Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids


Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 188pp, 1953 [1]

In this second adventure of David Starr, he takes one step further out to the asteroid belt and has awkwardly acquired his nickname of “Lucky” while Earth has suddenly acquired a Terrestrial Empire and even greater enemies than before, with a reborn pirate menace and active meddling by the shadowy Sirians.

The Council of Science thinks Lucky’s brought them a plan to booby-trap a spaceship that the pirates who infest the asteroids will seize and take back to their base, where it will detonate. But it’s actually Lucky’s plan to sneak aboard that ship and be captured by pirates so that that he can infiltrate their organization. When they arrive, they know all about the “trap” and Lucky pretends to be a poor sap who just wanted to stow away to get to them and obviously had no knowledge of the trap. When challenged, Lucky proposes a duel and the pirates agree, picking the style of combat. Lucky finds himself in a fight using “push-guns” (a sort of suit thruster) which he knows nothing about while the meanest pirate, Dingo, is an expert. Nevertheless, the pirate makes a couple of mistakes and Lucky comes out on top. Still suspicious of Lucky, they drop him off at a hermit’s asteroid while they head back to base to check him out further. He and the hermit trade infodumps and the hermit recognizes Lucky as the son of Lawrence Starr. He sees in this a chance to return to civilization with a pardon for his collaboration with the pirates if he can save Lucky and provide information about the pirate operations. He convinces Lucky that the pirates will see through Lucky’s game and they both return to Ceres, where friend Bigman and “parents” Henree and Conway have a joyous reunion.

One thing perplexes Henree and Conway though, and that’s how the pirates could have known about the trap. They decide there must be a spy in the Council of Science who is leaking information but Lucky reveals that he is the spy, though he had his reasons. Then he decides to try again, this time with Bigman playing the pirate infiltrator. Like Lucky, Bigman does some freelancing of his own (no wonder they’re pals) and, like Lucky, he also fails because it turns out the asteroid is lost. For reasons given later, the mystery of the asteroid makes Lucky realize the Sirians and their pirate tools intend to take over the solar system, and quickly. Lucky must go out in his own super-spaceship to pick up Bigman and try to reverse-engineer the location of the hermit’s asteroid. Finding it, Lucky is again captured, Dingo again makes a mistake, Lucky again comes out on top and, among Lucky’s subsequent efforts to prevent the Sirian takeover of the Terrestrial Empire, he must put his ship on an intercept course with another pirate ship which involves flying through (the corona of) the Sun.

And some of what I’ve just told you isn’t really what was going on because, in addition to Asimov having Lucky and Bigman repeatedly trying to trick others and repeatedly having others try to trick them, Asimov is also trying to trick the reader. This isn’t always entirely successful and the plot doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. For instance, the pirates such as Dingo and Anton (the latter of whom, at least, is supposed to be intelligent) repeatedly behave stupidly from self-defeating spite, Lucky is recognized twice in two books despite Councilmen not being publicized (and in the first book his nom de guerre was “Dick Williams” and in this it’s “Bill Williams”), and so on. In addition to the inconsistency of the famous unknown Starr and the things I mentioned in the first paragraph, Earth was dependent on Mars for food in the last book but, in this one, it’s Venusian yeast cultures which figure prominently.

Given that large populations eating yeast is a significant Asimovian motif, its clear that Asimov is erasing what little division there was between “French” and himself, which is confirmed by the use of “hyperatomic motors,” “personal capsules,” “neuronic whips,” and other standard furniture of Asimov’s futures. (Unfortunately, it also repeats a common Asimovian tic of throwing in a named character (such as the “good pirate” Martin Maniu) to serve his brief purpose and then dropping him.) Conversely, all the space battles and other fights made me think that this book was almost to Asimov as the atypical Earthlight was to Arthur C. Clarke.

In terms of hitting the target audience, this may be slightly more juvenile than the first book, as the hazing Lucky endures from the head pirate, Anton, and the “game” (albeit a potentially deadly one) of the push-guns indicate. Also, the style is generally fine but the pirates have strange lapses such as Anton “suavely” explaining to Lucky that pirates call “asteroids” “rocks” and Dingo’s first line being, “Blinking Space, there’s a ripper with a gat here!” [2] Either way, most of its young audience of 1953 probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit.

For a general audience, Asimov does achieve the neat trick of creating a Foundation milieu which is huge in time and space but feels proportionally smaller than one might expect a galaxy to feel, while creating a Starr milieu in which the Solar System seems quite large. More importantly, the sense of multiple vise grips being applied to the Terrestrial Empire by the pirate and Sirian menaces, coupled with Lucky’s thrilling high-speed burn through the System and the Sun in pursuit of pirates is all very effective. Again, this is surely secondary Asimov but is not without its virtues. Speaking of, its edifying ending may also have aspects of a “message” to young readers (and certainly isn’t how I would have handled it had I been in Lucky’s shoes) but makes for a satisfying conclusion to this installment.

[1] Again, I’m using the Del Rey cover as explained in the David Starr review.

[2] The quote ends with a period in the book but, given that the line is introduced by saying the pirate “yelled,” I changed (corrected?) it to end with an exclamation point.

Birthday Reviews: Taylor

This is a strange week, as I’m in the unusual position of finding only one story to discuss (and one that is unusually recent yet, ironically, also an old review).

Drew Hayden Taylor (1962-07-01)

“Take Us To Your Chief” (Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, 2016)

Lightly revised from 2017-01-30.

I’ll quote the opening of this story to demonstrate how quickly it got to the, um, point that it hooked me.

The men sitting on the couches in the middle of Old Man’s Point didn’t need the screeching of the cicadas to tell them how hot it was. The sweat on their foreheads and on the beer bottles gave them ample evidence. The sweat was cyclical: the more sweat on their foreheads, the more need for cold beer, which in turn became sweat in the humidity of the summer woods.

Old Man’s Point was located near the eastern shore of Otter Lake, named for an old man who used to stand on the bank and point at all the boats going by.

There follows a story very centered in place (though Otter Lake doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the Ojibway regions around the Great Lakes so I’m not sure where that place is) which yet goes pretty far afield when the alien spaceship lands. This is a first contact tale like (and unlike) many, many others but was crafted very well, paced superbly (and sedately), with an uncommonly fine (and quiet) set of protagonists, and full of the sort of quirky details which often make a story work for me.

Review: The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones

The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-631, $0.50, 189pp, 1967 [1]

This second book installment of Professor Jameson’s adventures contains the fourth through sixth magazine installments and, given that the opening and closing stories are novellas rather than novelettes, this is a significantly longer (though still short) book. Incidentally, there is an oddity in the two book titles: in the last volume, we had a world of the double sun and, in this one, we have a sunless world. I guess it all averages out.

In the first tale, we go “Into the Hydrosphere.” The Zoromes discover a planet which appears to consist entirely of water – not just over the surface but through and through. On reaching the surface, they find cities of kelp and make ultimately friendly contact with the native Plekne. However, they meet another race, the Uchke, on much less friendly terms as the Uchke regularly send out raiding parties from parts unknown to enslave the Plekne. It is during a fight with them that Professor Jameson and a companion are hurled into the water. After a desperate struggle to regain the surface despite their metal bodies, they are swallowed by a sea creature. After fighting their way out of the unfortunate animal, they plummet to the bottom. As if this weren’t enough, it turns out that there is a tiny rocky core to the waterworld. Not only that, it is a hollow rocky core with a sort of Pellucidar inside which is the Uchke base. And there are yet more revelations in store as the Zoromes help lead the Plekne below to revolt against the Uchke. Much fighting and many cataclysms ensue.

As in the last Jameson review, I have to make incidental spoilers to the prior story to describe the next (which the third story aptly describes as a “parade of worldly events”). In “Time’s Mausoleum,” the Zoromes find out that the Uchke’s science actually comes from the Qwux who once enslaved them. They succeeded in revolt and the Qwux, being sybarites, are content to be kept in comfort by the Uchke in exchange for their scientific knowledge. So the power of the Uchke is broken by the simple expedient of the Zoromes carrying off the one Qwux who knows anything about space flight. He’s also working on time flight, so to speak. Time travel, as such, is impossible but it is possible to create a machine which can move through space and view that space’s past. The Zoromes are on their way back to Zor but will pass by the Earth again and Jameson excitedly encourages the Qwux to work on his machine. On arriving at Earth, there follows a time-lapse journey through humanity’s past (with a special emphasis on Jameson’s life and death). At the start of this point, we get the priceless line “‘That-that’s me!’ Professor Jameson exclaimed, rustling his tentacles nervously.” It very economically gets at some of the essence of Jameson’s long strange trip. It’s interesting that Stapledon had only had a single hardcover U. S. edition of Last and First Men at the time this was published and I wonder if Jones read it because the future vision culminates in a pulp-man’s Stapledonian look into the past which is our future. It ties in Jones’ “Durna Rangue” series and perhaps other stories, demonstrates that he was remarkably pessimistic about space travel, only giving it to us in the twenty-third century, and that he was only somewhat optimistic about humanity, indicating that humanity was extinct in the solar system after five million years. There follows a fairly arbitrary disaster for the climax of the story.

In the third and title story, the Zoromes encounter a weirdly dim star and, when they think they’re leaving the system after passing all its planets, they encounter another world which is huge but strangely light. They also soon realize it is a rogue planet – the sunless world. Since the Zoromes are always eager to explore, they land. Once on the airless surface, they are attacked by strange headless symmetrical animals. When these are rebuffed, the creatures flee to a cave and the Zoromes follow. Third verse, same as the first. (Or similar.) Once below, they find the world is hollow and, while peering into the internal abyss, the ledge they’re on collapses and they find themselves plunging into it. This time, however, there’s no center at all and they end up on the opposite side. There, they find piles of bones reminiscent of “The Planet of the Double Sun” and meet Ielee of the Ayt of Ome. His people are not slaves to the headless creatures as such, but to their own superstitions. The old, feeble, or criminal Aytons are sacrificed to the creatures and it’s death at the hands of their fellows if they refuse to go. Once again, the Zoromes fight against the creatures and for the Aytons as well as encouraging them to fight for themselves, despite the Zoromes having initially been held prisoner by the Aytons who refused to surrender their superstitions. And, as if this weren’t enough, a rescue party of Zoromes (who had inadvertently driven the creatures into Ayt causing a massive battle) bring word that the rogue planet is going to collide with the third world of the system if the Zoromes’ efforts to disintegrate that world fail. More epic cataclysms ensue.

While Jones obviously respects science in the abstract as a good, intelligent, modern way to go about things (and have great adventures), his concrete notions of it are odd. The idea that removing one being from the interlocking and ever-evolving web of science will forever prevent the Qwux/Uchke from having spaceflight again is naive and the reader will not be able to catalog all the preposterous impossibilities in these stories but will note instead the two times something is scientifically accurate (when Jones has a character note the effects of an absence of atmosphere on light refraction and the one time he seems to associate mass and gravity. On the other hand, having stories about almost brown-dwarf-like stars and rogue planets in 1934 is prescient and his Zoromes anticipate Charles Stross’ interstellar robots (though I think Stross is wrong about that as an absolute requirement).

His style doesn’t seem to change, giving us odd poetry like “the headless inhabitants of the hollow planet,” weird phrases like “opined the buried Professor,” conundrums like “avenged a thousand-fold many times over,” scintillating dialog like “Quiet your fears, 21MM392. It is I, 744U-21, your very good friend,” and inadvertently comical dangers like “The Uchke are coming with their tools! They are about to take our heads apart!”

If these are dealbreakers, these stories are definitely broken. Jones is not a very good writer. However, if you can just get acclimated (swimming around after the shock of diving into these waters has worn off), these really can maintain interest. He is some sort of visionary. The crazy worlds and strange lifeforms, while unmoored from almost any sort of physics or biology, are fascinating, the action (usually) gallops, and the concepts for 1930s America are pretty radical. Like many activists, the Zoromes blunder in to fight for justice with insufficient information and a chance they’re actually doing wrong but, in this ideal world, they are almost always right. Unlike today’s activists, they are moderate. A specific point is made about how they do not intend to wipe out the Uchke, for instance, but only to “remove their menace.” The Uchke themselves, seem to suffer from a sort of battered child syndrome where the abused become abusers. Yet even the Qwux are allowed to go their way and the spaceflight-expert prisoner becomes essentially one of the crew. There is an excessive reliance on physical appearance as an indicator of intelligence but that appearance only has to avoid being brutish – how many arms or legs or whether you’re purple or not has no bearing. What is important is intelligence itself. Jameson observes that one species is “happily unburdened with the theological superstitions and weird practices which the Professor had found were all too common among the less intelligent order of creatures to be found among the worlds of the universe.” He also notes that some creatures’ “intelligence was not sufficiently developed for them to conceive of worlds other than their own. In this, they were not far removed from many people the professor had known during his Earthly life…”

Rather than attacking our science fictional grandfathers for any lapses we think we see in them, I think it’s much more amazing how they were among those who broke the fetters of conventional wisdom and were able to conceive of purple-skinned friends and multi-legged -armed and -eyed machine men adopting people from multiple worlds into their ranks as they zip through the cosmos seeking knowledge and understanding. This deserves respect and honor. While the second tale is a poorly structured mess, the other two are as good (or whatever the word is) as the best in the first volume and all three convey what is ultimately a large-scale broad-minded revelry.

[1] Original publications:

  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Time’s Mausoleum” (Amazing Stories, December 1933)
  • “The Sunless World” (Amazing Stories, December 1934)

Birthday Reviews: Butler, Cartmill, Sheffield

In one of these stories we lose speech and, in another, we gain the stars but, in both, we remain human. In the other story, that day’s science fiction really was the next day’s science fact.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-06-22–2006-02-24)

“Speech Sounds” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1983)

Rye is riding the bus when trouble erupts. Two guys start fighting which results in the bus driver slamming on the brakes which results in additional fights. Many try to leave the bus at that point and, when a man wearing the uniform of a cop arrives and tosses in a gas cannister, the rest get off. Eventually, the man persuades Rye to accept a ride from him and, by this time, we understand that Rye is in world that’s been struck by a plague, or something like it, which has deprived almost everyone of the power of speech and/or reading and/or the comprehension of these things, as well as impairing some people’s minds generally. The bus is a rare and isolated thing and there is no police force as civilization has collapsed. Rye was trying to make the long journey from LA to Pasadena to see if she could connect with a suriving brother rather than kill herself. Her quick relationship with the “cop,” Obsidian, and the following multiple rapid reversals result in a change of plans.

This is a master class in science fictional exposition as a simple bus ride seems momentarily normal except for strange little dissonances which grow more persistent and troubling as the world is gradually revealed. The depiction of loss and the efforts to persist anyway rings true as does the desperation, randomness, and violence. A note at the end may ring slightly less true but is the sort of thing we sometimes need to tell ourselves. This is an effective contemplation of communication and the ties that bind.

Cleve Cartmill (1908-06-21–1964-02-11)

“Deadline” (Astounding, March 1944)


I just wanted to acknowledge the author and his famous story which brought US intelligence agents down on him and John W. Campbell, demanding to know who was leaking top secret information about the atomic bomb. Turns out, no one was, but Cleve Cartmill was a very clever user of previously published information who described, with some detail, essential aspects of the bomb. Unfortunately, as a story, it’s not that great, as it simply translates WWII into “SF” by putting it on a world not named Earth and by spelling the Allies and the Axis backwards, not to mention having a woman go far beyond being a justifiably paranoid resistance fighter into being basically insane and/or stupid. Still, while many people wrongly assume SF is supposed to be predictive, it can be, and this is one of the more remarkably prescient tales of SF.

Charles Sheffield (1935-06-25–2002-11-02)

“A Braver Thing” (IAsfm, February 1990)


On the eve of his Nobel laureate speech, a physicist who has made a breakthrough in interstellar flight reflects on his road to Stockholm. It’s not what you might expect, involving a lost satchel of books which leads to a teenaged infatuation with the mother of the boy who lost the books, as well as a strange friendship with that boy, which produces parallel lives, culminating in a sort of double-Jekyll-and-Hyde situation of dark obessesions, suicide, and more.

In a way this is a hard SF story and, in a way, it’s not science fiction at all. In a way it is “literary” and, in a way, it isn’t. To make that clearer, the author says in his afterword that it’s not science fiction but “fiction about science” and that’s partly true: the science fiction is that it does have a future Nobel winner with a future physical science breakthrough but that science fictional part is not the point, which is its focus on the scientific endeavor along with the good and bad within individuals and humanity as a whole. But with that focus on science and the complete absence of fantasy (allowing the elliptical “given us the stars”) it’s in a way the hardest of hard SF. And it treads perilously near to being overwritten in places but manages to be “literary” (styled and character-centric) without being enfeebled by it. There are many things to choose from in this excellent story but I think the strongest thing about it for me may be its interlocking, resonant plot structure. But if you’re more interested in style, characters, theme, or several other things, it’s here.

Asimov’s Centennial: David Starr, Space Ranger


David Starr, Space Ranger by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 186pp, 1952 [1]

In 1951, the usually self-represented Asimov was allowing his friend, Frederik Pohl, to be his agent. On March 21, they had lunch with Walter Bradbury of Doubleday. While Asimov isn’t clear who was the instigator (my guess is that Pohl had the idea and had already gotten together with Brad and they planned to tag-team Asimov), the topic of television came up along with the idea that a book which formed the basis of a kids’ series in the relatively new-fangled medium of television might make all three of them rich. This led to a commitment for Asimov to write such a book. Asimov had one qualm, though: he thought everything he’d seen on TV except Your Show of Shows was awful and was worried about being connected to an awful TV show. Brad told him to use a pseudonym and the usually pseudonym-averse Asimov agreed. Modeling it on Cornell Woolrich’s “William Irish,” Asimov became “Paul French” to write David Starr, Space Ranger. [2]

David Starr was orphaned by pirates as a small boy and was raised by Hector Conway and Augustus Henree, two friends of David’s father and significant people in the powerful Council of Science. Now an adult and still a bit of a wunderkind, he has himself become a member of the Council of Science and is sent out on his first mission. On Earth, a heavily populated planet dependent on its food supply from other worlds such as Mars, a relatively few people have been seemingly randomly poisoned by Martian food and dying painfully within moments, as David himself witnesses in the opening scene. It seems to be, as Henree says, “a clever and brutal attempt at seizing control of Earth’s economic life and government” which turns out to be clarified as a scheme of blackmail with the leverage being the threat of anything from panic over the food supply to actual starvation.

David travels undercover to Mars as “Dick Williams” and strikes up a friendship with the diminutive but fearless and aggressive John Bigman Jones [3] and becomes enemies with a trio who rule under a farm boss named Makian. Nevertheless, he works his way into that domed farm by pretending to be a man trying to find out how his sister was poisoned and being willing to do any work to support his search. After the story describes his experiences as a “farmboy,” his various conflicts with the trio, and his help from Bigman, it really takes off when Starr learns something about the structure of Mars’ great underground caverns, the deep fissures crisscrossing the surface, and how they are related to each other. He makes the arduous descent down one of these fissures and what happens there is almost van Vogtian. David Starr emerges as “the Space Ranger” and the new superhero is ready to piece together the last details to get the big picture and attempt to deal with it.

One of the things that makes this somewhat atypical Asimov is its aim of becoming a TV series. It was partly inspired by The Lone Ranger (which began as a radio series in 1933 and had already become a TV show in 1949) and most obviously turns the Lone Ranger’s mask into a high-tech multi-purpose gizmo but the story also has similarities to Superman (which began as a 1938 comic book Asimov may or may not have been familiar with and which wasn’t to become a TV series until seven months after this book was published), including somewhat-mild-mannered David Starr never being in the same room with the Space Ranger.

Coupled with this, it was also intended for a young audience like those series. The most obvious signs of this are a less credible and more melodramatic plot than usual, more explicit promotion of the value of science both via the power and importance of the Council of Science and via a few more educational passages (which might be called infodumps) and, of course, the “coming of age” motif (and, perhaps, the complete absence – other than a voice – of female characters). The vocabulary and ideas are not especially “dumbed down,” though or written in a “gee whillikers” sort of way.

Another thing is its superficial isolation from the Asimov books that had been published to this point. There’s nothing overt to tie Paul French to Isaac Asimov (no robots yet, or psychohistory, neuronic whips, and so on). Also, it’s not necessarily written like “center-core” Asimov but neither is it un-Asimovian. Interestingly, The Stars, Like Dust (the science fiction novel Asimov wrote just before this one) is also somewhat atypical despite being an Empire novel. These two books are probably more similar to each other than Stars is to the other Empire books. Rather than pudgy old Schwartz or brain-damaged Rik, Biron Farril and David Starr are both strapping young lads, at least six feet tall and two-fisted, sometimes traveling incognito amidst melodrama.

The plot and some characterization is probably the biggest weakness. Starr and Bigman strike up their friendship when Starr takes Bigman’s side in a conflict with the villainous trio but it might seem more suited to Bigman’s character to take offense at this rather than appreciating it. (I may not be as big as some fellers, but I can fight my own fights!) How Starr is taken right into this important farm is convenient and there is confusion about being offered a job by a scientist on the farm, yet still working at a mess hall job until finally going to work for the scientist. And then there are further conveniences and oddities as the situation is resolved, especially regarding the unheroic way a confession is obtained. Another problem is that Starr often seems to be arrogant and, relative to his unfamiliar environment, ignorant. In a juvenile, it seems like you might want to have a humble protagonist who is willing to learn or have your proud protagonist knocked around a bit until he does what is necessary to learn but Starr comes out on top with his innate superiority and a little help from some friends. The last problem I’ll mention is that this is set near 7,000 A. D. (!) and the Earth is dependent on other worlds like Mars (!) to feed its population of five (!) billion. None of this makes the most sense possible.

One of the biggest virtues of the book is a (for the time) harshly and realistically portrayed Mars [4] which is vividly brought to life through Starr’s experiences on first exiting the dome and then in his compelling descent down the fissure (where Asimov does something he’d only done in very few stories and not yet in books). However obligatory they are, the buddy and superhero elements are also reasonably effective. I feel that Heinlein took his juveniles very seriously and put as much or more effort into them as anything else he did. With this Asimov, I feel like he was trying to do a good job and respect and entertain his audience but it doesn’t feel quite like 100%. The fact that this was written in seven weeks in the middle of two other books with the possible detachment a pseudonym might have given (though he used a pseudonym in fear of what TV would do to his work, not because of the work itself) would tend to corroborate that. I think it’s obviously second-class Asimov but, generally, it’s a pretty good juvenile.

[1] A couple of bibliographical notes:

1. The main U. S. editions of this series were Doubleday (hardcovers), Signet, Fawcett Crest, and Ballantine/Del Rey (all paperbacks). Even though the Doubledays were first and I own the Signets (and an SFBC omnibus), I’m using the Del Reys to illustrate these reviews because, while a bit textually busy, their cover art is by far the best. In fact, the order of editions is also the order of cover quality.

2. Asimov published four books in 1952. One was a collection of Foundation stories from the 1940s but the other three were new. The Currents of Space was begun in December 1950 and not finished until March 30, 1952 before being published near the end of that year. The reason it took as long as it did was because Asimov was also working on a textbook. Meanwhile, he also wrote David Starr, Space Ranger from June 10, 1951 to July 29. It was then published near the beginning of the next year (originally with a colon in the title instead of a comma or dash). So David Starr is Asimov’s fifth published book and Currents is listed as his seventh but David Starr was conceived and begun after Currents.

(I felt like footnoting the footnote at “textbook” and this does get deep into the weeds but I’ll just add that there is an oddity regarding that book (Biochemistry and Human Metabolism). Asimov says he received his copies May 24 and placed a copy “immediately behind my juvenile” (meaning David Starr) on his chronological shelf yet the textbook is listed as #8 as though it came out after not just David Starr but Foundation and Empire and The Currents of Space, as well. There was a second edition after 1954, but that doesn’t explain this. Asimov may mean he shelved his books in the order he received them (which would include advance copies) and perhaps there was a delay in the textbook’s actual publication which is reflected in the numbered list.)

[2] It seems that David Starr was intended to be a one-shot but, when the TV series didn’t happen, Brad encouraged Asimov to write more Starr books. In 1971-72, when the books came out in paperback under Asimov’s own name, it seems like he could have renamed it to Lucky Starr and the Fissures of Mars or Lucky Starr and the Criminals of Mars to better fit the rest of the books, though it would have entailed revising it to include the “Lucky” nickname in the story, as well.

[3] There may be some odd precognition here. This was written in 1951 and, while far from being exactly like Harlan Ellison, Bigman has some similarities with him, both psychologically and physically, even down to Ellison claiming a height of 5’5″ when Asimov insisted he couldn’t be more than 5’2″ which is exactly Bigman’s height. Yet Asimov didn’t meet Ellison until 1953.

[4] The book includes a one-page introduction in which Asimov warns the reader that subsequent science has invalidated this portrayal by proving Mars far harsher still.

Edit (2020-06-15): Corrected the opening sentence to say “1951” instead of “1952.” (Dunno how I did that.)

Edit (2020-06-17): Fixed the error in which I was thinking for a moment that he wrote Starr while also working on Stars when he was in fact working on Currents. Substituted “was writing when he switched to” to “wrote just before” and removed the “1952” from “These two 1952 books” (since Stars was 1951). I stand by the conceptual comparison (which I think is interesting), but got the chronology wrong (and it’s not as precise, thus less interesting).

Birthday Reviews: Leinster, Tall, Williams

This week’s stories (celebrating writers who all happen to be having at least their 112th birthdays) include a man incapable of understanding a Power, a contacted species incapable of speech and a contacting species incapable of telepathy, and a pair of lost explorers incapable of getting themselves back home, but they are more than capable of entertaining readers.

Murray Leinster (1896-06-16–1975-06-08)

“The Power” (Astounding, September 1945)

A professor of Latin has come across some manuscripts, including three related letters which he passes on to another professor. The letters were written in Italy in 1482 by Carolus to a friend and they detail his effort to follow a dead man’s path and summon a demon – a Power – who will provide him with knowledge and power of his own. Despite how it sounds, this is very much science fiction and that’s not the only reversal or transformation, as the initially fearful mortal human comes to a different relationship with the Power which changes yet again, with a couple of varieties of pathos, before an ending with an unusual blend of disgust and hope.

Leinster was the original “Dean of Science Fiction,” who began publishing it in 1919 and has written several top-rank stories of great variety but this is more unusual than most. It’s been well-received but isn’t usually mentioned in the first breath, so is still underrated to me (as is Leinster, himself). The story’s structure is solid and the style through which Carolus’ time and mentality is conveyed is effective, he and his Power come across as genuine beings, their motivations are solid, and their relationship provokes strong and varied emotions. The tale is well-suited to tackling its theme of the constraints of conceptual frameworks which can relate to everything from revolutions in worldviews to being able to read science fiction itself, as with Samuel R. Delany’s notion of reading “protocols.” It’s a rich story, a reasonably short story (with a great last line), and seems like it should be better known. Leinster is actually represented in the SFWA Hall of Fame with “First Contact” and he certainly should be, but I think he could also have been represented by a few others, including this one.

Stephen Tall (1908-06-14–1981-01-15)

“The Invaders” (If, August 1973)

Through the eyestalks of Red Spine, we witness epochal events in the history of the “canceroids.” It starts when a rockfall kills many and they are all fed to the Eater, a mutant crab-like being many, many times the size of his fellows who does nothing but demand to be fed constantly. When he’s fed this time with such largesse, he molts, becoming even bigger. And hungrier. Then some strange little bipedal creatures with pairs of tiny eyes arrive on Red Spine’s homeworld and first contact is complicated by the fact that the canceroids can’t speak and the invaders can’t use telepathy. An unusual period of wary mutual observation follows before the two events of the enlarged Eater and the invaders come together in a transformative way.

This is a fine example in the long line of “alien POV” stories which has an interestingly conceived ecology and social structure with almost Clement-like aliens (in that one of the main things which makes Red Spine, especially, alien is simply un-human logical equanimity). All of this is (pointed and clever) cover for its ethical and economic themes but both levels work. This is part of a series of stories and isn’t the most popular one since “The Bear with the Knot on His Tail” was award-nominated and this one is atypical in the series in that it’s the only one in which we see the crew of the Stardust from an alien point-of-view, but I like this one best of all. Readers don’t have to be torn by indecision, though since both were collected with four others in The Stardust Voyages.

Robert Moore Williams (1907-06-19–1977-05-12)

“Flight of the Dawn Star” (Astounding, March 1938)

Graham and Sarl were exploring in a spaceship near the Sun when something went wrong and they found themselves hurled near a world surrounded by unrecognizable stars. With no hope of return and nothing else to do, they set off to explore this new world. They find a stupendous city which represented an inconceivably advanced civilization in its prime but which is now falling to ruin. This strikes Graham and Sarl as also inconceivable. What could have ended a civilization that could have built such a city? Then the pair find that the planet is inhabited after all, not by gods in the city, but by naked savages in the fields. Other than their nudity and carefree attitudes, they are beings much like the explorers and, it turns out, not so savage after all. They telepathically explain their blissful existence and hope the pair will join them. However the humans of a struggling Earth don’t think they’re cut out for such a life, so one of the natives offers to send them home. Both the native and the explorers have a couple of surprises in store.

This was published in Astounding fairly early in Campbell’s editorial tenure and has a kinship with Campbell’s own “Forgetfulness” (which I discussed last week), so it’s easy to see why it appealed to him. The writing initially feels awkward or overdone and the science is awkward and underdone, but this variant on Lotus-land ultimately casts a bit of a spell.

Links: 2020-06-10

Science Fiction







Remembering one star and two satellites of stars…

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Review: The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF: Volume 5, edited by David Afsharirad

Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8406-0, $16.00, 319pp, June 2019 [1]

  • “Love in the Time of Interstellar War” by Brendan DuBois
  • “Going Dark” by Richard Fox
  • “The Scrapyard Ship” by Felix R. Savage
  • “Broken Wings” by William Ledbetter
  • “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon
  • “Once on the Blue Moon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • “Crash-Site” by Brian Trent
  • “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer
  • “Hate in the Darkness” by Michael Z. Williamson
  • “Homunculus” by Stephen Lawson
  • “Not Made for Us” by Christopher Ruocchio
  • “The Erkennen Job” by Chris Pourteau

The fifth edition of The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF opens with a preface by the editor who muses on the series’ five-year voyage before giving way to an introduction by David Weber who again muses on the horrors of war coupled with the benefits of speculating on it and its future.

Despite the introduction, only half of this anthology is military SF, with the other half fitting better under the “Adventure” portion of the title. Stephen Lawson’s superb “Homunculus” is a case in point. Want to colonize Titan via a tiny little telepresence robot which you can use to construct habitats out of polyethylene “legos” extracted from the environment? Or at least think it’s a cool idea? Then read this story! The crisis in this milieu arises when a kid goes missing and a cryovolcano quake causes him to be trapped in a ruptured and deadly part of the habitat. The only hope for saving him involves those little robots and the powers of chemistry. Other good adventures include William Ledbetter’s sort of neo-pulp adventure “Broken Wings,” which involves two unlikely heroes (one overweight and one paraplegic) confronting pirates and Brian Trent’s “Crash-Site” in which competing groups of almost larger-than-life adventurers race to recover a biotech prize from a downed starship. I also enjoyed “The Erkennen Job,” Chris Pourteau’s future-noir tale in which one corporation controls the solar system but is riven with faction. One scientist in the employ of one faction may upset the balance of power in the system if another faction’s assassin doesn’t complete his mission. That hard-bitten (yet oddly sentimental) assassin forms an unexpected alliance with an idealistic cop as both, for their own reasons, try to get their man. Varying the dark tones, Felix R. Savage’s “The Scrapyard Ship” goes for a bit of humor as a couple of shapeshifting traders crash-land on a world where they get involved in interstellar politics while trying to get a replacement ship.

Even among the more restricted form of military SF there are some unconventional pieces. I thought James Beamon’s “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” was one of the best stories of the year and was amazed that this “year’s best” was the only one to select it. No one should miss this alternate history tale of the Crimean War with a street urchin press-ganged into combat aboard an airship crewed in part by vampire attack monkeys. Christopher Ruocchio’s “Not Made For Us” is another excellent tale of a soldier more or less compelled to fight. In this case, he and some companions are thrown into battle with a gigantic ship full of horrors and the combat is not the sleek and choreographed violence of Hollywood or the clear morality of political speeches, but is a messy, desperate flailing about full of physical and moral confusion. The editor acknowledges in the preface that he is friends with the author who works for Baen but “challenge[s] anyone to read ‘Not Made for Us’ and chalk up its inclusion to nepotism.” Challenge declined: it’s a very powerful piece. While not in the league of those two stories, Brendan DuBois’ “Love in the Time of Interstellar War” also dealt interestingly with its young soldier and his efforts to die well, win a lady’s favor, and help fend off alien invaders. Suzanne Palmer’s “Thirty-Three Percent Joe,” like “The Scrapyard Ship,” is another story with a humorous element regarding an incompetent soldier’s internal prosthetics and their efforts to keep him alive and has received a favorable response from many readers.

One thing readers might like to know is that several of these stories are in series but all those have definite conclusions and only one (“Hate in the Darkess,” among other issues) seems to suffer if the reader isn’t already familiar with the other tales. That aside, there are certainly stories I’d like to see in here which didn’t make the cut and I did scratch my head over the inclusion of a couple that did but some readers may love them and not like some of the ones I’ve highlighted. Regardless, there are many fine and varied stories here which should especially appeal to those looking for the good ol’ stuff but which should also include some gems for those differently inclined.

[1] This is a reformatted, but otherwise unchanged, reprint of a review which originally appeared at Tangent Online on June 16, 2019. I’m reprinting it because this book came out in 2019 and I want all my reviews of books published from 2019 onward to be available here.

Birthday Reviews: Campbell, Haldeman, Laumer, Wilhelm

This week’s birthday stories introduce us to a giant spaceship, a giant tank, and two far futures. All come from the same magazine (under two names). One is by John W. Campbell and published by Campbell’s editorial predecessor (F. Orlin Tremaine), the Keith Laumer and Kate Wilhelm stories were published by Campbell, himself, and the one by Joe Haldeman was published by Campbell’s successor (Ben Bova). [1]

John W. Campbell (1910-06-08–1971-07-11)

“Forgetfulness” (Astounding, June 1937)

The people of Pareeth have created mighty ships and have crossed the interstellar void to arrive at a new world, but it turns out to be an old world, inhabited by people who long ago basically gave the people of Pareeth the gift of fire. But now these people see the inhabitants as sadly degenerate, being unable to remember how the great technology of their predecessors, called “the city builders,” worked. Still, there’s something strange about them… When the rising civilization makes plans to colonize the world of the degenerates, reversals and revelations are in store.

This story is initially short on action and, like many “Don A. Stuart” stories (the pseudonym Campbell used for the second phase of his writing career), it’s long on mood, description, and concepts. Still, it’s an effective mood, with fascinating descriptions (including a mention of “mile-long ships”), and wild concepts, such as the generator used by the city builders called a “sorgan mechanism” which nearly causes one witness to lose his mind as he sees that it is hooked into another dimension which has a moebius-like relation to eternity. When the crisis comes, the mood, descriptiveness, and conceptual power are retained while the action rises. The conclusion is clever and satisfying.

Joe Haldeman (1943-06-09)

“Anniversary Project” (Analog, October 1975)

Reprinted unchanged from a 2019-12-11 post.

One million years after the invention of the written word, Three-phasing has been created to remaster the art of reading so that he may enjoy the cache of books that has been rediscovered after being left for posterity in 2012. Meanwhile, Nine-hover has been playing around with a time machine (which no longer exists, but that certainly doesn’t end a time machine’s usefulness) and, using the books as associative talismans of a sort, she captures Bob and Sarah Graham. They’ve been recently married and were enjoying their last days of Bob’s leave before he ships off to the Korean War. You see, even in a far far far future world of amazing abilities (and telepathy) it’s hard to recapture the mentality of such primitive people and really understand what reading was like for them. By Sarah’s efforts, the future people get to experience her mind as she reads and she gets to spend more time with Bob. Then the story drives on to its smashing conclusion, fusing tragedy and comedy.

The opening of the tale is interesting and sometimes amusing but the far future, while not specifically derivative of anything, seems very familiar. However, once the 1951 characters appear on the scene, the humor and interest ratchet up several degrees. It’s the painful and hilarious conclusion that really makes the tale remarkable, though. Some might be upset by a possible perception of anticlimax, but it strikes me the other way, as a poetic crescendo which encapsulates “one of those things” in a way that touches on something deep. As I say, if this were just a “far future society” tale, it would be adequate, but the whole thing is firmly recommended.

Keith Laumer (1925-06-09–1993-01-23)

“The Last Command” (Analog, January 1967)

Unit LNE is a Bolo Mark XXVIII and a member of the Dinochrome Brigade, which is to say a tank that’s forty-five feet from top to bottom. And those forty-five feet are buried in a special “ten foot shell of reinforced armocrete” which is all under more than 200 meters of rock where it was buried after a war which didn’t defeat it but did make it radioactive. But when some engineers are blasting in the area for a Mayor’s pet project, a circuit trips in “Lenny,” he awakens, assesses the situation, calls on the memory of his comrades and the last vestiges of emergency power, and begins smashing his way out of his confinement. There follows a thrilling scene of his gradual angled rise over and up while panicked and mystified engineers follow along and try to figure out what they could have done, with various workers theorizing about earthquakes or accusing the others of continuing to set off charges. Finally, Lenny breaks through and believes he’s still at war and that the busy suburban mall ahead is an enemy fortress, a notion which is confirmed when the Mayor calls aircraft out to attack Lenny. With mass death imminent, one old vet is prepared to serve one more time and attempt to stop the unstoppable.

Lenny is quite a character, the massive AI battle tank is quite a concept, the situation is exciting, and the story has something to say about humanity, both good and bad, particularly regarding the things veterans often do and how they’re sometimes treated. There are several stories in the great Bolo series and this is one of the best.

Kate Wilhelm (1928-06-08–2018-03-08)

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” (Astounding, April 1957)

A man wakes up in the hospital with memories of being on a mile-long spaceship and is informed he’s survived a bad accident but his wife is okay. Gradually, his condition improves, but he still “dreams” of the spaceship. Similarly, it becomes clearer that there actually is a spaceship and it does not bode well for any species found by it. The telepath and other crewmembers aboard try to determine the location of the mentality that keeps visiting them but their task is made difficult by both a vice and a virtue of the mentality, but they keep trying. It ends in a surprising manner.

I feel like I’m missing something with this one but, even so, the ambiguity of the opening, the very, very remote, ethereal, calm conflict, and the irony make this a compelling read.

[1] And from the Department of Statistical Improbabilities: With seven days available, all four birthdays fall on one of two days and each pair (whose first initials are pairs of J&K) is separated by exactly eighteen years.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Currents of Space


The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 217pp, 1952

A year after a prolog in which an unnamed person warns that Florina will be destroyed in a nova and another drugs him and uses a psychic probe on him to “remove his anxiety,” we join amnesiac Rik on his lunch break at the mill where he’s suddenly remembered that he “analyzed Nothing” and that the world is somehow in danger. Rik was found in a kyrt field as a drooling, mindless wreck and the Townman, Myrlyn Terens, made the unmarried Lona Rik’s caretaker. He’s since improved to the point of being able to work in the mill. This bit of recovered memory makes Lona fear that a change may come to their relationship, so she goes to the Townman for advice. He is a Florinian and a civil servant who helps Sark rule Florina. While a quintet of Great Squires rule both worlds, and lesser Squires live in the Upper City on Florina, it is the bright Florinians who are taken to Sark, trained, and forbidden to have children, as a way to govern for now and to reduce the abilities of Florinians to do anything but grow kyrt for ever. Kyrt is a crop which grows only on Florina and is used in the production of fabulous fabrics and other products and has made Sark second only to Trantor in wealth, when Trantor rules half the galaxy and Sark just the two worlds. Despite it being against the rules, Terens decides to take Rik to the library of the Upper City to see if accessing books there will jog Rik’s memory further. However, someone has set a trigger to report when books on spatio-analysis are requested. From this minor infraction, things spiral out of control when Lona, who has followed them, sees them threatened by one of the foreign mercenaries known as Patrollers and used by Sark as the fist to the civil servants’ glove, wrests the Patroller’s own neuronic whip from him, and uses it on him. The trio flee to the Lower City and from the angry hornet’s nest of Patrollers they’ve stirred up and are rescued by a baker whose shop has a false oven they can hide in. The baker turns out to be more than he seems and has a special interest in Rik, with no interest in the other two. Terens takes off on his own, while Lona stays with Rik.

Meanwhile, Dr. Selim Junz of the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau visits with Ludigan Abel, the Trantorian ambassador. Junz has spent much of the last year looking for a missing spatio-analyst (those who study Nothing, or the currents within the near-vacuum of space). Through their conversations and reflections on the things which have formed their characters, we learn about, among other things, the tricky relationship Trantor and Sark have. At this point, Trantor rules half the galaxy and is far too powerful for Sark to fight, but Trantor is not yet strong enough to risk consolidating the other half of the galaxy against them, so must tread lightly when it comes to annexing other worlds, especially worlds as important as Sark, with its galaxy-spanning kyrt trade. So relations are handled officially by Abel and, unofficially, by a large spy network. This casts earlier events in a different and clearer light, as the baker is a spy for Trantor who is to bring Rik in. (We also learn that it was Junz who set the trigger on the books of spatio-analysis.) However, this fails to go according to plan, especially for Terens, who becomes a sort of serial killer.

The third component of the tale is introduced through the five-foot, ninety-pound Lady Samia of Fife. She is on Florina, working on her book on kyrt when her father, one of the Great Squires, orders her home due to the disturbances against the Patrollers. Rik and Lona have the strange luck to stow away on her ship and are quickly detected, and her romantic nature ignites with her fascination with the “mystery” the stowaways represent. Indeed, her father has a mystery of his own, which he describes to the other Great Squires, involving Trantorian machinations and his belief that one of the Squires is a traitor, which one of the accused dismisses as a “detective thriller.” The second half of the book involves the working out of these elements. Who did what was done to Rik? What specifically threatens Florina? Is there a traitor among the Squires and, if so, who? Can Trantor and Sark reach an accomodation or will their strains reach a breaking point?

Unlike the Robot and Foundation stories, Asimov never returned to the Empire milieu, so this third novel was the last of the group. The initial version of Pebble in the Sky was written for Startling Stories but never appeared in magazine form until after it was revised and published as a book. The Stars, Like Dust was serialized in Galaxy under the name “Tyrann” and with a subplot of Gold’s worked in. This one was serialized in John W. Cambpell’s Astounding without interference. All three include brief afterwords from Asimov in their early 1980s paperback editions explaining that a key science fictional premise within the novel is no longer considered scientifically viable and asking the writer to forgive that. While Rik is known in this one to be a foreigner, with one of his earlier recovered memories about his specific home world, all three novels are tied to Earth, despite their interstellar scope. While this is clearly the second book in internal chronology, pinning down a date to even the nearest millennium seems difficult. Trantor is described as having risen from a Republic of five worlds, to a Confederation, to a Trantorian Empire of half the galaxy, all within five hundred years so it seems reasonable that this novel is nearer to Pebble in the Sky than The Stars, Like Dust. On the other hand, while Rik’s Earth is the same radioactive blue of the Earth of the other books, there are no particular signs of animosity towards Earthers [1] but the preponderance of evidence points to a fairly late date. The fact of Earth being the homeworld of humanity has been forgotten and is now a disputed theory and the notion of convergent evolution has some strength.

And that brings us to a core theme of the book which revisits one of Pebble from a different angle. Sark’s domination of Florina is clearly driven by economics but, in a galaxy in which everyone, with few exceptions, is now of a more or less intermixed brown complexion, Florinians are white. This adds a racial component to Sark’s “sick social system.” The rebellious spirit has been almost utterly extinguished through a system of divide-and-conquer, surveillance, psychic probes (which are naively underutilized in the future of the essentially good-hearted Asimov), and of economic and classist disparity between the browns/whites represented at various scales by Sark/Florina and Upper/Lower City but which can have a strong basis in skin color and stereotyping. For example, when the noble brown girl, Samia, is caught (unwillingly) in a compromising position with a low-class white man it is used for powerful political and economic purposes when its only leverage comes from the twisted psychology of the Sarkites. Asimov wisely doesn’t limit this to a pure one-to-one metaphor, as aspects of it are reminiscent of Britain’s rule of India and many other aspects throughout human history, but American history is clearly the main inspiration, with one Sarkite even talking about “King Kyrt” (which has cellulose as one of its degenerate forms but which is even referred to once as cotton). While Pebble put its racial theme in the foreground, Currents handles it more cleverly by having it be structural and backgrounded for the most part but I suspect the social focus causes at least one aesthetic blemish in the moral calculus because multiple wrongs from and against this system in the person of one character are allowed to make a right by the conclusion of the book, a failing which anticipates much contemporary fiction. On the other hand, one especially unusual thing I liked in this was Selim Junz being from Libair, which is as atypical as Florina, in that Libairians are much darker than most and have dim recollections of a prehistory of racial strife. This causes Junz to feel a brotherhood with his fellow whites as both are minorities in a galaxy that is primarily intermediate. While this is probably largely a game of musical pigments in which Asimov, as a person of a Jewish minority, is expressing solidarity with African-Americans [2], it is also the actual state of things here on Earth. Blacks and whites are both (possibly temporary) minorities within all of humanity.

Heavy thematic stuff aside, as a simple reading experience, this novel of interstellar intrigue introduces us to a sympathetic but necessarily somewhat undefined character in the mostly erased Rik and his initially interesting relationship with Lona but the main drama begins with Terens joining the story and the three getting embroiled in increasingly out-of-control events. When Terens detaches from the pair, his mortally panicked flights from the coercive powers of his society are exciting and powerful. The amplification of the mystery elements with first Samia and then the Squire of Fife, himself, adds another layer and type of interest. Asimov’s skill in moving from scene to scene, with chapters moving forward and backward in time compared to their predecessors, sometimes redefining what we’ve just witnessed, is also put to good use. This is much improved over the handling in Stars, though there are a couple of overly long gaps between scenes and at least one use of a convenient memory loss and gain. More seriously, there are two chapters in a row (12 and 13) which involve long speeches (the first being the least successful part, dramatically, of the Squire’s involvement and the second being excess from a minor character) which slow the action. Most importantly, the ending isn’t completely satisfying. As I mentioned, the books don’t seem balanced regarding one character, the conclusion for two others doesn’t ring true, and much is resolved too easily. This and Pebble are very comparable and this surpasses it in some ways but, overall, I think I prefer the latter. Either way, I’ve always felt the Empire novels, though they are admittedly lesser works compared to the main Robot and Foundation books, were unfairly underestimated and this re-read of the trio makes me think that even more firmly.

[1] There are some other inconsistencies such as human males still being physically capable of growing facial hair when they aren’t in Pebble, but this may be an oversight. (And, of course, there are inconsistencies going the other direction which are due to the hazards of writing prequels, in that stowaway Arkady should have been detected as easily as Rik and Lona were and there seems to be no kyrt in the Galactic Empire.)

[2] As every sympathetic reader of Heinlein knows, just because a writer has characters advocate certain things doesn’t mean the writer does but, in Asimov’s non-fiction, he comes across as being liberal on race, especially for someone who made his mark in the 1940s and ’50s. In addition, Asimov was economically liberal and this comes across when he has a character advocate a respect for human rights over “mere property rights” and this, again, shows that Campbell’s Astounding, and science fiction in general, was not as monolithic as some like to believe or would have others believe.