Wednesday, October 28, 2009

DBTL 45: Brain Drain

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe. In Britain, under the newly-elected Conservative government of Anthony Eden, industrial expansion proceeds apace, while the United States lags behind . . .

Newark, Delaware, USA
5 March 1948

If there was one thing Isaac Asimov hated more than traveling, it was moving, which was just like traveling, only permanent. Nevertheless, when his wife Irene told him about the job offer in the UK, Asimov did not hesitate.

"Take it," he told her.

"But what about your position with the University?"

Asimov shrugged. "Assistant Professor. Big deal. I don't have tenure, and I only make thirty-five hundred a year. The advance alone for The Caves of Steel was bigger. I make five times more writing than I do teaching. The University of Delaware can have their assistant professorship."

Five years earlier, Asimov would never have dreamed of quitting a steady job and trying to support himself by writing, but times had changed. After Hemingway had published To Sail Beyond the Sunset (and especially after the release of the film version), science fiction had taken off. The jaded readers of Astounding Science Fiction might dismiss Hemingway's effort as simple (though well-written) Doc Smith space opera, but the general public had been captivated. William Faulkner and Richard Wright had written their own critically acclaimed SF novels, and Asimov found his own stories being discovered by the critical establishment. In the last year he had seen two of his stories turned into films, the wretched "Nightfall" and Orson Welles' brilliant adaptation of "Evidence". John Campbell had confided recently that the circulation for Astounding had tripled since Hemingway's novel had appeared.

Irene, though, was still unsure. "It would mean uprooting ourselves. We'd have to build completely new lives for ourselves in England."

"Wales, actually," Asimov said absently. Before Irene could become annoyed at him for correcting her, he continued, "You've been telling me for the last two years how frustrating it is working at Dupont, how they're always playing it safe." Irene's group had been investigating the production of unbranched polyethylene chains. It had the potential to be a breakthrough technology, but the management at Dupont had been slow to develop it commercially.

Asimov had become convinced that Irene's troubles with Dupont were part of a wider problem. The Great Depression had changed America, and in Asimov's opinion it had not been a change for the better. The epic days of Washington and Lincoln had gone, and with them were gone a certain hard daring and resolution. The Depression might be over, but the habits of caution and frugality it taught had become permanent parts of the American national character.

Things were different in Britain. The British had triumphed over the Germans and faced down the Italians. Under Attlee they had begun to turn away from their old imperial past and to forge a new future. British scientists and engineers were in the vanguard of the Atomic Control Commission's efforts to build atomic power generators. British rocket scientists were designing continent-spanning aircraft, and nobody doubted that they would one day send a rocket orbiting the earth. And British materials engineers were pressing forward where their American counterparts were hanging back.

At least a dozen of Asimov's friends and acquaintances, here in Delaware and back in New York, had moved to Europe in the last year. America was the past, Europe was the future, it was as simple as that. And Asimov wanted his wife and himself to be part of that future.

"Are you sure this is the right thing to do?" said Irene at last.

Asimov nodded confidently. "I'm sure."

Catching her husband's confidence, Irene said, "All right, then. I'll tell Dr. Ziegler that I'm accepting his offer." Taking a deep breath, she added, "Next stop, the United Kingdom!"

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