Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Collected Stories of Isaac Asimov – Volume I

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 30, 2013

asimov“In an infinite number of worlds, anything can happen….. Everything must happen – from the story “Living Space

It took time for me to realize that like how travel writing is not just about travel, science fiction is also not just about science. If science fiction is only about science and travel writing only about travel, then well written science text books and travel guides (although both potentially very interesting) would joust with writing in both genres of fiction. Even while there is a substantial reference to science in science fiction, most of the times the genre is intensely focused on humans, especially: on our nature, condition, concerns, predicament, failures and challenges.

Very often, the diverse settings in science fiction (inter planetary travel, human like robots, time travel, all-knowing and powerful computers, aliens, lonely planets, distant stars, vast galaxies, time-bending, hyper space (do not yet know what that means though )) act as a form of isolating backdrops – a necessary fictional artifice created by the author –  against which the core human concerns can be portrayed with sharper relief and greater clarity.  I have seen this in the writings of Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. Bradbury’s masterpiece “The Martian Chronicles” is less about mars and martians, instead, it is about the nature, psyche and mindset of colonization and the consequences thereof. Bradbury uses the untrammeled lands of mars and the insinuated annihilation of martians (he never mentions it explicitly) by humans as a backdrop against which to examine the nature of colonization.  Similarly, Le Guin’s “The Left Hand Of Darkness” is about the journey of discovery of “otherness” in human sexuality: the male-female dichotomy and the need for empathy. It is this same aspect that I have experienced once again in volume 1 of collected short stories of Isaac Asimov – 24 brilliant stories with ingenious plots, capacious imagination, superb inventiveness, absorbing narrative power all culminating in a delightful reading experience. A few stories were so good that I read them twice over in a single stretch.

I have come to Asimov very late in my reading life with an impulsive self-introduction to his “The Foundation Series” to realize his greatness as a writer and his deserving cult stature among lovers of science fiction. Asimov’s exploration of the “nature of power” and how it drives a society (on earth or elsewhere in the intergalactic vastness) is thought provoking and fascinating.

In the collection of short stories that are currently under consideration, the concerns that get addressed are so diverse and yet so relevant to us that one cannot but marvel at Asimov’s range and richness of imagination. His treatment of the subject of man’s invention that enable him see his past and how it destroys individual privacy in the story “The Dead Past” and linking it to what is an ever ongoing debate on the extent of governmental control of research makes for a thought provoking plot yet a joyous and absorbing read. In the story “Kid Stuff” an elf makes way to the house of a fantasy writer and takes complete control of his and his wife’s mind with the intention of using them to rebuild the lost glory of elfdom which is attributed to the advent and evolution of humans. The elf’s thrall on the writer is broken when he is squatted to death by the writer’s son who does not believe in the existence of elves and fairies. The disbelief is embedded into the child due to the rationality induced on account of the progress of science and technology. And the writer who is hitherto a little embarrassed about embracing the genre for a living regains the forgotten pride but concludes with an insightful observation:

Modern fantasies are very sophisticated and mature treatments of folk motifs. Behind the façade of glib unreality there frequently lie trenchant comments on the world of today. Fantasy in modern style is, above all, adult stuff

I especially loved this story for its inventive quality of the plot . In the lively story “Living Space”, Asimov explores a distant future in which there is overpopulation, the age-old notions of private property; inter galactic settlements and problems thereof. Even while making an interesting story out of it Asimov also throws light on human mindset towards property and ownership attitudes:

“When probability patterns had first been put to use, sole ownership of a planet had been powerful inducement for early settlers. It appealed to the snob and despot in every one. What man so poor, ran the slogan, as not to have an empire larger than Ghengis Khan’s? To introduce multiple settling now would outrage everyone.

In the story, “Jokester”, a Grand Master explores the origin of jokes and humour with the help of an omniscient computer and the conclusions he and his immediate team end up with leave them with dismay and mild horror. In the story “Franchise”, Asimov paints a mildly disturbing picture of the state of democracy when the citizens of USA give away their independence of franchise to an omniscient computer. In the story “Spell my name with an S” two supra beings (we do not know if they are Gods) decide to play with the career prospects of a Russian immigrant physicist in the US unknowing to their supervisor and take bets. By forcing him to approach a numerologist (in whom the physicist does not believe) and take his advice to change the first letter in his name (from Zebatsinsky to Sebatsinsky), they set about a chain of incidents which improve the physicist’s career prospects. The physicist is thrilled at his changed prospects but the supra beings are worried that what they have acted beyond their official remit and hence start to reverse the changes unknowing to the physicist. The beauty of this story lies in the way Asimov builds a chain of credible events across cold-war US and USSR that end up altering the future of the physicist. In the story, “They had fun” Asimov creates a world of nostalgia in which humans have forgotten conventional ways of learning and schools remain schools no more. In “All the troubles of the world”, a super computer develops a refined sense of intuition and man puts so much burden on it to run the affairs of the world that the computer expresses a desire to die. In a really fine story “The Last Question”, Asimov paints a world in which humans have achieved immortality, cracked the twin problems of harnessing energy from stars and intergalactic travel. However, now they face the problem of growing entropy of the universe and running out of energy sources. The sources of energy in the universe are dying out. Humans hand over the problem of reversing entropy to a super intelligent and omniscient computer which cracks the problem but by that time mankind becomes extinct. All that is left is the computer and the vast universe with energy restored. I kept thinking about what attracted me to this story and realized that through some seemingly simple wordplay, Asimov creates an illusory understanding of not only the vastness of the universe but also a sense of inestimable eons

An appealing aspect of almost all of the stories in the collection is a scintillating quality of intellect that pervades through them. Asimov writes with a deep sense of erudition and ensures that there is not a dull moment in any of the stories. In addition, there is a great sense of tongue-in-cheek humour which enlivens our reading experience. However, if there is a singular and stand-out quality to these short stories it is their parable like nature where Asimov, without being preachy, is constantly cautioning us of the consequences when science and technology run ahead of humans and how it creates challenges to the very essence of human nature

A marvelous read and a great way to close my reading endeavours in 2013. I now look forward to reading the second volume of his collected stories which I expect will be a great way to commence my reading endeavours for 2014

Welcome 2014 !!


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