Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Improbable Hero

Isaac Asimov was an important writer---an innovator who helped lead the maturation of the genre into producing respectable literature.

So there is no intended or implied criticism at all when I point out that his most important works—his Robot stories and the original Foundation trilogy—were concept-oriented rather than character-oriented. The characters in them were perfectly believable, but not necessarily memorable in their own rights. It’s the ideas—the ramifications of the Three Laws of Robotics and the work of the Foundation to subtly guide human history—that make his stories great.

But there are a few exceptions to that---a few stories in which the characterizations really stand out. One of these is “C-Chute,” a short story first published in Galaxy Magazine in 1951. It’s a story that centers around a very memorable character.

During an interstellar war, an Earth ship is captured by aliens. The surviving passengers are locked up. A prize crew of two aliens flood the rest of the ship with a chlorine atmosphere (natural to them) and begin to pilot it towards their home planet.

We quickly get to know the human prisoners and, boy, are they a bunch of jerks. One’s a self-centered cynic. One’s a pompous soldier who’s never seen any action. One’s obsessed with revenge against the aliens. And so one. They get on each other’s nerves and maybe even get on our nerves as we read about them.

Their situation seems hopeless. There does seem one possible method of retaking the ship, which involves sneaking outside the ship through a C-Chute (a casualty chute used for burials at space), then reentering through the “steam tubes,” which are basically the vessel’s control thrusters. Anyone who does this would then have to ambush and kill two armed aliens.

It’s dangerous and at first no one seems willing to give it a try. No one, that is, but Randolph Mullen, a 5’ 2” tall, quiet and apparently emotionless bookkeeper who seems as far from being a hero as one can get.  Everyone is surprised when he volunteers.

Asmiov then does an excellent job of building and maintaining suspense as Mullen begins the risky job of escaping from the ship, then sneaking back in. He skillfully interleaves this with the tension growing among the other humans and the shame they begin to feel over their own lack of courage.

And this all leaves up to great twist at the end, when we finally find out what motivated Mullen to put his life at such risk.

The creation of great characters was not Asimov’s strongest trait as a writer. In fact, I think his later novels (in which he tied his Robot, Empire and Foundation stories together into a single continuity) were badly flawed by some very awkward characterizations. During the height of his career in writing fiction, it was his concepts (often thought out in partnership with editor John Campbell) and his entertaining prose that made his stories great.

But he did understand how to create good characters and, every now and then, he’d create a great one.

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