“Misbegotten Missionary” by Isaac Asimov
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in Galaxy, November 1950
Price I paid: $6.56
I can’t believe I’m about to say the following sentence to open an entry in the blog I started just so I could read more science fiction authors than the Big Ones I was already reading all the time, but here it goes:
I think I need to read more Asimov.
I know, it’s weird. But hear me out.
I’ve always liked Asimov. I liked the Foundation books, which is to say the first three, because I haven’t read all the rest of them yet. I’ve liked the Robot stories. I’ve liked some of his nonfiction.
But I’ve never quite felt the same way about him the way I have about some other stuff. When I first read Clarke, I loved him and still do. I loved Star Trek tie-ins. I loved Heinlein for a while but we’ve kinda cooled off lately. Politics will do that but I’ll admit that the Admiral could tell a ripping good yarn, as far as I’m concerned. I love Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz and Star Maker and everything Ursula Le Guin ever wrote (even the stuff I haven’t read yet). But I never really loved Asimov in any of those same ways.
I think a part of it is that he’s just such a giant. You could say the same of Heinlein and Clarke and Bradbury, but from my point of view Asimov always towered over them, for sheer output if nothing else. He’s omnipresent. Saying that you love Isaac Asimov is kind of like saying you love The Beatles. You might get into a few arguments but literally no one will ever be surprised about it. It might be one of the more boring things a person can say about themselves, which is why if you ever ask me about stuff like that I’m for sure gonna be like “Yeah man I love Hawkwind, have you ever read Michael Moorcock?”
And then I’ll go home and put on Sergeant Pepper.
But anyway, I’ve said all this so that I could finally get around to establishing that “Misbegotten Missionary” might be the closest I’ve ever come to loving an Asimov story, and that’s why I think I need to read more of him. Maybe finish up the Foundation series or something.
Actually now that I think about it, maybe the Foundation books are exactly the problem! This story was quite different from them, as well as all the other Asimov stuff that tops the charts, like “Nightfall” and the one about computer god and all them robots with the rules and the hoyven glayben.
(I would pay upwards of twenty US dollars to listen to Jerry Lewis read Asimov stories.)
What did this story have that all those stories don’t? It’s one of those super simple answers: an alien!
An actual factual alien!
Yes I know that “Nightfall” technically has aliens but let’s be real, they’re just humans on a weird planet. They don’t act like aliens. This story, though, has an alien that acts like an alien. I don’t know if it was a direct response to our favorite pro-fascist editor John Campbell’s challenge to “Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.” My suspicion is that it probably isn’t. I don’t know when Campbell made that challenge but people cite the first story to successfully answer it as Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” which was published in 1934.
Still, “Misbegotten Missionary” is a pretty solid story that we get to see mostly from the point of view of the weird alien creature, and I have to give it a lot of credit for that. In fact, the thing that makes me pull back a little bit from calling it a story I love is the fact that it wasn’t entirely from the point of view of the weird alien creature. That, and the ending is a little crummy.
Our hero is basically a worm. It’s a pretty smart worm, at least. It’s from a world called Saybrook’s Planet, but really it’s more accurate to say that it’s a piece of Saybrook’s Planet. I caught on pretty quickly that the world was some kind of gestalt consciousness situation, and that our hero was a part of that.
At least, it was, until it snuck onboard a human ship and blasted off to the stars. Now it’s all alone amidst creatures that it calls primitive and incomplete.
What Asimov does quite well in the opening paragraphs of this story is give us this point of view and doesn’t outright explain any of it, leaving us to grasp at straws and figure out what, exactly, is going on. I love that. In the opening paragraph alone the reader has to shift from thinking that it’s about a human being (or something like it) that has slipped its way onto a ship to wondering just what the heck it means to distinguish between a “unified organism” and a “life fragment,” and why the former is superior to the latter.
We then jump to the point of view of the human crew of this ship, but instead of immediately explaining what’s happening here, Asimov manages to keep it a mystery. What he does establish is that this crew has been at their jobs for a long time, and they’re competent at it. It’s a phrase I use and reuse to make my point, but I feel like it’s necessary that at no time does anyone say “As you know, Captain, Saybrook’s Planet was a doodly bingly wobbly slang in the ninth dimension.”
“Or course I knew that, Williams! How do you think I got this job? Are you suggesting that it’s because my father was on the astronaut board?”
“No, Captain, I just—”
“Throw this man out the nearest airlock! A goddammit woman, where’s my coffee?”
Writing challenge: A story where all the characters are constantly reminding one another of things they already know, and it’s important that they keep doing that.
The problem is that while I was really impressed at how well the story avoided that kind of outright exposition at first, it turned out that it only lasted for the first half of the story or so.
All of the bits with the alien worm were pretty great and I may have said this already but I think it would all have been better if that’s what the whole story had been, with maybe a bit of human stuff at the very end to explain it, although the ending of this story was pretty lame so if we fix that then maybe it wouldn’t have been required.
Mostly wormboi gets on the ship, explores it a bit using senses that we don’t have, and makes some cryptic observations that I feel like we could figure out. We see its shock and revulsion when it learns that these alien creatures actually compete for food! Even, get this, when they’re already sated themselves! Not even hungry, still wants food, because other thing has food! Madness!
Wormguy isn’t even analyzing humans here, which is actually a little disappointing. This story is like, two microns away from being about capitalism, I swear.
We learn that our worm friend’s mission is to spread the cooperative bliss of gestalt consciousness to these weird alien creatures, so it’s hiding away on this ship so that it can convert the life on their homeworld.
There’s one good bit from the human point of view that is a top-tier wtf moment. Two scientists are in the botany lab, checking out some hamsters for some unknown reason. Of of them says to the other something like, “Wouldn’t it be wild if one of these hamsters turned up pregnant?”
And I’m like, uh, okay, why would that be weird?
Other scientist says that’s impossible, they’re all female. Okay, that makes some sense, but I’m still not sure why the guy brought it up in the first place.
“Yeah, I know,” says he. “Like if they turned up pregnant anyway and then some babies were born and they didn’t have eyes! Just green patches of fur where their eyes were supposed to be! Ooooohh.”
And at this point both the other scientist and I are like, dude, what the actual hell are you on about? Except the other scientist knows what he’s talking about and I don’t. It’s like dramatic irony, but in the other direction that usual? I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen that before, or, if I have, that I’ve seen it used quite so effectively before. I’m gonna be honest, it kinda freaked me out for a bit.
And then it comes clearer in the next narrative section when our wormguy cuts a wire and splice himself into it, serving as a perfect camouflage for the trip to Earth, except that a close observer might see the two splotches of green fur on the bit of wire.
It’s a pretty good bit! But then the rest of the story is mainly expository stuff. We have a member of the crew talking to a journalist, which gives up most of the backstory and brings us all up to speed. There’s another section where the Captain discusses with a member of the crew what happened to Saybrook and his ship when he discovered this planet earlier.
Basically, a colony ship landed here at some point in the past. It was at first noted how the life on the planet was notably cooperative with one another, and then they figured out the whole single consciousness thing. The colony ship had livestock on board, which started to get pregnant unexpectedly, and the offspring, like the life on this world, had green patches of fur instead of eyes. They also seemed to be plugged into the World Brain or whatever, so yeah, it seems that the planet could sort of infect other life forms with itself. That’s bad, I guess? Anyway, when some women turn up pregnant with alien babies, Captain Saybrook decides to destroy the ship. He fires off a message back to Earth informing them of what’s going on.
So then the second ship, this one, is sent to the planet to explore it, with this kind of thing in mind. All of the animals brought along are female, so if they start to get pregnant, the scientists will know something’s up. But they also have a barrier that prevents anything from getting inside anyway. And they can even scan the bacteria onboard to see if it’s being affected. In a surprising turn of events, we learn that the scientists know pretty much anything and everything they need to know about this planet and its life. Not a lot of stories take that route. This one did okay at it but after the utter weird mysteriousness of the first half, I was kind of let down.
The one thing they don’t know is that there’s one of the life forms on the ship right now, and that it’s smart and subtle enough not to give itself away on the ride back to Earth. Once it’s there, though, it can start the conversion process. First with the bacteria, and then working its way up to multicellular things like cats and dogs and then back down again to humans. (That’s my little joke.)
I guess we’re supposed to be either horrified at what’s coming when the ship lands, or maybe starting to think that it’s not a bad shake if wormboi succeeds. I’ve been reading Kropotkin lately, so I kinda came down on the latter side. This is perhaps not entirely surprising. I’m a big fan of cooperation.
I like to think that maybe the point of the story is to have us engage critically with what makes us prefer one way of life over the other, both in nature and in human society, which, yes, is a part of nature, but I’m trying to make a point here. My point is that this is a story about a communist spy sneaking on board a boat or a plane or whatever back to America so that they can spread their dirty commie ideals, and I’m here for it.
(I’m not actually that keen on Soviet-style communism.)
Anyway, the story ends when the astronaut crew goes to open the airlock door and it refuses to open. How come? Well, it turns out that the wire shorted out or something! Here, take a look at this, where the whole portion of this wire just kinda fried? How crazy is that? It’s carbonized, almost like something alive was there. And what’s this over here, this bit of wire that got cut off?
So yeah, the day was saved because our wormy fella decided to replace a bit of wire that just so happened to be tied to the airlock controls, so that when they were engaged, the electricity killed him. I’m not sure what that says about him, but I guess I reckon that the story would have been a lot shorter if he’d decided on any other bit of wire in the ship.
“Hey Jim, why’d the lights go out on C-deck?”
“I dunno, I’ll check it out.”
It’s kind of a lame ending, like I said. It’s not really out of nowhere, I mean, the story establishes that wormguy is replacing a bit of wire pretty clearly. Worm even acknowledges the fact. I guess it’s on me for not wondering, at the time, just what that bit of wire was actually for, and why nobody would have noticed.
I guess I just wish he’d won. I liked wormguy. He seemed nice.
Apparently this story got a retitle when it got reprinted in the Asimov collection Nightfall and Other Stories in 1969. He renamed it “Green Patches,” which, I dunno, I like less. Original title is better. Also, imagine being the literary b-side to “Nightfall.” Poor story. It’s the “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” of Asimov shorts.
I also appreciate that the people in this story had normal human names like Jerry Thorn and Captain Loring and not typical Asimov ones like Hari Seldon or Smelmor Phartin or whatever. And it never once used the word atomic!
Aw man I think what I’m getting around to saying is that this might be my favorite Isaac Asimov story because it’s the least Asimov story of his that I’ve read. That’s kind of sad.
But it comes back around. I’ve read only a small portion of his work. There’s just so much of it! And I’ve always liked Asimov. So I bet out there in those 500 novels and 380 short stories I’ll find one I love. Of course that’s a lot to read and I’ve got other stuff to read too, so I might never find it, but it won’t be from lack of trying, it’ll be from lack of trying hard enough.
Anyway, I had fun today and I hope you did too. Take it easy and have a good week, but before you go,tell me your favorite Asimov, long, short, anecdote, letter, whatever. I’ll go first and admit that it’s probably Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. Some pretty funny jokes in that one.