Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Earth is Room Enough

by Isaac Asimov


Received wisdom is that science fiction is ephemeral. Once the science or scientific speculation that forms the basis of these stories moves on, or is proved wrong, they are in danger of looking dated or absurd. So how relevant to today's audience is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy stories written back in 1957?

Earth is Room Enough begins with The Dead Past, a story about an anarchist researcher struggling to make discoveries in a society where "a scientist shouldn't be too curious". Dr. Potterly wants access to the only existing chronoscope, a device that allows people to view the past. It's a thought-provoking tale with a surprising twist, raising various issues of scientific ethics that still apply.

One thing Asimov didn't foresee was the extent that miniaturisation would change computing, and bring it into the home. The enormous Multivac appears in two of the stories, a massive and awesomely powerful computer that is only operated by individuals with rare and creative minds. It is capable of calculating the outcome of the election from the response of just one voter, as well as many other complex tasks.

In Satisfaction Guaranteed we find an early mention of the first law of robotics, as a dowdy housewife is transformed into a glamorous hostess with the help of a handsome and realistic-looking robot.

There's also a fair amount of fantasy, from the story of a trainee demon trapped in a sealed room, to the misadventures of a mutant insectoid elf. If there's any overarching theme, it's that Asimov's imagination is fertile and boundless. His stories seem fresh because they don't rely on merely predicting the advancement of science for their effect, but also on an understanding of people and their fears. They're also impressively inventive: the artificial Bard which tells randomised stories, depicted in Someday, isn't too far removed from some of the electronic toys you can buy in shops today. Hopefully his vision of a world where reading and writing have become lost skills will prove to be a little more off-base.

Sometimes Asimov is clearly poking fun at himself. In Kid Stuff we meet Prentiss, a fantasy writer who is too ashamed of his profession to tell people what he does. And in Dreaming is a Private Thing we find professional dreamers whose reveries are recorded for other people to experience, clearly a metaphor for the work of writers.

Earth is Room Enough is entertaining, fresh and razor-sharp in its observation of the human condition. In spite of one or two things that didn't quite turn out the way Asimov imagined, the passage of time has not taken away its edge.

Book Details

Decade: 1950s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

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