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Isaac Asimov



  The Final Science Fiction Collection


  Introduction by Orson Scott Card

  Part One The Final Stories


  Left to Right



  The Instability

  Alexander the God

  In the Canyon

  Good-bye to Earth


  Feghoot and the Courts


  Kid Brother

  The Nations in Space

  The Smile of the Chipper


  Part Two On Science Fiction

  The Longest Voyage

  Inventing a Universe

  Flying Saucers and Science Fiction


  The Science Fiction Blowgun

  The Robot Chronicles

  Golden Age Ahead

  The All-Human Galaxy


  Science Fiction Series



  Outsiders, Insiders

  Science Fiction Anthologies

  The Influence of Science Fiction

  Women and Science Fiction

  Religion and Science Fiction


  Part Three On Writing Science Fiction






  The Name of Our Field


  Writing for Young People



  Book Reviews

  What Writers Go Through










  About the Author



  About the Publisher


  by Orson Scott Card

  America has always had two levels of language—the way we speak to one another, and the way we speak to try to impress Europeans. The first is very plain and direct, indulging sometimes in exaggeration and irony, but always with the intention that the listener understand our meaning clearly. The second is more indirect, decorated, metaphorical, designed to make a good impression.

  Like the difference between a sixteen-year-old boy talking to his sister and the same boy talking to a girl he wants to ask out.

  American prose writing follows both spoken traditions, but, generally speaking, when we write to impress, we aren’t very good at it. We tend to try too hard. It’s a foreign language to us. We know we’re faking and we’re very much afraid of being caught.

  At the same time, though, we don’t hold the homegrown American Plain Style of writing in very high esteem. Indeed, we’re likely to say of it that the writer “has no style at all.”

  But this isn’t so. Indeed, the American Plain Style is devilishly hard to bring off well. Because there is great art in seeming artless; one must grind the lens very smooth indeed to make it perfectly clear.

  What the American Plain Style celebrates is the democratic ideal. The writer declares, by making his language as clear and accessible as possible, that he values all readers and wishes to invite them to participate in his conversation. The Plain Style closes no doors, draws no veils across the meaning.

  Let’s all sit down together and tell our tales, says the Plain Style writer. Let’s put on no airs, nobody’s impressed by that sort of thing. There’s none of us better than any other; only the story itself matters, only the ideas.

  When American Plain Style is done well, readers never notice the writer or the writing at all. They are completely immersed in the story or essay, receiving it as if it were unfiltered by any other mind.

  Of course it is filtered; it was completely created by another mind. But because the reader is never reminded of it, the ideas and events recounted in that style are likelier to be received without doubt. Where the European style is designed to persuade the reader that the writer is very talented, the American style is designed to persuade the reader that the ideas being explained or tale being told are true. The goal of the one is awe; the goal of the other is understanding.

  Of course, it’s rare to find any writer whose style is purely one or the other. Few writers of the indirect style eschew meaning completely; few writers of the Plain Style are able to avoid a bit of song and dance now and then.

  But the purest, clearest, most fluid, most effective writer of the American Plain Style, ever, was the man whose stories and essays you now hold in your hand: Isaac Asimov.

  It was a conscious choice, early in his writing career. After a try or two at “writing well,” he found he wasn’t proud of the purple prose that resulted. So instead he tried to expunge all fanciness from his writing—and succeeded. But far from being a mere negation—refraining from decoration and indirection to a remarkable degree—Asimov’s style became something positive. A telescope, if you will, that made far and fuzzy things seem close and clear. An instrument of extraordinary power and versatility, which he then turned upon thousands of different tales and topics, and then let us peer through.

  Yet it is not for his achievement as the unrivaled master of the American Plain Style that I have loved the works of Isaac Asimov since I first read Foundation at the age of sixteen. For what good would his powerful instrument be if what he showed us through it was worthless, ugly, or empty?

  Isaac Asimov’s real gift was not language, or not language alone. It was, instead, that much rarer thing: a questioning mind that could not endure unanswered mystery. The three-year-old who pestered his parents with “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” never faded into a jaded adult who had given up on finding answers. Asimov never gave up his questions, and found answers more often than most.

  I don’t think he was always right—certainly he reached some conclusions quite different from my own. But even when he was (in my opinion) wrong, he was never wrong for no reason. Everything was analyzed, its causes and ramifications imagined or observed, and alternatives considered.

  Yet even that ever-questing mind would not have been enough for me, because the child full of “Why?” is, ultimately, tedious and must be sent outside to play. Nor did I take continuous pleasure in Asimov’s work throughout his career simply because I thought he had found the right answers, though he did so more often than most.

  What I have loved most in Asimov’s work, with all its clarity, its questioning, its wisdom, is that underlying everything was a deep goodness, a rarely spoken but always present concern for the communities in which he lived—the science fiction community, the American people, humanity as a whole. He wished us well, fervently wished it, and offered such wisdom as he had found in the hope that we might find it not admirable, but useful.

  And I did, I do, and will continue to do so.

  As writers get older, they become more like themselves—that is, those traits and tendencies that distinguish them from other writers become more obvious, perhaps even exaggerated, and sometimes quite annoying.

  Asimov, too, became more like himself: clearer, with deeper and more perplexing questions, and more filled with that deep goodness.

  So when you read these stories that came from him in the last years of his life, you will find him at his best, in every sense of the word.

  In the 1980s, I was at a Nebula banquet in New York, and, because I had won an award for something, I found myself standing beside Isaac as our pictures were being taken. He was holding the Grand Master Award he had just received, and which I thou
ght had been long overdue.

  He looked at my Nebula and nodded. “That one—that’s the real award. This one”—he raised his own trophy a little—“this is just because I’m not dead yet.”

  Of course I protested that his award had been earned by a lifetime of work, and I should be so lucky as to do half so well in my career as he had done in his—but he wouldn’t hear it, turned away from me, smiled at the camera.

  Later, I was invited to take part in a festschrift in his honor, an anthology of stories in which the participating writers were allowed to set their stories within one of Asimov’s fictional universes. I was eager to write my Foundation story but also terrified, because to write a story in Asimov’s world was to invite comparison with Asimov. Yet in that story I was able to say, indirectly, some of the things I felt about this great old man who had shown us all that perfect clarity was, indeed, attainable in our language. I hoped that when he read it, he would understand what I was saying to him.

  But he never read it. He did not read any of the stories in that book. For, I was told, Asimov was afraid that he would have to come face-to-face with the fact that other people could write his stories better than he did.

  His humility was genuine. But he was wrong. None of us in that book were in his league. But we were all better writers—and perhaps better people—for having known his work.

  Asimov might not have seen his own greatness; indeed, part of his greatness may have been the fact that he gave very little thought to whether he had any. But it was there—in works from the beginning of his career through to the very end.

  Other writers will do good things; some will do great things; but at the things Asimov did so brilliantly, we will not see his match.

  Part One

  The Final



  I am a robot. My name is Cal. I have a registration number. It is CL-123X, but my master calls me Cal.

  The X in my registration number means I am a special robot for my master. He asked for me and helped design me. He has a lot of money. He is a writer.

  I am not a very complicated robot. My master doesn’t want a complicated robot. He just wants someone to pick up after him, to run his printer, stack his disks, and like that.

  He says I don’t give him any backtalk and just do what I am told. He says that is good.

  He has people come in to help him, sometimes. They give him backtalk. Sometimes they do not do what they are told. He gets very angry and red in the face.

  Then he tells me to do something, and I do it. He says, thank goodness, you do as you are told.

  Of course, I do as I am told. What else can I do? I want to make my master feel good. I can tell when my master feels good. His mouth stretches and he calls that a smile. He pats me on the shoulder and says, Good, Cal. Good.

  I like it when he says, Good, Cal. Good.

  I say to my master, Thank you. You make me feel good, too.

  And he laughs. I like when he laughs because it means he feels good, but it is a queer sound. I don’t understand how he makes it or why. I ask him and he says to me that he laughs when something is funny.

  I ask him if what I said is funny.

  He says, Yes, it is.

  It is funny because I say I feel good. He says robots do not really feel good. He says only human masters feel good. He says robots just have positronic brain paths that work more easily when they follow orders.

  I don’t know what positronic brain paths are. He says they are something inside me.

  I say, When positronic brain paths work better, does it make everything smoother and easier for me? Is that why I feel good?

  Then I ask, When a master feels good, is it because something in him works more easily?

  My master nods and says, Cal, you are smarter than you look.

  I don’t know what that means either but my master seems pleased with me and that makes my positronic brain paths work more easily, and that makes me feel good. It is easier just to say it makes me feel good. I ask if I can say that.

  He says, You can say whatever you choose, Cal.

  What I want is to be a writer like my master. I do not understand why I have this feeling, but my master is a writer and he helped design me. Maybe his design makes me feel I want to be a writer. I do not understand why I have this feeling because I don’t know what a writer is. I ask my master what a writer is.

  He smiles again. Why do you want to know, Cal? he asks.

  I do not know, I say. It is just that you are a writer and I want to know what that is. You seem so happy when you are writing and if it makes you happy maybe it will make me happy, too. I have a feeling—I don’t have the words for it. I think a while and he waits for me. He is still smiling.

  I say, I want to know because it will make me feel better to know. I am—I am—

  He says, You are curious, Cal.

  I say, I don’t know what that word means.

  He says, It means you want to know just because you want to know.

  I want to know just because I want to know, I say.

  He says, Writing is making up a story. I tell about people who do different things, and have different things happen to them.

  I say, How do you find out what they do and what happens to them?

  He says, I make them up, Cal. They are not real people. They are not real happenings. I imagine them, in here.

  He points to his head.

  I do not understand and I ask how he makes them up, but he laughs and says, I do not know, either. I just make them up.

  He says, I write mysteries. Crime stories. I tell about people who do wrong things, who hurt other people.

  I feel very bad when I hear that. I say, How can you talk about hurting people? That must never be done.

  He says, Human beings are not controlled by the Three Laws of Robotics. Human masters can hurt other human masters, if they wish.

  This is wrong, I say.

  It is, he says. In my stories, people who do harm are punished. They are put in prison and kept there where they cannot hurt people.

  Do they like it in prison? I ask.

  Of course not. They must not. Fear of prison keeps them from doing more hurtful things than they do.

  I say, But prison is wrong, too, if it makes people feel bad.

  Well, says my master, that is why you cannot write mysteries and crime stories.

  I think about that. There must be a way to write stories in which people are not hurt. I would like to do that. I want to be a writer. I want to be a writer very much.

  My master has three different Writers for writing stories. One is very old, but he says he keeps it because it has sentimental value.

  I don’t know what sentimental value is. I do not like to ask. He does not use the machine for his stories. Maybe sentimental value means it must not be used.

  He doesn’t say I can not use it. I do not ask him if I can use it. If I do not ask him and he does not say I must not, then I am not disobeying orders if I use it.

  At night, he is sleeping, and the other human masters who are sometimes here are gone. There are two other robots my master has who are more important than I am. They do more important work. They wait in their niches at night when they have not been given anything to do.

  My master has not said, Stay in your niche, Cal.

  Sometimes he doesn’t, because I am so unimportant, and then I can move about at night. I can look at the Writer. You push keys and it makes words and then the words are put on paper. I watch the master so I know how to push keys. The words go on the paper themselves. I do not have to do that.

  I push the keys but I do not understand the words. I feel bad after a while. The master may not like it even if he does not tell me not to do it.

  The words are printed on paper and in the morning I show the words to my master.

  I say, I am sorry. I was using the Writer.

  He looks at the paper. Then he looks at me. He makes a frown.

  He says, Did you do this?

  Yes, master.


  Last night.


  I want very much to write. Is this a story?

  He holds up the paper and smiles.

  He says, These are just random letters, Cal. This is gibberish.

  He does not seem angry. I feel better. I do not know what gibberish is.

  I say, Is it a story?

  He says, No, it is not. And it is a lucky thing the Writer cannot be damaged by mishandling. If you really want to write so badly, I will tell you what I will do. I will have you reprogrammed so that you will know how to use a Writer.

  Two days later, a technician arrives. He is a master who knows how to make robots do better jobs. My master tells me that the technician is the one who put me together, and my master helped. I do not remember that.

  The technician listens carefully to my master.

  He says, Why do you want to do this, Mr. Northrop?

  Mr. Northrop is what other masters call my master.

  My master says, I helped design Cal, remember. I think I must have put into him the desire to be a writer. I did not intend to, but as long as he does, I feel I should humor him. I owe it to him.

  The technician says, That is foolish. Even if we accidentally put in a desire to write that is still no job for a robot.

  My master says, Just the same I want it done.

  The technician says, It will be expensive, Mr. Northrop.

  My master frowns. He looks angry.

  He says, Cal is my robot. I shall do as I please. I have the money and I want him adjusted.

  The technician looks angry, too. He says, If that’s what you want, very well. The customer is boss. But it will be more expensive than you think, because we cannot put in the knowledge of how to use a Writer without improving his vocabulary a good deal.

  My master says, Fine. Improve his vocabulary.

  The next day, the technician comes back with lots of tools. He opens my chest. It is a queer feeling. I do not like it. He reaches in. I think he shuts off my power pack, or takes it out. I do not remember. I do not see anything, or think anything, or know anything.

  Then I could see and think and know again. I could see that time had passed, but I did not know how much time.