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).

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