Saturday, March 19, 2016

Revisiting the Classics -- Nine Tomorrows

Today we have the 1959 Isaac Asimov short story collection Nine Tomorrows. As the title suggests, it's nine short stories plucked from the famed author's imagination.
It starts off with some poetry before delving into the first story, "Profession." It concerns teenager George Platen who lives in the 21st-century where everyone gets their higher education by having their chosen field of study downloaded into their head. Unfortunately for George, he's told his brain is incompatible and he can't get the career he wants--or any job, for that matter--because in his time, the idea of actually studying is ridiculous. So he's sent to a special home for people who can't get a job and is told he'll live out the rest of his life in unremarkable peace. Unable to accept this, he heads off to the Olympics on some vague mission (even he doesn't really know what he's going to do there). But this isn't the Olympics we know; it's actually an academic competition rather than an athletic one. There George meets up with an old friend who's competing, and is introduced to a kind benefactor. But he has no idea what fate has in store for him.
In "The Feeling of Power," Technician Aub has a gift: He can compute numbers without a computer. The military wants to harness the power of the human brain to replace computers with people and achieve manned space flights and manned weapons. Aub seems like a hero, but he'll pay a heavy price for his gift.
In "The Dying Night," a class reunion turns deadly when one of its members claims to have invented teleportation and is found dead later that night. Who killed him and why?
In "I'm in Marsport Without Hilda," an agent for the Galactic Service has his vacation on Mars interrupted when he's called upon to identify one of three VIPs who's transporting illegal drugs. If he fingers the wrong man, his career is over. Can he find the culprit and score a date before everything falls apart?
In "The Gentle Vultures," an alien race called the Hurrians has been observing humanity for years, waiting for our inevitable nuclear war. But that war never came, and the Hurrians are getting impatient. Man needs a nuclear holocaust to humble him, the Hurrians reason, and make him mature enough to join the galactic community. So a controversial decision is made: The Hurrians will manipulate humanity into starting the war. But just what will it take to pull it off, and who will accept such responsibility?
In "All the Troubles of the World," a worldwide supercomputer called Multivac oversees all aspect of everyday life. It's so powerful it can even predict crime. But when it accuses a seemingly innocent man of the most heinous crime ever conceived, his son sets out to get Multivac's help to clear his name. However, the true mastermind behind the plot will shock everyone.
In "Spell My Name With an S," Marshall Zebatinsky goes to see a numerologist to get career advice. The numerologist advises him to change his last name to Sebatinsky. Marshall goes along with it and makes the change, but he soon comes under suspicion from the authorities who think he might be a communist agent. The attention seems bad, but it just might get him what he wants.
In "The Last Question," we see the evolution of Multivac throughout the ages as it grows from a planet-wide computer to an interdimensional one. And in each era, humanity poses the same question to it: How do we stop the entropy of the universe and prevent its inevitable end? And each time, the supercomputer cannot answer the question. But as each millennia passes, it comes closer and closer to the answer and an astonishing revelation.
In the final story "The Ugly Little Boy," nurse Edith Fellowes is tasked with caring for a Neanderthal child who has been removed from his time and brought to the future by Stasis, Inc. There he is a prisoner of the company and forbidden to leave the building. As time passes, Edith comes to care for him deeply, but when Stasis decides they don't need him anymore, she makes a fateful decision.
These stories prove the greatness of Isaac Asimov. He successfully predicted supercomputers, downloading, scanners and more. And even if you don't acknowledge his foresight, you can't deny these are excellent stories. In particular, the last two tales tug at your heart strings and blow your mind (not necessarily in that order). Asimov deserves his place in history as one of science fiction's great prophets and storytellers.

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