Jonas Willard is perhaps the most famous producer of compu-dramas in the world, having just completed a masterful adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He’s approached by the considerably less famous hard sf writer Gregory Laborian, who has a suggestion for Willard’s next project: Laborian’s own novel,Three In One.
When Willard proves doubtful, Laborian offers to give him a considerable amount of money in beautiful, real, and solid gold if he’ll take the project on.
Willard is doubtful—Laborian’s work doesn’t appeal to him particularly and is so quintessentially non-visual that he’s doubtful that he could make a successful compu-drama out of Three In One.
In the end, however, he agrees, and the very difficulty of the project forces him onward to do better than he had ever imagined he could.
This is a diffcult story for me to rate. It is, perhaps, Asimov’s last important piece of short fiction and won a Hugo Award for best short story of 1991.
And it really isn’t very good—for late Asimov, of course, it’s excellent, but compared to classics such as “The Search by the Foundation” or "The Dead Past,” it pales into utter insignificance. (My own feeling is that it won the Hugo largely out of sympathy—Asimov died while the voting for the Hugo was still in progress.)
On the other hand, it may very well be a reflection of some of Asimov’s attitudes towards his own work and, in particular, to the problems of turning into something visual. Three In One, you see, is just the middle section of The Gods Themselves. Asimov made utterly no effort to disguise the fact, and Laborian is clearly modeled on Asimov himself in terms (at least) of how he writes.
Asimov is, after all, not someone whose relations with the visual media have always been good. "Nightfall” was turned into a disastrous movie, and Harlan Ellison’s screenplay for I, Robot (published as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay) has gone unfilmed for decades. Asimov is after all a distinctly non-visual writer. What holds his readers tends to be his ideas, not his images—things like psychohistory or the Laws or Robotics. And even when his characters are people like Arkady Darrell, Susan Calvin, or even Arnold Potterly, we have a far weaker sense of what they look like than what they do.
So we can see here how Asimov might hope for his work to be brought forward into a visual medium, and what he himself thinks may be involved. And that’s not an uninteresting insight into Asimov’s character.
But it’s for that alone that I give this story high marks. It is interesting and insightful, and has a bittersweet tinge to it as his last published major bit of short fiction—but it isn’t nearly his best work, and one wishes that a more deserving story of his had won the Hugo back in the 1950’s when he was a the peak of his fiction-writing form.