Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus


Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 186pp, 1954

Lucky Starr’s third juvenile adventure dedicated to “the advancement of man and the destruction of the enemies of civilization” begins when a college friend of Lucky’s, Lou Evans, is accused of being corrupt. Lucky and Bigman go to investigate, despite being warned off by Evans, himself. While taking the “planetary coaster” (shuttle) down from Space Station #2 to Venus, the pilot and co-pilot [1] freeze with the ship on a downward trajectory. Lucky tries to right the ship, prompting the pilots to begin fighting him, but he does fortunately manage to reduce the impact of the crash. Even more fortunately, Venus is covered in a mat of vegetation riding over water and not rock. Once out of the ship, away from the now alert, but cluelessly amnesiac pilots, and in the dome of Aphrodite, the largest city on Venus, the Council of Science section chief tells Lucky and Bigman that the “accident” was engineered by Evans. His theory is that Venus has lucrative zymocultural knowledge that could benefit the system but Evans must have thrown in with the Sirians, enemy of all that is good and just, to steal these industrial secrets through some mysterious means of mental domination. Lucky doesn’t believe it but his interview with a taciturn Evans is unproductive and, when everyone is distracted by a worker who seems to threaten the city with opening a lock to flood and crush it, Evans escapes. (Bigman, however, has a heroic moment by virtue of not being “as big as all that.”) The dynamic duo head out in a “subsea craft” on the trail of Evans and Lucky begins to unravel the mystery of several layers but also gets trapped under “two hundred million tons of monster” – a giant, mind-controlled, water-jet shooting, omnivorous creature called an “orange patch,” which is like an inverted bowl which consumes everything under it. Getting out of this fix and several others, and solving a mystery more than once, occupy the second half of the tale.

While all the Lucky Starr books are at least somewhat Asimovian, this continues the process of becoming still more so and, whatever knowledge of the authorship there was before, after this book was published, Asimov publicly identified himself as the author. This contains many core concepts and items found in many other Asimov works such as the Council of Science possibly being the nucleus of an eventual Galactic Empire, psychoprobes and, obviously, the yeast-based food supplies. Not to mention that, conversely, Lucky’s lost his magic mask.

The best thing about this book is its setting. Asimov writes his usual foreword warning about the science, saying that it wasn’t counter to our body of knowledge at the time it was written but had become so by the time of the paperback reprint. [2] Amusingly, within the book, Lucky Starr says that until “the first explorers landed on Venus… they had weird notions about the planet…” It’s Asimov’s own weird notions that make this fun. It’s depicted almost like a microcrosm of the Ptolemaic universe of concentric spheres, with a shell of white/gray clouds, followed by one of brighter rainy air, followed by the blue-green vegetation, followed by the sea, followed by a surface dotted with domes. The sea is full of “buttons,” “arrowfish,” “scarlet patches,” “orange patches,” and “V-frogs,” some of the last having even been brought inside as pets. Under the crushing ocean, humans in (what I couldn’t help but think of as) the pleasure domes of Venus dine on delicious varieties of food (which, to the surprise of the guests, is all made from refined strains of yeast) and listen to magnetonic music (perhaps akin to theremins).

This initially seems like the best of the first three adventures as it avoids the “first episode” awkwardness of the first and the “space pirates” melodrama of the second (and still may manage to be with its setting) but it eventually suffers from some problems that are difficult to detail without spoiling the mystery. I’ll just say that both part of what is revealed and the method of dealing with it seem silly and, though matters are recast by later information, that still doesn’t help the disengagement caused by appearances. Further, the closing moral seems to be an extended variant of that in Pirates but isn’t quite as successfully argued. It’s still a fun tale, though, and Venus is quite an experience.

[1] Oddly, the co-pilot is given the name “Tor Johnson,” which is the same as that of the actor who had appeared in many things by 1954 and would go on to achieve infamy in Plan 9 from Outer Space and who actually appeared in an episode of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger within a year of this being written. Stretching further, the pilot is “George Reval,” which makes me think of George Reeves, who was flying across TV screens through the 50s as Superman.

[2] While this may not anticipate discoveries about Venus, it does anticipate computers in its future. Asimov, who was just talking positively about “massive” computers in The Caves of Steel, here has a character carrying what’s basically a laptop.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 224pp, 1954

The Caves of Steel is a murder mystery embedded in a science fiction novel of complex, clashing societies. Both levels work hand-in-hand throughout the book.

It all begins when detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is summoned into Comissioner Julius Enderby’s office by the commissioner’s simplistic robot, R. Sammy. Enderby is an old college friend who has surpassed the doggedly competent Baley in status by being a political animal, especially capable of dealing with the Spacers (people of the now-independent and much more powerful ex-colonies of Earth). He was due to meet with a sociologist/roboticist, Dr. Sarton, in Spacetown (the home of the Spacers on Earth, just outside of New York City), but arrived to find the Spacers in a tumult because Sarton had just been murdered. While most everyone on Earth, including Enderby and Baley, could be considered “Medievalists” who revere Earth’s long-lost glory days, the Spacers believe a group of extreme Medievalists have conspired to commit this murder. Due to delicate tensions between the Spacers on Earth, those back home, and the Earthers themselves, the Spacers are willing to keep the incident quiet until the murder can be solved and are willing to let an Earth detective take the lead on one condition: that he partner with a Spacer robot. However, Enderby tells Baley that he, and not the robot, must actually solve the case. Thus Baley finds himself in what becomes “a nightmare of murder and robotics,” forced to work with a partner he initially despises (and who is nothing like Earth robots), which brings his family and himself into danger as the importance of the case and the extent of the labyrinthine conspiracy within it grows.

Except for things related to general points, I’ll let the second half of the book remain shrouded but, in the first half, Baley and the robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, try to learn about each other and their societies in order to develop a working relationship while also learning about the case itself. Baley develops his first theory of the case which leads to a dramatic confrontation with Dr. Han Fastolfe at Spacetown in which he lays out his theory, though he feels sure that, if he’s wrong, he’ll be “declassified” (that is, shamefully lose hard-earned status and be left in poverty with no privileges, just as his father was). And (it being the middle of the book), he is wrong. Nevertheless, Fastolfe is not offended by Baley but, rather, intrigued by aspects of the detective. He then explains to Baley the threat he sees to both Earth and the Outer Worlds and what he wants to do about it. As Olivaw later rephrases it, “We are not here just to solve a murder, but to save Spacetown and with it, the future of the human race.”

What makes this so is one of the strongest elements of the book (though it vies with many other strong elements for that title): the extremely complex depiction of contrasting and seemingly successful but perhaps fatally flawed societies. Earth has become a world of Cities and one of the foremost is Baley’s New York City which is nothing like the “Medieval” New York City (of our times) but is a cave of steel [1], completely enclosed and built above the motorways of the old city, which is now an otherwise empty basement used by emergency services for fast travel to points in the true city. Everyone lives packed together in a rigidly classified, hierarchical society, eating communal meals, taking semi-communal showers, and has grown into a society of agoraphobes. [2] They are dependent on yeast cultures and other hydroponics for everything from energy (“Petroleum had long since gone, but oil-rich strains of yeast were an adequate substitute.”) to food. The cities have held together so far but are strained and fragile, with the humans in them unwilling to leave them or the Earth, despite Medievalist cries of impossibly going “back to the land” which can no longer support them. [3] Meanwhile, the Spacers have developed a world of long-lived, disease-free, eugenically-filtered and population-controlled humans who live a life of robot-assisted luxury. And they, too, have become unwilling to risk that comfort and those long lives on colonizing new worlds, a practice that was given up 250 years earlier. The prospect facing humanity is the quick demise of an unstable Earth and the slower demise of the ossified Outer Worlds. The alternative to this is his vision of a “C/Fe” culture (what we might now call a “C/Si” culture) where the overly carbon-based (human) Earth society might fuse with the overly iron-based (robot) Outer Worlds society on newly colonized planets. However, the Spacers efforts at social engineering on Earth aren’t working, the Medievalists and anti-Spacer and anti-robot sentiment seem to be growing stronger, and the forces back home want Spacetown abandoned. This murder could be the last straw.

Another of the strong elements is the characterization. Asimov consciously favored ideas over characters and critics often deduct points for this, yet he created Susan Calvin, The Mule, Bayta and Arkady Darell… and Baley and Olivaw. While a relatively minor character, Jezebel “Jessie” Baley is also memorable and sneakily important. The part of the book involving her name made a big impact on my first reading and has always stuck with me. Jessie is a nice girl whose real name is that of a “wicked” woman, which she treasures as a secret side to her superficial plainness which makes her feel safely spicy. The man who would write Asimov’s Guide to the Bible has Lije thoughtlessly trample on this by explaining away Jezebel’s wickedness (which also ties in to the novel’s theme of the tensions between the old and the new). This was not quite fatal to their relationship but caused a permanent scar. Interestingly, Elijah and Daneel (if taken as “Daniel”) are also Biblical names and, if I’m not mistaken, both have connotations of straight-arrows of justice and both contain the theistic name “El.” This is another theme as Olivaw’s notion of justice is initially “that which exists when all the laws are enforced,” and further notes that “[a]n unjust law is a contradiction in terms.” Later, Baley tells him a Biblical story related to this which has resonance throughout the tale. As even a robot can undergo some modification, so Baley shows depths and ability to change. He’s a fundamentally stable and grounded man but has a sort of poetic streak, a sense of wonder, and hidden depths of adaptability (especially when encouraged under certain circumstances). Further, the relationship between the two goes from Baley’s antagonism bouncing off Olivaw, to an almost McCoy-and-Spock sort of affection-and-antagonism, to something that may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This is a short book (probably 70,000 words which my Fawcett Crest paperback manages to crush into 191 pages) and amazingly takes place over only two or three days but is such a lean, mean, detecting machine, so packed full of events and ideas, that it just underscores how fat and wasteful modern bugcrushers are. In order to try to minimize the fat of this review, I can’t get to a fraction of what could be discussed. These range from major issues like how much this is supposed to be symbolize regionalism in the United States or be about race (unlike the Empire novels which clearly have a heavy component of that, I think parts of this are more purely about machines and, for example, the displacement of people by automation) to only slightly less important issues like this future Earth’s own “civism” vs. old “fiscalism” within the “C/Fe” notion but I also don’t want to leave the impression that this book is completely serious and deep. For instance, when Baley asks what Sarton died of, he’s told, “He died of a missing chest,” and there are many sheer adventure scenes such as trying to lose a group of followers by “strip-running” or dangerously crossing the “slidewalks” which run at various, often very high, speeds. [4]

There are a few problems with the book, though. This seems to be set 3000 years in the future which, like the Empire novels, leaves plenty of wiggle room but is excessive. Also, this crushing overpopulation so far in the future is quantified at a population of eight billion which is about what Earth’s population is today. Though Baley recalls a story he “viewed” as a kid, there are no instant communication or surveillance devices like phones or cameras (excepting Olivaw, himself, and he is impressed by Earth’s computers which are far more “massive” than those of the Spacers). Oddly, “one of the few luxury crops still grown on Earth was tobacco,” which no longer seems likely. And speaking of social engineering, I’m once again ideologically uncomfortable with Asimov’s apparent Rousseau-ian comfort at forcing people to be free or otherwise manipulating them into behaving as they “should.” (Though it is very good that the malleability and relativity of social mores is understood and given importance.) At one point, Fastolfe admits, “It is not pleasant to listen to the preaching of a stranger” and, though his points may have had their validity and the overall thrust was to colonize space, which I’m all for, I still had to agree with the principle. Speaking of that colonizing, everyone in the book seems to assume that people only colonize from negative reinforcement to get away from things, rather than to “seek out new life and new civilizations” or other positive motivations and I also question the specific argument that long-lived people would be less likely to risk their lives colonizing new worlds. I think they might be more likely to do so, being better able to see more of the result. More importantly, Baley is cast as a police officer and Olivaw is converted into one but, in some senses, they operate more like drawing-room sleuths than cops and there is some mild illogic which I can’t get into [5] though the big picture of the case works very well. I also have a quibble with one piece of tech which could have been introduced earlier or even dispensed with, but it was at least introduced early enough and, either way, it was a minor issue, as all these quibbles are.

This doesn’t have the obvious scope of the Foundation series (except in a common thread of forces engaging for the betterment of humanity over large spans of time). Still, it is a superb science fiction novel which addresses large social concerns through a fascinatingly deep and complex futuristic milieu and an excellent mystery novel which plays fairly and daringly with the reader [6], not to mention that it features a pair of great characters. While the Foundation stories punch my buttons the most, this is also a masterpiece.

[1] The narrative voice describing Baley’s reflections uses “cave of steel,” Fastolfe mentions “caves of steel,” and a Medievalist (who is ironically also a zymologist) refers to “caves.” The first is semi-neutral but the other two are negative and associated, literally, with a mode of living, and metaphorically with wombs and even with a sort of “realistic Platonism” (to horribly misspeak) in that the caves can be seen as blocking off a real engagement with the actual universe. Conversely, the caves of steel are also like mini-proto-Trantors (though this recognizes that, literally, at least some of the world must remain unenclosed).

[2] Odd note: there is a passage where a mid-level character describes his fear of flying in a way that sounds like Asimov himself might be talking and this was serialized in the agoraphobe H. L. Gold’s Galaxy magazine.

[3] On this point, Fastolfe says that Earth is “in a blind alley” which recalls Asimov’s story of that name on a similar topic.

[4] The resonance with other works is also notable. I already mentioned a sort of McCoy/Spock motif but I also thought of Khan’s “2D thought” in Star Trek II when the idea of defending only a single point of Spacetown came up. The scenes in Bladerunner of administering the Voigt-Kampff tests would seem to be taken directly from this (there was something like that in Dick’s Androids, if I recall, but it wasn’t as exact). Almost Human featured a cop duo of human and robot. And Silverberg’s The World Inside would seem to be set in this exact Earth, (minus Spacers and robots, and moved to Chicago/Pittsburgh in the future of the 60s from New York in the future of the 50s.

[5] One trivial example I can give (because not related to the actual case) which gives a sense of the size of them (most are slightly bigger, but not much) is Baley saying to Olivaw, “You keep your mouth shut,” which might not sound like much, but is actually an order which Olivaw immediately violates. Similar lines having to be obeyed have driven the plots of at least two robot stories (“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” and “Little Lost Robot,” if I recall).

[6] I’ve never been a reader of ordinary mysteries and I honestly can’t remember if I “solved” this the first time (though I doubt it) but I thought I remembered whodunnit right away. Then my confidence was shaken by some facts presented in the book until I remembered howdunnit awhile later. So I think the reader who does figure it out will feel pleased, the one who doesn’t will be fascinated and feel fairly treated, and the book still completely works even when you know the ending because of all its substance apart from the mystery.

Birthday Reviews: Clement, del Rey, Walton

The week’s birthday stories blur the line between man and machine and explore religious and gender conflict.

Hal Clement (1922-05-30–2003-10-29)

“The Mechanic” (Analog, September 1966)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of Space Lash from 2014-05-06.

In “The “Mechanic,” Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone with which it is described in great detail. The cyberpunk of this story comes from the fact that humans are developing artificial life that blurs the division between machine and organism and medical science has gotten to the point where it blurs the division between organism and machine. The three major movements are getting to know folks and their activities before the accident, the accident itself, and dealing with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

Lester del Rey (1915-06-02–1993-05-10)

“For I Am a Jealous People” (Star Short Novels, 1954)
“The Seat of Judgment” (Venture, July 1957)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of The Best of Lester del Rey at Black Gate from 2018-10-27.

“The Seat of Judgment” is an astonishing tale from 1957 which involves the titular form of punishment which is almost incomprehensibly horrible, incestuous group sex, and fairly explicit alien sex. An old colonial official of a decaying Earth empire returns to a planet of green marsupials, where he’d been instrumental in averting a religious uprising a generation before, and is tasked with repeating his feat. Despite the natives having only goddesses, a male prophet has arisen and the priestess and the official work together (the latter somewhat unwillingly) to deal with him. The twist to this tale is truly brutal and the whole is fascinating from multiple angles which include personal, historical, social, and religious. “For I Am a Jealous People” is another remarkable tale of religion. Rev. Amos Strong and Dr. Alan Miller are friends despite the latter’s atheism and the two friends go through a vicious and multi-faceted ordeal when aliens invade Kansas. The two friends are nicely characterized individually and together and the Reverend’s quandary about what to do when God is not on our side is compelling. His ordeal rivals Job’s and some may find it excessive but others will find it seizes them and won’t let go.

Bryce Walton (1918-05-31–1988-02-05)

“Too Late for Eternity” (Startling Stories, Spring 1955)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from a discussion board post from 2014-09-27.

“Too Late for Eternity” is stark raving mad, but thoroughly competent and effective. It’s about how women live longer than men. Do they ever. The longevity difference started innocently enough but the gap continued to widen:

And then the Third World War. Records, statistics destroyed. A lot of men destroyed too. And after that, three women for every man.

Matriarchy. The women had taken over. And a lot of those women hated men and hated science. Some of them formed anti-male cults. Who needs men?

They took over everything, Joad thought, lying there with his face pressed against the floor. Everything.

Joad is about 120 and comes home to find the young up-and-coming business exec he’d recommended to his wife in bed with her, as is natural when it’s time for the old guys to be retired and the ever-youthful wife needs someone with more, um, stamina. Hilariously, in this matriarchy where women control everything, the morning after her wild night with her new guy, she makes both men breakfast. There are similar persistent 1950s notes through this 2700ish matriarchy and the Freudian weirdness and misogyny is kind of staggering, though it is counterbalanced by an eventual misandry – let’s just call it a general misanthropy. But a couple of aspects of the story really work. First, it’s a completely whacked-out future that has a compelling nature – like Pohl and Kornbluth on a bad day. Bad acid day. And the protagonist’s pain and anger at getting old and being replaced and finally getting wise to how he’s been programmed to accept everything–and how he doesn’t accept it–is quite effectively portrayed. It’s kind of the madman or Ancient Mariner effect of a guy grabbing you by the lapels and conveying a tale of lunacy with such intense conviction that it works. And he hits a lot of birds with this stone – age, sex (kinda shocking sex for ’55, I’d think), gender, cults of beauty, pointlessness of some societal ambitions, the bad aspects of exaggerated masculine and feminine traits, etc. Wild stuff.

Edit (2020-06-04): Added images.

Birthday Reviews: Cady, Clingerman, Gibson

Jack Cady (1932-03-20–2004-01-14)

“The Night We Buried Road Dog” (F&SF, January 1993)

This fantasy/horror novella is narrated by Jed, who is looking back on the events in his life and the lives of his friends in Montana from 1961-1965. Brother Jesse is the main foreground focus, along with his graveyard for the beloved defunct cars of folks who want to memorialize them, the plots of which are dug with his bulldozer. Jesse’s dogs, Potato and Chip. also figure prominently, along with big bald Mike and educated little Matt. The main background focus is Road Dog, a mythic driver in an incredibly fast Studebaker that everyone’s always chasing and that everyone keeps failing to catch. Those foci eventually interact in dark, twisty ways.

Relative to SF, I don’t read much fantasy of my own volition. I also don’t tend to wax ecstatic in reviews. But I first read this in Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Eleventh Annual Collection and I didn’t mind this one story being there a bit, science fiction or not. And on re-reading, it’s even better. I think this is one of the select Great Stories like “Flowers for Algernon.” Jed’s voice is as clear as a bell. Jesse’s and Mike’s aren’t too far removed from Jed’s. Matt’s is completely different. Potato and Chip are every bit the characters the humans are. The main cars are, too. And what cars! The metal manifestations of restless, searching America before, and up to, the edge of the Viet Nam war. An America specifically of Montana and the circuit of Western states nearby. Wide open spaces, speed, and spirits, are all evoked powerfully and viscerally. You feel the wind blowing as you rocket down the road at a hundred miles an hour through the night and you see the occasional ghost of someone who has “found a ditch” and gotten a cross by the side. Occasionally, you even find that the headlights coming up behind you are the headlights of dead cars. This is a felt, lived, rich story, which mixes a little fantasy and a lot of reality; a little humor and a lot of pain and loss. I don’t mix anything in my emphatic recommendation.

Mildred Clingerman (1918-03-14–1997-02-26)

“Letters from Laura” (F&SF, October 1954)

Through letters from Laura, which are about her time travel trip to ancient Crete and are addressed to her mother, her friend, and an employee of the tourist agency, a character is cleverly revealed with impish humor. It’s hard to say anything more about this story (which is likely just 2-3,000 words) without spoiling it all and some may not appreciate its 1950s sensibility (though it can be seen as either reinforcing or subverting it) but most should get anywhere from mild to great enjoyment out of it which may even increase on re-reading.

William Gibson (1948-03-17)

“Johnny Mnemonic” (Omni, May 1981)

Johnny’s an empty head, using Intel Inside to store information he has no access to as he makes his way with it from point A to point B. Problem is that his point B of the moment, Ralfi Face, hasn’t come for the information but, rather, wants Johnny dead. So Johnny gets a shotgun to crudely adjust Ralfi’s attitude. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go so well until Molly Millions, with her implanted mirrorshades and retractable claws, decides to get in on the action. They start to take Ralfi some place where they can talk more quietly but a guy with a monofilament wire where his thumb is supposed to be has other ideas. After a stop with Jones, the cyborg dolphin, and a visit with Dog, the human with dog modifications, the assassin is still following them and it comes down to the climactic scene.

In a way, this is just some PKD mindfork stuff wrapped in noir style along with a dash of Brunner and Bester and is just as “80s” as the Clingerman is “50s” but it does have a lot of creativity in its details and does grasp the data-mining information-driven world that many people still haven’t grasped. And, of course, the next year, Blade Runner would show this sort of “decadent urban sprawl of futuristic downtrodden people trapped on Earth” on the Big Screen. It was certainly a nifty thing for a moment and a needed kick in the pants to SF but it’s still kind of amazing that this sort of thing dominated a good chunk of SF for at least a couple of decades and its echoes still reverberate. Just considered as itself, though, it’s a story worth reading.