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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

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Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 192pp, 1957

Lucky Starr and his sidekick Bigman Jones continue their tour of the Solar System, this time taking us as far as Jupiter where they have their most direct confrontation with the Sirian menace yet. Earth is secretly developing the first Agrav starship but the Earth’s power-seeking former colony is somehow pulling off an impossible job of espionage and finding out all about it. If Sirius gets the complete plans if and when the ship is successfully completed, it will mean war. Initially, Lucky is worried about telepathy and a V-frog (of a species introduced a couple of books back [1]) makes another appearance because Lucky’s thinking to set a telepath to catch a telepath. So the two men and their Venusian critter set out to Jupiter Nine to save the Agrav project. It quickly turns out that it’s not telepathy, but could be the Invasion of the Robot Body Snatchers. Fortunately, the V-frog will be useful for the task of identifying any robot spies, as well, since they lack emotion. Unfortunately, the V-frog is quickly killed. Fortunately, the pool of possible spies is reduced when the Agrav ship, the Jovian Moon, sets out on its maiden voyage with a limited crew, one of whom must be the spy. Unfortunately yet again, it turns out the ship is sabotaged and what had been a wondrous journey to see amazing Jupiter and its retinue of moons turns into a struggle against imminent destruction. Fortunately, yet again, the sabotage reveals the Sirians’ hand to Lucky, if only he can survive to use the knowledge.

In this Asimov completely takes off the Paul French gloves. Sirius is shown to be essentially a Spacer world. The notion of robots is central to this tale and, beyond that, the Three Laws are actually quoted in full in this one. Beyond that total-milieu similarity (or identity), there is also a bit of specific sameness to some of this in both good and bad ways. The good is that taking the reader to the worlds of the Solar System maintains its joy. The bad is that things like Lucky having to endure unfair hazing at the hands of larger, more skilled opponents (who lose anyway) lose their interest, as Lucky’s fight in the Agrav corridor with Armand is just like his pushgun fight in Pirates of the Asteroids. Lucky also behaves non-optimally more than once, such as when he provokes the Commander of the project due to a frankly silly supposed need to “field-test” the V-frog’s perception of emotions, which produces a continued struggle for dominance between the two throughout the book. The “puppy dog” aspect of Bigman’s relationship to Lucky continues, with Bigman getting excitedly playful and nearly dying when things go wrong, though he is given a moment to be clever in the way he evens the playing field (not too much, not too little) for Lucky in the corridor fight. Still, it’s another proficient Lucky Starr adventure (perhaps better than average though not the best) and will probably hit the reader however they’ve been hit by the other tales.


[1] All the previous books in this series are referenced in footnotes in the first ten pages of this one.

Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
Hardcover: Doubleday, 2.95, 222pp, 1955

The oldest people, such as fourteen-year-old Len Colter’s grandmother, can remember the time before the Destruction when God destroyed man’s cities in a rain of fire (an atomic war) and, much chastened, men have become religious extremists and amended the Constitution to never allow cities again, while building a general orthodoxy which includes a deadly intolerance for almost any form of machinery or technology beyond nineteenth-century levels. As a New Mennonite living in Piper’s Run (Ohio?), Len and his fifteen-year-old cousin, Esau, chafe against the restrictions. Esau is innately a perverse hellraiser while Len is ambivalent about most things but frustrated with his current life and enchanted by the little he can learn from his grandmother about how things used to be. They also hear rumors of a possibly mythical place called Bartorstown [1] where men still have technology and it becomes a sort of El Dorado to them. They suspect Hostetter, a trader who frequently travels back and forth through Piper’s Run, is actually a man of Bartorstown. One night, Hostetter has heated words with a fellow trader, Soames, who ignores what Hostetter was telling him and falls victim to a stoning by religious fanatics who are convinced that Soames is a Bartorstown man. When Hostetter gets the man’s effects and takes off with the traumatized boys who witnessed the murder, it turns out that Esau is not too traumatized to have a peek into the belongings, be irresistibly drawn to one of the items, and steal it. It’s a radio and the boys become consumed with trying to make it work, even stealing some of their teacher’s books in a fruitless effort to help. Even so, partly by clever thought and partly by luck, they eventually succeed, hearing remote voices in the night. More inspired than ever, Esau unwisely decides to contact Hostetter to get taken to Bartorstown but Hostetter instead turns him in to the town’s authorities as a good non-Bartorstown man would do. This gets Len caught as well and both boys are whipped by their fathers (who do so with differing degrees of eagerness). Where Esau had been aggressive, he is broken after the whipping and often-timid Len is suddenly more certain than ever. He decides to run away and invites Esau to come with him, restoring some measure of spirit to the other boy. The fact that it’s later decided that they’ll undergo a public flogging in addition to their private whippings makes leaving that much easier.

In the second part of the three-part book, the boys are young men who have stopped at Refuge, a bustling metropolis pushing the mandated limit of “one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile” along their blind and winding way to El Dorado where the dominant religion is the ever-so-slightly more relaxed Church of the Holy Thankfulness. They’ve been taken in by Judge Taylor who tolerates Esau but likes Len. Still, he’s aware of their troublesome ways and advises Len that he might have a good life here if he’ll find some of the same contentment Len’s father also once advised him to find. One of the things standing in the way of that contentment is the judge’s daughter, Amity, because both the young men like her and she doesn’t discourage either of them. Eventually it comes to blows between the boys and Len decides to leave, with the Judge throwing out Esau for good measure and warning him to have nothing to do with his daughter, which Esau obeys as much as he does anything else. Meanwhile, they’d been working for Dulinsky, a businessman who is working on building another, and illegal, warehouse. The neighboring town, Shadwell, has effortlessly been growing from Refuge’s overflow and is not pleased at the notion that Refuge may grow and deprive them of their own easy wealth. This comes to a head in more violence and death in which Len is beaten up more than once and nearly lynched before being saved by a finally-revealed Hostetter. Esau and the pregnant Amity have already been rounded up and they are finally off to Bartorstown, which requires an arduous journey through the great West. In the third part, they will learn that it both is (a little) and is not (a lot) like what they’d imagined, will learn that Bartorstown is terrified of being destroyed and will not let them ever leave, and will suffer great culture shock and paths of adjustment to it. This is a road far, far harder for Len than Esau (complicated by his meeting Joan, a sharp, flashing-eyed woman who has an agenda of her own) and Len will finally have to do something he’s never done before.

Despite, or because of, being a fan of Leigh Brackett’s planetary romance and space opera, I put off reading this for a long time [2]. Novels about backwards societies and religious fanatics don’t appeal to me. However, while this was easy to put down because it isn’t my kind of thing, it also had me enthralled as long as I had the book in my hands because it’s so well done, emotionally engaging, and uses the light of its thoughtful author and questing protagonist to shine through the darkness which seems to overwhelm most such books. This is a well-regarded novel but, if Brackett had been a “literary” figure instead of a “pulp” author, like Orwell, Huxley, Shute, Stewart, etc., this would probably be considered a classic of “real” literature alongside them. Through her Hamlet of Len Colter, she explores the difference between dreams and reality and, even more pointedly, between those ruled by fear and a need for stasis which they cloak in holy garb and those who recognize both the dangers and rewards of change and, either way, its inevitability, however quick or long it is in coming.

This isn’t a perfect novel. The most glaring thing is how gentle a holocaust this was, with no craters where cities stood, or mutants roaming irradiated badlands, but with amendments to the Constitution and still a Mexican border. There is either too much or too little Esau: too simply characterized for almost a dual main-character or too prominently featured for a sidekick. There are odd glitches such as having a New Mennonite teacher and town leaders who almost revere relics of books rather than burning them. Also, while she did an excellent job of showing both the brutal, vicious father of Esau and his brother, the basically decent and compassionate father of Len, and more generally showing the rationale and “goodness” of even self-righteous murderers (and even agreeing so overwhelmingly with the side of technological change and free thought as I do), I feel like she could have given the forces of fear and stasis an even fairer hearing. Finally, the book is a “classic SF novel” in most ways but is a little long for that. It pays off in great tangibility and detail for her milieu but does prevent a breakneck pace.

All that is trivial in comparison to the reality of Len, the way the novel can make the reader furious and excited and nervous and happy, and the subjects it handles with such psychological acumen and philosophical depth. Though chapters 27-29 (of the 30) had me very worried she was going to ruin it (and were some of the most emotionally involving at the same time), she pulled it off for what I think is a great success. Again, not my kind of thing, but highly recommended.


[1] It’s eventually explained that it’s named after the former Secretary of Defense, Henry Waltham Bartor, who was a driving force behind getting it built (Bartor’s Town) but it long confused me, seeming like a strange corruption of “Barter Town” or something.

[2] Of all the books she published in her lifetime, this was the only one I hadn’t yet read.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 187pp, 1957

The Naked Sun is a sequel to The Caves of Steel and, like it, features a heavily populated Earth with few and despised robots in a sort of ghetto within the fifty lightly populated and heavily robotic Spacer Worlds after Earth had founded the core of them in an earlier age. On one of these worlds, Solaria, a man has been murdered for the first time in the world’s 300-year history. Solaria’s Head of Security, Hannis Gruer, has heard of Elijah Baley’s work and, though an Earthman has never set foot on an independent Spacer world, he is convinced the Earther’s unique experiences and talents will be helpful and contacts Aurora about getting in touch with Baley. The Aurorans agree to make this happen with the price being that one of their agents will accompany Baley. Baley is informed of part of this when he leaves the comforting enclosure of his City to undergo the ordeal of flying to another to meet with Undersecretary Albert Minnim in Washington. He is not pleased to have done this only to find that he must undergo the far more difficult ordeal of spaceflight to another world. Minnim orders Baley to go, overtly as a detective and covertly as a spy, because the conflicts between Earth and the Spacer Worlds are growing sharper and Earth’s sociologists predict Earth will be “virtually wiped out as a populated world” in such a conflict. Earth needs to know better what it’s up against.

After arriving on Solaria, he meets the Auroran agent who is none other than R. Daneel Olivaw, who is himself traveling covertly in the sense of not revealing to any Solarian that he is, in fact, a robot. In the car that is taking Baley to his headquarters for the case, the two get into an argument about Baley’s safety in relation to his agoraphobia but Baley is determined to confront his fears, tricks Olivaw, and gets the robot driver of the car to put back the roof. It doesn’t go well, especially as Baley, having left his cave of steel, stares “at the naked sun,” but Baley will continue working to overcome his phobia (while the physical reality of the sun will take on a changed symbolic import). Once at his home base, he experiences the culture shock of a gigantic mansion all to himself and Olivaw (except for the many, many generally unobtrusive robots), and embarks on the first of what is essentially two series of interviews. He experiences his second shock when, at the end of his first meeting with Gruer, Gruer disappears. He learns that, while Spacers generally have a phobia about contact with dirty Earthers, Solarians have a phobia about any contact at all and will generally only “view” one another with a complicated system of telepresence. It turns out that, while Spacer worlds like Aurora have small populations and fifty robots per human, Solaria has a rigidly controlled population of 20,000 on a hospitable world 9,500 miles in diameter and has 10,000 robots for every human. They live on vast estates and their point of pride about not needing to see their neighbors has turned into a rigid social and psychological extreme of isolation. Marriages are based on gene matches and people “see” one another only for necessities such as certain doctor visits and the rare and unpleasant necessity of replacing a death. In fact, they are working on artificial insemination to make this completely unnecessary and to further perfect their gene screening. This all plays into part of why the murder is so inexplicable. Rikaine Delmarre is a “good Solarian” who has volunteered for the socially necessary but unpleasant work of “fetologist,” or one who works on the baby farms. That he is found to have been bludgeoned to death is inexplicable. Why would one rich isolated Solarian want to kill another and how could they in this way without personal contact? The only suspect is Rikaine’s wife, Gladia (pronounced Gla-DEE-a) and she is a small woman who found the body and collapsed in shock. Other than her, robots such as one rendered non-functional by seeing a human death, and the doctor who arrived on the scene, no one was or has been there and no murder weapon was found. Any more subtle evidence that would have been there has been destroyed as the robots of this crime-free world cleaned up the murder scene as they would any untidiness. Baley at one point notes that, “This is a rather peculiar case. No motive, no means, no witnesses, no evidence.”

In the first sequence of interviews, Baley “views” Gladia and other relevant parties after viewing Gruer. From this, he decides that the lack of weapon and Gladia’s lack of strength clears her though, given the lack of any other options, all Solaria is convinced she’s guilty. [1] He also learns that there is strife between Aurora and Solaria and Gruer had actually wanted an Earth sociologist (or what’s nearly the same, a detective) because of Earth’s greater understanding of humans. Aurora is the most powerful Spacer world but Solaria’s contribution to the Worlds’ robot economy is essential. There is also conflict within Solaria, between those who like things basically as they are and those who would push even further. According to Gruer, there is a conspiracy at work which, in what precise way he isn’t sure, threatens all humanity. While saying this, as if on cue, he drinks from his glass and collapses from poison.

Baley feels stymied in his remote investigations and, when Gruer’s replacement, Attlebish, turns out to be an ass who punches Baley’s buttons, Baley uses a pretense of connection to Aurora’s power to threaten him into concessions which will allow Baley to move about the planet and “see” people if he can get them to agree. Because Gruer has been poisoned for investigating this case and because “seeing” would put Baley in direct danger from a similar attempt, Olivaw is required by the First Law to prevent Baley from going. Again, Baley tricks Olivaw, this time into revealing that he is a robot to the other household robots and orders them to guard Olivaw. Feeling euphoric over his victories over a Spacer human and robot, Baley heads out on his second series of interviews, again confronts his fear of the open and, again, it doesn’t go very well. However, he does manage to meet with Solaria’s version of a sociologist, Quemot, in which we learn that Quemot can barely stand to “see” another and eventually flees back to viewing. Meanwhile, we also learn about Solaria’s history, its relation to Earth’s Sparta and Athens, its Traditionalists, and Solaria’s great weapon: the positronic robot. It is Quemot’s contention that society is pyramidal and now robots can form its base while humanity occupies its apex. Further, a robotic economy is unidirectional, always pushing towards more robots and, without lifting a finger, Solaria will witness the galaxy adopting Solaria’s social structure. More directly to the nitty-gritty of the case, he also informs Baley that Delmarre had an assistant fetologist. Going to interview her, he learns about the biological basis of Solaria and that he should next talk to Delmarre’s friend who is a roboticist who can stand physical proximity even less than Quemot. Before leaving the farm, Olivaw is proved correct when an attempt is made on Baley’s life. On Baley’s meeting with the roboticist, the mystery begins to move into the home stretch but there is one more fascinating chapter I can talk about when Baley first “sees” Gladia (another in Asimov’s line of memorable female characters) and learns about her abstract light art (another in Asimov’s line of fascinating future arts). She does a “portrait” of him which is flattering but for it being contained within a gray box, “holding Baley’s imprisoned soul fast in the gray of the Cities.” Not to be hypocritical about forcing Solarians to “see” him, he once more forces himself to face the outdoors in an attempted exchange to get Gladia to remove the box from her art. The chapter ends with a remarkably vivid sunset which affects Baley even more than the reader and, with just another step or two, gets us to the moment when Baley can put the case together and even package it for proper consumption by several parties.

While The Naked Sun has a completely separate case, explains its own milieu well enough, and can be read alone, I’d still recommend reading The Caves of Steel first because I feel like a deeper knowledge of what Earth is like would produce a better understanding of Baley’s character. And, obviously, because I also think The Caves of Steel was a great book. In some ways, while definitely not perfect [2], this is even better. Like Caves, it works on the level of a personal murder mystery and on the level of a social science fiction novel. This inverts Caves, however, in showing us an extreme Spacer society while still never losing sight of Earth. In fact, the book is full of comparisons and contrasts. Frequent reference is made to the notion that robots are logical but not reasonable which, I think, ties into elements of many other Asimov stories where logic is respected but it’s pointed out that an impeccable chain of abstract logic can be unreasonable (or at least inaccurate) when applied to concrete situations. Another is between instincts and education where the Solarians could be said to “view-train” their children to educate the gregariousness, which they find disgusting, out of them. One thing I found particularly interesting about this element was how it relates to our current “social networking” system of Skyping and Zooming (leaving aside how it’s now exacerbated by the plague) which is nothing but a primitive form of “viewing.” (He also mentions how youth is necessary for beneficial change but specifies that the change should be moderate.) And Asimov, through Baley, again returns to the recurrent concern over “blind alleys” (here called a “dead end” at one point, which is the same principle) as Earth’s clustering and Solaria’s isolation are both seen as unhealthy extremes. Indeed, while he heads in the right direction but overshoots the mark in a couple of extreme moments of psychological pressure on the roboticist and on Baley, himself, the psychological and sociological depictions are superb, especially in the scene in which Quemot struggles with reason vs. emotion (another contrasting pair) and tries to explain to Baley the difficulty with “seeing” him. Through it all, Baley never spares himself in his effort to be an exemplar and undergo some of what he puts on others as he tries to get over his dependence on the security blanket of the Cities. Though it’s in a different context, he even cites a principle that will become important in much later Robot novels when he says to Olivaw, “It’s as much my job to prevent harm to mankind as a whole as yours is to prevent harm to man as an individual.”

This is a short novel which is so efficiently executed and packed to bursting with ideas that it contains just as many events as a novel twice as long and more ideas than most novels that are several times as long without feeling rushed or thin. I wish I could achieve Asimov’s efficiency and ability to provoke thought rather than producing this verbose review which still fails to convey how exciting and deeply-textured this experience of an alien world and society is but I can say that I recommend it highly.


[1] I probably hadn’t yet seen A Shot in the Dark (1964) the last time I read this but, the whole time I was reading it this time, with Baley’s obvious awareness of Gladia’s attractiveness and his frequent decisions on her innocence despite all evidence being against her, I kept thinking, “Maria Gambrelli is innocent!” By the way, an isolated moment which struck me funny was when Baley is told he must go to Solaria and, for a moment, he tries to place it – “Solaria, Australia?” – before he grasps that he’s being ordered off-world. Another amusing moment, which may be referencing Asimov’s annoyance about editorial interference in The Stars, Like Dust, is when Quemot and Baley are discussing the notion of the “pursuit of happiness” and when Quemot wonders where the phrase is from, Baley says, “Some old document.” Another reference comes when Baley, apparently oblivious to its antecedents, says that when you have “eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, is the truth.”

[2] Non-nitpicky readers should probably skip this entire footnote as it would just rain on the parade of enjoying this excellent novel, but one of the things that bothered me involved communications. Asimov seems to generally assume a lack of direct interstellar communications which is strange given that there is hyperspace and, though it’s not precisely in the same universe, Lucky Starr was just involved in a project regarding the properties of light in hyperspace (so what about radio waves?). If there were such communications, why would a Solarian even think that an Earther would need to “see” Solaria? If there are not, how do Solaria’s planetary communications (“viewing”) work with no lag at all?

While those are technical questions and easily explained or excused, there are more serious issues involving the robots of Solaria having a sort of omniscience at times and an almost total lack of awareness at others and this inconsistency is not restricted to them. Olivaw is creatively hyper-vigilant about not allowing harm to come to Baley yet, in a key scene, violates both the First and Second Laws, somehow disobeying an order (though it was psychologically more of a plea) and inadvertently causing harm to a human when he should have known better.

More than that, the perpetrator is convicted by the perpetrator’s own prior utterance. Baley attempts, in passing, to provide a psychological explanation for why the perpetrator was so dumb in this instance and it’s plausible but only barely. Also, I don’t really like who the perpetrator is or the punishment. (I’m being somewhat misleading here to avoid spoilers but it gets my points across.)

Finally, perhaps from a youthful sentimentality or from focusing on elements of The Caves of Steel (or maybe even The Robots of Dawn) more strongly than elements of this one, I remembered Baley and Olivaw’s relationship and attitude towards each other (especially Baley’s towards Olivaw) differently and didn’t really like aspects of the relationship in this book, though that’s more personal taste than a flaw (as is the second half of the previous paragraph).

None of these things significantly impair an extremely clever and multi-level novel that works perfectly otherwise, but they did make me scratch my head on occasion.

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

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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.)

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

 

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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: 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.