The Asimov story in which a mother invents Twitter

I was busy this morning seeing my mother off after a weekend in which nothing, it seemed, could go wrong, and a great many things went startlingly, unexpectedly right. Thanks to Graham “Sky” Rowat, Mama and I got to go backstage last night after Guys and Dolls, which is something we’ll both remember for a long, long time. Nothing like hanging out on an honest-to-goodness Broadway stage with the guy who’s just given a terrific performance in the lead role. For once I got to give Mama something a little better than a lanyard in the usual wholly inadequate attempt at sufficient filial gratitude.

However, I’ve got a bit of Mother’s Day left, and so there’s still time to share with you all a little 1962 Isaac Asimov story called “My Son, The Physicist,” in which a mother invents Twitter. Or sort of.

The story isn’t online anywhere; it’s short enough for me to type the whole thing in for you — it takes up only three and a half pages in the edition of Nightfall and Other Stories that I got from the library — but of course that’d be infringing copyright, so I won’t. The gist is this: in the future, a mom comes to visit her hotshot son at “a huge government building” just as a furor has broken out. A space expedition has sent a communication from Pluto, the outermost, erm, dwarf planet, even though they were only supposed to get as far as Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, and even though the expedition left four years ago and only had enough supplies for a year. The eponymous physicist and some others believe that the expedition had help from extra-terrestrials, and so they’re desperate to have a conversation with the folks on Pluto.

Unfortunately, as the physicist explains,

“At the present moment Pluto is just under four billion miles away. It takes six hours for radio waves, traveling at the speed of light, to reach from here to there. If we say something, we must wait twelve hours for an answer. If they say something and we miss it and say ‘what’ and they repeat — bang, goes a day.”

The physicist wants to get the Army’s Multivac computer to solve the problem — but instead, his sweet little old mother solves it for him in an instant:

   “Just one moment, General,” said Cremorna. “What are you getting at, Mother?”
   “While you’re waiting for an answer,” said Mrs. Cremorna, earnestly, “just keep on transmitting and tell them to do the same. You talk all the time and they talk all the time. You have someone listening all the time and they do, too. If either one of you says anything that needs an answer, you can slip one in at your end, but chances are, you’ll get all you need without asking.”
   Both men stared at her.
   Cremorna whispered, “Of course. Continuous conversation. Just twelve hours out of phase, that’s all.”

Of course. Continuous conversation.

I went through a big Asimov phase in, oh, I don’t even remember, but it was probably high school. I read I, Robot and a whole lot of short stories. I’m not sure what made me remember this story in particular, but it might have been the casual sexism, which I think I remember noticing with mild distaste even back then. It’s a little retchy, Mrs. C’s explanation of how she thought of continuous conversation:

“But Gerard, all women know it. Any two women — on the videophone, or on the stratowire, or just face to face — know that the whole secret to spreading the news is, no matter what, to Just Keep Talking.”

Hkkkzh. As someone female who has always rather disliked both gossip and the telephone, I find this especially irritating.

Ahem. I’m okay now, so now we can give Asimov his proper kudos for correctly predicting that continuous out-of-phase communication would become (how about that!) a great way of spreading the news. And while I’m not suggesting that Mrs. Stone or Mrs. Williams was the real brain behind Twitter, I still hope the Twitter guys gave their moms a nice Mother’s Day.

10 thoughts on “The Asimov story in which a mother invents Twitter

  1. I remember reading that story. I was a big Asimov fan, too. Remember the one about the guy who re-invented longhand arithmetic and amazed all the computer users?

  2. My favourite SF invention is more of a concept creation – John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, where two people are talking about new tech, and the one says: ‘They claim it’s automatic, but actually, you have to push this button.’ That’s how fast people forget to be amazed at new tech!

  3. Mr. Gunn, I DO remember that story! That one pops into mind now and then too, for some reason. As I recall, the bigwigs get very concerned about the security implications of the “new” longhand technique for doing math. 🙂

  4. Great entry. I grew up on Asimov, Heinlein, and Pohl. Asimov’s sexism is particularly goofy. Like one nerd giving another dating advice, it all depends on the audience having no basis from which to realize that the writer doesn’t know anything about women either.

  5. The women-always-talking cliche puts a whole new light on Lt. Uhura being the Enterprise’s communications officer.
    Meanwhile, Asimov was a continuous stream of conversation himself — writing 500+ books, more than 9,000 letters and postcards (says Wikipedia). And scores of limericks. Does that last category go beyond “casual” to “recreational” sexism?

  6. The arithmetic story is called “The Feeling of Power”. It’s one of Asimov’s more blatantly pacifist pieces, as it predicts that expending human life in war will be a better economic choice than destroying the expensive computers in the missiles; the quote is “I predict the manned missile!” It’s a favorite of mine.

  7. I loved reading your comments. does anyone happen to know potential locations of fanmail to Asimov other than the letters pages of Analog/Asimov’s and the archive at Boston U?

  8. There’s a description of the Gotlieb Center’s holdings for Asimov at the linked website. That suggests that any fan mail before 1965 would probably have been destroyed.

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