The History of the Positronic Robot and Foundation Stories

Part 2: 1941-1944

Asimov's next robot story, his sixth, was the result of an idea Campbell had for Astounding. Campbell had decided to make it easier for new writers to get started by creating a special category of stories, 500-to-1000 words long, that he called "Probability Zero". He would need to get it started with stories by established writers, to show would-be writers what he was looking for, and Asimov was one of the writers he approached. One of the stories Asimov wrote in response was "First Law", a tall tale related by Mike Donovan in a bar, about a robot that disobeys the First Law in order to protect its offspring. Asimov submitted the story to Campbell on December 1, and Campbell rejected it. "First Law" then sat around collecting dust for the next 15 years, until Hans Stefan Santesson, editor of Fantastic Universe, asked Asimov for a story. Santesson wasn't offering much in the way of word rates, so Asimov wasn't inclined to write anything for him; however, he remembered "First Law" and sent it to Santesson, who accepted. The story finally appeared in the October 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe.

As for "Probability Zero", it wasn't very successful. As Larry Niven once remarked, it's actually harder to fit the elements of a story into a 1000-word length than into a 6000-word length. After two and a half years, and twelve stories (one by Asimov called "Time Pussy"), Campbell gave up on "Probability Zero". Asimov's next robot story was a sequel to an earlier, non-robot story called "Not Final!" that had been written back in May 1941 and published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding. "Not Final!" set up a situation where an alarmingly hostile alien race was discovered on the planet Jupiter. The story ended with the discovery by humanity of a force field technology that could withstand the atmospheric pressure found on Jupiter. Once the Jovians develop the technology for themselves (as they inevitably will), they will come swarming into space in vast numbers to exterminate humanity. In Asimov's sequel, "Victory Unintentional", three specially designed robots are sent down to Jupiter to gather intelligence on the Jovians' scientific progress. The Jovians make various attempts to destroy the robots, all unsuccessfully. The robots reveal to the Jovians that they don't need food or air, are impervious to heat, cold and vacuum, and are stronger than any creature on Jupiter. The Jovians, thinking the robots are typical humans, suffer a crisis of confidence and decide not to attack humanity after all.

"Not Final!" and "Victory Unintentional" contain a number of elements (the Jovians, the Terrestrial Empire, force-field hull spacecraft) that aren't found in any other stories, so it seems safe to conclude that they aren't part of the regular sequence of Positronic Robot stories. Asimov finished "Victory Unintentional" on February 8, 1942 and submitted it to Campbell the next day. Campbell rejected the story, and Asimov submitted it to Super Science Stories, which accepted it on March 16. The story appeared in the August 1942 issue.

Asimov ceased writing for nearly a year after finishing "Victory Unintentional". With America's entry into World War II, he accepted a job at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia. Possession of a steady job induced him to propose to his girlfriend, Gertrude Blugerman, and the two were married in July. Between the new job, the move to Philadelphia, and the marriage, Asimov was too busy to write.

It was not until January 1943 that Asimov finally resumed writing, and it was not until July that he returned to work on the two series. Asimov visited Campbell in New York on July 26, 1943 with an idea for a third Foundation story. However, the Foundation stories tended to be longer than the Positronic Robot stories, and Campbell told Asimov that he needed one of the latter more than one of the former. Once he returned to Philadelphia, therefore, Asimov began work on a third Powell/Donovan story, "Catch That Rabbit".

"Catch That Rabbit" finds Powell and Donovan field-testing an asteroid-mining robot with six subsidiary robots under its control. Oddly, whenever the robot is left to work on its own, it stops mining the asteroid and starts sending its subsidiary robots into an intricate dance. Powell finally realizes that the robot isn't quite complex enough to handle all six subsidiary robots unless the presence of a human reinforces the Second Law. When left on its own, the robot enters a fugue state and spends its time moving the subsidiary robots through an automatic routine, like an autistic human twiddling his fingers. "Catch That Rabbit" is the weakest of the Powell/Donovan stories. Essentially, the whole story is a setup for the punchline, where Powell states that the dance of the subsidiary robots is actually the main robot twiddling his fingers. This didn't prevent Campbell from accepting the story when Asimov finished it in September, publishing it in the February 1944 issue of Astounding.

By October 11, 1943, Asimov was finally able to begin work on the third Foundation story, "The Big and the Little". The story opens almost 75 years after "Bridle and Saddle". The Foundation has used its religious hegemony to gain complete control of the surrounding barbarian kingdoms. However, it finds itself unable to proceed any further, because its neighbors refuse to allow entry to missionaries from the Foundation, knowing as they do that acceptance of the Foundation's religion means domination by the Foundation. The Foundation finally abandons the tactic of religious domination, and embraces trade instead. Once a neighboring state becomes economically dependent on the Foundation's atomic-based technology, it finds itself incapable of escaping the Foundation's control. Asimov finished "The Big and the Little" on January 17, 1944, and mailed it to Campbell the next day. On the 26th he received word of the story's acceptance; it appeared in the August 1944 issue of Astounding.

On February 3, Asimov received a letter from Campbell pleading for short stories, especially Foundation stories. Campbell suggested that Asimov write about the Traders, whom he had introduced in "The Big and the Little". The Traders were men from the Foundation (or else secularly-educated men from the Foundation-dominated barbarian kingdoms) who traveled the periphery of the galaxy in tiny one-man ships, selling various atomic-powered gadgets manufactured by the Foundation. Asimov responded to Campbell's letter by writing "The Wedge", a story set twenty years before "The Big and the Little" featuring a Foundation agent operating undercover as a Trader. The agent is sent to try to free another agent who has been imprisoned for illegally selling his gadgets on a world that has outlawed trade with the Foundation. The Foundation agent is able to trick the world's leader into using a Foundation transmutation device to manufacture gold, then blackmails the leader into dropping the ban on trade with the Foundation (and freeing the imprisoned agent). Campbell accepted "The Wedge" on April 11, and it appeared in the October 1944 issue of Astounding.

In the spring of 1944 Asimov's friend, colleague, and fellow Navy Yard employee L. Sprague de Camp lent him the first volume of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. Toynbee held that the history of every civilization followed a certain fixed pattern. The details of each civilization might differ, but the broad outlines remained the same for every civilization. When Asimov began his next Foundation story, "Dead Hand", Toynbee's historical theories were on his mind.

"Dead Hand" takes place forty years after "The Big and the Little". The Foundation's expansion has resumed, as world after world falls into its economic orbit. This brings the Foundation to the attention of the still-powerful remnant of the Galactic Empire. The Empire's most capable general decides to conquer the Foundation, and there seems to be nothing the Foundation can do to stop him. The Foundation has come under the control of the heads of the major Trade Combines, and they send an independent Trader to infiltrate the Imperial general's organization. The Trader is captured by the general, escapes, and makes his way to the Imperial capital of Trantor in an attempt to persuade the Emperor that the general is plotting against him. The Trader fails to meet with the Emperor and is almost arrested, but after fleeing Trantor he learns that the Emperor had already decided that the general was plotting against him, and had the general arrested and executed. It was inevitable that the Emperor would grow suspicious of the general, and the more successful the general was, the more suspicious the Emperor became, until finally the Emperor acted to remove the general. The Trader, the general, and even the Emperor himself were merely pawns acting under the influence of irresistible historical forces.

Asimov submitted "Dead Hand" during a visit to Campbell on August 21. Campbell accepted it on August 26, 1944, and the story appeared in the April 1945 issue of Astounding. Meanwhile, as Asimov continued to read A Study of History, his admiration for Toynbee's historical theories waned. It seemed to him that Toynbee was essentially a classical and Christian scholar, and the order he found in history was an imposed one, produced by his seeing reflections of classical history wherever he looked. Subsequent Foundation stories were generally free of Toynbee's influence.

Asimov had now written three Foundation stories in a row, and he was in the mood for something different. His work at the Navy Yard had introduced him to the concept of bureaucratic red tape, and to the writing style used in official military correspondence, and he wanted to use both in a short story. Asimov didn't feel like creating a new background for the story, so he used the Galactic Empire from the Foundation series.

The story, "Blind Alley", is set in the 10th century of the Galactic Empire, thousands of years before the events in the Foundation stories. The Empire has discovered a planet with a race of intelligent aliens. However, since the aliens have been moved to a special preserve on the planet Cepheus 18, they've stopped reproducing and may eventually die out. An imperial bureaucrat manipulates the system in order to allow the aliens to escape from the preserve (and the Empire's control) and regain their freedom. Asimov began the story on September 2, finished it and mailed it to Campbell on October 10, and Campbell accepted the story on October 20. It appeared in the March 1945 issue of Astounding.

Continue to Part 3: 1944-1951

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Johnny Pez