Review: Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker

 

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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

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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.

Review: Dominion, edited by Knight and Ekpeki

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Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Hardcover: Aurelia Leo, 978-1-946024-89-3, $28.99, 300?pp, August 2020 [1]

Fiction:

  • “Trickin” by Nicole Givens Kurtz
  • “Red_Bati” by Dilman Dila
  • “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon (reprint)
  • “The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh (reprint)
  • “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore
  • “Convergence in Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo
  • “Emily” by Marian Denise Moore
  • “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu
  • “Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (reprint)
  • “The Satellite Charmer” by Mame Bougouma Diene
  • “Clanfall: Death of Kings” by Odida Nyabundi
  • “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman
  • “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Syncretism and intensity–often apocalyptic and horrific intensity–are two words which convey the most striking aspects of this anthology of thirteen stories (ten original) by twelve African or African-American authors. I use syncretism not only in the usual sense of many of the stories containing a blend of religious beliefs, but also in the sense that they contain a blend of science fictional and fantastic elements and worldviews. While the stories might be loosely placed into balanced groupings of four horror, four fantasy, and five science fictional pieces, the fantasy sometimes has a strange tinge of rationalism and quotidian reality akin to Campbell’s Unknown while the science fiction almost always has a massive dose of fantasy and either may also be tinged with horror. Only those pieces which are primarily horror are also nearly exclusively horror.

The most striking of those is the superb and harrowing “The Unclean,” which is told by a woman who waits for judgment before the Tree of Truth next to the corpse of her husband with the present moment (1960 Nigeria) broken up by reflections on the past that brought her here. The powerlessness of this woman in her “matrimonial hell” as she is essentially sold by her parents to another family where she endures ostracism as Other and abuse at the hands of her husband is made vividly real. The husband has basically no redeeming features but is depicted in enough detail to have substance and rise above the level of a cartoon and there is complexity as the woman, who hated the system while miserable in it, primarily due to being unable to conceive a child with her husband, comes to a brief complicit acceptance of it when she does finally conceive and is treated better. But then the situation grows much worse–horribly, nightmarishly worse. It is extremely powerful. Conversely, “Thresher of Men” is a simplistic and tasteless revenge fantasy but “Trickin’” is a more adequate story of a young man being possessed by a vampiric spirit on a post-apocalyptic Halloween and “Sleep Papa, Sleep” moves from an underworld cyberpunk mood (complete with skies of TV static) to horror when the Yoruba man making an illicit deal with a Hausa from the north turns out to be a graverobber who has robbed the wrong grave. The concrete evocation of place, the complex depiction of family, and the (compared to most other stories in this book only) understated depiction of the horror (where the living are arguably even more frightening than the dead) put this on a high level, though how a years-dead corpse could have fresh body parts bothered me throughout the story. [2]

All is not unrelieved darkness however, as the more fantastic stories sometimes depart far enough from horror to reach outright humor. “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” and “A Maji Maji Chronicle” are both very enjoyable lighter tales though both have serious subtexts. The former involves a sort of magician attempting to recover one of his stolen magical talismans. During this, he runs into interdimensional bureaucracy and some beings who have turned xenophobic toward humans. His absent-minded overconfidence is rudely checked but he has had the good fortune to meet a hybrid human-alien who has suffered prejudice from the people she lives among but has talents they lack. The latter even more serious tale has a father and son amusingly bicker as they travel back in time to German East Africa (now basically Tanzania) in 1905 where the father attempts to meddle in history to improve a terrible situation yet manages to make it even worse. It’s all a lesson to the son and a wise one about how all of humanity is capable of good or ill in various circumstances. “Emily” is a completely serious sort of prose poem of 200 words with a temporal aspect. Even harder to pigeonhole is “Convergence in Chorus Architecture.” It would seem to be a pure fantasy involving two youngsters struck by lightning and the three babalawos (sorts of mystics) who travel to the spirit world to try to bring them back. However both horror and science fiction break through as a ship of bones is first a premonition and then a reality which carries the people off in a cataclysm that then becomes cosmic and affects other worlds (which can all be taken both literally and symbolically). Initially, the use of terms like “electric” and “steam” in an almost technical sense seemed anachronistic but turned out to fit in with the overall ambiguity. It is too richly written for my taste (though it has wonderful phrases like a “distillate of dream”) but others may especially enjoy that. It is wildly imaginative and does make ethereal magic seem concrete akin to the way James H. Schmitz managed to make psi combat seem tangible.

Oddly, the two stories that seem most related to the Congo are both science fictional and both are very distantly related to it. “Clanfall” is set in a fantastic far future with artificial descendants of humanity fighting for dominance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a satisfying structure or conclusion and reads more like a teaser for something else. “Red_Bati” is actually set on a starship and involves a robotic dog fighting to survive after losing a limb and being consigned to the scrap heap. Even more effective, “A Mastery of German” explores the relationship of an American woman with her father and the company she works for. The father’s interest in both personal and social history and the company’s interest in memory transfer techniques dovetail. I feel like the science fictional aspects are pushed beyond credibility for thematic purposes but it’s interesting and otherwise successful and at least feels like the hardest SF in the anthology. “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” (not to be confused with a similarly titled earlier tale) falls a hair on the SF side just as “Convergence” fell a hair on the fantasy side and, like “The Unclean,” deals with women and society. In this, after an incomplete apocalypse which has left an enclave of mutated people struggling to survive, one woman is expected to bear children but wants something else for herself. When the leader inadvertently calls an invasion down on his people’s heads and exiles himself to the forest of fears, horror again shows its bloody fangs and the necessity for her to reproduce becomes even more vital, yet still she resists. While one might sympathize with her but still start to see her as being selfish by that extreme point, the resolution is both fantastic and realistic in ways (and theologically bold). Even better, and rising to, and possibly beyond, the level of “The Unclean” is “The Satellite Charmer.” This moves through three basic stages in which the young orphan protagonist experiences both good and bad in the context of a childhood given consolation and insulation by his beloved grandmother and girlfriend. It is quite realistic except for the science fictional element of the Chinese mining beam and the fantasy element of an earlier childhood experience which turn out to be related. In the second movement, the way in which joy and pain persist for a time but in a context in which this insulation has been stripped away (before even that sort of joy is also stripped away) is movingly done and the story becomes even more realistic in a sense. Then the third movement suddenly shifts into cosmic gear with horror aspects. There is no simplistic good or evil for this protagonist who moves into an agonizingly complex place of awesome and awful deeds beyond the human level. This has a little bit of everything, from the wonderful but painful relationship of “Ife-Iyoku” to the vast scope of “Convergence” to the horror of several stories. I have no idea how the mining beam is actually supposed to work literally, as opposed to symbolically, and I often complain about stories becoming unhinged and lacking objective correlatives and perhaps that’s true here, too, but I think the correlative is the universe, itself, and it works for me.

Regarding the stories generally, they are clearly of “Africa and the African Diaspora” and some do focus on colonialism (even specific colonial events as in “Maji Maji”) and some address current Chinese neo-colonialism [3] while others deal with the African environment or cultural identity or other issues and, I suspect, people well-versed in African history and events would get much more out of this than otherwise but the stories are in no way exclusively focused on such issues and essentially all work on the general levels of “speculative fiction” so that even someone completely ignorant of all things African should be able to enjoy them (and not be so ignorant afterwards). “The Unclean” and “The Satellite Charmer” are almost worth the price of admission all by themselves but I also enjoyed at least eight of the other eleven on some level or other which is an extraordinary batting average. If you’re squeamish when it comes to horror or are looking only for pure-quill SF, I couldn’t recommend this but if you’re looking for a powerful reading experience of any other sort, I can and do.


[1] This is a review of an advance copy. The final pagination is not certain but the book should be about 110,000 words. It should also include a foreword by Tananarive Due.

[2] It’s worth noting that this story is also written in present tense, which usually bothers me and didn’t help here but that (aside from subsets for specific purposes in a couple of others) this is the only such story in the entire anthology.

[3] It’s good to see this awareness of, and antipathy towards, history repeating and it’s an issue some in the SF community could think about as some try to cash in on the Chinese market and others believe that promoting a totalitarian state is promoting diversity.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

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Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 188pp, 1953 [1]

In this second adventure of David Starr, he takes one step further out to the asteroid belt and has awkwardly acquired his nickname of “Lucky” while Earth has suddenly acquired a Terrestrial Empire and even greater enemies than before, with a reborn pirate menace and active meddling by the shadowy Sirians.

The Council of Science thinks Lucky’s brought them a plan to booby-trap a spaceship that the pirates who infest the asteroids will seize and take back to their base, where it will detonate. But it’s actually Lucky’s plan to sneak aboard that ship and be captured by pirates so that that he can infiltrate their organization. When they arrive, they know all about the “trap” and Lucky pretends to be a poor sap who just wanted to stow away to get to them and obviously had no knowledge of the trap. When challenged, Lucky proposes a duel and the pirates agree, picking the style of combat. Lucky finds himself in a fight using “push-guns” (a sort of suit thruster) which he knows nothing about while the meanest pirate, Dingo, is an expert. Nevertheless, the pirate makes a couple of mistakes and Lucky comes out on top. Still suspicious of Lucky, they drop him off at a hermit’s asteroid while they head back to base to check him out further. He and the hermit trade infodumps and the hermit recognizes Lucky as the son of Lawrence Starr. He sees in this a chance to return to civilization with a pardon for his collaboration with the pirates if he can save Lucky and provide information about the pirate operations. He convinces Lucky that the pirates will see through Lucky’s game and they both return to Ceres, where friend Bigman and “parents” Henree and Conway have a joyous reunion.

One thing perplexes Henree and Conway though, and that’s how the pirates could have known about the trap. They decide there must be a spy in the Council of Science who is leaking information but Lucky reveals that he is the spy, though he had his reasons. Then he decides to try again, this time with Bigman playing the pirate infiltrator. Like Lucky, Bigman does some freelancing of his own (no wonder they’re pals) and, like Lucky, he also fails because it turns out the asteroid is lost. For reasons given later, the mystery of the asteroid makes Lucky realize the Sirians and their pirate tools intend to take over the solar system, and quickly. Lucky must go out in his own super-spaceship to pick up Bigman and try to reverse-engineer the location of the hermit’s asteroid. Finding it, Lucky is again captured, Dingo again makes a mistake, Lucky again comes out on top and, among Lucky’s subsequent efforts to prevent the Sirian takeover of the Terrestrial Empire, he must put his ship on an intercept course with another pirate ship which involves flying through (the corona of) the Sun.

And some of what I’ve just told you isn’t really what was going on because, in addition to Asimov having Lucky and Bigman repeatedly trying to trick others and repeatedly having others try to trick them, Asimov is also trying to trick the reader. This isn’t always entirely successful and the plot doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. For instance, the pirates such as Dingo and Anton (the latter of whom, at least, is supposed to be intelligent) repeatedly behave stupidly from self-defeating spite, Lucky is recognized twice in two books despite Councilmen not being publicized (and in the first book his nom de guerre was “Dick Williams” and in this it’s “Bill Williams”), and so on. In addition to the inconsistency of the famous unknown Starr and the things I mentioned in the first paragraph, Earth was dependent on Mars for food in the last book but, in this one, it’s Venusian yeast cultures which figure prominently.

Given that large populations eating yeast is a significant Asimovian motif, its clear that Asimov is erasing what little division there was between “French” and himself, which is confirmed by the use of “hyperatomic motors,” “personal capsules,” “neuronic whips,” and other standard furniture of Asimov’s futures. (Unfortunately, it also repeats a common Asimovian tic of throwing in a named character (such as the “good pirate” Martin Maniu) to serve his brief purpose and then dropping him.) Conversely, all the space battles and other fights made me think that this book was almost to Asimov as the atypical Earthlight was to Arthur C. Clarke.

In terms of hitting the target audience, this may be slightly more juvenile than the first book, as the hazing Lucky endures from the head pirate, Anton, and the “game” (albeit a potentially deadly one) of the push-guns indicate. Also, the style is generally fine but the pirates have strange lapses such as Anton “suavely” explaining to Lucky that pirates call “asteroids” “rocks” and Dingo’s first line being, “Blinking Space, there’s a ripper with a gat here!” [2] Either way, most of its young audience of 1953 probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit.

For a general audience, Asimov does achieve the neat trick of creating a Foundation milieu which is huge in time and space but feels proportionally smaller than one might expect a galaxy to feel, while creating a Starr milieu in which the Solar System seems quite large. More importantly, the sense of multiple vise grips being applied to the Terrestrial Empire by the pirate and Sirian menaces, coupled with Lucky’s thrilling high-speed burn through the System and the Sun in pursuit of pirates is all very effective. Again, this is surely secondary Asimov but is not without its virtues. Speaking of, its edifying ending may also have aspects of a “message” to young readers (and certainly isn’t how I would have handled it had I been in Lucky’s shoes) but makes for a satisfying conclusion to this installment.


[1] Again, I’m using the Del Rey cover as explained in the David Starr review.

[2] The quote ends with a period in the book but, given that the line is introduced by saying the pirate “yelled,” I changed (corrected?) it to end with an exclamation point.

Review: The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones

The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-631, $0.50, 189pp, 1967 [1]

This second book installment of Professor Jameson’s adventures contains the fourth through sixth magazine installments and, given that the opening and closing stories are novellas rather than novelettes, this is a significantly longer (though still short) book. Incidentally, there is an oddity in the two book titles: in the last volume, we had a world of the double sun and, in this one, we have a sunless world. I guess it all averages out.

In the first tale, we go “Into the Hydrosphere.” The Zoromes discover a planet which appears to consist entirely of water – not just over the surface but through and through. On reaching the surface, they find cities of kelp and make ultimately friendly contact with the native Plekne. However, they meet another race, the Uchke, on much less friendly terms as the Uchke regularly send out raiding parties from parts unknown to enslave the Plekne. It is during a fight with them that Professor Jameson and a companion are hurled into the water. After a desperate struggle to regain the surface despite their metal bodies, they are swallowed by a sea creature. After fighting their way out of the unfortunate animal, they plummet to the bottom. As if this weren’t enough, it turns out that there is a tiny rocky core to the waterworld. Not only that, it is a hollow rocky core with a sort of Pellucidar inside which is the Uchke base. And there are yet more revelations in store as the Zoromes help lead the Plekne below to revolt against the Uchke. Much fighting and many cataclysms ensue.

As in the last Jameson review, I have to make incidental spoilers to the prior story to describe the next (which the third story aptly describes as a “parade of worldly events”). In “Time’s Mausoleum,” the Zoromes find out that the Uchke’s science actually comes from the Qwux who once enslaved them. They succeeded in revolt and the Qwux, being sybarites, are content to be kept in comfort by the Uchke in exchange for their scientific knowledge. So the power of the Uchke is broken by the simple expedient of the Zoromes carrying off the one Qwux who knows anything about space flight. He’s also working on time flight, so to speak. Time travel, as such, is impossible but it is possible to create a machine which can move through space and view that space’s past. The Zoromes are on their way back to Zor but will pass by the Earth again and Jameson excitedly encourages the Qwux to work on his machine. On arriving at Earth, there follows a time-lapse journey through humanity’s past (with a special emphasis on Jameson’s life and death). At the start of this point, we get the priceless line “‘That-that’s me!’ Professor Jameson exclaimed, rustling his tentacles nervously.” It very economically gets at some of the essence of Jameson’s long strange trip. It’s interesting that Stapledon had only had a single hardcover U. S. edition of Last and First Men at the time this was published and I wonder if Jones read it because the future vision culminates in a pulp-man’s Stapledonian look into the past which is our future. It ties in Jones’ “Durna Rangue” series and perhaps other stories, demonstrates that he was remarkably pessimistic about space travel, only giving it to us in the twenty-third century, and that he was only somewhat optimistic about humanity, indicating that humanity was extinct in the solar system after five million years. There follows a fairly arbitrary disaster for the climax of the story.

In the third and title story, the Zoromes encounter a weirdly dim star and, when they think they’re leaving the system after passing all its planets, they encounter another world which is huge but strangely light. They also soon realize it is a rogue planet – the sunless world. Since the Zoromes are always eager to explore, they land. Once on the airless surface, they are attacked by strange headless symmetrical animals. When these are rebuffed, the creatures flee to a cave and the Zoromes follow. Third verse, same as the first. (Or similar.) Once below, they find the world is hollow and, while peering into the internal abyss, the ledge they’re on collapses and they find themselves plunging into it. This time, however, there’s no center at all and they end up on the opposite side. There, they find piles of bones reminiscent of “The Planet of the Double Sun” and meet Ielee of the Ayt of Ome. His people are not slaves to the headless creatures as such, but to their own superstitions. The old, feeble, or criminal Aytons are sacrificed to the creatures and it’s death at the hands of their fellows if they refuse to go. Once again, the Zoromes fight against the creatures and for the Aytons as well as encouraging them to fight for themselves, despite the Zoromes having initially been held prisoner by the Aytons who refused to surrender their superstitions. And, as if this weren’t enough, a rescue party of Zoromes (who had inadvertently driven the creatures into Ayt causing a massive battle) bring word that the rogue planet is going to collide with the third world of the system if the Zoromes’ efforts to disintegrate that world fail. More epic cataclysms ensue.

While Jones obviously respects science in the abstract as a good, intelligent, modern way to go about things (and have great adventures), his concrete notions of it are odd. The idea that removing one being from the interlocking and ever-evolving web of science will forever prevent the Qwux/Uchke from having spaceflight again is naive and the reader will not be able to catalog all the preposterous impossibilities in these stories but will note instead the two times something is scientifically accurate (when Jones has a character note the effects of an absence of atmosphere on light refraction and the one time he seems to associate mass and gravity. On the other hand, having stories about almost brown-dwarf-like stars and rogue planets in 1934 is prescient and his Zoromes anticipate Charles Stross’ interstellar robots (though I think Stross is wrong about that as an absolute requirement).

His style doesn’t seem to change, giving us odd poetry like “the headless inhabitants of the hollow planet,” weird phrases like “opined the buried Professor,” conundrums like “avenged a thousand-fold many times over,” scintillating dialog like “Quiet your fears, 21MM392. It is I, 744U-21, your very good friend,” and inadvertently comical dangers like “The Uchke are coming with their tools! They are about to take our heads apart!”

If these are dealbreakers, these stories are definitely broken. Jones is not a very good writer. However, if you can just get acclimated (swimming around after the shock of diving into these waters has worn off), these really can maintain interest. He is some sort of visionary. The crazy worlds and strange lifeforms, while unmoored from almost any sort of physics or biology, are fascinating, the action (usually) gallops, and the concepts for 1930s America are pretty radical. Like many activists, the Zoromes blunder in to fight for justice with insufficient information and a chance they’re actually doing wrong but, in this ideal world, they are almost always right. Unlike today’s activists, they are moderate. A specific point is made about how they do not intend to wipe out the Uchke, for instance, but only to “remove their menace.” The Uchke themselves, seem to suffer from a sort of battered child syndrome where the abused become abusers. Yet even the Qwux are allowed to go their way and the spaceflight-expert prisoner becomes essentially one of the crew. There is an excessive reliance on physical appearance as an indicator of intelligence but that appearance only has to avoid being brutish – how many arms or legs or whether you’re purple or not has no bearing. What is important is intelligence itself. Jameson observes that one species is “happily unburdened with the theological superstitions and weird practices which the Professor had found were all too common among the less intelligent order of creatures to be found among the worlds of the universe.” He also notes that some creatures’ “intelligence was not sufficiently developed for them to conceive of worlds other than their own. In this, they were not far removed from many people the professor had known during his Earthly life…”

Rather than attacking our science fictional grandfathers for any lapses we think we see in them, I think it’s much more amazing how they were among those who broke the fetters of conventional wisdom and were able to conceive of purple-skinned friends and multi-legged -armed and -eyed machine men adopting people from multiple worlds into their ranks as they zip through the cosmos seeking knowledge and understanding. This deserves respect and honor. While the second tale is a poorly structured mess, the other two are as good (or whatever the word is) as the best in the first volume and all three convey what is ultimately a large-scale broad-minded revelry.


[1] Original publications:

  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Time’s Mausoleum” (Amazing Stories, December 1933)
  • “The Sunless World” (Amazing Stories, December 1934)

Asimov’s Centennial: David Starr, Space Ranger

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David Starr, Space Ranger by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 186pp, 1952 [1]

In 1951, the usually self-represented Asimov was allowing his friend, Frederik Pohl, to be his agent. On March 21, they had lunch with Walter Bradbury of Doubleday. While Asimov isn’t clear who was the instigator (my guess is that Pohl had the idea and had already gotten together with Brad and they planned to tag-team Asimov), the topic of television came up along with the idea that a book which formed the basis of a kids’ series in the relatively new-fangled medium of television might make all three of them rich. This led to a commitment for Asimov to write such a book. Asimov had one qualm, though: he thought everything he’d seen on TV except Your Show of Shows was awful and was worried about being connected to an awful TV show. Brad told him to use a pseudonym and the usually pseudonym-averse Asimov agreed. Modeling it on Cornell Woolrich’s “William Irish,” Asimov became “Paul French” to write David Starr, Space Ranger. [2]

David Starr was orphaned by pirates as a small boy and was raised by Hector Conway and Augustus Henree, two friends of David’s father and significant people in the powerful Council of Science. Now an adult and still a bit of a wunderkind, he has himself become a member of the Council of Science and is sent out on his first mission. On Earth, a heavily populated planet dependent on its food supply from other worlds such as Mars, a relatively few people have been seemingly randomly poisoned by Martian food and dying painfully within moments, as David himself witnesses in the opening scene. It seems to be, as Henree says, “a clever and brutal attempt at seizing control of Earth’s economic life and government” which turns out to be clarified as a scheme of blackmail with the leverage being the threat of anything from panic over the food supply to actual starvation.

David travels undercover to Mars as “Dick Williams” and strikes up a friendship with the diminutive but fearless and aggressive John Bigman Jones [3] and becomes enemies with a trio who rule under a farm boss named Makian. Nevertheless, he works his way into that domed farm by pretending to be a man trying to find out how his sister was poisoned and being willing to do any work to support his search. After the story describes his experiences as a “farmboy,” his various conflicts with the trio, and his help from Bigman, it really takes off when Starr learns something about the structure of Mars’ great underground caverns, the deep fissures crisscrossing the surface, and how they are related to each other. He makes the arduous descent down one of these fissures and what happens there is almost van Vogtian. David Starr emerges as “the Space Ranger” and the new superhero is ready to piece together the last details to get the big picture and attempt to deal with it.

One of the things that makes this somewhat atypical Asimov is its aim of becoming a TV series. It was partly inspired by The Lone Ranger (which began as a radio series in 1933 and had already become a TV show in 1949) and most obviously turns the Lone Ranger’s mask into a high-tech multi-purpose gizmo but the story also has similarities to Superman (which began as a 1938 comic book Asimov may or may not have been familiar with and which wasn’t to become a TV series until seven months after this book was published), including somewhat-mild-mannered David Starr never being in the same room with the Space Ranger.

Coupled with this, it was also intended for a young audience like those series. The most obvious signs of this are a less credible and more melodramatic plot than usual, more explicit promotion of the value of science both via the power and importance of the Council of Science and via a few more educational passages (which might be called infodumps) and, of course, the “coming of age” motif (and, perhaps, the complete absence – other than a voice – of female characters). The vocabulary and ideas are not especially “dumbed down,” though or written in a “gee whillikers” sort of way.

Another thing is its superficial isolation from the Asimov books that had been published to this point. There’s nothing overt to tie Paul French to Isaac Asimov (no robots yet, or psychohistory, neuronic whips, and so on). Also, it’s not necessarily written like “center-core” Asimov but neither is it un-Asimovian. Interestingly, The Stars, Like Dust (the science fiction novel Asimov wrote just before this one) is also somewhat atypical despite being an Empire novel. These two books are probably more similar to each other than Stars is to the other Empire books. Rather than pudgy old Schwartz or brain-damaged Rik, Biron Farril and David Starr are both strapping young lads, at least six feet tall and two-fisted, sometimes traveling incognito amidst melodrama.

The plot and some characterization is probably the biggest weakness. Starr and Bigman strike up their friendship when Starr takes Bigman’s side in a conflict with the villainous trio but it might seem more suited to Bigman’s character to take offense at this rather than appreciating it. (I may not be as big as some fellers, but I can fight my own fights!) How Starr is taken right into this important farm is convenient and there is confusion about being offered a job by a scientist on the farm, yet still working at a mess hall job until finally going to work for the scientist. And then there are further conveniences and oddities as the situation is resolved, especially regarding the unheroic way a confession is obtained. Another problem is that Starr often seems to be arrogant and, relative to his unfamiliar environment, ignorant. In a juvenile, it seems like you might want to have a humble protagonist who is willing to learn or have your proud protagonist knocked around a bit until he does what is necessary to learn but Starr comes out on top with his innate superiority and a little help from some friends. The last problem I’ll mention is that this is set near 7,000 A. D. (!) and the Earth is dependent on other worlds like Mars (!) to feed its population of five (!) billion. None of this makes the most sense possible.

One of the biggest virtues of the book is a (for the time) harshly and realistically portrayed Mars [4] which is vividly brought to life through Starr’s experiences on first exiting the dome and then in his compelling descent down the fissure (where Asimov does something he’d only done in very few stories and not yet in books). However obligatory they are, the buddy and superhero elements are also reasonably effective. I feel that Heinlein took his juveniles very seriously and put as much or more effort into them as anything else he did. With this Asimov, I feel like he was trying to do a good job and respect and entertain his audience but it doesn’t feel quite like 100%. The fact that this was written in seven weeks in the middle of two other books with the possible detachment a pseudonym might have given (though he used a pseudonym in fear of what TV would do to his work, not because of the work itself) would tend to corroborate that. I think it’s obviously second-class Asimov but, generally, it’s a pretty good juvenile.


[1] A couple of bibliographical notes:

1. The main U. S. editions of this series were Doubleday (hardcovers), Signet, Fawcett Crest, and Ballantine/Del Rey (all paperbacks). Even though the Doubledays were first and I own the Signets (and an SFBC omnibus), I’m using the Del Reys to illustrate these reviews because, while a bit textually busy, their cover art is by far the best. In fact, the order of editions is also the order of cover quality.

2. Asimov published four books in 1952. One was a collection of Foundation stories from the 1940s but the other three were new. The Currents of Space was begun in December 1950 and not finished until March 30, 1952 before being published near the end of that year. The reason it took as long as it did was because Asimov was also working on a textbook. Meanwhile, he also wrote David Starr, Space Ranger from June 10, 1951 to July 29. It was then published near the beginning of the next year (originally with a colon in the title instead of a comma or dash). So David Starr is Asimov’s fifth published book and Currents is listed as his seventh but David Starr was conceived and begun after Currents.

(I felt like footnoting the footnote at “textbook” and this does get deep into the weeds but I’ll just add that there is an oddity regarding that book (Biochemistry and Human Metabolism). Asimov says he received his copies May 24 and placed a copy “immediately behind my juvenile” (meaning David Starr) on his chronological shelf yet the textbook is listed as #8 as though it came out after not just David Starr but Foundation and Empire and The Currents of Space, as well. There was a second edition after 1954, but that doesn’t explain this. Asimov may mean he shelved his books in the order he received them (which would include advance copies) and perhaps there was a delay in the textbook’s actual publication which is reflected in the numbered list.)

[2] It seems that David Starr was intended to be a one-shot but, when the TV series didn’t happen, Brad encouraged Asimov to write more Starr books. In 1971-72, when the books came out in paperback under Asimov’s own name, it seems like he could have renamed it to Lucky Starr and the Fissures of Mars or Lucky Starr and the Criminals of Mars to better fit the rest of the books, though it would have entailed revising it to include the “Lucky” nickname in the story, as well.

[3] There may be some odd precognition here. This was written in 1951 and, while far from being exactly like Harlan Ellison, Bigman has some similarities with him, both psychologically and physically, even down to Ellison claiming a height of 5’5″ when Asimov insisted he couldn’t be more than 5’2″ which is exactly Bigman’s height. Yet Asimov didn’t meet Ellison until 1953.

[4] The book includes a one-page introduction in which Asimov warns the reader that subsequent science has invalidated this portrayal by proving Mars far harsher still.

Edit (2020-06-15): Corrected the opening sentence to say “1951” instead of “1952.” (Dunno how I did that.)

Edit (2020-06-17): Fixed the error in which I was thinking for a moment that he wrote Starr while also working on Stars when he was in fact working on Currents. Substituted “was writing when he switched to” to “wrote just before” and removed the “1952” from “These two 1952 books” (since Stars was 1951). I stand by the conceptual comparison (which I think is interesting), but got the chronology wrong (and it’s not as precise, thus less interesting).