Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov

I was a constant fixture at the Bradford Memorial Library as a young tot. Once I had a library card, I thought I had the entire world at my fingertips. Admittedly, it wasn't the largest library in the world, but I made sure to visit as often as my parents allowed. To my dad's credit, he would drive me to the library nearly any time I asked. I can remember bundling into the car in freezing temperatures with a foot of snow on the ground and having Dad wait in the car with the heater running while I ran in, dashed up the stairs, and found my next selection of books.

I'm not reviewing things from my library days because I really don't have specific memories. But I do know when I DID start remembering books. It happened when I got my first true science fiction book - an anthology of stories by Dr. Isaac Asimov called Nine Tomorrows.

Like a lot of good books in my memory, I bought this one at the McDonald Book Store in Estes Park, Colorado while my family was on vacation. There would be days when then family would just find a space to pull off the road and park beside a mountain stream, sit in a lawn chair and read. Those were glorious days for me, even as a teen who loved to hike and see new sites. Nine Tomorrows was the first book I can clearly remember and it is one that motivated me to seek out more books by that author.

The anthology opens with the novella, 'Profession'. In it, we find a future world in which every child is tested and professions are assigned to them at an early age. From that point on, their entire life revolves around that job and all their education is geared toward learning it. In time, they compete against others in their field for the top employment opportunities. The protagonist in the story is a young man who does not have a profession assigned and lives in a home for those who apparently cannot have a profession identified and are untrainable by the modern electronic methods.

Our hero has to come to terms with the fact that he is seen as a non-functional part of society. We share with him the frustration of watching a childhood friend compete for a metallurgical position and fail because his educational programming didn't include the specific equipment being used in the competition. Later, the hero of the story learns the true nature of his role in society and the entire world changes for him. It is a story with strongly dystopian elements early on but which transitions to something uplifting.

One of the more memorable stories in the book is 'The Last Question'. It is one element of a series of stories Asimov wrote about a gradually evoloving machine intelligence that gradually assumes God-like powers. Remember, this is early Asimove from the late 50s -- decades ahead of the Terminator series and the Matrix movies. While other authors from the 50s may have written about computers and their abilities to calculate quickly, Asimov was one of the first to anticipate what the future evolution of computers might become.

The final story, another lengthy tale, is 'The Ugly Little Boy' in which scientists bring a Neanderthal child from the ancient past into the present using time travel. The child is contained within a stasis field and he is cared for by a professional nurst-teacher. Over time, this teacher bonds with the boy and grows to love him as her own child. This inevitably leads to conflict with the managers of the experiment who decide they have learned enough from the child and want to return him to his own time.

This story was one of Asimov's favorites and was made into a TV movie in the 70s on Canadian television. The production was critically acclaimed and very well-received for a work of science fiction. Author Robert Silverberg later expanded Asimov's story to full novel length.

Why the book is so great.

In the Golden Age of science fiction, people often refer to the big three - Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. They do so with good reason. They were extraordinary authors whose imaginations and comprehensive understanding of both science and society were extremely powerful. Clarke was arguably the best at high concept and pure science. Heinlein was the best at sociology and global futurism. But Asimov might have been the greatest of all time at both extrapolating from the present to the future and also keeping a firm, believable humanity entrenched in the futuristic view.

Asimov had a way of making starship pilots, thirtieth-century architects, and twenty-fourth century policemen sound amazingly normal. His characters come across as real people - not archetypes of some futuristic advanced form of humanity. His narrative is always personal. The events and concepts that fill his imagination are described in how they affect individuals, making the experience something any reader can absorb. He might have known more facts about every conceivable subject than any human alive (he wrote over 500 books before he died and the majority were actually non-fiction) yet he never blinded his readers with technicalities or overwhelming complexity.

Having approachable, realistic characters even in the most unrealistic of settings is not an easy thing to accomplish. But Asimov had the gift of creating characters with whom we felt comfortable and then we were taken along with them on a fantastic ride where amazing things happened but it was all grounded in real science. Not only that, but Asimov's science, extrapolated from writing mostly in the 50s and 60s, still holds up very well. He really did understand not only how science worked, but where it was likely to go in the decades and even centuries to come. You seldom have to mentally remind yourself of when he was doing his writing.

Nine Tomorrows is an anthology of 50s era pulp stories that have not become excessively dated. They are interesting and exciting tales that are moving and fascinating to readers of the 21st century.