Isaac Asimov is a master of the science fiction genre who needs no introduction from me. His short story Youth is set in a future where technology has collapsed after the nuclear age and civilizations decayed along with it, we find a planet that has become stuck in a kind of rut. Not only has society failed to advance technology, but some technological knowledge has been lost along the way. Civilization is slowly regressing.
Stylewise, the story reads like a screenplay, with narrative perspectives changing from brief chapter to brief chapter. 14 chapters are covered in about 40 pages. We never learn the real names of any of the characters in the story, and we know the characters instead by their professions. The story is wonderfully paced and easy to read.
The story opens with two young boys, Red and Slim (not their real names) sneaking around early one morning. Not entirely dressed, and not entirely awake, Slim stumbles out of the house when Red wakes him by throwing pebbles at his window. Red has something to show Slim, but it’s down at the barn.
Red tells Slim that he wants to get into the circus – not a ticket to see the show, but to get into the circus business – and he has just the thing to do it. He captured two animals last night after the mysterious “thunder” – two animals that are sure to be the centre attraction at his own circus show.
They enter the barn and Red shows Slim a cage suspended above the floor, covered in canvas. Inside are two unsightly creatures that seem to exhibit some level of intelligence. Immediately the boys recognize that they don’t know what to feed these strange animals.
Chapter 2 switches to Slim’s house. Inside, the two boys’ fathers – one an astronomer and the other an industrialist – are discussing the events of the previous night. They had heard the mysterious “thunder” that Red had heard, but they seemed to know something about it. The industrialist is busy telling the astronomer of an encounter with creatures that spoke to him simply by thinking, but with the help of a device.
The industrialist claims that the creatures are looking for the organic elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen – plentiful on this world, but preciously scarce on theirs.
The discussion turned to the technological advancement that society was sure to experience, and whether it was a good or bad thing.
The boys return to the house and Red sends Slim in to seek advice on what to feed an animal. After a few questions they settle on trying grass or leaves. Slim leaves and both fathers puzzle over what kind of animal the boys could have trapped.
Chapter 3 switches to the two creatures that Red had imprisoned. It is clear by now that these creatures are aliens, the “thunder” was their ship crash-landing and we discover in this chapter that this is not their first encounter with this planet. The one known as The Merchant was asleep, but the one known as The Explorer was awake, and ruminating over his circumstance.
The aliens had come to understand the planet’s inhabitants as “grotesquely huge, but mild and unaggressive” creatures. How, then, that they had come to be captured by a child was beyond him.
The Explorer reflected on their crash landing, how their Calculator was woefully obsolete and miscalculated their approach path and the Pilot lost his life trying to prevent the crash and save the ship in an ultimately futile effort. Only one escape pod on the ship functioned correctly, and it contained the Explorer and the Merchant. Surely they were the only survivors.
The reverie was interrupted by the two boys, returned with handfuls of grass for their captured “animals”. The boys lifted the canvas covering again, thrust the grass at the animals and covered the cage again. The two aliens sat in the cage, puzzling at the grass.
Chapter 4 returns to the boys. Red is dissatisfied with Slim’s suggestion of grass to feed their animals. He felt that they were meat eaters and was determined to return to he house to get some ground meat.
On his return to the barn, Red caught up to the two fathers, who were headed in that direction. Red had to head them off, else his “animals” would be discovered. The industrialist, Red’s father, asked Red some questions about what he was doing out so early. The industrialist knew from Red’s mother that Red had been awakened, so he asked what had awakened him. Red answered that it was thunder and the sound of a crash, from over towards the hill… in the opposite direction from the barn they were heading toward.
The fathers set of toward the hill. Red arrived at the barn, but the creatures appeared reluctant to eat the meat he had brought. They did, however, drink some water. The two boys agreed to follow their fathers and see if they discovered anything, and then after lunch they would try feeding their animals some fruit.
We are now halfway through the story and I will leave it to the reader to discover the rest. The twist at the end turns the story upside down and may make you want to read the story again from the new perspective.
Youth is a short story that first appeared in the May 1952 issue of Space Science Fiction. There is no evidence that the U.S. copyright was renewed. At 45 pages, the book takes a healthy hour to read.