The History of the Positronic Robot and Empire Novels, 1947-1958

By the late 1940s, Isaac Asimov was a highly successful science fiction writer, whose Positronic Robot and Foundation stories were among the most popular pieces being published in Astounding Science Fiction, the leading science fiction magazine of the time. Asimov, though, was growing concerned over the fact that his writing output since the summer of 1942 had appeared only in Astounding. It was a slim reed to base one's writing career on, and Asimov feared that if anything happened to Astounding, his days as a successful writer would be over.

On May 26, 1947, Asimov met Sam Merwin, Jr., editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories. The two magazines had recently begun publishing higher-quality stories like those in Astounding, and Merwin wanted Asimov to write a 40,000-word novel for the latter magazine. Asimov agreed, and started work on the novel, called "Grow Old with Me", on June 2. In the novel, a retired twentieth-century tailor suddenly finds himself transported forward in time to the era of the Galactic Empire. By that time, most of Earth is radioactive, and the planet's inhabitants face compulsory euthanasia at age 60. The tailor, who is 62, must find some way to avoid his seemingly inevitable death.

Unfortunately, by the time Asimov had finished the novel in September, the magazine's editorial policies had changed, and Merwin no longer wanted it. Asimov then took the novel to Campbell, who also turned it down for a number of reasons. Downcast, Asimov gave up on "Grow Old with Me".

Over a year later, on February 25, 1949, Frederik Pohl offered to agent for Asimov. Asimov himself hadn't had any luck selling "Grow Old with Me", so he agreed to let Pohl have a try. The following month, Pohl told Asimov that Doubleday & Co. was interested in publishing the novel as a book, provided Asimov expanded it to 70,000 words. Asimov agreed, and spent April 6 to May 21 revising the novel. He also changed the title to Grow Old Along with Me after learning that he had misremembered its source, the first line of Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi ben Ezra". Pohl sent if off to Doubleday, and on May 29 Asimov learned that the company had agreed to publish it. Walter Bradbury, the science fiction editor at Doubleday, wrote Asimov the following month asking him to change the title, since Grow Old Along with Me didn't sound like science fiction. Asimov agreed, choosing Pebble in the Sky, and the novel was published under that name on January 19, 1950.

Bradbury was sufficiently pleased with Pebble in the Sky that he asked Asimov to present him with an idea for another novel. Asimov did so on November 6, 1949, and Bradbury asked him to expand the idea into two sample chapters and an outline. Asimov started the outline for the novel, called The Stars, Like Dust, on the 15th, and the sample chapters on the 20th. He completed them on December 20, and submitted them to Bradbury on the 25th.

Bradbury was unhappy with the two sample chapters, feeling that they were overwritten. He told Asimov to throw them out and write six or seven more chapters. Asimov started work on the second draft of the novel on January 15, 1950. At first, he tried to follow the outline he had written in November, but he soon realized that he was incapable of keeping to an outline. He threw it out, and let the novel go where it wanted. By the middle of February, Asimov had finished the first third of the novel, and he sent it in to Bradbury. When Bradbury finally responded in March, it was to tell Asimov that the novel was still too overwritten and that Asimov would have to try again. On April 1, Asimov started the novel again from scratch.

On May 7, Asimov sent the third draft of The Stars, Like Dust to Bradbury, and this time, Bradbury told him to finish the novel. In August, Frederik Pohl, who was still Asimov's agent, told him that Horace Gold, editor of a new science fiction magazine called Galaxy, wanted to run The Stars, Like Dust as a serial. Gold, Pohl went on to say, had one small addition he wanted to make to the novel: he wanted to add a subplot involving the United States Constitution. Asimov unhappily went along. When he told Bradbury about the new subplot, Bradbury said, "That sounds great. We'll keep it in the book version, too." The Constitution subplot remained a permanent part of The Stars, Like Dust, and on top of the two false starts, it made the novel Asimov's least favorite. Asimov finally finished The Stars, Like Dust on September 17, 1950. The novel appeared in the January, February and March 1951 issues of Galaxy under the title "Tyrann", and was published by Doubleday in March.

The Stars, Like Dust takes place thousands of years before Pebble in the Sky. It has only been a thousand years since Earth became radioactive, and humanity is still expanding through the galaxy. The inhabited worlds are a chaotic patchwork of hundreds of independent states, constantly at war with one another. The novel follows the story of Biron Farrill, son of the leading nobleman of the planet Nephelos. After his father is arrested by the Tyranni, who have ruled Nephelos for fifty years, Farrill is drafted by his friend Sander Jonti to find the Rebellion World, the rumored center of an anti-Tyranni resistance movement. (Also, Farrill is supposed to be looking for a mysterious document, which turns out to be the United States Constitution.)

With The Stars, Like Dust finished, Asimov began a third novel, The Currents of Space, in December 1950. This novel was set against the same background as the previous two, in a time some centuries before the establishment of the Galactic Empire. The Empire of Trantor rules half the galaxy, and is slowly but surely gaining control of the other half. The most important nation outside the Empire's control is the Sark Squiredom, consisting of the planet Sark and its sole subject world, Florina. Florina is the source of the galaxy's rarest textile, kyrt, and the kyrt trade is the source of Sark's wealth and power. However, a spatio-analyst from Earth has discovered that Florina's sun is unstable and about to go nova. The spatio-analyst is abducted and brainwiped, and only after spending a year as an amnesiac on Florina does he begin to regain his memory, at which point he is plunged into a web of danger and intrigue.

On December 29, 1950, Asimov met with Bradbury, describing the novel much as he might do with Campbell, and Bradbury gave his approval. By April 4, 1951, Bradbury thought highly enough of the first part of the novel to offer Asimov a contract. Since Asimov was working on other projects as well, including a biochemistry textbook and the juvenile novel David Starr, Space Ranger, he didn't finish The Currents of Space until March 30, 1952. On April 16, Bradbury accepted the novel for publication, and Campbell accepted it for serialization in Astounding. The novel appeared in the October, November and December 1952 issues of Astounding, and was published by Doubleday in December.

On April 19, Asimov visited Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy. Upon learning that Astounding would be serializing The Currents of Space, Gold asked Asimov to let him have his next novel. He suggested that Asimov write a robot novel. Asimov was reluctant, since he had only written short stories with robots and wasn't sure if he could come up with a novel-length robot story. Gold suggested that Asimov write a murder mystery on an overpopulated world, with a detective who would lose his job to his robot partner if he was unable to solve the murder. Asimov finally agreed, and he began work on the novel, The Caves of Steel, on November 29, finishing it on May 24, 1953. Bradbury, Gold and Pohl (who was still Asimov's agent) were all pleased with the novel, as was Asimov himself. The Caves of Steel appeared in the October, November and December 1953 issues of Galaxy, and was published by Doubleday in February 1954.

The overpopulated world Asimov set the story in was Earth, and in the novel he recreated the milieu of his story "Mother Earth". Once again, an overpopulated Earth was threatened by the fifty underpopulated but advanced Spacer worlds. The novel took place a thousand years after the Spacer worlds had won their independence and closed off emigration from Earth (the last stages of which had been related in "Mother Earth"). The overpopulated, robophobic Earth of The Caves of Steel had nothing in common with the underpopulated, radioactive Earth of the first three novels. At this point, one could argue that I, Robot, "Mother Earth" and The Caves of Steel were quite distinct from The Stars, Like Dust, The Currents of Space, Pebble in the Sky and the Foundation Trilogy. In fact, when Asimov published a timeline of the Foundation stories in the Winter 1955 issue of Thrilling Wonder, he left out all of the robot stories. (He did include a number of stories, such as "The Singing Bell" and "Christmas on Ganymede", which were mutually inconsistent, as well as inconsistent with the later Empire/Foundation stories.)

In October 1955, Asimov began The Naked Sun, a sequel to The Caves of Steel set on the Spacer world of Solaria. He finished it on March 10, 1956, and it appeared in the October, November and December 1956 issues of Astounding, and was published by Doubleday in January 1957. Asimov ended The Naked Sun by setting up a third novel set on the chief Spacer world, Aurora. In May 1958, Asimov signed a contract from Doubleday for the third novel, The Bounds of Infinity. He began work on it in July, but found to his dismay that the novel was becoming steadily harder to write. Asimov finally abandoned The Bounds of Infinity on October 20, 1958, and for the next 25 years The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun remained a two-volume trilogy.

Continue to The History of the Positronic Robot Stories: 1954-1976

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Johnny Pez