By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Eyes Do More Than See’ is a very short story by Isaac Asimov (1920-92), which originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in April 1965. Background
The story had a curious genesis. In 1964, Playboy magazine (which published serious fiction as well as erotic stories and pictures of nude women), approached some science fiction writers, including Asimov, and asked them to write very short stories inspired by a photograph of a clay head without ears. Three of the commissioned stories would appear in the December 1966 issue of Playboy. They were ‘Playback’ by Arthur C. Clarke (one of the ‘Big Three’ of science fiction, along with Asimov and Heinlein), ‘Lovemaking’ by Frederik Pohl, and ‘Cephalatron’ by Thomas M. Disch.
But where was Asimov’s story?
Playboy rejected it! Twice, in fact, as Asimov revealed in his second volume of autobiography, In Joy Still Felt, where he describes the double-rejection as a ‘humiliation’. (He was asked by the editor to put more emotion in the story, only to have the story rejected a second time.)
Harrowed by this decision (to use Asimov’s own word), he submitted it to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published it in April 1965. The story has been reprinted on several occasions, and appears in Asimov’s The Complete Stories: Volume 2.
The story was nominated for the inaugural 1966 Nebula Award for Best Short Story (along with another of Asimov’s stories, ‘Founding Father’), and although both Asimov tales lost out to Harlan Ellison, whose ‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ won the prize, Asimov probably felt vindicated after Playboy turned down the story.
‘Eyes Do More Than See’ has a plot that’s easy enough to summarise. Around a trillion years in the future, humans have abandoned ‘matter’ or physical form, existing only as bundles of ‘energy’ across space. However, they can still communicate with each other.
Two of these far-future humans, Ames and Brock, discuss their shared boredom with competitions involving the manipulation of energy. Instead, they decide to gather together some actual physical matter found sparsely within space, and create something.
Ames, perhaps carrying a primal memory of the form of old humans, sculpts a human head, with both of them recalling the bump in the middle of the face (the nose), the ears, and the eyes that sit above the nose.
However, upon being confronted with the sight of a physical human head, Brock remembers that she was once a physical woman herself, and that she once loved a human face like this. She flees, having added tears to the head, below the eyes, as a memory of her sadness. Ames then remembers that he used to be a man, and the head splits in two as he goes after Brock.
Short and slight though it may be, ‘Eyes Do More Than See’ (they also cry, as Brock reminds us at the end: that is, they are capable of human emotion) does what much great science fiction does: it explores what it means to be human.
In giving up their old material form and becoming mere energy, Ames and Brock have also given up what made them human: the ability to fall in love with other humans, to feel emotions, to weep from both sadness and joy.
Remembering that such things were once possible symbolically causes the head which Brock and Ames have fashioned from matter to split in two: their revelation is quite literally head-shattering.
‘Eyes Do More Than See’ may, in the last analysis, deliver a fairly trite sentiment, but Asimov’s original take on the theme makes this short piece worth reading. Though it’s ironic that Playboy, a magazine centred on the male gaze and the physicality of the human form, rejected it.