The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 (1973)

A selection of six of Wyndham’s early science fiction short stories.

  • The Lost Machine (1932)
  • The Man from Beyond (1934)
  • The Perfect Creature (1937)
  • The Trojan Beam (1939)
  • Vengeance by Proxy (1940)
  • Adaptation (1949)

The Lost Machine (1932)

Wyndham’s second science fiction story.

A spaceship arrives on earth from Mars. It lands in a field unnoticed by earthlings. It contains one organic lifeform and one of their advanced machines. The machine exits the ship to begin exploring, but next thing he knows the ship lifts off a little into the air and abruptly explodes in a cascade of metal, leaving the machine alone.

What follows is a series of the machine’s ‘adventures’ narrated from the machine’s point of view as it encounters various objects on this new planet, describing them from a puzzled alien’s point of view and we, the readers, have to puzzle out what it is the machine is describing.

Thus we deduce from its puzzled description that it discovers what roads are, is appalled to discover how primitive the technology is which runs cars, is shocked to learn that the stone constructions it finds everywhere are a form of ‘cave’ which the primitive life forms (i.e. humans) inhabit, is dismayed to learn the life forms appear to keep themselves warm by burning things, by fire, such an inefficient generator of heat it hasn’t been used on the fourth planet for thousands of years.

This Martian machine is described as looking like a coffin six feet long by two feet deep and two feet wide with eight mechanical legs, some kind of ‘lenses’, and forelegs which it can manipulate things with.

The Lost Machine by John Wyndham

Wyndham’s second story, ‘The Lost Machine’, was cover-featured on the April 1932 issue of Amazing Stories.

The entertainment, such as it is, comes from figuring out what it is the machine encounters in its odyssey, from the descriptions it gives us from the point of view of an alien piece of technology. Thus Wyndham describes what it’s like for the advanced robot to discover a car which has broken down, to read the mind of the woman trying to fix it who jumps back into the car terrified, then her puzzlement as the machine fixes this primitive device allowing her to fire up the ignition and drive off.

Next he encounters a herd of cattle who charge him and poke him with their horns. We hear the farmers approaching who poke and prod this strange contraption until he starts to move at which point they all run off, all except one who is very drunk and drunkenly treats him like a sort of dog, coaxing him to come along and lie down in a kennel which the machine, out of sheer exhaustion, does.

Next morning the same man coaxes the machine to hop up into a car and drives him to a nearby place which we recognise from the description must be a circus and tries to sell it to the circus owner. However the machine makes a bolt for it, making straight for the Big Top, where he prompts predictable panic and mayhem. Disappointed at not making a sale, Tom finds him again and coaxes him back into the van. The machine agrees because what else can he do? He is a sad and depressed machine.

On the way home Tom picks up some mates and they do a pub crawl, stopping at each pub which the machine observes with puzzlement and wonder. Eventually Tom is so utterly drunk he crashes head on into another car. The machine steps down and hears a woman’s voice, then recognises the woman whose car he fixed a day or so earlier. The men are drunk and become threatening to her, so the machine barges in and rescues her, scooping her up in his forearms and carrying her along the strange metalled way. She is a little injured from the crash and becomes weaker but the machine can read her mind patterns and understands where she lives. It carries her all the way home and delivers her to her father.

And that’s where the narrative we’re reading actually begins for the entire narrative is told as a flashback. The actual narrative we read begins with the father preparing to show the machine to some men (journalists?) but when he takes them into the room where they keep the machine, all they find is a puddle of molten metal. The men leave, laughing sceptically, convinced the whole thing has been a con trick. It’s only when they’ve gone that the young woman, who we now learn is called Joan, points out to her father a sheaf of paper with strange symbols on it. She realises it is the machine’s account of its adventures, and spends the next few weeks deciphering the symbols. And once deciphered, they are the account we have just read – the first person account of a Martian machine shipwrecked on earth and not understanding a thing around it.

— The single most obvious aspect of the story is the ironic contradiction between the way the machine tells us all the way through how primitive and basic man’s technology is and Wyndham’s own conception of a machine from Mars, which is itself extraordinarily clumsy and mechanical and literal, a six-foot-long metal box with four pairs of legs, big lenses and forearms! The next obvious thing is that the real point of the story is to satirise clumsy humans and their backward technology. It is, all in all, an odd combination of broad comedy tinged with sadness for the fate of the preposterous ‘machine’.

The Man from Beyond (1934)

More satire. In Wyndham’s hands Venus is a place very like earth, in fact very like England, with cities and universities and schools. The only difference is the ruling species has six limbs and sleek silver fur. But they regard themselves as the Peak of Evolution. A school trip, very like an English school trip, is underway to the zoo, and to a new exhibit. According to the story there is a rare valley named Dur and at some point in the distant past a unique combination of gases was released through deep fissures in the valley and put everything living in it at that moment into a state of suspended animation. Now these many examples of prehistoric flora and fauna have been revived and put on display in vitrines or behind bars.

The party of schoolchildren being led around the cages is bored by all the worthy examples of flowers and plants and even the smaller herbivorous dinosaurs (it is in almost all particulars, like a terrestrial zoo with even terrestrial dinosaurs, like archaeopteryx.) The point of the story is the guide giving the tour barely stops at the cage of a funny four-limbed creature which stands upright, with only vestiges of hair on his head and face, and the rest of the class moves on but one little Venusian, school…er… alien, named Sadul. When he notices the Venusian looking at him the hairless biped – who is, of course, a man – frantically starts scrabbling in the dirt of his cage. The last few watchers move on in disgust, but Sadul, after some puzzling, realises he has drawn a map of the solar system, with a sketch of Sadul by the second planet and himself, the hairless biped, by the third.

Cut to some scientists in a Venusian university. From their conversation we learn that the man has been handed on to them and given a full account of his story, which then follows. THE EARTHMAN’S STORY.

The earthman is Morgan Grantz and he paints a picture of an earth dominated by two vast business consortiums, Metallic Industries and International Chemicals. Grantz worked for International Chemicals but was recruited as an industrial spy for Metallic Industries. He is motivated to damage them because they stole his father’s inventions and litigated him to death, then let his mother die in poverty. So he changed his name and got a job with them determined to do them maximum harm. Now he is presenting a report to the board of Metallic Industries in which he stuns them by announcing that International Chemicals is building a spaceship to make manned flight to Venus. Grantz has been offered a place aboard. Now, with the permission of the chairman of Metallic Industries, Drakin, Grantz is to volunteer for the trip to Venus and sabotage it

MURDERS IN SPACE There are ten in the crew of the spaceship Nuntia. Grantz murders three but makes it look like suicide. Increasingly worried there is some unseen depressive influence at work here in deep space, two of the crew mutiny, allowing Grantz to shoot them down as they advance on the captain brandishing spanners, and look like a loyal crew member. Now there are only four of them.

STEALING THE SHIP They penetrate the thick cloudy atmosphere of Venus to discover it is mostly grey ocean. Eventually they sight a small island and land. After settling, eating and securing everything the captain decides they should explore. (The atmosphere of Venus turns out to be pretty much like earth’s which is convenient and confirms your sense that the story is bubblegum rubbish.) They’ve only gone a little way before Grantz says he’s forgotten the ammunition for their rifles. The captain grudgingly lets him return to the ship but Grantz hurriedly closes the airlock, primes the rockets and takes off, seeing the other three futilely shaking their fists from the ground

THE VALLEY He flies for hours over ocean and becomes worried he’ll never find more land when he does, cliffs and thick jungle, then the engines give out and the ship crashlands, ripping off its fins, puncturing the sides. He survives and spends 6 months fixing it up, going on expeditions for food with his rifle. You can see from all this that Wyndham and his readers envisage an alien planet as basically an unexplored bit of earth. I kept thinking of the preposterous adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As only an idiot in a pulp novel would, Grantz remains convinced that the spaceship Metallic Industries was surely building to fly to Venus and rescue him will appear at any moment. Every night he points a powerful searchlight into the sky so they can find him. After a few months the batteries start to give out and it begins to dawn on him that maybe Metallic Industries aren’t coming after all.

He takes to hunting for game and foraging for food and survives alright. The story is a variant of Robinson Crusoe. He befriends a couple of silver furred six-legged slinkies. These are, of course, the ancestors of the present intelligent occupiers of Venus. Then one day he goes further afield than ever before, into an eerily silent valley. The slinkies try to hold him back but he presses on, Suddenly he sees a dinosaur head rearing over the foliage and fires but it doesn’t move. Nothing moves. He kneels to take a better shot, smells a funny smell and, next thing he knows, wakes up in the cage.

What he doesn’t realise is that millions of years have passed since he went into suspended animation in the Valley of Dur. The two Venusian academics take him to an observatory. They focus the telescope on earth. When he looks through it, Grantz sees a dead, grey globe pitted with craters. Surely that’s the moon, he says. No, the earth, they reassure him. He walks out the observatory, to the edge of the cliff, and then over it, not willing to live any longer.

The Perfect Creature (1937)

Science fiction comedy.

The narrator works for the Society for the Suppression of the Maltreatment of Animals, along with colleague Alfred Weston. A deputation from the village of Membury invite them to investigate strange goings-on up at the Old Grange. They’re prompted to do so by the advent in their high street of two five foot six creatures which look like turtles with horny carapaces front and back but human-type heads peeking out the top and human arms out the sides. When the villagers made as if to threaten them the creatures waddled off over country blundering into Baker’s Marsh where they sank without trace.

At first I thought these were aliens but then it turns into a comic version of The Island of Dr Moreau. The narrator and his colleague Alfred Weston go up to Membury Grange where they are greeted by Dr Dixon who has, of course, been carrying out experiments on animals and humans, literally piecing them together from dead body parts.

In fact it turns out Dr Dixon was once a biology teacher at the narrator’s school who reputedly inherited millions of pounds, packed in teaching to set up his own lab (p.95). Now he shows them around his lab and, finally, to the cage of his pièce de resistance, his Perfect Creature, whom he has named Una. She is a monstrosity:

Picture if you can, a dark, conical carapace of some slightly glossy material. The rounded-off peak of the cone stood well over six feet from the ground: the base was four foot six or more in diameter; and the whole thing supported on three short, cylindrical legs. There were four arms, parodies of human arms, projecting from joints about half-way up. Eyes, set some six inches below the apex, were regarding us steadily from beneath horny lids. For a moment I felt close to hysterics. (p.102)

Una decides she wants to mate with Weston and becomes so distraught she swipes for him through the bars and then demolishes the bars and breaks free, moving with the obliterating force of a tank as the three men run for cover. First she demolishes the laboratory wing, then bursts through the barred door and into the main house. As our three heroes bolt up the stairs Una barges into the stairs and demolishes them. Comically, Weston falls into her four arms and she starts to croon besottedly to him.

Firemen and ambulance and police arrive and try to corral Una, while trying to loop Weston in a rope and hoist him free. Nothing doing. Una spots the rope, breaks free of it, bursts through the front door and lumbers off down the drive, towing the rope and half a dozen firemen still clinging on to it behind her. Their colleagues start the fire engine and give chase as Una breaks through the wrought iron gates to the Grange, still cradling Weston in her arms and crooning to him, onwards she goes, turning off the main road and into a steep side lane heading down to the river.

But this is her undoing. Trucking across an ancient packhorse bridge her weight makes the central span collapse into the river and, of course, Una has no ability to swim like any kind of earthly creature, so sinks like a rock. The firemen rescue Weston and pump the water out of him.

The story concludes with the boom-boom punchline that Alfred Weston has now changed profession from being an animal cruelty inspector, since he finds it impossible to look a female animal of any kind in the eye without a shiver of horror!

The Island of Dr Moreau played for belly laughs. Carry On Vivisecting.

The Trojan Beam (1939)

A sort of sci-fi angle on the contemporary war in China.

In 1937 Japan invaded China in a renewal of the conflict which had been raging, off and on, since 1894, and had included the Japanese seizure of Korea in 1910 and of Manchuria in 1931. Wyndham’s story imagines that the 1937 war descends into a gruelling war of attrition characterised by the kinds of vast networks of trenches seen on the Western Front in the Great War and has dragged on for generations, to 1964, to be precise. And it is in this year that the Chinese make a surprising technological breakthrough and invent an astonishing secret weapon.

The story is seen through the eyes of British spy George Saltry. He is employed by the Japanese as a roving spy behind Chinese lines and we see him reporting to his Japanese controller. But in fact George is actually in the pay of the Chinese army in the form of Pang Li. The story is told via half a dozen or so meetings between the two, where Pang uses Saltry to feed selected information back to the Japanese. There are two big set pieces.

Before the first one, Pang hands over to George full details of the new secret weapon, which is a highly magnetic beam which you point at the enemy forces and pulls rifles out of their hands, helmets off their heads and, when turned up to full, can drag even tanks off their forward course, pulling them sideways across the mud and into rivers. Anyway, much to George’s amazement, Pang hands him full technical details of this beam machine to hand over to his Japanese masters.

Then, six months later, Pang invites George to witness at first hand the results of the Japanese’ first use of the formerly ‘secret’ weapon. The Chinese have a simple plan. They have rounded up thousands of metal pipes and containers and packed them all with explosives or poison gas dispensers. So George is in a forward trench with Pang when the Japanese attack begins i.e. they turn on their magnetic ray, and everything metal which isn’t tied down goes flying towards the Japanese lines. The Japanese had, obviously, been hoping to disarm the Chinese troops then mount a traditional Great War advance. Instead they found all the places where they’d mounted magnetic rays suddenly infested with high explosives which, before they could do anything, the Chinese detonated, with devastating consequences. And then the Chinese advanced.

The text then switches to a kind of history textbook overview which points out that this one event, on 22 August 1965, was the turning point in the war as the Chinese took the offensive and drove the Japanese back to the coast. But the Japanese dug in and proved difficult to utterly repel. Which is why there is a second big setpiece.

In the next of their periodic secret meetings (George travels into mainland China under an assumed name and identity as a travelling evangelist for the Charleston and Savannah Oriental Endeavour League). Pang explains the Japanese will never use the magnetic ray on land again. But they discuss its effectiveness against air raids. If you just pointed the ray upwards it would attract the first bomber it touched and pull it down right on top of itself along with the bomb payload, thus blowing itself up. No, they agree the correct strategy is to have the beams waving across the sky so that a momentary touch from them disrupts any airplanes, but not stationary and so calling death down on themselves. The more powerful the beams, the more likely a passing moment caught in one will help to break up any metallic object.

So Pang dispatches George back to Japanese HQ with info about this strategy, and the date of a planned Chinese air raid on mainland Japan, 14 November 1965. Again George is puzzled why he is being ordered to give the Japanese advance warning, but he does. But in the event he has, again, been used as a tool. On the night if 14 November 1965 the Japanese do indeed turn batteries of magnetic rays up to the heavens and switch them to the highest power possible – but there is no Chinese air raid (although the Chinese make a cursory pretence by sending over a few planes with loudspeakers designed to give the impression of massed ranks of bombers).

Something far stranger happens. For on the night in question the earth is passing through the swarm of meteorites known as the Leonids, chunks of space debris of all sizes, many with a high iron content. And so the Japanese rain down upon their own country thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of meteorites of all shapes and sizes, some massive enough to cause huge detonations big enough to destroy cities, and some so large they seem to have set off volcanic activity. The net result is the utter obliteration of the entire nation of Japan and the horrifying annihilation of its entire population.

This is what Pang explains to George at their final meeting. Pang is philosophical. It is always the ordinary people who suffer in any war. But he leaves George appalled, and poignantly thinking about the great majority of the Japanese population, still living their centuries-old traditional lives in the countryside, none of whom had anything to do with their militaristic leaders’ vainglorious campaigns.

Stepping back from the details of the story as such, what strikes this reader is:

  1. that Wyndham was wrong in conceiving the war in China would repeat the trench warfare of the First World War, highlighting the way he and most of his generation were oblivious of the new Blitzkrieg tactics developed by the Germans and soon to be put into lethal operation in Poland, France and then, in the early stages, in Russia.
  2. that he was eerily right in foreseeing the utter annihilation of Japanese cities, including Nagasaki, and having his protagonist lament the deaths of so many innocent civilians

A curious combination of the backward looking and the spookily prophetic.

Vengeance by Proxy (1940)

A genuinely thrilling horror story.

The first person narrator, Walter Fisson, is on holiday in the Balkans with his wife, Elaine. Driving through the mountains they come across a man crawling in the middle of the road and, despite swerving, can’t help hitting him. When they get out to tend his injuries they realise he was hurt before they hit him, with a bullet wound to the chest and some kind of symbol carved into his forehead.

The car is a write-off and so, reluctantly, Walter walks to the next town where he manages to get a driver to drive him back to the scene of the accident. Here he sees Elaine sitting motionless over the man’s body. As he looks at the man Walter sees a momentary look of desperation but then his head lolls over and he dies. He pulls Elaine to her feet and into the taxi and they drive back to town, but she is strangely distant all the way.

When they get to the town, Walter is amazed that Elaine talks quite fluently to the investigating police in Serbo-Croat, a language he knows she is completely ignorant of. Not only that, but she holds herself differently, her mannerisms are different, and she can barely speak a word of English.

Now, the entire narrative is told through a series of secondary media, namely telegrams Walter sends to a friend of his in England, Dr Linton, followed by a letter which gives the story up to the point I’ve just described, then exchanges of telegrams between the captain of police in the town Walter and Elaine arrive at the the Chief of Police in Belgrade. Then Dr Linton telegraphs a mutual friend who’s also on holiday in the Balkans, Dr Frederick Wilcox, and asks him to detour to Belgrade to check up on Walter who sounds panicky and a bit nuts. Wilcox reports back that Elaine really isn’t herself, as vouched for by her wife Mary, who thinks Elaine doesn’t even carry herself like a woman! Now Walter’s first telegram to Dr Linton had asked if he knew of a specialist in Belgrade and Linton had recommended a Dr Bljedolje. When Wilcox goes to see this reputable and well-qualified doctor he is astonished that the medic spins a theory about transference of personalities, which he reports in detail in his letter back to Dr Linton. There’s a further flurry of telegrams and a final phone call between Linton and Wilcox which brings the plot to a conclusion.

What emerges from these various messages is that the man they ran over, one Kristor Vlanec, was regarded as supernatural by locals which is why a couple of brothers had shot him and carved the evil eye symbol into his forehead. Supernatural because he is capable of personality transference i.e. of moving his soul/spirit/mind, call it what you will, into new bodies. He tried to do it to Walter as he lay dying in the road, but a spasm of physical pain broke off the contact. But when Walter left him alone with Elaine, he transfered his mind into Elaine’s body. The momentary look of despair Walter saw in Vlanec’s eyes was the despair of Elaine, trapped in a dying man’s body.

This explains why Elaine could suddenly talk fluent Serbo-Croat but almost no English, why she looked ill at ease in her body, lost all her familiar mannerisms and, according to her old friend, Mary, held herself like a man pretending to be a woman.

The story has a nice narrative arc because it turns out that Vlanec-inside-Elaine is determined – in the Balkan way – on revenge for being murdered, which explains why Elaine is seen by eye witnesses entering the house of the brothers who shot Vlanec, Petro and Mikla Zanja in some remote Balkan village, and shooting them. Even as Linton and Wilcox are corresponding about Dr Bljedolje’s theories, she carries out the murders, the police are called, question eye witnesses, who are then brought to Belgrade and identify Elaine as the murderer.

In the thrilling final page, Wilcox tells Linton over the phone that Walter has disappeared, while the police have arrested Elaine. He saw it happen in the foyer of the hotel and Elaine broke away from the arresting officers and made it over to Wilcox long enough to beg him to do something, to contact Dr Bljedolje, he’ll understand. So Wilcox finishes his phone call by saying he now believes it all. He believes that Vlanec, realising the body of Elaine was in trouble, jumped out of her body and into Walter’s which promptly high-tailed it out of town. And the mind trapped inside Elaine’s body, as she is about to be tried for murder and hanged? Walter’s!

Commentary

This is a very successful short story in its own genre (science fantasy / horror) for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it is piggy-backing on Dracula. Most people remember Dracula for the central horror of the plot and numerous gory details, but when you actually read it you discover it is an epistolary novel, told through umpteen different forms of letters, journal entries, police records and so on. Well, same here, and it may be that Wyndham was prompted to the format by the supernatural subject matter and the East European setting both, of course, strongly reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s story.

But there’s another important aspect to the story. It is set in the present day, on earth – no spaceships and missions to Mars etc – and among well-educated, no-nonsense, sensible, professional English chaps. It is their initial common sense rejection of all this mystic mumbo-jumbo which makes the story all the more plausible.

And it is this approach, this tone of sensible chaps coming up against something incredible, more than the epistolary format, which was to be central to the success of the post-war novels, Day of the Triffids et al.

Adaptation (1949)

The ‘maturity’ of Vengeance By Proxy makes the ‘relapse’ into silly space fiction of Adaptation all the more surprising and disappointing.

Franklyn Godalpin is employed by the Jason Mining Corporation on Mars. He is friends with the colony’s doctor, Dr James Forbes. This is the silly version of Mars which featured in science fiction adventure yarns from Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1920s through Ray Bradbury’s haunting but still wildly impractical Martian Chronicles in the 1950s, a Mars where humans can happily breathe the Martian atmosphere, and where there are some elements of Martian flora (tiny tinkling flowers nicknamed tinkerbells) and small friendly Mars creatures a bit like earth’s marmosets.

It is a solar system conceived in a childishly anthropocentric way as a playground for human beings, easy to travel about, easy to colonise, full of life which we can, with a bit of effort, get friendly with.

Franklyn’s wife, Marilyn, is pregnant. She gives birth to the first baby born on Mars, Jannessa. But both mother and baby do not flourish. Dr Forbes recommends that Marilyn is too ill to travel but baby Jannessa’s development might be adversely affected by Mars, its low gravity and who knows what infections.

So in the last week of 1994 baby Jannessa is taken aboard spaceship Aurora carried by her black nanny, Helen, for the journey back to earth. A few months later, Marilyn wastes away and dies and is buried on Mars. But then comes the terrible news that the spaceship Aurora has been lost in space. Franklyn is distraught but never gives up hope that his baby daughter is alive, somehow, out there.

Now we, the readers, know this to be the case, because the scenes depicting Franklyn and Forbes are interspersed with passages describing Jannessa, still alive and thriving and being looked after someone named Telta. Slowly it becomes clear that Telta is an alien, with her slate-blue skin, and that Jannessa feels like an outsider and wishes she fit in with the people around her. Telta remembers how some of her people left the safety of the heated underground bunkers to venture onto the surface and discover the 12 people who had been marooned there by a passing spaceship, how the extreme cold had turned the skin of one of them black (! a reference to the black nanny, Helen) who, with her dying breath, had pointed towards the heavily swaddled baby and muttered ‘Janessa’ before dying.

So we see Jannessa having conversations with this Telta and also with Toti who explains that theirs is a small world orbiting the big planet ‘Yan’, and how his people came to Europa because their own world was dying (that really is one of the stock science fiction tropes). Toti and Telta explain that they selected Europa because it was small, had low gravity. How they had to live in their spaceships for some time while they mined below the surface and created a warren of sealed underground chambers which could be warmed and fed by underground food farms etc. And throughout these passages it is emphasised how they had to make some adaptations to Jannessa so she could fit in with their underground culture…

Seventeen years later Franklyn and Forbes meet in the terrestrial setting of a gentleman’s club. Frankly has become a rich and influential man rising through the ranks to run the entire mining operation on Mars. Now, over port at the club, he tells Dr Forbes there has been a development. For years and years he has been paying for adverts in space journals asking for news of the Aurora. Now there has been a development. On old space crewman recently passed away in a ‘spaceman’s hostel’ in Chicago. Before he did, he told the story of the mutiny aboard the Aurora. The captain became aware some of his crew were guilty of unspecified crimes and notified them he’d be handing them over to the police when they reached earth. So the criminals took over the ship and took it out towards Jupiter, where they dumped the captain, the loyal crew, and some of the passengers on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Aha. The story is becoming clearer.

Now Franklyn tells Dr Forbes that, using his power and influence, he has sent one of the Corporations prospecting ships to Europa to find Jannessa. There is a little passage of ‘philosophical’ discussion in which Dr Forbes warns that life is ‘plastic’ i.e. can be, must be, shaped and moulded by its environment. Take the way they’ve had to make adaptations to human beings in order to optimise them for life on Mars. But Franklyn isn’t listening. He just wants his baby back.

In the final scenes an excited Franklyn calls Dr Forbes to announce that the expedition found Jannessa and is bringing her back to earth! They’ve radioed ahead a photo of Jannessa and she is the spitting image of her mother, Marilyn.

Some time later the ship (Chloe) lands on earth and Dr Forbes expects a call from an excited Franklyn. Instead he gets a call from his worried housekeeper. Franklyn has had a kind of collapse. Forbes hurries round, pushes through the throng of press and photographers who’ve got wind of the story, finds him catatonic on his bed. Forbes diagnoses shock and gives him an injection. Then goes through to the other room to see Jannessa.

There she is, fit and healthy, her face the spitting image of her mother’s – and two feet tall!

Commentary

This is an effectively crafted tale, and the cutting back and forth between the earth characters and Jannessa among her Europa family are well enough done. But everything about it is silly, all the assumptions of the ease of interplanetary travel, through to the old trope of the refugees from a dying planet building a colony underground, the ridiculous idea that a spaceship could dump a dozen passengers on a moon of Jupiter and expect them to live! There are so many improbabilities and childish naiveties to process that the final payoff feels like a cheap thrill.

And then the whole issue of height. In our woke age there is nothing like the stigma against dwarfism that this story implies was enough to utterly break Franklyn’s spirit, and so the entire premise of the story loses what was (presumably) its shock value circa 1949, but is also actively offensive. So what if she’s two feet high, she’s still alive.

Summary

All these stories are silly, really. They’re a good indication of why so many serious readers, for so long, dismissed science fiction as immature, pulp rubbish. On this showing, most of it, even when written by an intelligent man like Wyndham, was rubbish. Vengeance By Proxy is the only one I’d recommend anyone to read because it is not really science fiction at all, but more of a horror story and, maybe because of this, the Dracula-style treatment gives it a technical, formal interest, a pleasure in noting the care taken over the machinery of the story.

All in all these stories show why Wyndham wasn’t taken seriously by the book world through the 1930s and 1940s and was considered a competent writer in a minority field. Until, that is, he burst upon a wider readership with the staggeringly more fully conceived, utterly serious and terrifyingly plausible masterpiece, Day of the Triffids. The real interest in Wyndham as a writer is how a man who produced a steady stream of cheap shockers like the ones in this book, utterly transformed himself into the author of his big four masterpieces.


Credit

The Best of John Wyndham 1932-1949 by John Wyndham was published by Sphere paperbacks in 1973. All references are to this edition, which I bought at the time, price 55p.

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

  • The Best of John Wyndham (1973) 6 short stories from 1932 to 1949
  • The Day of the Triffids (1951)
  • The Kraken Wakes (1953)
  • Jizzle (1954) 15 short stories
  • The Chrysalids (1955)
  • The Seeds of Time (1956) 11 short stories
  • The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
  • The Outward Urge (1959)
  • Trouble with Lichen (1960)
  • Consider Her Ways and Others (1961) 6 short stories
  • Chocky (1968)
  • Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns (2019)

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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
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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting the resulting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating what is in effect a peaceful transition to a communitarian socialist society, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in 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

1910s

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 events
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

1920s

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 and they rebel
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, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – having survived his journey to Mars, Ransom is now sent to Perelandra (aka Venus) to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s innocent young inhabitants to a new Fall
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern 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

1950s

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 vanished 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
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – one night the sky is full of green flashing lights as the earth passes through the fragments of a comet and the next day the entire population awakes to find itself blinded, all except for a tiny handful of survivors who have to preserve human society while fighting off the growing numbers of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
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 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  Foundation Trilogy, which describes 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 by Ray Bradbury – 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 – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships, attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
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 who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – the Chung-Li virus kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) leading to a global famine, so civil engineer John Custance has to lead his wife, two children and a small grop of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism towards the farm owned by his brother David in a remote valley in Westmoreland, where they can grow root crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – ten stories of travel in time and space in which, despite the 1950s phrasing, women tend again and again to be presented as the stronger, more resourceful sex
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with eerily platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which almost immediately begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, millions of years ago, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary
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 space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quiet suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes, as in a scientific report, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together the author’s key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the pornographic possibilities of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much casual interplanetary travel and juvenile plots
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
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, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of an abandoned Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero from the previous book in the trilogy; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop with a heart of gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson –

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.


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
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

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Asimov

Born in Russia of Jewish descent, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was taken by his parents to New York while still a toddler and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

He was a prodigy. He sold his first science fiction story at 18, and by his early 20s was selling SF short stories to John Campbell, the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

One of the most prolific authors of all time, Asimov wrote or edited over 500 books, plus hundreds of articles for magazines, encyclopedias and so on. That fact alone should prepare you for his superficial and slapdash prose style.

Out of this vast output, probably his most famous works are two groups of short stories and novels, one clustered around the Robot idea – I, Robot, the Caves of Steel and so on – the other, the seven novels of the Foundation and Empire series.

The story behind Foundation

Late in life Asimov himself gave a detailed account of the origin of the original Foundation stories which he wrote in the 1940s, and then of the various sequels and prequels he was persuaded to write in the 1980s.

For me, the key facts are that the first eight stories were:

  1. written as short stories
  2. for a popular sci fi magazine
  3. when Asimov had only just turned 21

They were never intended for book publication, they were certainly never intended to be considered ‘novels’, they were hacked out for the transient existence of a gee-whizz sci-fi magazine.

But, apparently, the start of the 1950s saw a big transformation of the SF market in America: for the first time proper book publishers became interested in it. No longer was it the preserve of fans and collectors of luridly illustrated magazines. And, as they started publishing SF books, publishers discovered there was an untapped audience for it in the broader book-buying public.

So, where to get the material to satisfy this market? They could approach tried and tested SF writers with book contracts. Bit slow. And they could also trawl back through the vast pulp magazine content produced over the previous decades, cherry picking popular stories which could be reversioned for book publication.

Thus it was that in 1951 – three years after Asimov had had the final Foundation story published in Astounding Science-Fiction – that a small publisher (Gnome Books) suggested republishing all the stories in book format. When Asimov agreed, Gnome went on to suggest that the series, as it stood, started too abruptly and that Asimov should write an introductory story setting the scene and explaining the backstory. Which he promptly did.

Taken together these facts explain the Foundation series’ pulpy worldview, the uneven and often very bad prose style, the errors in grammar and spelling, the very poor proofreading in all versions of the stories, and the looseness with which they hang together.

Foundation and its two sequels were not conceived or written as novels. In fact at just this time, in 1950, the expression ‘fix-up novel’ was coined to describe a ‘novel’ created by just such a glueing together of pre-existing short stories that had been previously published and may, or may not, have had much in common. The stories’ plots could be tweaked to make for consistency, have new connecting material written for the novelisation, or – a popular device – have a new frame narrative and narrator created who could introduce and contextualise each story or ‘episode’.

In the rush to capitalise on the new popularity of SF, ‘fix-up’ became a very apposite description, first applied to a classic SF author, A.E. van Vogt. Loads of the old hacks who’d been churning out sci-fi stories by the bucket load and flogging them to the steaming jungle of pulp sci-fi magazines, suddenly had a cash incentive to cobble the stories together and present them as ‘novels’.

Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series, as well as Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, are classic examples of ‘fix-ups’.

The afterlife of the Foundation stories

So all this explains why the book titled Foundation and published in 1951 in fact consists of the following linked short stories:

  1. The Psychohistorians – the introductory story to the series written at Gnome’s request (1951)
  2. The Encyclopedists – originally published in the May, 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction under the title of Foundation
  3. The Mayors – originally published in the June 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction as Bridle and Saddle
  4. The Traders – originally published in the October 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction as The Wedge
  5. The Merchant Princes – first published in the August 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction as The Big and the Little

The stories got longer as Asimov wrote them, and the second volume – Foundation and Empire – contains just two long stories, or a short story and a novella, The General and The Mule (published in November and December 1945).

Similarly, the third and final volume of the original trilogy – Second Foundation – also contains a short story and a novella:

  1. Search by the Mule was originally published in the January 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the title Now You See It…
  2. Search by the Foundation was originally published in the November and December 1949 and January 1950 issues of Astounding Science Fiction under the title … And Now You Don’t

So, in total, there were eight original Foundation stories, written over a period of eight years, 1940 to 1948, plus the introductory one commissioned by Gnome in 1951. Nine.

As it turned out Goblin Publishers weren’t great at promoting the books, which hardly sold. It was only in 1961, when Asimov had cemented a good book deal with Doubleday, the major American publishers, that they discovered this item from his back catalogue was underperforming. They promptly bought it off Goblin and undertook a big marketing campaign and, slightly to everyone’s surprise, the Foundation trilogy was, for the first time, a bestseller, becoming a phenomenon.

By 1966 a special category of the SF Hugo Awards was created to honour trilogies of novels and the Foundation trilogy promptly won.

By the time I was getting into SF in the early 1970s, the trilogy, alongside Asimov’s Robot books, and numerous volumes of short stories and other novels, thronged the shelves in shiny paperback editions with wonderful covers designed by Chris Foss, and I took them to be among the defining works of the genre.

Foundation cover art by Chris Foss

Foundation cover art by Chris Foss

Posthumous Foundations

Then, twenty years after their first appearance in book form, in 1981, Doubleday asked Asimov to write a sequel to the trilogy. Initially reluctant, Asimov reread the series and realised he had more to say, much more.

He quickly wrote and published Foundation’s Edge (1982), then a follow-up to that, Foundation and Earth (1986). These were followed, after Asimov’s death, by Foundation and Chaos, published in 1998, written by Greg Bear with the permission of the Asimov estate and, in 1999 Foundation’s Triumph, written by David Brin, incorporating ideas from Asimov short stories.

Before his death Asimov also went back before the events covered in Foundation, to describe them in two prequels – Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation, published posthumously in 1993. These have been complemented by Foundation’s Fear (1997) by Gregory Benford.

Like the novels about James Bond or Jason Bourne which were written after their creators died, there’s no reason why new Foundation novels shouldn’t roll off the production line for the foreseeable future.

Foundation and Robot

Not only this but as early as the 1960s Asimov began to link the Foundation stories and their ‘universe’ with the ever-growing world of the Robot stories, by writing stories which feature characters, or issues, or planets, common to both – thus creating an enormously complicated fictional universe.

As you might expect from this huge ‘fix-up’ approach, the resulting ‘universe’ contains plenty of plot holes and inconsistencies for fans and fellow authors to happily crawl over and debate forever.

Now comes news that the Foundation stories are about to be made into a major TV series by HBO, home of Band of Brothers and Game of Thrones. I’d be surprised if they don’t tweak, edit, and amend the original texts to make the content more suitable for TV and the plots fit into one-hour episodes. Plus catering to modern sensibilities by having more female and black leads.

All of which will lead to an even greater ferment of comment and critique online. Thus the endless proliferation and unstoppable afterlife of American cultural products.

The premise of the Foundation stories

It’s a struggle to clamber free of this jungle of backstories, overlapping universes, and real-world developments in order to get back to the primal experience of reading the stories as they were first conceived nearly 80 years ago.

Asimov tells us the original idea was inspired by his reading (not once, but twice!) of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. What, he thought, if he wrote about the decline of a Galactic Empire – from the vantage point of the Second Empire which eventually rose to replace it, after a prolonged dark age? A vast epic history looking back over the decline and collapse of a space empire…

Back in 1940 this appears to have been (surprisingly) a fairly original story. One of the classic early SF tales – H.G. Wells’s Time Machine gives the reader a poignant sense of the passage of vast periods of time, but doesn’t give a detailed chronicle.

Similarly, Olaf Stapledon’s epic SF classic, Last and First Men, deals with the rise and fall of countless human civilisations on a mind-boggling scale, but again it doesn’t go into detail to describe the nitty-gritty events or characters of any of them.

But it’s still a trope – the collapse of empire – familiar to artists and poets for centuries. The twist, the gimmick, the unique selling point which gives the Foundation series its distinctive quality, is the idea that, amid the teeming trillions of the Empire, spread across all the habitable planets of the entire galaxy, a scientific discipline has arisen, known as Psychohistory.

Psychohistorians try and predict human history, based on the vast amount of data by that point amassed about human and social behaviour. And it is this idea which underpins the entire Foundation universe.

Hari Seldon’s role in the Foundation stories

For one of these psychohistorians is the extremely brilliant Hari Seldon, who has used the discipline to map out a precise vision of events which will unfold over thousands of years into the future.

The fundamental premise of the original series is that Seldon can see that the Empire’s fall is inevitable and that, other things being equal, it will be followed by a thirty thousand year-long dark age, until civilisation rises again.

But Seldon thinks he was worked out a plan whereby this thirty thousand year period can be abbreviated to just a thousand years. His plan is to create a ‘Foundation’ of committed men and women who will create a Galactic Encyclopedia which will preserve all the knowledge of the Empire through the dark age and hasten the rise of the Second Empire.

Thus, in the first story Seldon gathers round him enthusiastic devotees of the plan and confronts the sceptical powers-that-be. Then each of the following five stories describes a crisis moment facing the Foundation over the ensuing hundreds of years.

But – and here’s where the psychohistory thing really comes into its own – at each of these crises, Seldon turns out to have already seen and anticipated the outcome. In fact, he turns out to have stage-managed things in order to secure the outcome he wanted.

The technique is exemplified in the first story. This describes young, naive Gaal Dornick arriving on the planet Trantor, magnificent capital of the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire to meet the famous psychohistorian. Dornick has barely arrived and met the legendary Seldon than the latter is arrested and Dornick attends his trial.

Seldon is accused of treason by the aristocratic members of the Committee of Public Safety who, nowadays, rule the Empire (the actual emperor being a puppet figure). He outrages the committee by explaining that in just 500 years the empire will collapse and enter its 30,000 year dark age.

The committee find him guilty of treason but, not wanting to create a martyr, offers Seldon exile to a remote world, Terminus, accompanied by the others who wish to help him create the Encyclopedia. And he accepts.

But here’s the kicker, which is revealed to an adoring Dornick right at the end of the first story: Seldon knew that’s what the Committee would do.

He knew they would offer exile (to hedge their bets – to get rid of him but keep him alive, just in case what he says is true) and he was almost certain that he’d be sent as far away as possible, with the result – as he explains to an awed Dornick – that he has already prepared his community of 100,000 to travel to Terminus! Ta-dah!

Each of the four following stories zeroes in on a similar crisis moment in the Foundation’s history, 30, 50 or 100 years apart. In each one we are introduced to new characters, who face a plight or challenge to the Foundation. And in each story it turns out – right at the end – that Seldon had foreseen the challenge… and secretly planned, or created the conditions, for the challenge to be overcome!

Or, in the words of the hero of the fifth story, the trader Hober Mallow (who overcomes the challenge of his day and, in doing so, becomes the first of the Merchant Princes of Foundation):

‘When the Galactic Empire began to die at the edges, and when the ends of the Galaxy reverted to barbarism and dropped away, Hari Seldon and his band of psychologists planted a colony, the Foundation, out here in the middle of the mess, so that we could incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire.’
‘Oh, yes, yes – ‘
‘I’m not finished,’ said the trader, coldly. ‘The future course of the Foundation was plotted according to the science of psychohistory, then highly developed, and conditions arranged so as to bring about a series of crises that will force us most rapidly along the route to future Empire. Each crisis, each Seldon crisis, marks an epoch in our history. We’re approaching one now – our third.’

So each story occurs in a new period – features entirely new characters – and presents them with a challenge thrown up by the ongoing collapse of the Empire, and the survival of the Foundation. Each of the characters in question beats the challenge and then, they either see a hologram of Seldon (which, we are told, are scheduled to return at regular intervals into the future) which confirms that nature of the challenge and how they’ve overcome it. Or is made to realise (by Asimov’s guiding hand) the nature of the crisis they’ve just passed through and how it adhered to Seldon’s Laws of Psychohistory.

Either way, the characters (and the reader) come to reverence the memory and extraordinary foresight of Hari Seldon even more.

So the Foundation stories are more than just ‘chronicles of the future’: each one contains a trick in the tail reminiscent of a classic detective story, the kind which reveals whodunnit at the end.

You read partly to find out what happens in each story – but also to find out how Asimov will reconcile each new crisis with Seldon’s omniscient prophecies.

1. The Psychohistorians

12,000 years into the history of the Galactic Empire psychohistorian Hari Seldon realises it is doomed to collapse and manipulates the Committee of Public Safety into sending him and 100,000 followers to the remote planet of Terminus to create a Galactic Encyclopedia.

2. The Encyclopedists

Fifty years later, the Foundation is well-established on planet Terminus. The creation of Seldon’s Encyclopedia is proceeding under the control of a board of scientists known as Encyclopedists. The nominal figurehead of the state, Salvor Hardin, realises Terminus is under threat from the four neighbouring prefects of the Empire, which have declared independence from the Empire. By skillful diplomacy Hardin defuses a demand from the Kingdom of Anacreon to establish military bases on Terminus, and also overthrows the Encyclopedists in a coup. To his surprise, when Seldon makes his next scheduled appearance by hologram recording, it turns out Seldon had anticipated the coup and approves of it as the inevitable next stage in the Foundation’s evolution. He also reveals – shockingly – that the Encyclopedia Galactica was always a pretext to allow the creation of the Foundation. It was just a way of getting everyone focused and unified while the real structural consolidation of Foundation society proceeded alongside it.

3. The Mayors

It is 80 years into the history of the Foundation – in other words we are in Year 80 of the Federation Era or F.E. Having preserved its technological knowledge while other imperial star systems are losing theirs, the Federation is well placed to exert power over the four neighbouring kingdoms, but has developed a policy of doing this under cover of a Religion of Science.

Salvor Hardin is now the well-established ruler of the Foundation, but, as the story opens, is threatened by a new political movement led by city councillor Sef Sermak, the ‘Actionist Party’, which wants to attack and conquer the Four Kingdoms.

The kingdom which gives most concern is Anacreon, ruled by Prince Regent Wienis and his nephew, the teenage King Lepold I. (This gives rise to scenes between regent and pimply king which kept reminding me of black and white movies of The Prisoner of Zenda in their camp cheesiness.)

When Wienis launches a direct attack against Terminus, using an abandoned Imperial space cruiser redesigned by Foundation experts, he discovers that the Foundation have installed devices in the ship to prevent it firing. Wienis had planned the attack for the night of his nephew’s coronation as king. Hardin attends this ceremony, out of diplomatic courtesy, but is arrested while the arch-fiend Wienis rubs his hands and cackles like Ming the Merciless,

Little does he know that Hardin has a cunning plan. 1. He has agreed with Anacreonian High Priest Poly Verisof to create a popular uprising against Wienis. 2. The Imperial space cruiser’s weapons turn out to have been neutralised so that they can’t attack Terminus. 3. Instead, the leader of the fleet is forced to make an Anacreon-wide broadcast that he has been compelled to lead a treacherous and ‘blasphemous’ attack against the Federation by the wicked Wienis – which crystallises the popular rebellion against the regent. And then – all technology on Anacreon shuts down. the Foundation maintain it; they have planned for it all to close down. Anacreon is plunged into darkness.

Wienis turns in fury on Hardin and tries to zap him with a ray gun, but the latter is protected by Foundation tech i.e. a personal force field. In fury, Wienis turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.

Thus Hardin is vindicated: the narrator had given the impression that the Actionist Party was gaining the upper hand in the Foundation and threatening his rule. But the calm, clever way he handles the crisis entirely restores his power.

This is confirmed by another scheduled appearance of Hari Seldon by hologram, who confirms his expectation that the Foundation’s immediate neighbours, the Four Kingdoms, will now be virtually powerless and incapable of resisting the Religion of Scientism’s advance.

4. The Traders

It is 135 F.E. If the religion of ‘Scientism’ was the focus of the previous story, this one reveals how trading will be the next stage in the Foundation’s expansion.

The story demonstrates this through a complicated plot involving the imprisonment of one the Foundation’s lead traders (and spies) Eskel Gorov by the authorities on a planet in a nearby system, Askone.

He is rescued by a fellow Foundation trader, Linmar Ponyets, who conspires with an ambitious and rebellious Askonian councilor, Pherl, to overthrown Askone’s council.

Ponyets makes Pherl a device which can transmute any metal into gold – enough to corrupt anyone – but has also plants a video recorder in it. Now, meddling with this kind of old tech is regarded by the Askone council as blasphemous. When Pherl tries to renege on his deal to set Gorov free, Ponyets shows him the tape he’s made recording Pherl committing the blasphemy of using Foundation tech.

Thus (the Foundation’s) Ponyets He can blackmail (Askone’s) Pherl. He promptly gets him to have Gorov released, and to hand over a load of metal ore which the Foundation needs.

On the spaceship back to Terminus, Pherl explains his success to Gorov. Not only has Pherl a) released Gorov b) bartered a big supply of tin out of him but c) since Pherl is likely to become the next Grand Master of Askone, he has also neutralised it as an enemy.

When Gorov criticizes his techniques, Ponyets quotes one of Salvor Hardin’s alleged sayings: ‘Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!’

5. The Merchant Princes

Twenty years late i.e. about 155 F.E., the Foundation has expanded to subjugate the neighbouring Four Kingdoms and is expanding. But there is resistance. Three Foundation vessels have vanished near the planets of the Republic of Korell. Master Trader Hober Mallow is sent to find out why and assess Korell’s state of technological development.

A long complicated plot ensues in which the Foundation’s Foreign Secretary Publis Manlio and Mayoral Secretary Jorane Sutt are both out to incriminate Mallow, but he a) handles a diplomatic crisis with Korell b) establishes relations with Korell’s authoritarian ruler, Commdor Asper Argo.

Noticing the atomic handguns carried by the Commdors’ bodyguards – a technology mostly lost on the Periphery of the Empire – Mallow suspects the Empire of reaching out to the Korellians. Mallow travels to the planet Siwenna, which he believes may be the capital of an Imperial province, and where he finds the impoverished former patrician Onum Barr, amid the ruins of the planet’s former glories.

Barr explains that a previous viceroy to Siwenna rebelled against the Emperor, and that Barr took part in a revolution which overthrew him. The Imperial fleet despatched to put down the rebellion ended up massacring the population, including killing all but one of Barr’s children. The new viceroy of Siwenna is now planning his own rebellion against the Empire.

(This idea of the permanent rebellion of the provinces under a succession of rulers, each of them aspiring to become emperor, quite obviously copies the pattern of the later years of the Roman Empire.)

Mallow goes spying at a Siwellian power plant, noting that it is atomically powered (atomic power is the benchmark of technical civilisation in the Empire) but that the technicians – the tech-men – don’t actually know how to maintain it.

With this and other information Mallow becomes convinced that the ‘religious’ phase of the Foundation’s expansion is over. Henceforward its power must rest on its ability to trade goods which nobody out here on the Periphery has or can fix.

Mallow is elected Mayor of Terminus, and has his opponents, Manlio and Sutt, who were planning a coup against him, are arrested.

But then there follows a real Seldon Crisis – namely that Korell declares war on the Foundation, using its powerful Imperial flotilla to attack Foundation ships. Oh dear. But instead of counterattacking, to everyone’s surprise, Mallow takes no military action at all – he just ceases trading with Korell.

In his Seldonian wisdom he has realised that almost all Korell’s society – including its battle fleet – runs on technology which only the Foundation understands and can repair. Sure enough, without Foundation input, Korell’s economy collapses, and its attack is called off.

Wisdom and understanding – not main force – win the day.

Comments

The stories – and the way they hang together to create a history of the future – generate a sense of scale and vastness which thrills the adolescent mind.

The cleverness of the way Seldon is revealed – at every major turning point of the future – to have anticipated the future, creates the exciting sense of an omniscient hero, comparable to the pleasure the reader gets from identifying with Sherlock Holmes – except on a galactic scale!

BUT the actual plots of the stories themselves – and especially the style, the prose style, and the phrasing of the dialogue – are often execrable. Sometimes Asimov’s jumping between scenes, and the obscurity of characterisation and dialogue, make it hard to understand what is going on – to grasp which moments or details are important or not important.

I only really understood what happened in any of these stories when I read the Wikipedia summaries. Reading about the Foundation stories is quite a lot clearer and more compelling than actually wading through the texts themselves.

Asimov was only just into his twenties when he began the series, writing fast against the clock to flog the stories to a pulp SF magazine.

The scale and ambition of the series are still impressive, and the idea of a master historian able to use advanced maths and sociology to predict the future, and the way each crisis confirms the often unexpected aspects of his thinking – all these are great ideas.

But Asimov’s youth, the hasty writing, and the way so many scenes are straight out of Dan Dare or Flash Gordon or cannibalise other boys adventure clichés – the ragged prose, the derivativeness of so many actual scenes, and the paper-thinness of all of the characters – make reading the book really hard work.

Hari Seldon depicted by Michael Whelan

Hari Seldon depicted by Michael Whelan


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

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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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