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

ls4

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: Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones

Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-681, $0.50, 157pp, 1967 [1]

If you’ve read my other reviews in this series [2], you basically know how the last verse (at least for now) of this song goes. The only significant difference is that, while Jones’ powers of invention never flag, his patience with ending stories seems to be running low.

Neil R. Jones would probably not welcome comparisons to Robert L. Forward on the one hand or Ursula K. Le Guin on the other, but the first tale deals with political unrest on “Twin Worlds” a mere 100,000 miles apart. It begins when the Zoromes enter a four-planet system – no, five! – and pick one of the two twins to land on, which they find is called Selimemigre from the first person they meet, who happens to be a good exile they can help. Said exile, Kamunioleten, tells how the evil Bemencamla (Harris?) has taken control of Dlasitap by murdering five of Kam’s fellow administrators and framing him for it. In punishment, Kam has been placed on the low end of an island which is inundated daily with the monstrous tides between the two worlds. Unfortunately, his home is springing a leak. The ship with most of the Zoromes goes to Dlasitap to find out what’s going on over there while we stay with Kam and a few Zoromes, including the Professor. After the ship has been gone an unduly long time, the Professor starts reminiscing on the Double Planet about the time he was waiting alone a (very!) long time at the Double Sun. He must stop his reveries when it turns out that workers who had supposedly come to repair the leak had, in fact, come to ensure it “accidentally” got worse and there follows a rather thrilling effort to reach high ground before the tides peak (impossible for Kam alone and not a given for the machine men trying to help him). After waiting still longer at high ground, Jameson finally resolves to try the local method of transportation to reach the other world and search for their ship. Steampunk fans will rejoice because that method involves a Verne-like bullet being fired from a steam-driven flywheel (depicted on the cover). This is dangerous, to say the least, and the doughty machine men do indeed crash-land in shallow water but are able to catch a ride hanging on to the underside of an ocean ship headed for port. There they learn all about Bem and the tardy ship. After some running about, it’s all wrapped up in moments and one of the big surprises (regarding where the Zorome ship has been) will surprise few.

A great moment in prose from this one is when Professor Jameson calculates the length of a local unit of measure and declares that it is “7.193 feet and some few inches.” Possibly topping that is this lengthy bit from immediately after Jameson and friends have crashed into the shallow bottom of the ocean:

…the water grew darker. It seemed too soon for late afternoon twilight, and the three Zoromes looked up to see a dark object hovering above them. Into the mind of Professor Jameson flashed a memory of the huge fish which had swallowed 88ZQ4 and himself when they had sunk into the depths of the hydrosphere, yet this shadowy object above them moved too mechanically and majestically to be a fish. Moreover, its movement was too sluggish for association with the marine denizens.

“A boat!” flashed 6W-438.

After that adventure, the Zoromes find themselves “On the Planet Fragment,” which is a rectangular prism or cuboid. This leads to some almost Eganesque planetary exploration with Clementine gravity, while Jones populates the bizarre surface and shallow atmosphere with a menagerie of odd creatures, from the friendly disc-shaped Uum (whom Jameson originally calls the “Disci”) who are preyed upon by the floating aerial pseudo-jellyfish Eiuks to the gigantic, hugely powerful Ooaurs from the high-gravity regions on the long end of the fragment, to the Oaos who are enemies of the Eiuk but otherwise turn out to not be what they seem. Why the Eiuk seem to only attack at night and how they can be brought down in the Land of Exhaustion (as the Uum call the high-gravity regions) but then fly away the next day, are some of the key questions and each answer is replaced by “still another of the puzzles confronting the machine men of Zor on the planet fragment.” Eventually, the nature of the Uum city of Ui, the Ooas, and more come clear after much exploring and fighting.

Though this also stops suddenly with a weird non-ending followed by an epilogue of just over a page which recounts a novel we don’t get to read, and though it also features winning prose where something “shot like a plummet into the rarefied atmosphere above” and we are always trying to defend the “tender and delectable Disci,” I enjoyed this wild tale the most of this trio.

Finally, despite the epilogue, we do experience one more adventure on the planet fragment when, in an effective in media res opening, the Zoromes have traveled to volcanic lava regions, fight the Fire Dwellers there, and eventually meet “The Music Monsters.” (Other than the alliteration, I can’t think why they’re called that. Though semi-barbaric, they are sentient, friendly to the Zoromes, and not at all monster-like. Such creatures are never otherwise called monsters.) The fighting, gambling, accidentally musical “monsters” are quite memorable, as are the very different plant-creatures encountered further along the way. Even the Eiuks make another appearance and our perspective on them undergoes an interesting change. Perhaps the best part is how the Uum have been getting along generally and do get along specifically with the “monsters” when they meet. Still, this all feels like an episodic appendix to the prior tale, though it does end well.

That ending is especially fortunate because, while Jones probably couldn’t have known it, T. O’Connor Sloane was to leave the editor’s chair of Amazing with the very issue that contained this story and Raymond Palmer was to arrive and take the magazine in another direction, so this first run of twelve stories from 1931-38 ended here. After a short while, Frederik Pohl (who was running a pair of shoe-string magazines as a teenaged editor) published another quartet of the stories in Astonishing from 1940-42. Jones published nothing from 1943-47 (indeed, aside from a 1948 fanzine story and a 1951 magazine novel, Jones’ non-Jameson career ended in 1942) but, when Ejler Jacobson took over Super Science Stories, the Jameson series grew by another five stories from 1949-1951. Nothing new appeared from 1952-66 until DAW books collected the first dozen Jameson tales in four books and added a fifth book which took one from the Pohl era, one from the Jacobson era, and added two previously unpublished tales. More silence followed until, finally, a last unpublished tale appeared in a 1989 fanzine shortly after Jones’ death.

I’m not saying I’ll never review Doomsday on Ajiat but I don’t have any intention of doing so anytime soon, so I’ll just end this with a list of the Jameson stories I enjoyed the most:

  • “The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing Stories, July 1931)
  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Labyrinth” (Amazing Stories, April 1936)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)

[1] Original publications:

  • “Twin Worlds” (Amazing Stories, April 1937)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)
  • “The Music-Monsters” (Amazing Stories, April 1938)

[2] Previous reviews of the Professor Jameson stories:

Asimov’s Centennial: The End of Eternity (Two Versions)

The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 191pp, 1955

Like Pebble in the Sky, The End of Eternity is another novel with an alternate version (in this case, a prior novella) in The Alternate Asimovs. I’ll cover both, beginning with the most familiar.

1955 Novel

The central organization in this temporal novel is Eternity, which had its genesis in the 24th century as a result of Vikkor Mallanssohn’s work on Temporal Fields, though it wasn’t until the 27th that Eternity was founded as a organization outside time which facilitated trade up and down the timeline of Reality. (Depending on orientation, Eternity can be seen as a giant corridor or elevator where Eternals on one side live and work at the stations of different centuries and, on the other, can pass into the Timed realm of those centuries.) Later still, Eternity became more and more focused on Reality Changes, though this second aspect was kept hidden from the “Timers” within the ever-fluctuating timestream the Eternals manipulate. They would be disturbed to know that, as in one extraordinary scene, an Eternal using the principle of Minimum Necessary Change can move a container from one shelf to another to destroy a technology, kill millions, create millions, and alter the personalities of millions more. After fairly modest beginnings even as Changers, Eternity created access to the far future, tapped into the power emitted by the Sun, which will somehow go nova, and is now powered by Nova Sol and has access to all Time, excepting only the 70-150 Thousandth Centuries in which Eternity exists but out of which Eternals cannot pass into Reality. And, after that, there are no humans in the higher centuries anyway.

Eternity is also a bureaucratic organization. Eternals must be drawn from Timers (usually at the age of 15), spend ten years as Cubs, before becoming Observers (who actually go into Time and bring back data), before finally becoming Specialists which, among other things, may mean Computers (those who compute the Reality Changes), Plotters (who determine the nature of analogous people after Changes), Sociologists (who study societies generally), or Technicians (who determine the methods and then implement the Changes – and who are ostracized by the others much as judges are admired and hangmen are are not – scapegoats for the “collective guilt involved in playing God”). Those who fail become Maintenance though, without them, Eternity could not function. Eternals are also not allowed to marry or reproduce and must have even temporary liaisons submitted for approval.

The Eternal the book focuses on most is Technician Andrew Harlan, a 32-year-old native of the 95th Century who recently worked in the 482nd Century but is now primarily based in the 575th Century after attracting the attention of Senior Computer Laban Twissell, the most powerful member of the Allwhen Council, and being transferred there to work with him. The engine of the plot began before the story opens, when he received his first assignment as an unsupervised Technician, though still under the authority of Assistant Computer Hobbe Finge who increasingly dislikes him. Harlan returns the favor when his puritanical morals are offended (and his jealousy stoked) by Finge’s new secretary, Noyes Lambent, a Timer from the 482nd Century who is a sexually liberated and barely clothed aristocrat of a hedonistic society with matriarchal elements. This brings out much psychosexual conflict (though it turns out Finge has other motivations) and, when Harlan is assigned to observe from her home in the 482nd and ends up sleeping with her, one result of this is a feeling of victory over Finge but another is that he decides he must continue this relationship with her, Eternity be damned if necessary. The night he slept with her, he also had an insight into a secret about Eternity that he believes gives him great power so that he can force them to let him have Noyes.

Meanwhile, Twissell has assigned Harlan, who has an interest in Primitive history (the time before Eternity) to teach this history to Brinsley Sheridan Cooper (a new Cub, unusually old at 24, who was even married in his time of the 78th Century) as Cooper is being prepared for a special mission which is critical to the existence of Eternity. Harlan’s connections to Noyes and Cooper come together when a Change will erase Noyes, he pulls her from Time and takes her “upwhen” where they stop at the 111,394th Century, which is in the Hidden Centuries. He intends to hide her there until he can work out something better but, on a return visit, he finds he’s blocked at the 100,000th Century and, thinking Finge may be responsible, returns to violently confront him. One thing leads to another and Harlan is prepared to sabotage the Cooper mission when revelation is followed by revelation and Harlan’s intent is changed again and again.

Aside from the story and its technical execution, there are a couple of particularly interesting conceptual elements to this (aside from, obviously, the quietly awe-inspiring concept of Eternity, itself). The most isolated is the character of Noyes Lambent. There are aspects in which she’s the girl of one’s dreams and a sort of trophy, at least in part of Harlan’s mind, but his puritanical disapproval (driven by sublimated lust) is broken by actual contact with her and, while he suffers from some virgin excess and aspects of the romance both ways strain credulity, she is ultimately an independent woman. This (complete with bedroom scene) is remarkable coming from the previously almost sexless Asimov writing in 1955. Later, Harlan wants to ask her about previous relationships but doesn’t when he attains a new perspective about her different background: “He might as well ask a girl of his own homewhen if she had ever eaten in the presence of a man and how dare she?” This might not be impressive to some now (or maybe it would be, with aspects of a New Puritanism creeping in) but, in terms of 1950s science fiction, this seems to me to be an extraordinary depiction of a “liberated” woman.

Even more interesting, but tied to extrinsic things, is the comparison of this with its prior version and with the Foundation series. In ways, Eternity is to Time as Foundation is to Space. Given the insignificance of Gaal Dornick’s character, Seldon essentially stood alone, whereas Harlan and even Cooper have relatively more prominent roles but Twissell (despite the poor name) is something of a Seldon figure. Much is made of Heinlein’s garrulous know-it-alls such as Lazarus Long but Asimov also seems to have had his own icon of a wise old man of deep technical prowess. Also, like Heinlein, you can’t necessarily read too much into it in a simplistic way, as the Seldon of the Foundation and the two Twissells are all three portrayed with very different moral evaluations. Moving to the organization itself, “Harlan liked to think that Eternity was like the monasteries of Primitive times,” and both the Foundations and Eternity have something of the medieval cloister to them. Both have a public front of commerce or academia but, behind the scenes, they really shape and mold humanity for good or ill (making foreknowledge a problematic thing). And that’s precisely one of the more interesting things: Asimov usually sees this as good, but not always. This book wrestles with the notion of beneficial and harmful technologies (whether mass duplicators, “atomic wars and dreamies,” or space travel), the costs of promoting or suppressing one or the other, whether one can sensibly choose one’s own adventures and whether this will help or harm the species (raising again Asimov’s nightmare of “blind alleys”), what “the good” in life is, and perhaps fails to wrestle with, but implicitly raises such issues as how one can have diversity in an empire or cohesion in chaos.

As interesting as all that is, as compelling as some of the characterological and conceptual drama is, and as unusual a time travel book as this is (with few paradoxes and little actual travel in Reality), it does suffer from some of the ills that time travel fiction is heir to. Though there is a reason for the Hidden Centuries, there are other limits in time and space to this shaping of Reality which are not explained and it certainly seems like there would be an easier solution to the entire dilemma of Eternity than what is actually applied. There are structural issues such as the narrative POV’s poor handling of Harlan’s frequent reveries in subjective time about his real past (as in the scenes with Voy in at least Chapters 1, 6, and 10) which even leads to his discovering something about Noyes twice and, probably due to the expansion from the novella, there are a couple of flabby chapters including 6. Even more significantly, chapters 12, 15, and 17 have contrived elements regarding Harlan’s actions for and against Eternity and an action toward him, as well as an issue—though it ends up not mattering—that Cooper should be puzzled about after his trip to the past. The fact that it doesn’t matter is yet another problem, as this suffers from what might be described as Chekhov’s bazooka or a red whale-herring, though I can’t get into it (or most of the problems) without spoiling the surprises.

All in all, this is an audacious and interesting book and I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to avoid it, but I can’t fully recommend it to the general reader, either. Asimov fans or time travel buffs basically have to have it, though. [1]

1954 Novella

As The Alternative Asimovs details [2], this all came about on November 17, 1953, when Asimov was in the Boston University library looking over old issues of Time and saw what looked like a mushroom cloud. Though it turned out to be a line drawing of Old Faithful, he started wondering about how it could have come to be if it had been a mushroom cloud and, from December 7, 1953 to February 6, 1954, he wrote what he came to see as a “dehydrated novel” which he could not get anyone to accept. Finally he gave it to his book editor and asked if there was potential for a novel and the editor said there was, so he rewrote it from April 21 to December 5, 1954. Even that could not find anyone to run it as a serial, so it came out in book-form only.

Unlike the relatively mild changes to “Grow Old Along with Me”/Pebble in the Sky, the differences in these two versions are extreme, though there are minor differences as well. For instance, Andrew Harlan was originally named Anders Horrem and Vikkor Mallansohn was Harvey Mallon. Harlan and basically everyone else are a few years younger and sometimes come from different centuries. More significant changes include the elimination of some people and ideas. [3] Even the essential plot, until elements of the end, are about the same (though the major element of the Hidden Centuries was missing). However, in the original, Horrem is a sort of villain and Cooper is a much more important character (who almost disappears from the novel) while Noyes is a significant plot motivator but minor character. Even beyond that, the story doesn’t wrestle with the definitions of “improve” or “the good” and the entire philosophy and conclusions of the two versions are diametrically opposed.

The effects of some of these differences are to make the original much more concise (obviously) with some stronger scenes (such as the container-switching scene) but also more coherent in plotting, though at the cost of diminishing the still huge scope and being less focused on central characters. It also produces odd fallout where, in the novel, the reduction of Cooper’s character and his interactions with Harlan versus those with Manfield make the psychological profiling for communication methods at the end even less convincing. On the other hand, the ending to the novel is vastly stronger than the parts of the two-step ending of the novella combined. I was pleased to note that even Asimov admitted in the Afterword, “I was amazed I had made the ending as weak as I had.” So, in ways, the novella is initially stronger but ultimately pales in comparison to the novel.

There are a couple of funny things about this, though. One is that having two versions of The End of Eternity is perfectly fitting, as Asimov simply worked a vast Reality Change on the story just as happens multiple times within the stories. Also, the two versions make this perhaps the first example of Asimov’s revision of a work to hew closer to the One True Series, a process which came to a climax with the mid-80s novels. Some changes are made to relate this to the Foundation universe and an Afterword at the end of Foundation’s Edge implies this is officially “in universe” though this is abandoned for the list in the Author’s Note in Prelude to Foundation.

Ultimately, I think this novella has an amazing concept and is generally well-executed and has several characters with compelling backstories but the underwhelming ending and deflating twist don’t do justice to the material. I wouldn’t have wanted to reject it and certainly wouldn’t have wanted the total revision that Gold did, but I would have wanted Asimov to write a better ending. I find the novel version superior and the novella version is probably only of interest to major fans or writers but, due to its differences, it’s of more interest to those major fans than even “Grow Old Along with Me.”


[1] It’s my impression that it’s a well-regarded novel and that I’m in a minority of the less impressed but Asimov, himself, says “I do consider it underappreciated, however, and feel it is unfairly drowned out by my Foundation novels and my Robot novels. Someday, after I’m dead perhaps, it may come into its own.”

[2] I read the Foreword, this version, re-read the novel version, and thought about them prior to reading Asimov’s Afterword but we make many of the same points.

[3] For instance Cooper’s teacher, Manfield, disappears, with half of his character being given to Harlan and half to Twissell. A character named Attrell is deleted along with his interesting perspective that “The last millennium of Primitive times was a kind of straight-line development with a steadily developing technology,” but “You’re going to find out the human pattern of history isn’t a line; it’s an irregular sine curve… A given era is just as likely to be similar to your own as different.”

Review: The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell

The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell
Hardcover: Dennis Dobson, 13/6, 203pp, 1962 [1]

The prologue tells us that the result of Joahannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder’s fixation on levitating a coin was the accidental invention of a stardrive and the result of that was “the Great Explosion,” or the diaspora of every weirdo from Earth to the stars. The rest of the book tells us how Earth eventually recovered from the loss of these eccentrics and proceeded to attempt to bring them into an Imperial fold. In this book, we follow one particular (and particularly mine-is-bigger-than-yours) starship in one particular sector as it voyages to four planets.

After an elaborate and pompous departure we meet and mock the crew, troops, and bureaucrats. Especially the bureaucrats. The first world they come to, like the state of Georgia or the country of Australia, has been settled by people exiled for running afoul of the law. They develop a family/gang-centered social structure in which they distrust anyone outside the family and despise work, gullible people (and gnoits, ponks, and snelks). Their only contacts with outsiders (other than our would-be imperialists) come on the few days of the year that make up trading season. Mainly, women who don’t like any of the men in their “family” demand to be traded. As an example of some of the humor, after the native leaves, the Colonel says he thought he saw him on the far side of the river waving an official-issue knife and asks the Sergeant Major if that was possible. “Sergeant Major admitted that it could be possible. In fact, it gave him much pain to describe it as practically a certainty inasmuch as the presence of the knife over there had been found to coincide with the absence of one over here.” And, as an example of some of the sociological arguments, when the Ambassador points out that their society has “No comfort, no security, no progress, no morals,” the native adds “No taxes, no work, no regimentation.”

Unable to establish a beachhead on a paranoid planet of multiple groups, the ship moves on to Hygeia. There are no “friendly” worlds according to the regs, but there are hostile and non-hostile worlds. Having determined this one to be non-hostile, the bigwigs debark, followed by the lesser ranked, and then the lesser still. It is wryly observed that, had the planet been determined to be hostile, “the order of exit would have been reversed.” This world takes the notion of a “nudist colony” to a whole other level. It demonstrates the relativity of social mores as the native naked fitness freaks are repelled by the Earthers’ dirty bodies (exemplified by their boozing and smoking) and dirty minds (exemplified by their clothes fetish). Under the “when in Rome” theory, when the men go on leave, they are ordered to go nude but this only offends the natives differently as the Earth folk, um, expose their relative lack of fitness. Despite these problems, the Terrans are finally granted an island on which to establish their embassy under various onerous conditions, so the remainder depart for the third world, but not every colony manages some variety of success. The Terrans moves on to the fourth world without stopping after finding the third depopulated, perhaps from a plague.

Finally, they arrive at the last world and, in one of the funnier scenes of the book, have difficulty making contact with Zeke, a native who finally tells them “Myob!” [2] and even more difficulty making contact with “Ginger Whiskers,” the next native who’s on his way to meet with the first. In a large-scale Keystone Cops routine, a bunch of soldiers are initially unable to corral a man determinedly headed “Zekeward” and finally have to carry him to the ship as he simply refuses to do what they want. They have no better luck stopping a guy who has “a gold ring in his nose” and “a pigtail four feet long” who is riding a fan-driven ball-wheeled motorbike (it’s especially interesting to note that this part was first published (in John W. Campbell’s Astounding) in 1951). Much of the contact goes like this, without useful result, until Harrison, the bicyclist among the stars, rides into town and starts making the slightest of headway, learning about how the natives are Gands and the Terrans are antigand. Eventually, even Sergeant Gleed joins in and they get a better understanding of this libertarian/anarchist society (“That’s freedom, isn’t it?”) they’re supposed to conquer. Contrary to the Weapons Shops sort of freedom, though, these folks explain how they have a weapon that can defeat all comers and there’s nothing secret or violent about it. It’s encapsulated on a sign that says “F-I.W.” and the remainder of the book will show the power of ideas in a clash of worldviews.

Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder but I thought this had very funny moments and was generally amusing, while it was also definitely “about” something and full of interesting and debatable points. For instance, the Terrans frequently use the notion of alien conquest (when there is no evidence of alien intelligence anywhere) to try to frighten worlds into joining them, which speaks to any general politics of fear. While I personally believe in strong international alliances, other elements may be making the point that they could form a single point of failure and that conquering varied forces could be harder than herding cats. On the other hand, I certainly support the diversity of states and the individuality of people within a larger framework. This seems to echo that with its various social conditions on world to world and with the Gands themselves. For instance, when trying to explain the Gands’ negative reaction to the soldiers’ uniforms, Harrison says to the Ambassador, “They seem to take pleasure in expressing their individual personalities by wearing anything from pigtails to pink boots; oddity in attire is the norm among the Gands.” It can also get rather existential or echo Rousseau (whom I loathe but that’s beside the point). When Sergeant Gleed isn’t being the usual SOB and Harrison remarks on it, “‘I’m off duty,’ replied Gleed, as if that explained everything.” This points to Gleed’s adoption of a role in “bad faith” or to the notion that men are by nature good and only made bad by institutions. The economics (as is often the case with that aspect of libertarian/anarchist theory) was interesting but more ideal than real. I had a hard time seeing how an “ob” (or the obligation one puts on another for returning a good deed) was all that different from money (though it mercifully frees people from the larger machinations of finance) or how the “size” of an ob could be determined (that is, when it could reliably be canceled). Russell does try to seriously tackle some of this with a character’s story about “Idle Jack” in response to a Terran asking about people who just tried to take advantage of the system. The point is, whatever your philosophy (unless it’s to not have philosophy in your fiction), there is something in this comic thought-experiment worth considering while you’re being entertained and amused.


[1] Approximately the last two-fifths of this book is the novella “And Then There Were None.” I hadn’t read that in a while, so compared each every so often (in a casual way, so could be wrong), but the only changes I noticed were some soldering to join the old material to the new (including two bits of initial material scraped into earlier parts of the book) and some tweaks to words. On the question of preferred version, this is a fairly unusual case where they’re about the same. The novella is naturally more focused and is probably sufficient but the additions provide more philosophical elements to consider and more humorous parts to enjoy so it’s basically just a question of whether the reader would prefer a longer or shorter version.

BTW, I somehow got hold of and read the Panther edition (which is a fittingly UK book for a UK author) but it has perhaps the dumbest blurb in the history of man, so I’m going with the slightly less wrong Pyramid cover. (Both have decent, fun art.)

[2] After initial amusing confusion and guessing, the Terrans later come to find this abbreviates the wisdom of “Mind your own business!”

Review: Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker

 

tiac

Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker
Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8384-1, $16.00, 320pp, March 2019
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-982124-52-6, $8.99, 420pp, March 2020

This multi-generational novel follows the transformation of Medical Care Android BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662 into the person named Carey. Due to an element of his manufacture described well into the book and interactions between his emulation and empathy capabilities, he becomes self-conscious and self-driven. When the story opens [1], he is already an unusually self-aware and empathetic android who is taking care of Mildred Owens, an aging sufferer of dementia. In addition to his psychological emulation capabilities, he is capable of physical emulation, modifying his appearance to meet the needs of his patient. He often emulates her son Paul, sometimes her deceased husband Henry, or whoever will make Mildred most comfortable. Later, he stays with Paul, Susan (Paul’s wife), and Anna and Millie (their daughters, the latter Mildred’s namesake), then with Millie and her husband and children and, ultimately with Garrett, the eldest of Millie’s children, whom he had delivered in a wrecked car in a snowstorm. Over the course of these four generations and about eighty years (some of which are skipped over in a few multi-year jumps) he learns more and more about self-consciousness, will, empathy, and all the other parts of humanity such as pain and humor and love, convincing most that he’s not only a machine but a person, while always being plagued by internal doubt about his own nature.

As Paul says to Carey, “Fiction is our empathy net” and this is a very emotional novel which draws the reader in with well-drawn and appealing characters and both grants and demands much emotional involvement. This is both a strength and a weakness (aside from the obvious fact that it will appeal to some and not to others) in that everyone in this novel is implausibly decent. On the one hand, most readers without sadomasochistic urges wouldn’t enjoy a book in which everyone was evil and Carey was constantly mocked or abused and, on the other, a book about empathy would naturally try to depict everyone in depth with reasons for their actions which the reader could empathize with. But when almost everyone is nice except a Belizean colonel who threatens to dismantle Carey because of his anti-robot feeling stemming from having been wounded by them in combat and even he ultimately behaves moderately and when an officious city councilman rains on everyone’s parade because of safety concerns and even he ultimately turns out to have a sense of humor, I couldn’t help but wonder if people had undergone some sort of modification in this future.

Another strength and weakness is the plot. If Carey is “life-like” in a good way, this is “life-like” in at least a mixed way. Life tends to meander and move in cycles: youth, a new generation, death. Go to school, get a job. Do this, do that. Fiction tends to be more tightly bound and driven. This story makes you feel like you have lived it. You remember Millie as a child back on page 80 and see her as an adult who is silently traumatized by her mother’s deterioration from the recurring family curse of Alzheimer’s on page 270 and it does indeed seem like a lifetime and she does indeed seem like a real person. Still, some readers may wish for a more “save the princess, fight the villain, blow up the freakin’ Death Star!” sort of plot. The ending (no spoilers) is also a thing that different people will react to in different ways. While fast-forwards through time had occurred before, it seemed rushed to me after the leisurely pace before it and, in its substance, was understandable but dissatisfying to me.

There are also minor problems which are less complicated. There are a couple of continuity lapses when, at Mildred’s grave, years after her death, Carey tells us he has never seen it before (which seems improbable given that the family presumably has been and it’s repeatedly stressed how he’s part of the family) and when Dr. Zinta takes Carey to meet her friend, Dex, and, after a scene break, there’s a party at night and Carey mentions seeing someone “who must be Dex.” Apparently they looked all day but never found him? A more serious problem, though still relatively minor, is that many of the chapter titles spoil the chapter contents. As Carey has “privacy protocols” which prevent him from discussing some things, so I have “spoiler protocols,” but felt no compunction about describing Carey delivering Garrett because, despite the chapter involving a snowstorm, a car wreck, and a troubled birth that are supposed to threaten the lives of mother and child, it is called “Today I Experience the Miracle of Life” and it’s not going to be called that if Millie or the child die.

What aren’t mixed or minor are two of the books biggest strengths. While not seeming derivative of them, if you enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” or aspects of Data on Star Trek, you’ll enjoy following Carey’s arc of growth and viewing humanity through his lens. Arguably even stronger are Carey’s relationships. While all of them, from Mildred to Paul and Susan to Dr. Zinta, are very strong, I think the strongest relationship is with Millie, from the frog-crazy girl who gave Carey his name to the scientist/instructor she becomes and beyond. However, while not as central, his wonderful friendship with the brain-injured ex-circus juggler Luke (who calls Carey “Bo” all the time, initially in confusion about an old circus friend and then in homage) and everything that leads from that, including the bold but successful passages about the “Bo and Luke Creekside Circus” at the nursing home where Carey does volunteer work, was possibly as strong and one of my favorite parts. It’s things like this, more than the plot (the “spirit” more than the “mechanics”) that make this book, like its original story kernel, a “must read.”


[1] Here I feel I have to say something about the story this novel came from. Back when I was reviewing current short fiction for my pre-Wordpress site, I read and recommended the 2015 short story “Today I Am Paul” (and it would have made my “Year’s Best” had I been doing those then like I did in 2017-18 – I elsewhere called it a “must-read” and said that if it didn’t win a major award it would confirm my feeling that they had become useless (it didn’t win)) so when I saw it had become a novel, I naturally got it. It turns out there was also a second story (“Today I Am Santa Claus”) published in an obscure anthology in 2017. Both were worked into the beginning of this. I can’t speak to the second story, but I would recommend reading the first story before reading the book because of the effect of some of the changes. The novel introduces Carey’s designer (Mom), Dr. Zinta Jansons. The interweaving of this new element (and inclusion of her in a modified scene with the Owenses), the introduction of more clinical and legalistic motifs, and the simple fact of the slightly tweaked end of the story not being the end of the book all work well enough as part of the book, but markedly blunt the story’s superb structure and impact. (In other words, the story is sort of “melted” into the book.) While reading the story and then reading the novel will result in about 5,000 words of repetition in the first 12,000 or so words of the novel, that’s a small price to pay to fully appreciate both forms.

Review: The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy
Hardcover: Del Rey, 0-345-40856-X, $24.95, 325pp, August 2000

This is a very strange book, provoking two opposed reactions.

Once upon a time (July 1999, to be exact), “Once Upon a Matter Crushed” appeared as a novella. It was later lowercased and became “book one” of this novel. Now speaking structurally rather than historically, a second novella, “twice upon a star imperiled,” was added to be “book two” and a portion as long as those two combined, “thrice upon a schemer’s plotting” (which is either a very long novella or a short novel) was added to be “book three.” As far as I can tell, neither of these other parts were published separately, yet both repeat things in a way that would make sense for self-sufficient works but is unnecessary in a novel.

The part I mostly like is the physics superscience background. [1] In this book, in the not-too-distant future, people like Bruno de Towaji can manipulate things at the quantum level, crush things into micro-blackholes, create vacuum so empty of all things as to make ordinary vacuum a comparatively impenetrable sludge (with interesting effects on “light speed”) and even develop “ertial” devices (which are obviously shielded from inertia), not to mention “fax” things (including people, who may or may not later be merged completely or have various mental snapshots of theirs added to others). In this milieu, the terraforming of Venus with “wellstone flakes” (which cause “pseudochemical” atmospheric transformations) is child’s play, albeit rich child’s play. And, speaking of children, the fax technology also has an “immorbidity” filter which makes everyone effectively immortal and only at the beginnings of their lives as long as they don’t suffer from accidents. Even if they do, they still have fax backup copies. That is, if a madman doesn’t kill them all. The funny thing about this is that, for the longest time, this all seems rather plausible even if the protagonist is living in the Kuiper Belt on a world of his design which is 636 meters in diameter and made habitable (as long as you don’t get more than a few feet up) by its own artificial mini-star. Gosh! Wow! Sensawunda!

A part I mostly don’t like is the societal background in which humanity has decided to have itself a monarchy because, as is repeated in variant forms several times throughout the book, “The human brain was said to be wired for monarchy, for hierarchy, for the elevation and admiration of single individuals, and now the truth of this hit Bruno like a heavy gilded pillow.” (My reaction to that is, “Pfft. Show me the scientific proof.” And, if somehow there is any that is credible, my reaction to that is, “We’re also ‘wired’ to fling poo like our monkey cousins but we’ve mostly gotten over it.) This (at least I assume it’s this or something like it) leads to a part I also don’t like though it’s well done, and that’s the style, which is a combination of magic fairy tale tone and monarchical affectation but which also manages to be frequently funny which pays well until the end, when it becomes distancing.

Between all the tech, the monarchy and its underpinnings, and the style, I kept thinking of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I didn’t like, either. At least until the end, when I felt like Graham Chapman’s Colonel should come out and say, “Stop! You had a nice bit there but it’s got quite silly!” Then it started to add a bit of Dungeons and Dragons action and, though I don’t think it had anything directly related, some feel of both Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the bad part of Campbell’s Invaders from the Infinite.

In the first book, Bruno is called from his home in the sky to help with a problem. The Queen has had her tech wizard and lover (or her other tech wizard and lover, that is) build a Collapsiter Ring around the sun to provide a sort of high-speed beltway around the system: it’s longer, but you go faster. Unfortunately, it’s become unstable (a nod to Niven’s Ringworld?) and is due to crash into the sun soon which, with its being sort of a bunch of black holes, would destroy the sun. After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the second book, Bruno is called back once again, as the Collapsiter is falling into the sun again (this time due to the sabotage of muon contamination undoing the work of book one). After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the third book, the ring is actually destroyed by the saboteur and cleaning up that mess requires several epiphanies and much more.

Basically, the science fictional concepts are wonderful. The style is artful. The situations are good, as well, though the resolutions are poor. It’s all vivid and lively. The characters are interesting. The crown lies heavy on the Queen’s head, Bruno has the weight of the solar system on his somewhat post-existential shoulders and feels like a mere man (and often an inept one) inside, the villain is a thoroughly black-hatted caricature but has some easily recognizable human motivations as the basis for the broad strokes of madness. All this is reason enough to like it as others have and will, but I just didn’t. It felt like some sort of overly-stylized neo-Victorian morality play. Once, early in the book, Bruno is dolled-up by some courtiers and observes himself, thinking his hat was the sort that might have an ostrich feather protruding from it. And this book is wearing just such a hat, when it could have simply worn its propeller-beanie.


[1] There is so much background that there are four appendixes of (in my edition) 31 of the book’s 318 pages, with the first, second, and fourth appendix all being “in character.” The first and fourth include many extracts from, or expansions of, the main narrative, mostly on the tech; the second is a technical glossary; the third is a technical note (the one that’s out of character with equations and references to scientific papers).

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.”

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

ls3

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.

Review: Space War by Neil R. Jones

Space War by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-650, $0.50, 158pp, 1967 [1]

The third Ace installment of the Professor Jameson saga opens with the seventh Amazing Stories installment, “Zora of the Zoromes.” In quick succession, there are three surprises. When the idea of returning to Zor was first raised, I was expecting the journey back to be an epic, perhaps never completed, quest but, nope, we’re just on Zor in this story. Beyond that, it turns out that the immortal Zoromes don’t just die in proximity to Jameson, but all over, and must replenish their numbers, so the initial impression of the entire species having adopted the metal way of life and adopting occasional others into their ranks [2] gives way to the notion of there being fleshy Zoromes who live to reproduce before becoming machine men. Princess Zora is one such. And in a series of stories that have been literally sexless, far beyond the decorous silence of the Lensmen, Jameson, the brain in a box, is eying the shapely, eyelashed, tentacular, noseless lady speculatively, with some appreciation. But her heart is given to Bext (Jameson observes them together in “a confusing intertwining of tentacles”). Naturally, Bext is captured by the Mumes of Mumed. Turns out that Jameson and the tripeds are decent and honorable folks but some species, when given the gift of theoretical immortality in metal bodies, might lord it over those of their species who remain flesh and seek to dominate the galaxy. This is what the leader of the Mumes has set out to do, waging war on his benefactors, the Zoromes. The Zoromes set out to save Bext and Zora stows away to do her part. They have invisible ships, the Mumeds have guns which disintegrate metal, and the war between them begins until the story sort of stops in the middle with a partial invalidation of what has gone before, until it is finished in “Space War” which, itself, ends on a fitting note in action terms, but leaves Jameson and another Zorome in an odd predicament with even odder dialog.

Even in Jamesonian terms, “Zora of the Zoromes” is the worst story so far by far. It’s a novella but the first half is a conversation between Jameson and Zora in which they do discuss the apparent absence of life after death (though Jameson allows that his preserved state after death may have thrown off the results) and the notion that brains are ungendered but it’s generally very dull. Then there are more pages about creeping around in enemy territory before action finally occurs two-thirds through but the story then only moves from inert to incoherent. “Space War” is a little better, but not enough to save the pair. There is one good part in that this was written between World Wars and Jameson is not only depicting power-mad dictators but understanding that both sides will need to develop new technologies, counter the technological advances of the enemy, and expect their own advances to be countered in turn when many actual generals would be fighting the last war about five years after this was written. And, as always, there is the delightful, apparently unintentional Jamesonian humor, such as spaceships colliding in space with results similar to cars in a grocery store parking lot, somber reports of battles informing us that “[t]hose who had met death were 38R-497, 176Z-56, 34T-11 and 32B-64,” (No! Not 176Z! He was my favorite!) and priceless lines like:

6N-24 leaped headlong into the jumbled fray below them where 34T-11 was beset by several mechanical Mumes who had pulled him down and were attempting to pull off his all-important, yet independently helpless, head.

While military SF doesn’t seem to be Jones’ specialty, “Labyrinth” compensates for the rest of this book by returning to exploration. In this case, the Zoromes are pretty bored by another ho-hum strange new world out among the stars. The only interest it has are odd bare patches in its terrain and a small mystery about the barely-intelligent native lifeforms, the Queeg, who work with metal but use wooden weapons. Nevertheless, before leaving, the Zoromes decide to accompany the Queeg on a hunt for what turns out to be big pale slugs (called “ohbs”) who passively let themselves be slaughtered. That is, until one of the Zoromes makes physical contact with one, it lights up in brilliant colors, and a horror story erupts. Most readers will be able to guess what happens and why before the characters do (or the author seems to expect them to) but it has the effect of singing along to a favorite song you know the words to. The horror of the slugs and the labyrinth is pretty effective despite Jones trying to sabotage himself by describing a Zorome suffering a horrible death and telling us ungrammatically and unterrifyingly that “[h]e died uncomplaining.” Still, the initial danger and the compounding of it as the Zoromes repeatedly jump out of frying pans and into fires (or, as Jones puts it, “from Scylla to Charybdis, from the Casket to the Ortach Stone” [3]) comes to produce some genuine effect.

And, even in this one, there’s still some great Jamesonian inadvertent humor. Once the Zoromes find themselves cut off from escape. A Zorome exclaims, “The tunnel is full of ohbs!” and asks the brave leader Jameson, “Shall we try a dash through them, weapons ready?” – “Two of us can try it,” said the professor. “You and 9V-474 can go.”


[1] Original publications:

  • “Zora of the Zoromes” (Amazing Stories, March 1935)
  • “Space War” (Amazing Stories, July 1935)
  • “Labyrinth” (Amazing Stories, April 1936)

[2] I think I thought of this prior to returning to watching some DS9 episodes but it’s kind of like an extreme version of the Federation: you see these alien heads sticking up out of uniforms simultaneously indicating everyone’s differentia and their joining to the greater whole of the Federation. When a human and some tripeds become Zoromes, they put on the metal machine body which is a “uniform” in a major way.

[3] I suspect most people are familiar with the Homeric expression and maybe they are with the other, but I had to look that one up. It’s from Victor Hugo: “The Caskets are a figuring iron with a thousand compartments. The Ortach is a wall. To be wrecked on the Caskets is to be cut into ribbons; to strike on the Ortach is to be crushed into powder.”

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.