Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury


Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 191pp, 1956

Project Light involves investigation into the nature of light in hyperspace which may have implications for energy and weather control on Earth but someone or something is sabotaging the project. Lucky Starr and John Bigman Jones are on Mercury to investigate and have to deal with several people who may be friend or foe, including a project manager who is stressed to the point of insanity, a base leader who sees menacing Sirians under his bed, and a lieutenant of a Senator bent on exposing “waste” and destroying Lucky’s employers, the Council of Science. Over the course of events, Starr and Jones will face death separately and solve the mystery together.

There are several problems with this book ranging from minor to middling which cumulatively become major. The opening behavior from the project engineer is too extreme and the lack of consequences for it is mystifying. The stress constantly laid upon Lucky’s anonymity while having everyone in the Solar System identify him is pointless and annoying. While villains are not meant to be lovable, the unmitigated repugnance of the Senator’s lackey is difficult to bear. The isolated nature of something in the old mine shafts which should be part of a system is a problem. More seriously, Lucky is made to be pretty stupid once and, though Bigman is the sidekick and still has his clever and heroic moments, he is made to be extremely stupid at least twice, if not three times.

While not exactly a problem, it’s at least odd that, with Asimov having dispensed with the unneeded “French” persona [1], he goes the opposite way and declares that all worlds in the Galaxy are settled with quadrillions of people (despite this having been and still being essentially confined to the Solar System). Further, the Sirians are now directly described, without using the word, as Spacers and (no spoiler, because it’s on more than one cover), positronic robots are introduced with the Three Laws paraphrased. In fact, there are specific echoes of “Runaround,” in which Donovan and Powell went to Mercury to see about restarting a mining operation. But only the robot really has anything to do with the plot and it’s not really necessary for it to be a positronic three-law robot.

All that said, this is an efficiently constructed tale at its core and, like the Venus adventure, has a good setting [2] that’s put to good use in Chapter 10, where readers, via Lucky and his somewhat magical inso-suit, are transported from wherever they happen to be reading to the surface of Mercury in order to experience its “big sun” in one of those exhilarating moments which are a big part of what makes science fiction so much fun.

[1] The books continued to be published under the Paul French name though, presumably for consistency’s sake.

[2] As usual, Asimov includes a Foreword to warn the reader that, though it was published in 1956 with the best intention of being accurate, subsequent exploration has determined that Mercury does rotate rather than having one side always facing the sun. (However, unlike some stories which make tidal locking a central element with many ramifications extending from that, it’s not an overwhelming issue in this one.)

Review: The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert

The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert (Doubleday, 1956, hc, 192pp.)

Four men in a sub (to say nothing of the God).

During a war with the Eastern Powers, the nuclear sub Fenian Ram‘s job is to cruise into enemy territory to steal a cargo of oil. “Ensign” John Ramsey has been assigned to the four-person crew as the new electronics officer. However, he really works for “BuPsych” and his true mission is to find out why the last electronics officer went insane. As if this weren’t tense enough, the failure rate of these missions is shockingly high, the insanity may be the commanding officer’s fault, a dead body is found on the sub, and the killer spy may be one of the crew.

In the course of the mission, Ramsey struggles with both wanting and not wanting to fit in, experiences debilitating fear, has several near-death experiences, and gets to know Engineering Officer Joe Garcia, First Officer Les Bonnet, and the overtly religious and rigidly self-controlled Commander Harvey Sparrow (whose last name is likely another Biblical reference). It culminates in his getting to know himself and learning something about the nature of the world and sanity within it.

This was serialized in late 1955 in Astounding as Under Pressure (which is a good title) and has been reprinted as 21st Century Sub (which is not) but its original book publication was as The Dragon in the Sea which is taken from Isaiah 27:1. (“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea”.)

Though it took me awhile to get around to it, I was inspired to read it after re-reading Arthur C. Clarke’s excellent The Deep Range years ago and wanting another undersea adventure. That’s really about all the two have in common, though, with this being focused on religion and particularly Freudian psychology, though it does also have the nuts and bolts of existence in a sub in wartime. It has more in common with several of Herbert’s other books which have a psycho-religious focus but something that sets it apart is its style: Herbert’s often strikes me as clotted and heavy but this was pleasantly spare and straightforward. On the other hand, an annoying aspect of the book (perhaps meant to reflect a continuous and inescapable voyage) is that there are no chapters and not even all that many blank lines dividing sections. My main reaction is that, while I can’t wholeheartedly endorse the book as it is, I could endorse the novella it should have been. With four main characters, one main objective, and one main (though complex) theme, and an atmosphere of pressure, it would have worked superbly as a “Nerves”-like novella. As a novel, it took me a long time to read because it was very easy to put down, but it has its good parts and the ending is very compelling and provocative.