Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn

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Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 179pp, 1958

The Rings of Saturn is the last Lucky Starr book, though it’s not the final one. Isaac Asimov had a notion to write Lucky Starr and the Snows of Pluto but he switched to primarily writing non-fiction and there were never any more Lucky Starr books. That makes this the sixth of seven novels which introduces a third wheel while asking two key questions in a milieu which includes fifty outer worlds and the Three Laws of Robotics.

The plot involves the Earth Council discovering “Agent X,” a spy for the most anti-Earth outer world, Sirius, and sending ordinary ships out in pursuit after Agent X blasts his way out of Mos Eisley spaceport. Of course, these ships are not up to the task, but Lucky Starr and his big-in-spirit companion, Bigman Jones, take their snazzy supership out and go on an exciting chase to Saturn [1] where Agent X jettisons a capsule of the stolen plans to the Death Star and is destroyed by an unlucky connection with some space junk. However, it is then revealed that the Sirians have established a base on Titan, claim it as their own territory, and warn Lucky off. He does retreat, only to hide by an asteroid and pick up Wess, a fellow Councilman, before detaching (somewhat like the Falcon floating away with the Star Destroyer’s garbage). Even so, the Sirians have some spiffy mass detectors and track Lucky’s ship as he ducks into the Cassini Division and then crashes into the snowball of Mimas. (Actually, he burns his way in with a fusion beam.) Still, the Sirians persist, so the trio set up a base, leave Wess behind (Lucky tries to get Bigman to stay behind, too, but predictably fails) and then Lucky surrenders. A conference has been set up at which the fifty worlds and Earth will decide if solar systems are indivisible territorial units (as has been the previous assumption and is still Earth’s position) or if Sirius’ new definition of any uncolonized world being up for grabs will hold. After Lucky’s surrender, evil Sirian Sten Devoure’s plan is to kill Bigman in some excruciating way if Lucky doesn’t agree to be taken to the conference and confess his war crimes of invading Sirius’ world of Titan. Much derring-do still results in Lucky agreeing to go to the conference but, rather than telling Sirian lies for them, he instead agrees to reveal Wess’ presence in exchange for Bigman’s life. Both Bigman and a couple of more honorable Sirians are dismayed at Lucky’s moral failure but take Lucky to Vesta for the climactic conference (which turns into a sort of trial) in which all appears lost.

In this one, Lucky and Bigman’s relationship (in which an adult male is repeatedly tousling another adult male’s hair and so on) still bugs me, Sten Devoure is as melodramatic a black hat as his name suggests, there are many contrivances including the mass detectors, the Sirian robots’ limitations (especially including the “battle stations” gimmick), and Lucky’s habitual silence about his clever plans until the end, and the climax is too easy for all the big todo that led up to it. On the other hand, there are exciting scenes, some of the space combat (with a “pea-shot” vs. “grape-shot” and the light speed delays) are similar to Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet space fights, the interstellar politics near the end have an almost Foundation-like feel, and the courtroom scene (and, obviously, the robots themselves) have a Robot-like feel. In addition to the interesting notion of stellar territorial definitions, this also finally raises (though it does not satisfactorily answer) what being “human” is and how robots [2] recognize it in the context of their Three Laws (dramatized by the racialist Sirians ordering their robots to kill the small, subhuman Bigman Jones). Related to this, Asimov specifically has Lucky make the case for the advantages of diversity.

Looking at this book as part of the whole series, I’d say that certain melodramatic aspects and repeated motifs drag this one down but some of its questions and exciting scenes lift it up to place it on par with most of the rest. Though it is clear there could be more stories in the series (with one Sirian brought into the Earth fold and intimations that Devoure and Lucky will tangle again and with the Earth-Sirian cold war still ongoing rather than being ended in some sort of climactic grand finale), it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, either, so makes a decent close to the series.


[1] The depiction of details of Saturn, its rings, and its moons are no longer completely accurate, but they are reasonable and it shouldn’t cause much of a problem for anyone.

[2] Interestingly, Lucky’s cosmopolitan admiration of the “human” accomplishment of the “Sirian” robots seems to speak to echo Asimov’s presumed admiration of the Soviet Sputnik and, while he doesn’t mention that directly anywhere that I know of, this book was written from November 1957 to February 1958, after Sputnik went up in October 1957. (This scientific event may also have played a role in Asimov’s change of focus after this novel from science fiction to mostly scientific non-fiction.

Birthday Reviews: Norton, Phillips, Rocklynne

There are a lot of birthdays of interest in the coming week and, if I’m still doing this next year, I’ll get to more of them, but here are three.

Andre Norton (1912-02-17–2005-03-17)

“All Cats Are Gray” (Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953)

Steena is a wallflower of mysterious knowledge who often helps spacers in need at the local bar and has acquired a cat in exchange for doing so. When one spacer is in desperate financial need and the rich derelict, The Empress of Mars, is coming around again, the spacer and – unusually – Steena herself (and her cat) go out to try to conquer the ship despite many having tried and none having come back. A very brief and exciting adventure follows.

While this story has many predecessors and successors in its familiar general type, it’s good stuff whose particulars are infused with great imagination and style. Steena, the Empress, and related things are memorable and it makes a good point about not judging books by their covers or assuming differences are deficits without making it a morality play. Most people should enjoy this, especially if they like Jack McDevitt’s “space wreck” mysteries or Mike Resnick’s “larger-than-life heroes of the spaceways” tales. Or cats.

Rog Phillips (1909-02-20–1966-03-02)

“The Yellow Pill” (Astounding, October 1958)

Psychiatric doctor Cedric Elton is interviewing Gerald Bocek who is accused of killing several people. The two men engage in a battle of worldviews while a yellow pill, which heightens sense perception to break down delusion, hangs over them like a sword of Damocles.

I really can’t say more about the characterization and plot of this story but will say that the psychological edginess as both men wrestle with sanity, insanity, and each other, is a powerful subject which is handled well, generally, and the ending is certainly traumatic. It reads somewhat like a good episode of the Twilight Zone (which began airing the next year) and my only real complaint is that the characters and worldviews aren’t given equal weight. Still, definitely worth a read.

Ross Rocklynne (1913-02-21–1988-10-29)

“Into the Darkness” (Astonishing, June 1939)

This is a literally astonishing story which was written in 1934 but couldn’t find a publisher until Fred Pohl bought it. It deals with energy creatures who take five million years to grow into babies ten million miles across, eventually growing to thirty million miles or more. They play with stars and planets, creating and destroying them at whim. The hero of our story is a being who is not like other beings. Darkness, whose name has three meanings, has three questions which set him apart from his fellows who carelessly play and he goes to Oldster for answers. What is the purpose of life? What is beyond the darkness at the edge of the universe? What is this colored energy within me? Dissatisfied, and still filled with the yearning he’s had since birth to go into that darkness and seek anything beyond, he eats a gigantic sun for energy and heads out. What he finds goes some way towards answering his questions which have some bearing on our own.

In a way, this is to SF as free verse is to a sonnet but, either way, this is one of the more remarkable stories around. It is wildly imaginative and tackles an important theme. It (and another Rocklynne tale) inspired me to seek out both his books [1], so I obviously highly recommend it.


[1] Rocklynne’s books are The Sun Destroyers and The Men and the Mirror. My To Be Read pile is as vast as Darkness and, even after years, I still have yet to read them – but I’m once again inspired to move them up in the Pile.