In 1955, Isaac Asimov wrote "The Portable Star", a story he considered so bad, so sexy, that he forbade it ever being collected or reprinted. For fifty-four years, it has been forgotten. Until now.
"The Portable Star" is one of only two stories that Asimov refused to anthologize ("A Woman's Heart" being the other), and it is by far the more interesting of the two. For one thing, it's actually pretty good, albeit in a minor sort of way. The story follows the married couples Holden and Grace Brooks and Philip and Celestine Van Horne. Their interstellar vacation is interrupted when their hyperspace drive breaks down, forcing them to land on an uninhabitable, Venus-like planet to make repairs.
They soon find themselves trapped by telepathic energy beings that can control their emotions and prevent them from leaving. Most of the story is a quintessentially Asimov scientific mystery, as Philip has to figure out what would be so beyond the comprehension of these aliens that they would be scared away, giving him and his friends a chance to escape.
That's what's the story is about. But here's how it starts:
If space voyages are "romantic," Holden Brooks was certainly carrying on the tradition when he stepped into the cabin of his best friend's wife, with one straightforward objective in mind.
He did not signal. He merely opened the door and walked in. She was waiting for him as, somehow, he had known she would be, wearing a loose night garment. She held out her arms to him and they trembled slightly. Her dark hair fell below her shoulder, accenting the pale roundness of her face.
Her name was Celeste Van Horne and her husband sat in one corner of the room, idly pinching his ear-lobe.
Holden paid no attention to the husband's presence. He stepped directly to Celestine and placed his hands on her shoulders. She swayed toward him and they kissed violently, longingly, over and over again.
It goes on like that for a while, and then Holden tries to kill Philip in animalistic rage for trying to get in the way, just to complete the whole cuckolding-in-space theme. So like I said, it's your standard, perfectly decent 1950's Asimov short story, except with a sexy sex scene that reads like something out of a third-rate romance novel bolted onto the front of it. And I say that with the deepest respect and love for the Good Doctor – the man is easily my favorite science fiction author of all time. So how did this happen?
For that we turn to Asimov's two-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. He describes the story's rather simple genesis:
Having sold "It's Such a Beautiful Day" to Fred [Pohl, then editor at Ballantine Books], I thought I ought to sell him other stories, too. I wrote a 5,000-word short story called "The Portable Star" and mailed it to him on April 5. I got it back on April 14 with a rather long letter telling me, with what I thought unnecessary vehemence, that it was bad.
I tried both [Astounding Science Fiction editor John] Campbell and [Galaxy Science Fiction editor Horace] Gold after that, and both rejected it quite decidedly.
He describes how he ultimately sold the story to Thrilling Wonder Stories. Even his description of the story's sale has a decidedly sensual flair:
The editor was Sam Mines, a tall, husky fellow with a strong jawbone.
I gave him "The Portable Star" and he read it and bought it on the spot.
Let's talk about Thrilling Wonder Stories for a second. Once a rather juvenile magazine, the book began to establish a more serious reputation when Sam Merwin took over as editor in 1945. Merwin actively recruited authors who had written for John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, generally considered the gold standard of pulp science fiction. Under the stewardship of Merwin and his successor, the apparently rather hunky Sam Mines, Thrilling Wonder Stories briefly came to rival Astounding itself.
Both Thrilling and its sister magazine Startling Stories were much more open to stories with sexual themes than other science-fiction pulps of the day. Some of them were great and thought-provoking, including Philip José Farmer's famous "The Lovers", which explored sex between alien species, and Sherwood Springer's "No Land of Nod", which considered the relationship between a father and a daughter when they are their civilization's only survivors. And others were somewhat regrettable — the cover of the Winter 1955 issue, in which "The Portable Star" appears, singles out this as the main attraction of that particular installment: "Name Your Pleasure: A Novel of Hedonism by James E. Gunn." (The story's tagline promises, "'Let joy be unconfined!' they cried, and made happiness their first duty… ecstasy a requirement of the law!" If that isn't a novel of hedonism, I don't know what is.)
Just check out five covers of Thrilling Wonder Stories, compared with five Astounding covers. Notice a difference?
Anyone who thinks sex has a place in science fiction owes Thrilling Wonder Stories a debt of gratitude, even if their stories sometimes veered from the mature and complex to the mindlessly titillating. But which sort of story was Asimov trying to write with "The Portable Star"?
It would seem that Asimov had subconsciously meant to write the former, but in his own estimations ended up writing the latter:
The Winter 1955 issue of Thrilling Wonder reached me on December 20, 1954, and it contained "The Portable Star."
I reread it, and now that my initial enthusiasm had died down, I was forced, with chagrin, to agree with Fred Pohl's unfavorable assessment of the story. I thought it was awful.
I am frequently asked which is my favorite story, but no one ever asks me which is my least favorite story. If you stop to think of it, you might suppose it was "Black Friar of the Flame" or some other one of my very early stories. Well, that's not so, I may have turned out some stinkers to begin with, but that doesn't bother me-they were the best I could do.
It is "The Portable Star" that I like the least and that I am even ashamed of. I wasn't aware of what I was doing when I wrote it, but on reading it after it was published it seemed to me that I was deliberately trying to put sex into it to try and keep up with a new trend.
In the August 1952 Startling, you see, Phil Farmer had published "The Lovers," which overnight catapulted him into science-fiction stardom. It had treated sex more openly than was customary in science fiction, and everyone started getting into the act. In "The Portable Star," I did, too, and I did it sleazily.
As a rule, Asimov was fairly unflinching when it came to dissecting his early shortcomings; for instance, he often explained that there were so few women in his early stories because his twenty-year-old self had such little experience with the opposite gender. Admittedly, by the time "The Portable Star" was published in 1955, Asimov was already 35, married, and awaiting the birth of his second child, but there seems to be a similar process at work here. That opening passage of "The Portable Star" suggests an author way outside his usual comfort zone of robot psychology and psychohistory, and the results are predictably clumsy and cliched. The fact that the rest of the story almost completely disregards the opening and returns to standard Asimov fare almost entirely devoid of sexual content is just another indication that he was trying to incorporate material for which he had not yet developed the proper skills.
Asimov pretty much left sex alone for the rest of the first phase of his science fiction career, not really returning to it until his classic 1972 novel, The Gods Themselves, which deals with a triple-gendered alien race and the sexual "melting" that the two fathers and a mother experience in order to reproduce. (There's also some sex between an old scientist and a sexy lunar tour guide, but that's rather less groundbreaking.) Thereafter, Asimov integrated sex into pretty much all of his remaining works, including The Robots of Dawn, Foundation's Edge, and Nemesis. With the exception of The Gods Themselves, Asimov never really did anything particularly interesting with sex, merely using it to prove that his characters actually did have such desires and actually did act upon them, just like real people.
So where does that leave "The Portable Star"? To this day it remains uncollected, and those interested in reading it have to hunt down increasingly rare copies of the original magazine (though it's certainly possible to find one - I bought a fair quality copy on a college student's budget). It's a shame really, as "The Portable Star" is important as a first failed attempt by Asimov to put sex in his science fiction, not to mention a perfectly decent little story once you get past that first section and into the heart of the story.
Here's hoping the Asimov estate decides to forgive "The Portable Star" for its failings and celebrate it for what it is by putting it out there for science fiction fans to enjoy. After all, if the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to a person regarding sex is a somewhat badly written short story, I'd say that person did just fine for himself. That's a sentiment with which perhaps even Asimov himself could have agreed.