The Early, and Marginally Interesting, Asimov.
Can there be anything left to say about Asimov? Between his various volumes of autobiography, his vast and highly personal output of essays, introductions and afterwords, and the various volumes of critical material written by others, surely not much space is left. Well, there’s always room for a personal response. And The Early Asimov invites such a response possibly more strongly than any other volume of Asimov’s fiction.
Speaking of fiction, let’s get that out of the way first. This is, essentially, a leftovers collection. By the early 70s, most of Asimov’s output had been collected. The premier collections relevant to the 40s were the robot books, I, Robot and the much inferior The Rest of the Robots (which, as we say, filled a much needed gap in the literature) and the Foundation series. Other stories from the early days (bracketed as 1938 to 1949) that had already been collected elsewhere include the famous ‘Nightfall’ and his first story to see print (though not earliest written) ‘Marooned Off Vesta’.
So, it is fair to say, much of the stuff here is second-rate. If it wasn’t it would not be here. It is interesting in the context of the author’s career, but not of itself. ‘Black Friar of the Flame’ is interesting as a precursor to Foundation, but is otherwise a fairly routine adventure. There are a few forgotten gems, ‘The Red Queen’s Race’ is in volume 3, by which time Asimov was an established pro, putting most of his work into Astounding, the premier outlet of the field. These later stories read much like the stuff to be found in collections like Nine Tomorrows and Earth is Room Enough.
One of the more interesting things to look at is the evolution of the author. At the beginning the stories show signs of very careful planning — the rigging of the deck that allows the science-y core of the story to matter at all. This is most apparent in ‘Marooned Off Vesta’ (in Asimov’s Mysteries) and ‘The Callistan Menace’. By the early 50s in his second-string novels like The Stars Like Dust, Asimov was clearly making it up as he went along, then justifying the plot after the fact by putting long, unlikely speeches into the mouths of his characters. It’s not in everything he wrote, but it occurs often enough to suggest that he was not terribly fond of rewriting or, when it comes down to it, of writing a really good book when a fast and acceptable one would do. And we can see that happening before our eyes in this collection; Asimov’s goal is to publish, not to write great stories.
This is implicit in the stories, but explicit in the other main component of the book, the lengthy afterwords and introductions that bracket every story. This book is really mash-up of nostalgic autobiography and anthology, and as we go along we see, in his notes, Asimov ‘learning’ not to plan ahead too much, ‘learning’ not to rewrite. As he becomes surer of himself it becomes progressively clearer that the only metric that matters is whether the story sells. I don’t know if it is true, but Asimov appears to show very little interest in writing as an art. He notes that he ‘found the range’ and after that everything sold, but there is no critical evaluation, really, of his earlier works. Stories are evaluated in terms of how many times they were rejected before being sold (or lost) and how much money they netted him. This is, perhaps, the root of why Asimov is so frustrating as an author.
The middle section of The Gods Themselves, a handful of stories scattered through his career, some of the Foundation books, perhaps the early Robot novels and The End of Eternity; these are wonderful tales. But they are buried in so much that is little more than filler. Asimov was proud of being productive, and now and again pointed out that, when moved, he could also be ‘good’, but that was clearly not his primary objective. What books might he have written had been happy to knock out but one or two a year? Who knows.
There is little here of current interest unless Asimov himself is interesting to you; but if he is, then this is a must-read.