaceship returns to earth, joking Mike and Greg stumble out, unshaven and smelly, and are led off for a shower.

Dr Calvin explains to an executive board (i.e. all the characters we’ve met in the story, including Mike and Dave) that the equations they gave The Brain included the fact that humans would ‘die’ – their bodies would be completely disassembled, as would the molecules of the space ship – in order for it to travel through hyperspace. It was this knowledge of certain ‘death’ which had made the rivals’ computer – obeying the First Law of Robotics – short circuit.

But Dr Calvin had phrased the request in such a way to The Brain as to downplay the importance of death. (In fact this is a characteristic Asimovian play with words – Dr Calvin’s instructions to The Brain made no sense when I read them, and only make sense now, when she uses them as an excuse for why The Brain survived but the rival supercomputer crashed.

Like most of Asimov’s stories, there is a strong feeling of contrivance, that stories, phrases or logic are wrenched out of shape to deliver the outcome he wants. This makes them clever-clever, but profoundly unsatisfying, and sometimes almost incomprehensible.)

Anyway, The Brain still registered the fact the testers would ‘die’ (albeit they would be reconstituted a millisecond later) and this is the rather thin fictional excuse given for the fact that the Brain retreated into infantile humour – designing a spaceship which was all curves, providing the testers with food – but making it only baked beans and milk, providing toilet facilities – but making them difficult to find, and so on. Oh, and ensuring that at the moment of molecular disintegration, the testers had the peculiar jokey experience of queueing for heaven, of hearing their fellow waiters and some of the angels all yakking like extras in a 1950s musical. That was all The Brain coping with its proximity to breaking the First Law by retreating into infantile humour.

Follow all that? Happy with that explanation? Happy with that account of how the human race makes the greatest discovery in its history?

Or is it all a bit too much like a sketch from the Jerry Lee Lewis show?

Lanning raised a quieting hand, “All right, it’s been a mess, but it’s all over. What now?’
‘Well,’ said Bogert, quietly, “obviously it’s up to us to improve the space-warp engine. There must be some way of getting around that interval of jump. If there is, we’re the only organization left with a grand-scale super-robot, so we’re bound to find it if anyone can. And then — U. S. Robots has interstellar travel, and humanity has the opportunity for galactic empire.’ !!!

Evidence (September 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A story about a successful politician, Stephen Byerley. Having been a successful attorney he is running for mayor of a major American city. His opponent, Francis Quinn, claims he is a robot, built by the real Stephen Byerley who was crippled in a car accident years earlier.

The potential embarrassment leads U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. to send their top robosychologist test whether Byerley is a robot or not.

  • She offers him an apple and Byerley takes a bite, but he may have been designed with a stomach.
  • Quinn sends a journalist with a hidden X-ray camera to photograph Byerley’s insides, but Byerley is protected by some kind of force shield

Quinn and Calvin both make a big deal of the fact that Byerley, if a robot, must obey the three Laws of Robotics i.e. will be incapable of harming a human. This becomes a centrepiece of the growing opposition to Byerley, stoked by Quinn’s publicity machine.

During a globally broadcast speech to a hostile audience, a heckler climbs onto the stage and challenges Byerley to hit him in the face. Millions watch the candidate punch the heckler in the face. Calvin tells the press that Byerley is human. With the expert’s verdict disproving Quinn’s claim, Byerley wins the election.

Afterwards, Calvin visits Byerley and shrewdly points out that the heckler may have been a robot, manufactured by Byerley’s ‘teacher’, a shady figure who has gone ‘to the country’ to rest and who both Calvin and Quin suspect is the real Byerley, hopelessly crippled but with advanced robotics skills.

This is one of the few stories where Asimov adds linking material in which the elderly Calvin tells the narrator-reporter than Byerley arranged to have his body ‘atomised’ after his death, so nobody ever found out.

All very mysterious and thrilling for the nerdy 14-year-old reader, but the adult reader can pick a million holes in it, such as the authorities compelling Byerley to reveal the whereabouts of the mysterious ‘teacher’ or compelling him to have an x-ray.

The Evitable Conflict (June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

The Byerley story turns out to be important because this same Stephen Byerley goes on to become the head of the planetary government, or World Co-Ordinator, as it is modestly titled

The story is a fitting end to the sequence because it marks the moment when robots – which we saw, in Robbie as little more than playthings for children in 1998 – taking over the running of the world by the 2050s.

Byerley is worried because various industrial projects – a canal in Mexico, mines in Spain – are falling behind. Either there’s something wrong with the machines which, by this stage, are running everything… or there is human sabotage.

He calls in Susan Calvin, by this stage 70 years old and the world’s leading expert on robot psychology.

She listens as Byerley gives her a detailed description of his recent tour of the Four Regions of Earth (and the 14 year old kid reader marvels and gawps at how the planet will be divided up into four vast Regions, with details of which one-time ‘countries’ they include, their shiny new capital cities, their Asian, Africa and European leaders who Byerley interviews).

This is all an excuse for Asimov to give his teenage view of the future which is that rational complex calculating Machines will take over the running of everything. The coming of atomic power, and space travel, will render the conflict between capitalism and communism irrelevant. The European empires will relinquish their colonies which will become free and independent. And all of humanity will realise, at the same time, that there is no room any more for nationalism or political conflicts. It will become one world. Everyone will live in peace.

Ahhh isn’t that nice.

Except for this one nagging fact — that some of the projects overseen by the Machines seem to be failing. Byerley tells Calvin his theory. There is a political movement known as the Society for Humanity. It can be shown that the men in charge of the Mexican canal, the Spanish mines and the other projects which are failing are all members of the Society for Humanity. Obviously they are tampering with figures or data in order to sabotage project successes, to reintroduce shortages and conflicts and to discredit the Machines. Therefore, Byerley tells Calvin, he proposes having every member of the Society for Humanity arrested and imprisoned.

Calvin – and this is a typical Asimov coup, to lead the reader on to expect one thing and then, with a whirl of his magician’s cape, to reveal something completely different – Calvin says No. He has got it exactly wrong. the Machines, vastly complex, proceeding on more data than any one human could ever manage, and continually improving, acting under an expanded version of the First Law of Robotics – namely that no robot or machine must harm humanity – have detected that the Society for Humanity presents a threat to the calm, peaceful, machine-controlled future of humanity – and so the machines have falsified the figures and made the projects fail — precisely in order to throw suspicion on the Society for Humanity, precisely to make the World Co-Ordinator arrest them, precisely in order to eliminate them.

In other words, the Machines have now acquired enough data about the world and insight into human psychology, as to be guiding humanity’s destiny. It is too late to avert or change, she tells Byerley. They are in control now.

Despite its silliness, it is nonetheless a breath-taking conclusion to the book, and, as with the Foundation stories, makes you feel like you really have experienced a huge and dazzling slab of mankind’s future.


Comments

The inadequacy of the Three Laws epitomises the failure of all attempts to replicate the human mind

I suppose this has occurred to everyone who’s ever read these stories, but the obvious thing about them is that every single story is about robots going wrong. This doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about a robotic future.

A bit more subtly, what they all demonstrate is that ‘morality’ is a question of human interpretation: people interpret situations and decide how to act accordingly. This interpretative ability cannot be replicated by machines, computers, artificial intelligence, call them what you will. It probably never will for the simple reason that it is imperfect, partial and different in each individual human. You will never be able to programme ‘robots’ with universal laws of behaviour and morality, when these don’t even exist among humans.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics sound impressive to a 14-year-old sci-fi nerd, or as the (shaky) premise to a series of pulp sci-fi stories – but the second you begin trying to apply them to real life situations (for example, two humans giving a robot contradictory orders) you immediately encounter problems. Asimov’s Three Laws sound swell, but they are, in practice, useless. And the fact that the robots in the stories seem to do nothing but break down, demonstrates the problem.

Neither the human mind nor the human body can be replicated by science

Asimov predicted that humans would have developed robots by now (2018, when I write), indeed by the 1990s.

Of course, we haven’t. This is because nobody understands how the human brain works and no technologists have come anywhere near replicating its functionality. They never will. The human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It has taken about three billion years to evolve (if we start back with the origin of life on earth). The idea that guys in white coats in labs working with slide rules can come anywhere close to matching it in a few generations is really stupid.

And that’s just human intelligence. On the physical side, no scientists have created ‘robots’ with anything like the reaction times and physical adroitness of even the simplest animals.

We don’t need robots since we have an endless supply of the poor

Apart from the a) physical and b) mental impossibility of creating ‘robots’ with anything remotely like human capacities, the most crucial reason it hasn’t happened is because there is no financial incentive whatsoever to create them.

We have cheap robots already, they are called migrant workers or slaves, who can be put to work in complex and demanding environments – showing human abilities to handle complex situations, perform detailed and fiddly tasks – for as little as a dollar a day.

Charities estimate there are around 40 million slaves in the world today, 2018. So why waste money developing robots? Even if you did develop ‘robots’, could they be as cheap to buy and maintain as human slaves? Would they cost a dollar a day to run? No.

Only in certain environments which require absolutely rigid, inflexible repetitive tasks, and which are suitable for long-term heavy investment because of the certainty of return, have anything like robots been deployed, for example on the production lines of car factories.

But these are a million miles away from the robots Asimov envisaged, which you can sit down and chat to, let alone pass for human, as R. Daneel Olivaw does in Asimov’s robot novels.

All technologies break

And the last but not the least objection to Asimov’s vision of a robot-infested future is that all technologies break. Computers fail. Look at the number of incidents we’ve had just in the past month or so of major breakdowns by computer networks, and these are networks run by the biggest, richest, safest, most supervised, cleverest companies in the world.

On 6 December 2018 around 30 million people use the O2 network suffered a complete outage of the system. The collapse affected 25 million O2 subscribers, customers of Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, business such as Deliveroo, the digital systems on board all 8,500 London buses, and systems at some hospitals.

In September 2018 Facebook admitted that at least 50 million accounts had been hacked, with a poissible 40 million more vulnerable. Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp are also affected along with apps and services such as Tinder that authenticate users through Facebook.

In April 2018 TSB’s banking online banking service collapsed following a botched migration to a new platform. Some customers were unable to access their accounts for weeks afterwards. About 1,300 customers were defrauded, 12,500 closed their accounts and the outage cost the bank £180 million.

These are just the big ones I remember from the past few months, and the ones we got to hear about (i.e. weren’t hushed up). In the background of our lives and civilisation, all computer networks are being attacked, failing, crashing, requiring upgrades, or proper integration, or becoming obsolete, all of the time. If you do any research into it you’ll discover that the computer infrastructure of the international banks which underpin global capitalism are out of date, rickety, patched-up, vulnerable to hacking but more vulnerable to complex technical failures.

In Asimov’s world of advanced robots, there is none of this. The robots fix each other and all the spaceships, they are – according to the final story – ‘self-correcting’, everything works fine all the time, leaving humans free to swan around making vast conspiracies against each other.

This is the biggest fantasy or delusion in Asimov’s universe. Asimov’s fictions give no idea at all of the incomprehensible complexity of a computerised world and – by extension – of all human technologies and, by a further extension, of human societies.


Asimov breaks the English language

Asimov is a terrible writer, hurried, slapdash, trying to convey often pretty simple emotional or descriptive effects through horribly contorted phraseology.

As I read I could hear a little voice at the back of my mind, and after a while realised it was the voice of the English language, crying out as if from a long distance away, ‘Help me! Save me! Rescue me from this murderer!’

The main corridor was a narrow tunnel that led in a hard, clatter-footed stretch along a line of rooms of no interdistinguishing features.

Harroway had no doubt on the point of to whom he owed his job.

Dr. Lanning smiled in a relief tangible enough to make even his eyebrows appear benevolent.

The signal-burr brought all three to a halt, and the angry tumult of growingly unrestrained emotion froze.

The two giant robots were invisible but for the dull red of their photoelectric eyes that stared down at them, unblinking, unwavering and unconcerned. Unconcerned! As was all this poisonous Mercury, as large in jinx as it was small in size.


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1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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