"The Last Evolution" (1932)
"The Last Evolution" "shows all the crudity and lack of characterization of the period....[but also] the scope of Campbell's imagination and his originality." Del Rey suggests that it is one of the earliest stories to show robots "as more than complex tools or slaves for human convenience." Well, let's see. "The Last Evolution" first appeared in Amazing and has been reprinted quite a few times. I am reading the version from the 1976 Ballantine volume.
As del Rey suggested, there are no real characters in this story, which is a sort of history covering a pivotal event in the future; the point of the story is that machines (what we would call robots and computers) are superior to organic living creatures. The text is the record set down by a machine onto "mentatape" over 100,000 years from now.
By the year 2500 intelligent machines are doing all work and the few remaining humans on Earth (two million souls) spend all their time on leisure, including simulated adventures and warfare. I guess because no anti-grav has been developed, people haven't traveled to other star systems, but robot spaceships, even ones only a few inches in size, can accelerate at a rate of a thousand Gs and go anywhere.
Then aliens attack, an armada of ten thousand huge ships. Earth's machines battle these hostile aliens, and again and again it is pointed out to us how humans could never have accomplished the feats achieved by our machines during this war. Under pressure of alien attack our machines develop an array of new weapons and defenses, and even evolve beyond machines made of matter to machines of pure energy. The aliens are thrown back, but not before they have exterminated almost all life on Earth--every tree and blade of grass is gone, and only two men remain. The men take comfort in the fact that their machines will explore the universe and bring mankind's dreams to fruition.
This story's ideas are interesting (in fact, the paragraph I just composed above sounds like a pretty cool idea for a story), and it is a curious artifact in the history of SF, but there is no human feeling and the pace is slow and so it is not entertaining. Gotta give this one a thumbs down, at least for casual readers seeking a gripping or pleasant read.
Remember that first U2 album? That was pretty good stuff, wasn't it?)
Del Rey tells us that "Twilight" is Campbell's attempt to infuse an SF story with feeling, and, because it was so different from his earlier work, he published it under a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart. Asimov, in Before the Golden Age, admits that he didn't know that Campbell was "Don A. Stuart" until he met Campbell in the flesh, and that he didn't like "Twilight" and the other Stuart tales because, at the time, he "wanted action and adventure" and the Stuart stories were "too quiet, too downbeat, too moving."
Despite the antipathy of a 14-year-old Isaac Asimov, "Twilight" was a hit, and was in 1970 included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. In fact, taking a break from reading on a screen, I am reading it in my paperback edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I, which I purchased as a college student for a course on science fiction at Rutgers University.
"Twilight" features multiple levels of framing devices, the kind of thing I generally find an unnecessary encumbrance. (Though it can be done well, of course; I liked the spoofs of academic sifting of sources and protestations of significance we saw in Barry Malzberg's Oracle of the Thousand Hands and Fritz Leiber's "Lean Times in Lankhmar.") Luckily the multiple narrators in "Twilight" don't really get in the way of the story.
Our first narrator is talking to a guy, Jim Bendell, real estate man, in December 1932, in California. Jim becomes our second narrator, telling the story of how he recently picked up a man he spotted laying unconscious in the desert, a remarkably fit and handsome man in odd attire. Jim carried this Adonis to his car and started driving to the doctor, some hours away. Along the way the handsome stranger woke up and explained that he was from the future. The time traveler, Ares Sen Kevlin, becomes our third narrator, and handles 16 pages of the 22-page story.
Kevlin is a man of the 31st century, the product of his father's genetic experiments, a superior man, the progenitor of a superior race. Kevlin ran his own experiments in 3059, but he is a physicist, not a geneticist, and his experiment sent him hurtling forward in time, to an Earth seven million years in the future. There he found that the human race had dwindled in numbers, so that the world was covered in huge empty cities, cities run automatically by machines that kept them in perfect working order. Even though some of these cities had been abandoned for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, Kevlin was still able to ride in their automatic taxis and eat at their automatic restaurants because the robots and computers had kept them perfectly maintained for millennia.
Kevlin describes the history of mankind, the colonization of every planet in the solar system, the evolution of the human form into one dominated by an over-sized head with oversized eyes, and our civilization's decline, starting like five million years from now, when man lost his curiosity and forgot how to build and maintain cities and high-tech devices and simply relied on these self-maintaining machines to serve his whim. Campbell also provides a detailed description of the operation of an automatic aircraft.
One of the noteworthy things about "Twilight" is Campbell's testimonials to the power of music. I guess Campbell loved music. Kevlin sings songs he heard seven million years in the future to Jim, and they convey to Jim a haunting, intimate familiarity with the lives and culture and psychology of those people of the far future. Kevlin hears plenty of music in that far future, and describes how it expresses the story of human civilization over the ages, the evolving spirit of the human race. Campbell also has Kevlin tell Jim that "Negro music" is the best music of our 20th-century civilization, though I don't know whether such sentiments grant Campbell a more comfortable cell in SJW jail or consign him to a deeper oubliette.
Kevlin is from the dawn of man's maturity in the 31st century, and the people he met in the future of seven million years from now were men of the twilight of the human race, men lacking verve and drive and curiosity, and so Kevlin could not bear to remain among them. So he worked on a time machine and tried to project himself home; he missed, landing in 1932, but we are to assume that, after leaving Jim, he gets to work on another, more precise, time machine, and makes it home to 3059, and maybe investigates further the world of seven million years after us, to see if he can revive among those future lame-os the spirit of the human race.
This story is pretty good, Campbell succeeding in placing his interesting ideas about future technological, social and biological developments in a story with at least some emotional resonance.
"Twilight" first appeared in Astounding, the magazine Campbell would later famously helm for decades, and has appeared in many anthologies and collections, among them The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (1943) edited by our buddy Donald Wollheim, Who Goes There? (1948) with its striking Hannes Bok cover, and Beyond Tomorrow (1965) edited by Damon Knight.
"The Brain Stealers of Mars" (1936)
Rod Blake and Ted Penton are inventors--the kind of inventors who don't let the letter of the law get in the way of scientific progress! Research on atomic power was illegal, but Blake and Penton went ahead and built Earth's first atomic-powered space ship anyway, and for good measure fashioned themselves an arsenal of ray guns that includes handy pistols as well as a model the size of the kind of artillery you'd expect to see on a cruiser--the "ten-inch ion-gun!" Then they took off to explore first the Moon, then Venus and then Mars. This story is about their adventures on the red planet, where they arrive about three months after leaving Earth.
Blake and Penton are collecting plant samples on Mars when they encounter a creature that can read your mind and change shape to match any thing--animal, vegetable or mineral--you think of, including yourself! These creatures, the thushol, are not intelligent in the conventional sense--they are not creative--but they have perfect memories and can thus imitate intelligent life they have observed or whose minds they have read. So ably can they mimic intelligent behavior that they are practically indistinguishable from the real person they are imitating.
B & P also meet on Mars a race of centaurs who once had a high-tech space faring civilization--in fact, Earth legends of centaurs were spawned by these Martians' visits to Terra in the past. But currently the centaurs' technology and social organization is inferior that of Earthmen; the decline of this Martian civilization is a result of their conflict with the thushol. The centaurs are now in a state of apathy, the thushol having infiltrated their society--a third of the centaur population are in reality thushols who have slain and devoured centaurs and taken their places! The centaurs have resigned themselves to this horrific state of affairs and try not to think about the fact that their children, spouses and friends may in fact be the murderers of their loved ones. They reason that if your child is really an alien monster, but acts exactly as your child used to, so that you can't tell it is a monster, isn't it better not to pry into your child's true identity and just proceed as if the creature really is your child?
"If we killed one we suspected, we might be wrong, which would kill our own child. If we didn't, and just believe it our own child anyway, it at least gave us the comfort of believing it. And if the imitation is so perfect one can't tell the difference, what is the difference?"Mars in the planet where the people think ignorance is bliss!
The thushol would like to come to Earth, and much of "The Brain-Stealers of Mars" is about their efforts to imitate objects on B & P's ship, and more importantly B & P themselves, so they can hitch a free ride to Terra, and about B & P's methods, based on logic and science, to distinguish between legit Earthborn material and things and people that are thushols in disguise who must be kept away from Earth at all costs.
"The Brain Stealers of Mars" is a pedestrian sort of adventure in which science explains everything and provides the key to Earthmen's survival, but it also raises challenging questions about the nature of intelligence and identity. Not bad.
"The Brain Stealers of Mars" would reappear in Alien Worlds, a 1964 anthology with Roger Elwood's name on the cover; a note at isfdb suggests Elwood was anonymously helped in compiling this book by Sam Moskowitz, the SF historian to whom Asimov dedicates Before the Golden Age. More recently, "The Brain Stealers of Mars" was included in a 2018 issue of Black Infinity, a 200-page magazine of reprints with a cover inspired by EC comics that depicts a woman in a spacesuit about to throw a grenade at some diabolical aliens. You go, girl.
These stories aren't great, but they do all deal with big "sense of wonder" ideas, like the rise and decline of sophisticated societies over the course of thousands (or millions) of years and the ways technological change can cause social change. Maybe someday I will check out more of the Don A. Stuart stories a teen-aged Asimov found too "quiet" and "downbeat" (in 2003 NEFSA Press put out a collection of all of them entitled A New Dawn with an intro by our pal Barry N. Malzberg) and some of the continuing adventures of Rod Blake and Ted Benton chronicled in Thrilling Wonder Stories under such titles as "The Double Minds" and "The Immortality Seekers."