Monday, January 25, 2016

Tweenies of Venus: The Early Asimov [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Isaac Asimov never made any secret about the fact that he was not an instant success. Where Robert A Heinlein and AE van Vogt exploded into science fiction fully formed, Ike had to crawl his way slowly through an apprenticeship that included dozens of stories. The Good Doctor collected these initial tales in a book called The Early Asimov (subtitled Or Eleven Years of Trying) (1972).

The Early Asimov, despite containing none of his best work, is a fascinating read for he chronicles his first experiences as a writer, especially those with editor John W Campbell, to whom he dedicated the book. Amongst these early pieces, Ike also tells of stories he wrote and threw away. At least a dozen of them, enough to make any completist cry. If they still existed, we could have published a second book, something like The Worst of Isaac Asimov.

Amongst the stories that didn't disappear, is an Astounding reject called "Half-Breed," which Asimov sold to new editor (and former agent), Fredrick Pohl. The magazine was called Astonishing Tales and because of its low pay it received stories rejected by Astounding and Amazing, including such charming pieces as Manly Wade Wellman's "Elephant Earth" and Asimov's now classic robot story, "Robbie."

"Half-Breed" was a number of firsts for Asimov. The Astonishing Stories February 1940 issue was the first time Asimov had his name on the cover of an SF magazine. The story was 9000 words long, so it appeared as "a novelette," also a first for the Good Doctor. Best of all, the story was popular enough that Pohl asked him to write a sequel, something he had not done up to that point, though he would in the future with his Foundation series. "Half-Breeds of Venus" appeared in Astonishing Stories December 1940 and was another first. The cover art for the issue featured Asimov's story, not just an author mention. He'd "made the cover," a big deal back in those pulp days.

The plot of "Half-Breed" has frustrated scientist Jefferson Scanlon rescuing a "Tweenie" boy named Max. Tweenies are half breeds of human and Martian blood. Their appearance is striking: "...There was no mistaking that brush of wiry, dead-white hair that rose stiffly in all directions like porcupine-quills. (The story's illustrator, Eron, makes sure to include this impressive feature.) Scanlon adopts the boy, who helps him discover nuclear power and make him an important and rich man. As Max gets older, Scanlon seeks a bride for his adopted son, taking on Madeline and her two younger sisters as wards. Scanlon and the Tweenies become progressive in politics, creating Tweenietown. When government men begin to realize that Tweenies are superior to purebred humans or Martians, trouble lies ahead. Fortunately, Max and the other Tweenies have been secretly building three spaceships, which they use to head for the frontier planet of Venus. Max wants Scanlon to join them but he refuses, staying behind. The story ends with Jefferson Scanlon standing in the deserted Tweenietown, knowing he has furthered a race that will one day conquer the entire Solar System.

The sequel, "The Half-Breeds of Venus" continues the story of the fugitive Tweenies. Their ships make it to Venus and they begin an underground complex to live in. Max Scanlon hands the reins over to his son Arthur, while his younger son, Henry has a blossoming romance with Irene. The Tweenies discover a race of telepathic lizards in the lake nearby. These creatures, that they dub "Phibs," are peaceful allies to the Tweenies. Before the new base or a force field device can be perfected human settlers show up in valley and the Tweenies discuss their options. They could wipe out the humans or hide from them. Max knows that if the humans are attacked retaliatory forces from Earth would follow and the Tweenies would suffer. They choose to hide. Henry and Irene sneak out and approach the Phibs with their plight. The Phibs agree to go to the jungles with the Tweenies to corral three Venusian dinosaurs. After a harrying trip back, the dinosaurs are let loose in the human village, but only after the inhabitants have had time to flee. The plan has worked and the Tweenies and Phibs can go on being friends without human interference.

The second story lacks the power of the first. Asimov writes more action and romance than he usually does, but he is no Edmond Hamilton. There are some dialogue sequences that are embarrassingly bad. Asimov apologizes for the scientific impossibilities in these early stories, but there are other writing offenses that make you cringe more. He wisely leaves his Tweenies to their destiny and moves on.

Story elements aside, there is one interesting feature about these stories: the use of the word "Tweenie." Asimov's "Tweenie" is similar to "Tween" or "Tweener," used to describe children 10 to 13. Both words are derived from the word "between." Tween also rhymes with Teen, making it more attractive than "preteen." In Asimov's case, the Tweenies are between human and Martian. The expression Tween doesn't really become prominent until the 1990s, a good fifty years after Asimov. Like the words "robotics" (which Asimov coined), "astronaut" (Neil R Jones), "terraforming"(Jack Williamson) and "alien" (as an extraterrestrial) (Otto Binder), science fiction was there first.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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