Isaac Asimov may very well be the most prolific author in modern history. With over 500 books to his credit (506, to be exact… go to asimovonline.com for the full list, if you don’t believe me!), covering just about every subject in the Dewey Decimal System (except philosophy, I believe), the man was a real marvel. One of these 500 volumes, Nine Tomorrows, is a collection of short stories that Doc Ike first had published in various magazines during the period July 1956 to November 1958. As the title suggests, all nine tales deal with possible futures that may face mankind, and all feature the wit, erudition and clarity that are the hallmarks of every Asimov story/novel that I’ve ever read.
The collection kicks off with the longest tale, “Profession,” in which Asimov presents a 65th century when one’s vocation is determined by a kind of computerized psychological profile, and in which youngsters compete in Olympics-style games for plum jobs on other planets. But what happens if it is deemed that you’re cut out for nothing at all? That’s what happens to young George Platen, in this consistently interesting tale. (Asimov does make one rare goof in this story: George should be 20, not 19, by the story’s end. Has anyone else noticed this?)
In “The Feeling of Power,” Asimov tells us of a scientist who is actually capable of doing simple math problems on paper (gasp!), without the aid of a computer (!), and how the military minds of that distant century make use of these newfound skills. But the old ways of doing things lead to nothing but trouble in this brilliantly cynical tale.
Asimov has been called “the Agatha Christie of Science Fiction,” and in “The Dying Night,” a murder mystery of sorts, we see an early example of how he earned that title. A scientist lies dead, his papers on mass transference stolen, and three of his old school chums are suspect. This somewhat contrived story nonetheless leads to a satisfactory conclusion that most readers will never foresee. (The 1965 observations of Mercury, by the way, have dated the science in the tale, but this is certainly nothing that Asimov could have foreseen in July 1956.)
What is certainly the most humorous tale in the bunch comes next: “I’m in Marsport Without Hilda.” Written in Heinlein-like, tough-guy prose, this tale concerns a Galactic Service agent who must determine which of three men is attempting to smuggle a powerful drug out of the eponymous port. This one really had me chuckling out loud, and winds up very amusingly indeed. A most entertaining tale.
In “The Gentle Vultures,” the author tells us that an alien race has been living on the Moon’s far side for several decades, waiting for Earth’s Cold War to blow up so that they might come to our aid… for a fee, of course. Asimov would have us believe that these folks are the source of the 1940s’ and 1950s’ UFO’s, and who knows… maybe he’s right! Anyway, the interaction between the chimp-like aliens and their kidnapped Earthling is very well done in this unique tale.
In “All the Troubles of the World,” a computer is responsible for not only caring for everyone on Earth, but also for predicting and preventing crimes. Is it possible that this 1958 story was inspired in part by P.K. Dick‘s “Minority Report,” published two years before? Who knows? The story is very clever, though, and has a most touching ending.
“Spell My Name With an S” shows how the smallest alteration in one’s life can occasionally lead to great worldwide changes. A way-out surprise ending caps off another very clever Asimov short story.
And then there’s “The Last Question,” in which Asimov theorizes on nothing less than the end of the universe 10 trillion years in the future… and what might happen after that. This is a truly mind-expanding short story that offers much food for thought in its 12 pages.
The collection wraps up with perhaps my favorite story of the bunch, “The Ugly Little Boy.” Here, a nurse is hired to take care of a 4-year-old Neanderthal tyke who has been plucked from the past by a scientific institute. The tale should be instructive to all those critics who have accused Asimov of being unable to depict convincing female characters. Nurse Fellowes is VERY well drawn, I think, with some psychological complexity and surprising maternal tendencies. The ending of this tale is nicely sentimental, and lingers long in the memory. Thus ends a really fine collection of stories from one of sci-fi’s true masters. Trust me, you’ll wish there were 20 tomorrows here, instead of just nine!