Short Story #10: The Ugly Little Boy (1958)
Short Story #11: The Dead Past (1956)
Isaac Asimov was astoundingly prolific, writing and editing hundred of books, and several thousand short stories and essays, all while teaching biochemistry at Boston University. (He also wrote a large chunk of his best known work — The Foundation Trilogy — while getting his Pd.D in his early 20s … slacker.) Asimov’s fiction is recognized more for its interesting concepts (such as his Three Laws of Robotics & Psychohistory) than its literary value; most of his novels and short stories are sweeping intellectual exercises, locked room mysteries, puzzles of logic, and celebrations of awful puns. What they are not known for is their depth of emotion.
This was not the case with “The Ugly Little Boy,” a time-travel tale that finds the good professor at his empathic best. A child psychologist is called in to care for a small neanderthal boy swept up in an early experiment with a time machine. She finds she spends more time trying to protect him from scientists who don’t consider him human, and a corporation that plans to exploit him in the media to get more grants. Due to the nature of the temporal device — a particularly clever and original idea of Asimov’s based on the Conservation of Enegry — the boy can never leave the room he is kept in. Asimov uses “The Ugly Little Boy” to raise all sorts of ethical questions about the intersection of science and business, but keeps the maternal relationship that develops between the woman and the boy at the heart of the story (including a kicker of a finish I won’t spoil here.) Needless to say, it is the only Asimov story you are ever in danger of tearing up over.
His most interesting short story, “The Dead Past,” also taps an emotional vein — and in a very real fashion, accurately predicts open source distribution, wikileaks, and modern surveillance issues 50 years before they became reality. It posits a future where the government keeps tight reins on scientific research — a position that is easy to maintain because everyone has become so specialized in their field they can only do one thing. When a historian, physicist and journalist team up to invent a chronoscope, a device to view the distant past, they run afoul of a government agent.
However, just when you think it’s going to be a straight-forward tale of “bad bureaucracy/good scientists,” it turns out everyone has ulterior motives: the historian is obsessed with finding out if he was responsible for a house fire that killed his only daughter decades before, an tragedy that has ruined his marriage and nearly driven his wife insane with grief. The physicist and journalist, frustrated by what they see as the oppression of knowledge, have released the plans for the chronoscope without thinking of the consequences, insuring anyone can build one and spy on their neighbors. And it turns out the government agent had everyone’s best interest in mind all along, hoping to protect the public. As he says in the closing paragraph:
“When people think of the past, they think of it as dead, far away and gone, long ago. . . . But when did the past begin? A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago? Isn’t it obvious that the past begins an instant ago? The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren’t you watching the present? . . . . There will be no such thing as privacy.”