Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

6 Responses

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  1. Have you read The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin? He focuses on Asimov, Heinlein and Van Vogt covering the same Astounding days as you. I’m really looking forward to your book.


    May 26, 2016 at 9:26 am

  2. I haven’t yet, but it’s on my list! (Alexei Panshin makes an interesting cameo appearance in William H. Patterson’s Heinlein biography, which doesn’t treat him very fairly.) And thanks for the kind words.


    May 26, 2016 at 9:35 am

  3. Don’t let rabid Heinlein fans prejudice you against Panshin. Panshin was a kid when he wrote that love letter to his favorite author titled Heinlein in Dimension. Then Heinlein shit all over the poor kid. Heinlein was as thin skinned as they come, and never passed up an opportunity to hold a grudge. Heinlein was my favorite author growing up, and I love his books before 1960, but I stopped fantasizing about meeting my hero after I read about his treatment of Panshin. I was always disappointed in Heinlein for not having the grace and compassion to forgive an eager-beaver fan for some missteps. For decades Heinlein acolytes have lined up behind their master to vilify Panshin. The old newsgroup never could handle any criticism of the old man, especially Bill Patterson.

    I’m waiting for a true definitive biography of Heinlein. Interest in Heinlein has been waning for years. I think he needs a new evaluation. Scholars should get past the worship and find the enduring treasures in his stories.


    May 26, 2016 at 9:54 am

  4. I feel much the same way! Patterson’s biography is an unbelievably important resource, and it’s “definitive” in the sense that I don’t think Heinlein’s life will be covered in such detail ever again. But he does his subject a disservice by assuming that he was always right about everything all the time. My treatment of Heinlein can’t be as comprehensive as his, simply for reasons of space, but I hope I’ll end up with a more balanced portrait of a very complicated man.


    May 26, 2016 at 10:14 am

  5. Patterson did a fantastic job of summarizing the Heinlein papers. But he really didn’t go into his subject like a real biographer. Now I’m even more anxious to read your book.


    May 26, 2016 at 10:18 am

  6. One gets the impression that Asimov was always happy as long as the work sold. His anthologies with their copious autobiographical introductions (_The Early Asimov_, etc) show this; a successful story was one that sold; there is no discussion of fiction as an art and little of it as a craft. He makes defensive remarks about being no prose stylist (as if utter clarity means a lack of style!) but really, at bottom, I think his only real fault as a fiction author was a lack of bravery. He established his comfort zone and too rarely stepped out of it, whether out of a fear of failure or a burning desire to ensure that everything he wrote was sold, I don’t know.

    Part of the problem was that he gained such a reputation that _everything_ sold because they wanted his name on the cover. So we get a lot of very mediocre work in the period after the ‘Robot’ novels of the 50s, leavened only now and again when he felt he really had something to prove or to say (_The Gods Themselves_ for example, sections of which are as good as anything he wrote, inspired by comments that he could not write aliens). I think for many (fiction) readers that is the problem with Asimov — we would have liked fewer, better, more ambitious (not just longer) works.


    May 29, 2016 at 6:55 pm

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