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



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


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.

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.

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


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.

Asimov’s Centennial: David Starr, Space Ranger


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).

Asimov’s Centennial: The Currents of Space


The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 217pp, 1952

A year after a prolog in which an unnamed person warns that Florina will be destroyed in a nova and another drugs him and uses a psychic probe on him to “remove his anxiety,” we join amnesiac Rik on his lunch break at the mill where he’s suddenly remembered that he “analyzed Nothing” and that the world is somehow in danger. Rik was found in a kyrt field as a drooling, mindless wreck and the Townman, Myrlyn Terens, made the unmarried Lona Rik’s caretaker. He’s since improved to the point of being able to work in the mill. This bit of recovered memory makes Lona fear that a change may come to their relationship, so she goes to the Townman for advice. He is a Florinian and a civil servant who helps Sark rule Florina. While a quintet of Great Squires rule both worlds, and lesser Squires live in the Upper City on Florina, it is the bright Florinians who are taken to Sark, trained, and forbidden to have children, as a way to govern for now and to reduce the abilities of Florinians to do anything but grow kyrt for ever. Kyrt is a crop which grows only on Florina and is used in the production of fabulous fabrics and other products and has made Sark second only to Trantor in wealth, when Trantor rules half the galaxy and Sark just the two worlds. Despite it being against the rules, Terens decides to take Rik to the library of the Upper City to see if accessing books there will jog Rik’s memory further. However, someone has set a trigger to report when books on spatio-analysis are requested. From this minor infraction, things spiral out of control when Lona, who has followed them, sees them threatened by one of the foreign mercenaries known as Patrollers and used by Sark as the fist to the civil servants’ glove, wrests the Patroller’s own neuronic whip from him, and uses it on him. The trio flee to the Lower City and from the angry hornet’s nest of Patrollers they’ve stirred up and are rescued by a baker whose shop has a false oven they can hide in. The baker turns out to be more than he seems and has a special interest in Rik, with no interest in the other two. Terens takes off on his own, while Lona stays with Rik.

Meanwhile, Dr. Selim Junz of the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau visits with Ludigan Abel, the Trantorian ambassador. Junz has spent much of the last year looking for a missing spatio-analyst (those who study Nothing, or the currents within the near-vacuum of space). Through their conversations and reflections on the things which have formed their characters, we learn about, among other things, the tricky relationship Trantor and Sark have. At this point, Trantor rules half the galaxy and is far too powerful for Sark to fight, but Trantor is not yet strong enough to risk consolidating the other half of the galaxy against them, so must tread lightly when it comes to annexing other worlds, especially worlds as important as Sark, with its galaxy-spanning kyrt trade. So relations are handled officially by Abel and, unofficially, by a large spy network. This casts earlier events in a different and clearer light, as the baker is a spy for Trantor who is to bring Rik in. (We also learn that it was Junz who set the trigger on the books of spatio-analysis.) However, this fails to go according to plan, especially for Terens, who becomes a sort of serial killer.

The third component of the tale is introduced through the five-foot, ninety-pound Lady Samia of Fife. She is on Florina, working on her book on kyrt when her father, one of the Great Squires, orders her home due to the disturbances against the Patrollers. Rik and Lona have the strange luck to stow away on her ship and are quickly detected, and her romantic nature ignites with her fascination with the “mystery” the stowaways represent. Indeed, her father has a mystery of his own, which he describes to the other Great Squires, involving Trantorian machinations and his belief that one of the Squires is a traitor, which one of the accused dismisses as a “detective thriller.” The second half of the book involves the working out of these elements. Who did what was done to Rik? What specifically threatens Florina? Is there a traitor among the Squires and, if so, who? Can Trantor and Sark reach an accomodation or will their strains reach a breaking point?

Unlike the Robot and Foundation stories, Asimov never returned to the Empire milieu, so this third novel was the last of the group. The initial version of Pebble in the Sky was written for Startling Stories but never appeared in magazine form until after it was revised and published as a book. The Stars, Like Dust was serialized in Galaxy under the name “Tyrann” and with a subplot of Gold’s worked in. This one was serialized in John W. Cambpell’s Astounding without interference. All three include brief afterwords from Asimov in their early 1980s paperback editions explaining that a key science fictional premise within the novel is no longer considered scientifically viable and asking the reader to forgive that. While Rik is known in this one to be a foreigner, with one of his earlier recovered memories about his specific home world, all three novels are tied to Earth, despite their interstellar scope. While this is clearly the second book in internal chronology, pinning down a date to even the nearest millennium seems difficult. Trantor is described as having risen from a Republic of five worlds, to a Confederation, to a Trantorian Empire of half the galaxy, all within five hundred years so it seems reasonable that this novel is nearer to Pebble in the Sky than The Stars, Like Dust. On the other hand, while Rik’s Earth is the same radioactive blue of the Earth of the other books, there are no particular signs of animosity towards Earthers [1] but the preponderance of evidence points to a fairly late date. The fact of Earth being the homeworld of humanity has been forgotten and is now a disputed theory and the notion of convergent evolution has some strength.

And that brings us to a core theme of the book which revisits one of Pebble from a different angle. Sark’s domination of Florina is clearly driven by economics but, in a galaxy in which everyone, with few exceptions, is now of a more or less intermixed brown complexion, Florinians are white. This adds a racial component to Sark’s “sick social system.” The rebellious spirit has been almost utterly extinguished through a system of divide-and-conquer, surveillance, psychic probes (which are naively underutilized in the future of the essentially good-hearted Asimov), and of economic and classist disparity between the browns/whites represented at various scales by Sark/Florina and Upper/Lower City but which can have a strong basis in skin color and stereotyping. For example, when the noble brown girl, Samia, is caught (unwillingly) in a compromising position with a low-class white man it is used for powerful political and economic purposes when its only leverage comes from the twisted psychology of the Sarkites. Asimov wisely doesn’t limit this to a pure one-to-one metaphor, as aspects of it are reminiscent of Britain’s rule of India and many other aspects throughout human history, but American history is clearly the main inspiration, with one Sarkite even talking about “King Kyrt” (which has cellulose as one of its degenerate forms but which is even referred to once as cotton). While Pebble put its racial theme in the foreground, Currents handles it more cleverly by having it be structural and backgrounded for the most part but I suspect the social focus causes at least one aesthetic blemish in the moral calculus because multiple wrongs from and against this system in the person of one character are allowed to make a right by the conclusion of the book, a failing which anticipates much contemporary fiction. On the other hand, one especially unusual thing I liked in this was Selim Junz being from Libair, which is as atypical as Florina, in that Libairians are much darker than most and have dim recollections of a prehistory of racial strife. This causes Junz to feel a brotherhood with his fellow whites as both are minorities in a galaxy that is primarily intermediate. While this is probably largely a game of musical pigments in which Asimov, as a person of a Jewish minority, is expressing solidarity with African-Americans [2], it is also the actual state of things here on Earth. Blacks and whites are both (possibly temporary) minorities within all of humanity.

Heavy thematic stuff aside, as a simple reading experience, this novel of interstellar intrigue introduces us to a sympathetic but necessarily somewhat undefined character in the mostly erased Rik and his initially interesting relationship with Lona but the main drama begins with Terens joining the story and the three getting embroiled in increasingly out-of-control events. When Terens detaches from the pair, his mortally panicked flights from the coercive powers of his society are exciting and powerful. The amplification of the mystery elements with first Samia and then the Squire of Fife, himself, adds another layer and type of interest. Asimov’s skill in moving from scene to scene, with chapters moving forward and backward in time compared to their predecessors, sometimes redefining what we’ve just witnessed, is also put to good use. This is much improved over the handling in Stars, though there are a couple of overly long gaps between scenes and at least one use of a convenient memory loss and gain. More seriously, there are two chapters in a row (12 and 13) which involve long speeches (the first being the least successful part, dramatically, of the Squire’s involvement and the second being excess from a minor character) which slow the action. Most importantly, the ending isn’t completely satisfying. As I mentioned, the books don’t seem balanced regarding one character, the conclusion for two others doesn’t ring true, and much is resolved too easily. This and Pebble are very comparable and this surpasses it in some ways but, overall, I think I prefer the latter. Either way, I’ve always felt the Empire novels, though they are admittedly lesser works compared to the main Robot and Foundation books, were unfairly underestimated and this re-read of the trio makes me think that even more firmly.

[1] There are some other inconsistencies such as human males still being physically capable of growing facial hair when they aren’t in Pebble, but this may be an oversight. (And, of course, there are inconsistencies going the other direction which are due to the hazards of writing prequels, in that stowaway Arkady should have been detected as easily as Rik and Lona were and there seems to be no kyrt in the Galactic Empire.)

[2] As every sympathetic reader of Heinlein knows, just because a writer has characters advocate certain things doesn’t mean the writer does but, in Asimov’s non-fiction, he comes across as being liberal on race, especially for someone who made his mark in the 1940s and ’50s. In addition, Asimov was economically liberal and this comes across when he has a character advocate a respect for human rights over “mere property rights” and this, again, shows that Campbell’s Astounding, and science fiction in general, was not as monolithic as some like to believe or would have others believe.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Stars, Like Dust


The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 218pp, 1951

Young Biron Farrill, the son of the Rancher of Widemos (a noble position on the world of Nephelos in the Nebular Kingdoms), is attending the University of Earth, partly to get an education and partly to find a precious document his father wants. He wakes one evening to a puzzling situation in which his room’s ventilation system, communications system, and even the door aren’t working. At first, he thinks it’s a prank but comes to realize that he’s been trapped in a room with a radiation bomb. Fortunately, Sander Jonti (an associate who is from Lingane, also in the Nebular regions), is able to break him out of his room. Through Jonti, we learn that Tyrann is a budding empire in control of fifty worlds and has imprisoned (and will soon execute) Biron’s father as a disloyal threat to them. Jonti convinces Biron to flee to Rhodia, a world ruled by the half-idiot Hinrik, to avoid being killed by Tyrannian powers like his father. After Biron is on his way, we learn that Jonti and his companion, Rizzett, are also looking for the document but that, wherever it is, it’s been stolen from Earth quite some time ago.

Biron, traveling under a false name, is recognized aboard the starship en route to Rhodia and is brought to Simok Aratap, a powerful “Commissioner” of Tyrann who seems to be both a frustrated artist and conqueror (since Tyrann has been ruling its fifty worlds for fifty years and hasn’t expanded since being checked by its “Associate” world of Lingane). He lets Biron go to see if the young man will lead him to bigger game. Biron meets Hinrik, but also his lovely daughter, Artemisia, who is facing a forced marriage to a repulsive Tyrannian lord, and Artemisia’s Uncle Gil, a man with a scientific bent who does his best to appear harmless by playing the part of a ridiculous dilettante. Determining that Biron can pilot a spacecraft, both beg him to take them away. However, acting with uncharacteristic decision with only a few hours hesitation instead of the usual days, Hinrik has already decided Biron might be a test from Tyrann and has turned him in and Aratap has already arrived. Much running and fighting follows before the trio finally do escape, stealing Aratap’s own ship (which is not the good fortune it seems to be).

Gil then relates the tale of his experience of accidentally discovering a rebel base while lost in a damaged spaceship. He doesn’t know where he actually was but he believes the rebellion may offer a refuge if he can find it again, whether it’s nearing readiness to face Tyrann or not. Believing the Autarch of Lingane to know something of the rebel world (and after Biron and Artemisia discover their affection for one another), they point the ship to Lingane where they discover something surprising about the Autarch (who also finds Artemisia appealing and isn’t above creating animosity between her and Biron). Thus begins a very uneasy alliance to search for the hidden rebel base which takes the trio’s ship and the Autarch’s into the murky depths of the Horsehead Nebula, with both crews unaware that Aratap and a fleet of Tyrann warships are right behind them. Before the deeds of this tale are done, some will be lost and much will be found, but not always what was expected.

While I remembered much of this book and even most of the twists, I had forgotten how little connected to the “future history” it is. This seems to be set about 10,000 years in the future or 40,000 years before Pebble in the Sky. There is no reference to Trantor and there is a bizarre reference to a “robot messenger,” albeit only one. Earth is radioactive just as in Pebble but in that novel, it was only assumed to be from a war and, in this, it is made explicit (which later novels ignore). On the other hand, it is known to be the birthplace of humanity at this point and there doesn’t seem to be any particular animosity to Earth – indeed, it’s got enough cachet to have noblemen send their children “abroad” for an education. The hyperspace Jump technology seems to be the same, there are blasters, neuronic whips, biwheels, and more (there is even the first visisonor), but many of Asimov’s stories re-use various bits of tech. So, at the time of this book’s release, it may have seemed very independent.

In addition to seeming less like Asimov’s other series books in terms of fitting into a future history, it also seems less like his in other senses. Unlike pudgy, bald, old Joseph Schwartz the tailor, who made for a very unusual and compelling protagonist in Pebble, Biron Farrill is a young (sometimes petulant), muscled, 6’2″ nobleman for whom violence is no last refuge. Similarly, while Artemisia seems like a nice enough girl, she’s no Arkady Darrell, but usually a “matrimonial object” and not always the brightest one. The triangle of the Autarch, Biron, and Arta also leads to a little too much soap opera in the space opera for my taste, though it may appeal to others. On the other hand, the villain of Pebble was a true foaming-at-the-mouth black hat which was unusual for Asimov (though this one has one, too, which I can’t get into for spoilers) and Aratap, who is the initial bad guy of this piece, is more like Asimov’s usual complex and not-entirely-evil villains and was more interesting than the heroes.

Some other common motifs are more problematic. Coming off of searches by the Mule and the Foundation for the Second Foundation, this search for a rebel world seems familiar and, although they are different people and Biron is providing the means of escape, Arta and Gil aboard ship feels something like Arkady and Homer. Some of the twists and turns have been used before, too.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is the logic. While there are the usual excellent Asimovian conversations such as that between Aratap and Major Andros on what sort of forces to deploy and Aratap also repeats a recurrent theme of Asimov’s in which a character develops a web of impeccable logic which perfectly describes events–until it doesn’t because it was a coincidental abstraction–there is also “peccable” logic. Much is made of Tyrann’s political considerations and how they can’t use all the brute force they might like, but it is overused to excuse things that really should be more direct. Further, Biron seems to swallow lies repeatedly, yet “always knew” better or comes to know without receiving additional information to explain his increased comprehension. Also, by giving us the singular subjectivity of duplicitous characters, Asimov doesn’t always seem to play fair with the readers in this one. And there is a particularly glaring issue with Gil’s eavesdropping habits combined with ignorance of certain key things.

That said, there are many things I like about this book. While there is some very dated technology (the corneal contact lens seems to be a cutting-edge invention thousands of years in the future and spaceships seem to have a lot of dials) there is also a really tremendous depiction of two ships docking and a person traveling between them which reads like science writing from the present rather than imagination over fifteen years before such things began to happen.

Early on in the book, aside from Biron’s locked-room drama, things seem to be moving toward action a lot more than being in a state of action, but the movement is interesting and, when the action kicks in, it’s engaging and entertaining.

Perhaps the best thing is the depiction of the bubbling state of the galactic region and the cultures and personalities of Tyrann, Lingane, Rhodia, Nephelos, and even Earth. The different economies, living habits, ship designs, political considerations, variations in powers, interrelations, etc., all make them almost as much characters as the individual people representing them.

At least as of 1979, this was the novel Asimov liked least of his but this was mainly due to the fact that Gold interfered editorially by making him include the “document” sub-plot. This is neither a great feature nor grave flaw to me, though. Still, considering The Foundation Trilogy, I, Robot, and Pebble in the Sky to have been written, whether they’d achieved final book form or not, I think it is actually fair to say that this is the weakest of them so far and not the first book I’d hand to someone unfamiliar with Asimov, but I still enjoyed the re-read.

Review: Mission to Methone by Les Johnson

Mission to Methone by Les Johnson
Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8305-6, $16.00, 298pp, February 2018
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-4814-8388-9, $7.99, 407pp, March 2019

It’s an ordinary day in the life of Chris Holt, as he leads a project for Space Resources Corporation, an asteroid mining company, until he’s informed that the asteroid his tiny solar-sail spacecraft have been set up to examine is artificial. His life suddenly becomes extraordinary as he goes from a meeting with the boss to a meeting with the President to a journey out to the artificial object. And all this is still only the beginning.

The geopolitical situation in 2065 is a strange one. Russia has joined the EU, China is a more or less civil rival of the US, India is another world power and a secretive and almost insanely pugnacious one, and there is a Caliphate in the Middle East which is almost what you’d expect from the abortive Caliphate of the early twenty-first century, except it has nukes from Pakistan.

The first half of the story involves a US/EU/Japanese ship and a Chinese one (the Indian ship failed) racing to the artificial “asteroid” with a Caliphate nuke hot on their heels. Holt and the gang find out (as we have seen in the prologue and will learn more about in a handful of lower-case roman numeral chapters distributed through the book) that the alien ship is, in a sense, the body of an AI which has been badly damaged in a war between Makers and Destroyers (those who would preserve sentient life in the galaxy as a natural resource and those who would destroy it as a threat). The commanding officers of the two ships try to work together to save the alien vessel but the gambit to block the missile with the American ship fails. Before the damaged alien is destroyed, it gives them plans for a fusion rocket and coordinates for another journey.

It turns out that the coordinates point to Methone, a satellite of Saturn. A tale of a second space adventure with a US/EU/Chinese ship and an Indian one follows, while, back on Earth, the geopolitical situation becomes apocalyptically dangerous with occasional nukes going off on Earth as harbingers of WWIII. What will become of the two ships? What will be discovered at Methone? Will WWIII be averted? The second half of the story provides the answers.

Speaking of halves, through the first half, I didn’t think I was going to like this. There are three main problem areas and one seems nitpicky, but it was so pervasive that it really made it hard to engage. It may be a symptom of this being the author’s first solo novel and may improve over time. Though the writing aims for a nice, straightforward plainness, there are many, many examples of either awkward writing or conceptual awkwardness. You can take my word for it to save time or see this footnote [1] for specifics. Aside from specific weirdness, there’s just a general sense of stiffness or statements that are obvious or things that don’t ring right. As a couple of examples which are weaker out of context than in a flow of much of the same, Holt’s thoughts about his commanding officer are delivered by narrative voice which says, “Chris could tell that she was wishing she was the one to walk in an alien starship and actually talk to an extraterrestrial, but it wasn’t getting in the way of her professionalism.” And, earlier, Holt says to a White House bigwig, “I don’t know what agency or organization you represent, but your ignorance and ill-informed suggestions are counterproductive,” and, at the end of the paragraph, he astutely observes, “Shit, I bet I just made an enemy.

That last introduces one of the other problems, which is the characterization, especially of Holt. He is described by the alien AI as “the human with the thinking anomaly” and thinks of himself as a “type A personality.” I had to laugh when, again via narrative voice, he reflects that “getting along was hard work and sometimes he failed” because I hardly ever saw him succeed. As a perhaps autistic or otherwise atypical person, this may all be understandable but he’s much like a dramatic Sheldon Cooper without the depth and generation of sympathy such a drama needs. His passion for astronomy, exemplified by some backstory regarding his childhood telescope, comes through and he actually is astute when he thinks that people who manipulate others for personal gain are “assholes” and that he’s doesn’t want to be “that kind of asshole,” but he still is a kind of asshole. Further, other characters who are intended to be unpleasant obstructions like Fuji (as part of the first crew) and Janhunen (as part of both crews) are overdone or lacking in other dimensions. More importantly, a crewmember warns against anthropomorphizing the alien AI, noting that it “may sound human and speak English, but it is far from being human.” This is as it should be but, aside from its timescales and capabilities (often ruthless capabilities) it doesn’t really seem sufficiently alien most of the time. The humans can hardly be blamed for anthropomorphizing it.

The third problem involves both the current political scenario of 2065 and the extremely simplified distorted history the AI takes us through. If someone had written science fiction in the 1980s about official US policy being to undercut NATO and the US intelligence agencies in favor of a Russian dictator and to engage in economic warfare against Canada, it would have been prophetic, but also would have made for preposterous reading. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction should be plausible. And, in this, I just don’t buy a Caliphate (though we’ll see what happens now that the US has screwed up Iraq and is on the verge of screwing up Afghanistan) or the cozy relationship between the US and China when China still seems to be a “communist” dictatorship whose only change in 45 years has been to engage in “infamous” genetic engineering to make tall, strong, genius taikonauts. Unfortunately, I do more or less buy the possibility of the India depicted in this book.

Regardless of what one thinks about the political scenario, after back-to-back infodump chapters in 16 and 17, the story does begin to take off with the second mission, pitting those nations against each other in a thriller-like fashion which, after seeming like a distraction in the first part, comes to produce an interesting counterpoint to the activities in space with immensely powerful entities much as the movie 2010 did it. I know it’s not a real popular movie and I’ve forgotten how closely it hews to the book, but I love the movie and this book found that vein of earthly and astronomical scopes and excitement which had me carried away despite myself. The problems don’t go away, but they do finally get drowned out by the velocity and power of events.

Finally, the story does make an important point about humanity needing to develop a space-faring civilization (because, as it says on page 14, if we stay here, “some virus might wipe us out”) and, by focusing on Holt’s loneliness and showing how that can drive even AIs insane and indicating that our species is also alone but may not have to be, all its nuts and bolts of de Broglie transmitters and solar gravity lenses [2] has a human interest. I can’t recommend this for all readers but if you are like me and enjoy stories with near-future tangible spaceships and aliens you may enjoy it as much as I ultimately did or if you aren’t like me in the sense of being bothered by the occasional writing lapse, you may like it even more.

With the last Baen book I read, I congratulated the staff on excellent proof-reading but can’t say the same for this one because, when it rains, it really pores. There are some things like “vision-related” not having its hyphen (43) but the two that really stuck out were “poured” (7) and “pouring” (363) when “pored” and “poring” were intended.

[1]Examples of awkward writing:

  • The lowercase roman numeral chapters are focused exclusively on the alien AIs in flashback, yet include things like Saturn being “breathtaking” (149) and a probe that’s “about the same size as a schoolbus,” (204) which don’t immerse one in an alien AI perspective.
  • A character says, “Look at the surface. It’s damaged. Severely damaged. And the damage is extensive.” (121) This is technically not repetitive so much as, “Statement. Emphasis. Scope,” but it reads like DamageDamageDamage.
  • A character says, “Given the collegial atmosphere among our colleagues…” (215)
  • One character says “I never dreamed I would get to see something so beautiful in person” and another replies, “Neither did I, but I always dreamed of it.” (224) If the first had said something like “I never seriously thought” it would work.
  • We’re told that an alien avatar (repeatedly described as a gelatinous sort of “beach ball” (e.g., 369, 372) which does not have the intended effect for anyone who has seen Dark Star) “enveloped [Holt] like a hot knife sliding into butter.” This is precisely backwards but that’s understandable as butter rarely envelops a hot knife.
  • And the winner: a character is speaking to an audience and educates them about Saturn’s moon, “Methone, pronounced mi-THOH-nee.” (171)

Examples of conceptual awkwardness:

  • Holt determines the age of the artifact by the “size of the dust layer, the pitting from the occasional micrometeoroid strike” (28) when that should probably be the “depth” of the dust layer and I wonder how you can determine the age of something by its abrasions when you don’t know what it’s made of: strikes would be rare, regardless, but would have a greater effect on a weak material than a strong one. Speaking of determining the age of things, a single reference is made to a CEO having “the best anti-aging treatments his wealth could buy” and, though he’s seventy-one, he “looked more like a man in his mid-thirties.” (17) Only a few pages later, Holt thinks a woman could be “no more than thirty-five years old” and wonders “how someone so new to the political scene” could be in her position,” (31) when the natural thought might be that she’s been rejuved just like Holt’s boss.
  • The alien says, “Send Chris only,” (272) and a half-dozen pages later, when Chris and another arrive, the alien observes that “Two were not summoned,” and Chris replies, “You did not prohibit anyone from accompanying me.” While it may be true that the alien AI didn’t vaporize the second man, it sure lets Chris get away with some obvious sophistry. But that may figure, since the alien AI isn’t the most logical: it needs repairs made, time is of the essence, there are several people it could get to help… and it attempts to explicitly summon a single worker? Worse, when the alien AI first attempts to get the humans to help and they decide to block the incoming nuke with one of their ships (122), it doesn’t tell them that “it knew the missile contained multiple warheads,” (138) before the humans get one of their ships blown up to no purpose.
  • The caliphate plots to slow the American ship enough for the Indians to catch up, but it’s vitally important that the Indians not actually beat the Americans to Methone. So they come up with a plan. (182) When it’s implemented, we get the “You can’t fire me–I quit!” (or “an attempt to defuse the reader’s incredulity with a pre-emptive strike”) when we’re told “it was just short of amazing that one of the returning miners was actually a Caliphate sympathizer–a sleeper agent.” (191) Worse, the plan essentially ends the American mission until they exercise great ingenuity and come up with an alternative that will get them there just about three days ahead of the Indians. Just like the Caliphate wanted. But the Caliphate could not have known that!

[2] One thing that really bugs me (though, on the bright side, it gives the book a “classic SF” feel), is that there’s no nanotech to speak of. I figure the goop used to fix Holt’s arm is some other sort of alien magic but if it is nanotech, that’s even worse because then it does exist but is not generally deployed. On the flipside, there are nice notes about quantum computing re-establishing Moore’s law and how discovery of an alien artifact causes tech stocks to crash and a nice (well, awful, of course) assassination of someone using a disease genetically tailored for one.