Asimov’s Centennial: The Martian Way and Other Stories

The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $3.95, 222pp, 1955

Contents:

  • “The Martian Way” (Galaxy, November 1952)
  • “Youth” (Space SF, May 1952)
  • “The Deep” (Galaxy, December 1952)
  • “Sucker Bait” (Astounding, February and March 1954)

After thirteen books (eleven of them science fiction and all of those either new novels or collections made up of the Robot and Foundation stories which were almost entirely from the 1940s), Isaac Asimov’s fourteenth book was a collection of exclusively recent stories, and generally long ones at that. This was the first of three 1950s collections devoted to 1950s stories (to be followed by Earth Is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows).

Contrary to the usual method, this collection spends the best for first. “The Martian Way” is a novella which opens with Ted Long and a companion Scavenger hunting for the expended shells of multi-stage rockets which float around the system between Earth and Mars. Getting this valuable metal is how these Martian colonists make their living. However, an Earth politician named Hilder starts an anti-Waster movement, using the notion of Earth people “giving” things away, such as this scrap metal and the water the Martians need to survive, as a way to build up resentment against them and secure political power for himself. Matters come to a head when other politicians lack the spine to stand up to Hilder’s demagoguery and he convinces Earth to shut off the water supply to Mars, despite the cost being less than a thimble from a pool. Long has seen this coming and has been trying to convince the Martians to do things “the Martian way” and go to Saturn where there’s plenty of water in the rings but, as Thomas Jefferson perceptively observed, “Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The Martians believe the “common knowledge” [1] that a voyage to Saturn would be too long to take and remain sane but Long argues that Martians have adapted to different conditions and the time/distance argument is an Earth limitation. And, when the Martians are facing rationing and, ultimately, death or a forced return to Earth, the evils are insufferable, so the Commissioner greenlights Long’s dangerous idea. There follows a fascinating journey to the ringed world with some genuinely beautiful moments as most of the water prospectors spend their off-shift parts of the journey “space-floating,” that is, tethering themselves to the ship and trailing it at a distance, enjoying the euphoria of weightless infinity. [2] On arriving at Saturn’s rings (more beauty), a prodigious engineering project is undertaken to get a giant chunk of ice back to Mars and matters reach a new head when it takes longer than expected, the food is running out, and they have perturbed the orbit of their chunk and are about to collide with another mountain of ice.

Other than the wonderful (and sometimes frighteningly dangerous) experiences in space [3], one of the main features of this tale is the notion of change. At the start of these events, there is an “umbilical cord” from Mother Earth to Mars but the Martians are changing, whether they know it or not. While Earthmen couldn’t stand to be cooped up in a ship for extended periods, “Mars is a ship [4],” and Martians are better equipped to deal with these new demands. In fact, while blissfully floating, Long has the vision of generation starships populating the galaxy over eons and feels those ships must and will come from Mars.

A minor feature of this tale, however, doesn’t work as Asimov intended. He’s stated that he was satirizing McCarthy in this tale and was expecting a significant reaction but, on not getting it, theorized that he may have been too “subtle.” It’s not that it’s too subtle but that it focuses on the wrong thing. McCarthy was a power-hungry demagogue (as is Hilder) and this element and the spineless collapse of the people who are supposed to serve as checks and balances are acutely observed. However, McCarthy was specifically about “un-American activities,” which is to say, suppressing free thought and free speech through dishonest intimidation over “loyalty.” Hilder is about “anti-Waste,” or distorted bean-counting, used to agitate supporters. Had it been written later, the “anti-Waste campaign” would have applied better to Proxmire than McCarthy and generalized demagoguery isn’t specific to McCarthy but applies to many politicians. (Oddly, both the McCarthy and Proxmire satires combined could apply to the current occupant of the White House.) Regardless, Hilder serves to bring about the crisis in dramatically successful terms and the incomplete satire doesn’t harm the story which I see as a larger, positive take on the adaptability of humanity rather than a topical, negative take on politics, anyway.

Otherwise, I only notice a couple of problems in this tale. First, while Mars may be a harsh master, the benignity of Earth may be overstated and, similarly, while Mars may have a society that is growing more powerfully, I wouldn’t expect an Earth that was helping to support a recently colonized world to be quite as static as is assumed here. Second, while the plot does contain great challenges, it seems to move a bit too smoothly. Those minor quibbles aside, this is a superb, essential tale.

After that peak, there’s a marked descent in the next tale, followed by a climb back up. If “The Martian Way” has some Heinlein to it, “Youth” initially reads like a tale by Bradbury or Simak. In it, a youngster (“Slim”) is entrusted by his new friend (“Red”) with a secret: Red heard something like thunder the night before and found some animals in the morning. He’s put them in a cage and thinks they’ll be a passport to a life in the circus. Slim’s dad is an astronomer and Red’s dad is an entrepreneur. They talk about the aliens Slim, Sr. has made contact with and how this may get the species out of the rut caused by the apocalyptic wars of times gone by. But it’s strange… the aliens should have been here by now. There’s more to it than this and, whether you’d enjoyed it this far or not, you may find the story damaged or taken to a new level by the rest but, for me, I wasn’t that thrilled to begin with and was ultimately less so. [5]

The Deep” is a shorter and better novelette than “Youth” which opens with an editorial chapter which states that worlds die and species who don’t do what they can to avoid it will die with them. Then, in a way that somewhat anticipates The Gods Themselves, we witness the race of a dying world attempting to escape their (likely ironically symbolic) underground caverns where they huddle around the last heat of their planet and we fly in an airplane above Earth with a woman and her newborn on their way to visit her military husband. The plan is for the desperate race to expend virtually all their remaining energy on a single roll of the dice, in which a teleportation station will be specially materialized at the world they’ve detected (Earth) and one hero will inhabit the consciousness of one of the beings of that world to press the button on the machine to do what’s needed for “normal” teleportations to follow below the Earth’s surface. When the alien unsurprisingly comes to inhabit the consciousness of the infant on the plane, the mission becomes much more traumatic and difficult.

The most interesting thing about this story is that Asimov almost, though incompletely, “burns the motherhood statement,” as Greg Egan might say, in that the psychic egg-laying aliens live in a society where the good of the community is paramount so that any bond between mother and child is considered a perversion. Naturally, the alien is shocked and disgusted to learn that humans have eggs inside their bodies, give live birth, and have close familial bonds. This causes an additional tweak to the plan. Another virtue of the story is the weird and well-drawn scene of what happens when the alien inhabits the infant and how it seems to each of them and the others on the plane.

The collection ends with another novella, and the longer of the two. “Sucker Bait” takes its title from the notion that some planets seem too good for colonizing to be true. In a chaotic phase of expansion, a world coming out of an ice age which is in a stable orbit around two suns was settled but became a sort of lost colony when all its inhabitants died after a couple of years. Over a century later, in a more formal Confederacy of over 83,000 worlds, a ship with a corps of scientists as passengers returns to the world to try to figure out what went wrong. [6] The main thrust of this one is about specialization being for insects (or these scientists). However, one psychologist has his human computer along who eidetically (and somewhat autistically) absorbs every bit of data he can which may provide some unusual and valuable insights.

In addition to being an example of the classic “lost colony” type, this story is also a mystery. However, while the clues are present in the story, the revelation still feels like it’s pulled from thin air. More significantly, the tale is a little too focused on its (very good) didactic point about specialization within much knowledge being equivalent to much ignorance. Also, structurally, the whole situation is slightly contrived and the story is too long for its content.

It’s easier to create a longer list of what’s wrong with this than what’s right but the right still outweighs the wrong. The situation, characters, and ideas are all interesting (and the dangerous unassailability of people’s “professional opinions” is effectively portrayed). In addition to the beautiful passages in “The Martian Way,” this also has wonderful moments such as describing the effects of the double sun on the planet’s significant ice caps. With that and other elements such as one of the suns producing a disturbing effect with the vegetation and the psychologist’s amusing gimmick with “chromopsychosis,” it seems like a massively updated, more rigorous take on Neil R. Jones’ “Planet of the Double Sun.” Going the other way, I wonder if one of the inspirations for Herbert’s later “mentats” didn’t come from the main character of this story.

In sum, the title story is worth a book all by itself, but the other stories provide nice additional value.


[1] You can take the boy out of Astounding but it’s hard to take Astounding out of the boy. This was published in Galaxy and has Goldisms like a virtual ad for “waterless dishwashers” on Mars but this upending of “common knowledge” is pure Campbell.

[2] This is all the more remarkable for being written by a guy who was afraid to fly and years before any man had been in space. Asimov was pleased that some of the astronauts did report a feeling of euphoria as he’d imagined.

[3] One thing that’s particularly notable and enjoyable about the environment of this story is its difference from much earlier SF with its harsh Mars and its vast solar system with an unusually and accurately spacious asteroid belt. The asteroids in this are apparently even rockier than we now suppose, necessitating the jump to Saturn’s largely icy rings but it’s a very sober, “Bonestell” sort of Solar System.

[4] “Spaceship Mars” doesn’t predate the notion of “Spaceship Earth,” but certainly predates its general use from the 1960s, though it’s used in a different sense here.

[5] I’d like to make two more points about this but they would completely spoil the story.

[6] One of the operational theories is that it was some sort of plague. When one character says he knows all about “the 2755 para-measles epidemic” and “the 1918 influenza epidemic,” I couldn’t help but think, “Missed one.”