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The Early Asimov. Volume 2

Isaac Asimov

  The Early Asimov. Volume 2

  Isaac Asimov

  Isaac Asimov

  The Early Asimov. Volume 2

  or, Eleven Years of Trying


  The summer of 1939 was full of doubts and uncertainty for me.

  In June I had graduated from Columbia and obtained my bachelor of science degree. So far, so good. However, my second round of attempts to enter medical school had failed, as the first had. To be sure, I hadn't really been anxious to go to medical school and I had tried only halfheartedly, but it still left me at loose ends.

  What did I do now? I did not wish to look for some nondescript job, even if these were to be found, so I had to continue with my schooling. I had been majoring in chemistry, so, failing medical school, the natural next step was to go for my degree of doctor of philosophy in that field.

  The first question was whether I would be able to swing this financially. (It would have been the first question, even more so, if I had gotten into medical school.) College itself had been touch and go all four years, and my small writing income of about $200 during my senior year had been a considerable help.

  Naturally, I would have to continue writing and, just as naturally, my depression made it very difficult to write. I managed one story during that summer; it was called 'Life Before Birth.'

  'Live Before Birth' was my first attempt at anything other than science fiction. It was in the allied field of fantasy (as imaginative as science fiction, but without the restriction of requiring scientific plausibility).

  The reason for my attempting fantasy was that at the beginning of 1939, Street amp; Smith began the publication of a new magazine, Unknown, of which Campbell was editor.

  Unknown caught my fancy at once. It featured stories of what are now called 'adult fantasy,' and the writing seemed to my nineteen-year-old self to be even more advanced and literate than that in Astounding. Of course I wanted desperately to place a story in this new and wonderful magazine.

  'Life Before Birth' was an attempt in this direction, but aside from the mere fact that it was a fantasy, I remember nothing more about it. It was submitted to Campbell on July 11 and was back in my hands on the nineteenth. It never placed anywhere and no longer exists.

  August was even worse. All Europe rang with the hideous possibility of war, and on September 1, World War II began with the German invasion of Poland. I could do nothing during the crisis but listen to the radio. It was not till September 11 that I could settle down long enough to start another story, 'The Brothers.'

  'The Brothers' was science fiction, and all I remember is that it was about two brothers, a good one and an evil one, and a scientific invention that one or the other was constructing. On October 5 I submitted it to Campbell, and on October 11 it was rejected. It, too, never placed and no longer exists.

  So the summer had passed fruitlessly and now I had to face another problem. Columbia University was not in the least anxious to take me on as a graduate student. They felt I was going to use the position as a mere way of marking time till I could try once more to get into medical school.

  I swore that this was not so, but my position was vulnerable because as a premedical student I had not been required to take a course in physical chemistry and had therefore not done so. Physical chemistry was, however, required for graduate work in chemistry.

  I persisted, and finally the admissions board made the following suggestion: I would have to take a full year's selection of graduate courses, and, at the same time, I would have to take physical chemistry and get at least a B in that. If I failed to get the B, I was out on my ear and my tuition money would, of course, not be refunded.

  One of the members of the board told me, some years later, that I was offered this in the belief that I would not accept a set of terms so loaded against me. However, since I had never had trouble with passing courses, it never occurred to me that a set of requirements that merely asked that I achieve certain grades, was loaded against me.

  I agreed, and when at the end of the first semester there were only three A's in physical chemistry out of a class of sixty, and I was one of them, the probation was lifted.

  By December I had gotten deeply enough into my course work to be quite certain I would fulfill all grade requirements.

  The only uncertainty remaining was financial. I had to get back to writing.

  On December 21 I began 'Homo Sol' and completed it on January 1, 1940, the day before my twentieth birthday. I submitted it on January 4, and on that day, in Campbell 's office, I met Theodore Sturgeon and L. Ron Hubbard, two established members of Campbell 's stable of writers. (Hubbard has since then become world famous, in a fashion, as the originator of the cults of Dianetics and Scientology.)

  There is no sign in my diary of any discouragement, but after a year and a half of assiduous efforts, I had failed to sell Campbell more than one story out of the eighteen I had by then written. He had rejected eight stories before buying 'Trends,' and he had rejected seven stories since. (Two stories, which I sold elsewhere, he never saw and had no chance to reject. Had he seen them he would certainly have rejected them.)

  One factor in the lack of discouragement was Campbell 's unfailing interest. As long as he didn't get tired reading my stories and advising me about them so kindly, why should I get tired writing them? Then, too, my occasional sales to magazines other than Astounding (there had been six by then) and, especially, the opening up of a new and sympathetic market in the form of Pohl's magazines, helped keep my spirits up.

  For 'Homo Sol,' my nineteenth story, there was no outright rejection. Again, Campbell asked for revisions. I had to revise it twice, but it was not to be another 'Black F.riar of the Flame.' The second revision was satisfactory, and on April 17, 1940, I received my second check from Campbell (and, by that time, my seventh check, all told). What's more, it was for seventy-two dollars, the story being 7,200 words long, and was the largest check I had ever received for a story up to that time.

  Oddly enough, the clearest thing I remember about that check is an incident that took place that evening in my father's candy store, where I still worked every day and where I was to continue working for two more years. A customer took offense at my neglecting to say 'Thank you' after his purchase - a crime I frequently committed because, very often, I was working without conscious attention but was concentrating deeply on the plot permutations that were sounding hollowly within the cavern of my skull.

  The customer decided to scold me for my obvious inattention and apparent lack of industry. 'My son,' he said, 'made fifty dollars through hard work last week. What do you do to earn a living?'

  'I write,' I said, 'and I got this for a story today,' and I held up the check for him to see.

  It was a very satisfactory moment.

  Homo Sol [1]

  The seven thousand and fifty-fourth session of the Galactic Congress sat in solemn conclave in the vast semicircular hall on Eon, second planet of Arcturus.

  Slowly, the president delegate rose to his feet. His broad Arcturian countenance flushed slightly with excitement as he surveyed the surrounding delegates. His sense of the dramatic caused him to pause a moment or so before making the official announcement - for, after all, the entrance of a new planetary system into the great Galactic family is not a thing likely to happen twice in any one man's lifetime.

  A dead silence prevailed during that pause. The two hundred and eighty-eight delegates - one from each of the two hundred and eighty-eight oxygen-atmosphere, water-chemistry worlds of the System - waited patiently for him to speak.

  Beings of every manlike type and shape were there. Some were tall and polelike, some broad and burly, some short and stumpy. Th
ere were those with long, wiry hair, those with scanty gray fuzz covering head and face, others with thick, blond curls piled high and still others entirely bald. Some possessed long, hair-covered trumpets of ears, others had tympanum membranes flush with their temples. There were those present with large gazellelike eyes of a deep-purple luminosity, others with tiny optics of a beady black. There was a delegate with green skin, one with an eight-inch proboscis and one with a vestigial tail. Internally, variation was almost infinite.

  But all were alike in two things.

  They were all Humanoid. They all possessed intelligence.

  The president delegate's voice boomed out then: 'Delegates! The system of Sol has discovered the secret of interstellar travel and by that act becomes eligible for entrance into the Galactic Federation.'

  A storm of approving shouts arose from those present and the Arcturian raised a hand for silence.

  'I have here,' he continued, 'the official report from Alpha Centauri, on whose fifth planet the Humanoids of Sol have landed. The report is entirely satisfactory and so the ban upon travel into and communication with the Solarian System is lifted. Sol is free, and open to the ships of the Federation. Even now, there is in preparation an expedition to Sol, under the leadership of Joselin Arn of Alpha Centauri, to tender that System the formal invitation into the Federation.'

  He paused, and from tv/o hundred and eighty-eight throats came the stentorian shout: 'Hail, Homo Sol! Hail, Homo Sol! Hail!'

  It was the traditional welcome of the Federation for all new worlds.

  Tan Porus raised himself to his full height of five feet two -he was tall for a Rigellian - and his sharp, green eyes snapped with annoyance.

  'There it is, Lo-fan. For six months that damned freak squid from Beta Draconis IV has stumped me.'

  Lo-fan stroked his forehead gently with one long finger, and one hairy ear twitched several times. He had traveled eighty-five light years to be here on Arcturus II with the greatest psychologist of the Ferderation - and, more specifically, to see this strange mollusk whose reactions had stumped the great Rigellian.

  He was seeing it now: a puffy, dull-purple mass of soft flesh that writhed its tentacular form in placid unconcern through the huge tank of water that held it. With unruffled serenity, it fed on the green fronds of an underwater fern.

  'Seems ordinary enough,' said Lo-fan.

  'Ha!' snorted Tan Porus. 'Watch this.'

  He drew the curtain and plunged the room into darkness. Only a dim blue light shone upon the tank, and in the murk the Draconian squid could barely be discerned.

  'Here goes the stimulus,' grunted Porus. The screen above his head burst into soft green light, focused directly upon the tank. It persisted a moment and gave way to a dull red and then almost at once to a brilliant yellow. For half a minute it shot raggedly through the spectrum and then, with a final glare of glowing white, a clear bell-like tone sounded.

  And as the echoes of the note died away, a shudder passed over the squid's body. It relaxed and sank slowly to the bottom of the tank.

  Porus pulled aside the curtain. 'It's sound asleep,' he growled. 'Hasn't failed yet. Every specimen we've ever had drops as if shot the moment that note sounds.'

  'Asleep, eh? That's strange. Have you got the figures on the stimulus?'

  'Certainly! Right here. The exact wave lengths of the lights required are listed, plus the length of duration of each light unit, plus the exact pitch of the sounded note at the end.'

  The other surveyed the figures dubiously. His forehead wrinkled and his ears rose in surprise. From an inner pocket, he drew forth a slide rule.

  'What type nervous system has the animal?'

  'Two-B. Plain, simple, ordinary Two-B. I've had the anatomists, physiologists and ecologists check that until they were blue in the face. Two-B is all they get. Damn fools!'

  Lo-fan said nothing, but pushed the center bar of the rule back and forth carefully. He stopped and peered closely, shrugged his shoulders and reached for one of the huge volumes on the shelf above his head. He leafed through the pages and picked out numbers from among the close print. Again the slide rule.

  Finally he stopped. 'It doesn't make sense,' he said helplessly.

  'I know that! I've tried six times in six different ways to explain that reaction - and I failed each time. Even if I rig up a system that will explain its going to sleep, I can't get it to explain the specificity of the stimulus.'

  'It's highly specific?' questioned Lo-fan, his voice reaching the higher registers.

  'That's the worst part of it,' shouted Tan Porus. He leaned forward and tapped the other on the knee. 'If you shift the wave length of any of the light units by fifty angstroms either way - any one of them - it doesn't sleep. Shift the length of duration of a light unit two seconds either way - it doesn't sleep. Shift the pitch of the tone at the end an eighth of an octave either way - it doesn't sleep. But get the right combination, and it goes straight into a coma.'

  Lo-fan's ears were two hairy trumpets, stiffly erect. 'Galaxy!' he whispered. 'How did you ever stumble on the combination?'

  'I didn't. It happened at Beta Draconis. Some hick college was putting its freshmen through a lab period on light-sound reactions of molluscoids - been doing it for years. Some student runs through his light-sound combinations and his blasted specimen goes to sleep. Naturally, he's scared out of his wits and brings it to the instructor. The instructor tries it again on another squid - it goes to sleep. They shift the combination -nothing happens. They go back to the original - it goes to sleep. After they fooled around with it long enough to know they couldn't make head or tail of it, they sent it to Arcturus and wished it on me. It's six months since 7 had a real night's sleep.'

  A musical note sounded and Porus turned impatiently.

  'What is it?'

  'Messenger from the president delegate of Congress, sir,' came in metallic tones from the telecaster on his desk.

  'Send him up.'

  The messenger stayed only long enough to hand Porus an impressively sealed envelope and to say in hearty tone: 'Great news, sir. The system of Sol has qualified for entrance.'

  'So what?' snorted Porus beneath his breath as the other left. 'We all knew it was coming.'

  He ripped off the outer sheath of cello-fiber from the envelope and removed the sheaf of papers from within. He glanced through them and grimaced.


  'What's wrong?' asked Lo-fan.

  'Those politicians keep bothering me with the most inconse-quential things. You'd think there wasn't another psychologist on Eron. Look! We've been expecting the Solarian System to solve the principle of the hyperatomo any century now. They've finally done it and an expedition of theirs landed on Alpha Centauri. At once, there's a politician's holiday! We must send an expedition of our own to ask them to join the Federation. And, of course, we must have a psychologist along to ask them in a nice way so as to be sure of getting the right reaction, because, to be sure, there isn't a man in the army that ever gets proper training in psychology.'

  Lo-fan nodded seriously. 'I know, I know. We have the same trouble out our way. They don't need psychology until they get Into trouble and then they come running.'

  'Well, it's a cinch I'm not going to Sol. This sleeping squid is too important to neglect. It's a routine job, anyway - this business of raking in new worlds; a Type A reaction that any sophomore can handle.'

  'Whom will you send?"

  'I don't know. I've got several good juniors under me that can do this sort of thing with their eyes closed. I'll send one of them. And meanwhile, I'll be seeing you at the faculty meeting tomorrow, won't I?'

  'You will - and hearing me, too. I'm making a speech on the finger-touch stimulus.'

  'Good! I've done work on it, so I'll be interested in hearing what you have to say. Till tomorrow, then.'

  Left alone, Porus turned once more to the official report on the Solarian System which the messenger had handed him. He leafed through i
t leisurely, without particular interest, and finally put it down with a sigh.

  'Lor Haridin could do it,' he muttered to himself. 'He's a good kid - deserves a break.'

  He lifted his tiny bulk out of the chair and, with the report under his arm, left his office and trotted down the long corridor outside. As he stopped before a door at the far end, the automatic flash blazed up and a voice within called out to him to enter.

  The Rigellian opened the door and poked his head inside. 'Busy, Haridin?'

  Lor Haridin looked up and sprang to his feet at once. 'Great space, boss, no! I haven't had anything to do since I finished work on anger reactions. You've got something for me, maybe?'

  'I have - if you think you're up to it. You've heard of the Solarian System, haven't you?'

  'Sure! The visors are full of it. They've got interstellar travel, haven't they?'

  'That's right. An expedition is leaving Alpha Centauri for Sol in a month. They'll need a psychologist to do the fine work, and I was thinking of sending you.'

  The young scientist reddened with delight to the very top of his hairless dome. 'Do you mean it, boss?'

  'Why not? That is - if you think you can do it.'

  'Of course I can.' Haridin drew himself up in offended hauteur. 'Type A reaction! I can't miss.'

  'You'll have to learn their language, you know, and administer the stimulus in the Solarian tongue. It's not always an easy job.'

  Haridin shrugged. 'I still can't miss. In a case like this, translation need only be seventy-five percent effective to get ninety-nine and six tenths percent of the desired result. That was one of the problems I had to solve on my qualifying exam. So you can't trip me up that way.'

  Porus laughed. 'All right, Haridin, I know you can do it. Clean up everything here at the university and sign up for indefinite leave. And if you can, Haridin, write some sort of paper on these Solarians. If it's any good, you might get senior status on the basis of it.'