The History of the Positronic Robot and Foundation Stories

Part 3: 1944-1951

By November 1944, Asimov planned to write another Positronic Robot story. The previous one, "Catch That Rabbit", had been unpopular with the Astounding readership, and he didn't like having it be his last word on robots. On November 1, therefore, he began "Escape!", a fourth story featuring Powell and Donovan. "Escape!" featured an immobile robot whose sole function was solving mathematical problems; in other words, a computer. This immobile robot is given the task of working out the details for a faster-than-light drive, a task that had recently caused a rival company's computer to crash. The immobile robot is able to design a faster-than-light starship, which Powell and Donovan are given the job of field-testing. In the course of testing the ship, they learn that the immobile robot designed in a number of practical jokes.

In addition to Powell and Donovan, Asimov also introduced several characters from "Liar!", including the robopsychologist Susan Calvin. It is Calvin, rather than Powell or Donovan, who works out the reason for the ship's oddities. Designing the ship didn't cause the immobile robot to crash, but it did introduce a mental instability which manifested itself in the ship's built-in practical jokes. Calvin's role as worker-out of the story problem was a harbinger of the future. "Escape!" would be the last story Asimov wrote featuring Powell and Donovan. Henceforth, Susan Calvin would be the central character of the Positronic Robot stories.

Asimov finished the story on December 10 and mailed it off. When over two weeks passed with no word from Campbell, Asimov called to find out the reason. Campbell's secretary told him that Campbell liked the story, and intended to buy it. Asimov went to New York on January 8, 1945 to visit Campbell, who told him he wanted revisions made to the story. Campbell also told Asimov that in the next Foundation story, he wanted to upset the Seldon Plan. Asimov was opposed, but in the end Campbell got his way, and Asimov agreed. Returning to Philadelphia, Asimov finished revising "Escape!" and mailed it to Campbell on the 15th. Campbell accepted on the 24th, and the story appeared in the August 1945 Astounding as "Paradoxical Escape".

When Asimov began work on the next Foundation story on January 26, he was still rather resentful that Campbell wanted him to revise "Escape!", and he still didn't like the idea of upsetting the Seldon Plan. To get back at Campbell, he decided that the next Foundation story would be the biggest, longest, most wide-ranging of the lot. It concerned a character called the Mule who was able to mentally manipulate other people's emotions. The Mule uses his power to win the devotion of the Warlord of Kalgan, then travels to the Foundation (disguised as his own court jester) to manipulate himself into power there as well. He then manipulates the mind of a Foundation scientist in order to discover the location of the Second Foundation, a secret counterpart to the Foundation which had also been founded by Seldon. He fails when the story's heroine kills the scientist before he can reveal the location of the Second Foundation.

By the time Asimov finished the story on May 15, it had grown to 50,000 words. It was the longest, most complex piece of fiction written by him up to that time. He brought it in to Campbell on May 21, and Campbell took the story on the 29th. It appeared in the November and December 1945 issues of Astounding.

Once again, events in Asimov's life distracted him from writing. In this case, it was his attempt to avoid being drafted into the Army. The attempt was unsuccessful, and on November 1, 1945, Asimov was inducted.

Asimov had visited Campbell two weeks earlier, when he mentioned an idea he had for another Positronic Robot story. Inspired by the upcoming off-year elections, he decided to write about a New York mayoral election where one of the candidates, Stephen Byerley, was accused of being a robot. Asimov was in the Army before he could begin work on it, but in January 1946 a sympathetic librarian at his boot camp in Camp Lee, Virginia let him use the library's typewriter, and on the 6th he began work on the story, which he called "Evidence". He finished the first draft on February 17, and found out the next day that he was being shipped out to the Pacific to take part in an atom bomb test. From March 2 to March 15, Asimov was shipped from Virginia to Hawaii. There, he sat and waited to be sent onwards to the bomb test site at Bikini Atoll. In the meantime, he was assigned duty as a clerk-typist, and on April 10 he spent the day typing up the final draft of "Evidence". He mailed it off the next day, and Campbell accepted it, running it in the September 1946 issue of Astounding.

The following month, Asimov learned that the Army had stopped sending his wife her allotment, telling her that Asimov had been discharged. He was taken off the atom bomb test project and sent back to Virginia to deal with the matter. After returning to the East Coast, he visited New York on a furlough in June. He met Campbell on the 11th, when he pitched an idea for another Positronic Robot story. In this story, called "Little Lost Robot", a technician at a hyperdrive research base in the asteroid belt tells a robot to get lost, and the robot does so by hiding among a group of other robots. Susan Calvin is sent to the research base to discover which of the robots is the lost one.

Asimov managed to get discharged from the Army in July. After another visit to Campbell on September 9, he started work on "Little Lost Robot". He finished it on the 15th, Campbell accepted it on the 16th, and it appeared in the March 1947 Astounding. Asimov had also discussed another Foundation story with Campbell, and he began work on it in November. The story, called "Now You See It--", was a sequel to "The Mule", and concerned the Mule's search for the Second Foundation, and the Second Foundation's attempt to stop the Mule. He finished the story on February 2, 1947, and took it in to Campbell on the 4th. Asimov had been working on the Foundation series now for five years, and "Now You See It--" was his seventh Foundation story; he wanted to end it and move on to other things. He intended for "Now You See It--" to be the last Foundation story, but Campbell refused. He insisted that Asimov rewrite the story's ending to allow the series to continue, and also that he write at least one more story in the series. Asimov unhappily agreed to do so, and brought the revised story to Campbell on the 10th. Campbell accepted it, and "Now You See It--" appeared in the January 1948 issue of Astounding.

Consumed by work on his doctoral thesis, Asimov wrote only three more stories until the summer of 1948. On September 1, he began a story called "Mother Earth". The story takes place several centuries after the Positronic Robot stories. The hyperdrive has been perfected, and extrasolar colonies have been established on fifty worlds. However, the colony worlds, with their robot-based economies, have broken away from Earth and imposed strict controls on immigration. Earth finds itself with a growing population and dwindling resources, yet Earth's population refuses to accept a robotic economy or birth control.

"Mother Earth" has several characteristics which place it midway between the Positronic Robot series and the Foundation series. It takes place between the 21st-century robot stories and the far-future Foundation stories. It features a society which is interstellar in scope, yet much smaller than the galaxy-wide scope of the Foundation stories, while being much wider than the solar system-based robot stories. One can logically foresee the Positronic Robot era becoming the "Mother Earth" era, then going on to become the Galactic Empire of "Grow Old With Me", "Blind Alley" and the Foundation stories.

Asimov finished "Mother Earth" on October 10, and took it to Campbell on the 12th. Campbell accepted the story after a revision, and it appeared in the May 1949 issue of Astounding. However, what Campbell really wanted was another Foundation story. Asimov agreed to write one last story, fifty thousand words long like "The Mule", and to call it "--And Now You Don't". He worked on the story from October 16, 1948 to March 29, 1949. Campbell accepted it on March 31, and it appeared in the November 1949, December 1949 and January 1950 issues of Astounding. "--And Now You Don't" is set sixty years after the time of "Now You See It--". The Mule is long dead, the Foundation free again, yet all is not well. The Second Foundation plainly revealed its existence when it stopped the Mule, and now the First Foundation is trying just as diligently as the Mule did to locate and neutralize it. In order to fully restore the Seldon Plan, the men of the Second Foundation must somehow regain their former anonymity, so that the First Foundation is no longer aware of their existence.

Since each Foundation story became part of the background for all subsequent Foundation stories, it was necessary for Asimov to recapitulate all the previous stories in each new story. In "--And Now You Don't", this meant summarizing the events of seven previous stories, and also somehow working out plot twists that would fit in with the rest of the series. If he ever tried to write a subsequent story, he would have to do the same again, with the added difficulty of remaining consistent with "--And Now You Don't". Writing "--And Now You Don't" made him determined to end the series once and for all.

The same was not true, however, of the Positronic Robot stories. Unlike the Foundation stories, the robot stories all assumed a consistent background and featured a small but stable set of continuing characters. Each story could stand own its own, so there was no need to go over the events of any other story. When Asimov visited Campbell to give him "--And Now You Don't", he agreed to write another robot story, "The Evitable Conflict".

"The Evitable Conflict" is set in the mid-21st century. The world's economy is being managed by a number of positronic computers called the Machines. For some reason, the Machines are making forecasting errors. The errors are minor ones, but Stephen Byerley, now World Co-ordinator, needs to discuss the matter with Susan Calvin to try to determine the source of the errors. Asimov wrote the story in October 1949, Campbell bought it, and it appeared in the June 1950 Astounding.

Asimov had less success with another robot story he wrote in 1949. Ever since Robert Heinlein had published a science fiction story in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946, Asimov had sought to publish a story in one of the "slick" magazines (as opposed to the "pulps" such as Astounding). He wrote "Flesh and Metal" with the intention of submitting it to one of the slicks. "Flesh and Metal" features an insecure housewife who agrees to let US Robots test a household android in her home. The android is quite handsome, and like the mind-reading robot in "Liar!", recognizes that the housewife is suffering emotionally from her lack of self-esteem. When the housewife falls in love with the android, the android pretends to return her affection. The story, unfortunately, was rejected by every magazine he submitted it to, until Amazing bought it in May 1950. When the story appeared in the April 1951 issue of Amazing, Asimov found that the editor, Howard Browne, had changed the title to "Satisfaction Guaranteed". For once, Asimov was pleased with the change, and he retained the title when the story appeared in his own collections.

On December 28, 1949, Asimov met Martin Greenberg, publisher of Gnome Books. Greenberg wanted to publish a collection of Asimov's robot stories. Asimov agreed, and two days later signed a contract with Greenberg. The following March, Asimov began putting the collection together. He chose to include the eight Astounding stories, along with "Strange Playfellow", changing the titles of the latter story and "Paradoxical Escape" back to "Robbie" and "Escape". He also tied the stories together with a framing story, in which a reporter from the Interplanetary Press interviews Susan Calvin during her retirement from US Robots in 2057. The framing story gives dates for the other stories, mentions a World War which took place shortly before Calvin's birth in 1982, and states that the hyperdrive has been perfected and that several colonies have been established on extrasolar planets. The nine stories, combined with the framing story, brought the collection up to 70,000 words, which Asimov felt was enough. Thus, there would be no need to include "Victory Unintentional" and "Robot AL-76 Goes Astray", which he felt were inferior to the rest. He also didn't bother to include his two then-unpublished robot stories, "First Law" and "Flesh and Metal". Asimov decided to call the collection Mind and Iron. He submitted the book to Greenberg, who accepted it, but changed the title to I, Robot. It was published in December 1950.

The following February, Greenberg offered to publish the Foundation stories in three volumes. The first volume, Foundation, would contain the first four stories, retitled "The Encyclopedists", "The Mayors", "The Traders" and "The Merchant Princes". The next volume, Foundation and Empire, would contain the next two stories, with the first story retitled "The General". The third volume, Second Foundation, would contain the last two stories, retitled "Search by the Mule" and "Search by the Foundation". Since the first four Foundation stories only added up to 60,000 words, the first volume would be shorter than the other two. Greenberg suggested that Asimov write an introductory section to the book, since "Foundation"/"The Encyclopedists" began rather abruptly, and Asimov agreed. In March 1951, he wrote "The Psychohistorians", in which Hari Seldon is put on trial for treason and is sentenced (along with the ten thousand members of the Psychohistory Project and their families) to exile to the planet Terminus on the edge of the galaxy, thus setting the stage for the events in "The Encyclopedists" fifty years later. Gnome Press published Foundation in September 1951, Foundation and Empire in August 1952, and Second Foundation in June 1953.

Continue to Part 4: 1954-1976

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Johnny Pez