In the 1950s Isaac Asimov wrote six short science fiction novels for the ‘juvenile’ market, what today we would call ‘young adult.’ These were:
- DAVID STARR, SPACE RANGER (1952)
- LUCKY STARR AND THE PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS (1953)
- LUCKY STARR AND THE OCEANS OF VENUS (1954)
- LUCKY STARR AND THE BIG SUN OF MERCRUY (1956)
- LUCKY STARR AND THE MOONS OF JUPITER (1957)
- LUCKY STARR AND THE RINGS OF SATURN (1958)
They were all originally published by Doubleday, his regular publisher. I’m reading the New American Library/Signet paperback editions, published in 1971 ad 1972, with Bob Pepper cover art.
Let me stipulate that these are probably the least significant novels Asimov ever wrote. No one should start reading Asimov with these. But I’ve discovered that sometime the most ordinary novels of an era are more revealing of assumptions and attitudes of its time. The ‘classic’ novels are classic specifically because they’re out of the ordinary and do something different and unusual – they’re atypical. Typical works can be just as interesting, in different ways.
So. Why did Asimov write these books? I can speculate a little. No doubt Asimov explained why in his very detailed autobiographies (IN MEMORY YET GREEN and its sequel), but I haven’t read them and don’t even own copies. Perhaps because Robert A. Heinlein was having some success writing his ‘juvenile’ novels, at a rate of one a year (beginning with ROCKET SHIP GALILEO in 1947). Or perhaps because there was a growing library market for juveniles in general; other sf writers of the time were writing ‘juveniles’, like Wollheim and del Rey. In any case, Asimov’s six books are different than most of the others in that they concern a single recurring character. The books also provide Asimov with an opportunity to tour the solar system, as you can tell by the titles, and take the pedagogical opportunity to present the state of planetary science as it was in that era. (Actually, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucky_Starr_series notes that Asimov’s agent and publisher wanted him to write a series of books as the basis for a TV series. The series was never made, but Asimov kept writing the books, even planning a 7th, before abandoning fiction entirely for some years to write only non-fiction.)
The first book introduces us to a future some 5000 years after the atom bomb, when the solar system and galaxy are all populated. The setting is International City, on Earth, which reads like a future New York, and technical wonders like tri-television and force-fields (e.g. to provide an invisible table top) are common.
Earth’s food comes from Mars, and the action opens as David Starr, a prodigal young man and full member of the Council of Science, witnesses a diner in a restaurant collapse from having eaten a Martian plum. Learning of reports that 200 people have died from eating Martian products, David – who is impulsive and inclined to sidestep authority – sets off to Mars to investigate. He pretends to be a common worker, gets a job on a Martian farm (in a huge dome), and is alert for clues about sabotage or threats. Hearing speculation about possible Martian intelligence underground, he descends into a deep crevice and…
And eventually David solves the mystery of who’s sabotaging the Martian food and why. But that is the least interesting part of the novel. Much more interesting are these aspects of the book:
- David is an orphan, we’re told early on, the sole survivor of a pirate attack in space that killed his parents. Two friends of his father’s, Hector Conway and Augustus Henree, being unmarried, adopted David and raised him. This is told matter-of-factly (p18-19 of the Signet edition) as if entirely unremarkable.
- The highlight of the novel, and perhaps of the entire series, is David’s discovery of intelligent Martian life, deep underground, as he descends into a fissure using a silicon rope with force-field anchors. An opening appears, and his body is taken over and lifted into an airlock. He is spoken to by unseen entities who talk about matter-mind transformations (p89), how they descended underground a million years ago and have become pure mind and energy, and are sufficient living by themselves instead of exploring the universe. They suggest that David’s kind will eventually achieve such an ‘Inner Life’, despite their fragile flesh and penchant for secrecy. They decide David should be described as ‘Space Ranger’. They give him a kind of force-field mask, and return him to the surface, as if by magic.
- Here’s the reason why such an ordinary book is interesting: because here we see the commonplace assumptions and presumptions of 1950s science fiction. Force fields. Beings of pure mind and energy. Superior minds without the need for physical travel. If these sound like themes of Star Trek episodes, that’s exactly right. Star Trek, in the mid-1960s, drew on common themes of science fiction of the couple decades before it. There wasn’t much conceptually original in Star Trek; its endurance as part of our popular culture, 50 years later, is one way in which (traditional) science fiction has conquered the world.
- So this is the origin story of a superhero! David, who becomes known by his nickname Lucky in the second book, keeps his force-field mask secret. He claims to have been saved from the Martian desert by a ‘Space Ranger,’ and when necessary, takes on the identity of Space Ranger himself, wearing his mask. He’s an ordinary person with a secret identity! Wikipedia notes the character is based closely on the Lone Ranger, down to the Western-like setting on Mars, but surely Batman comes to mind as well.
- And yet, reading the following books – this superhero secret-identity angle is abandoned. Lucky uses his mask at least once more, but he never uses his secret ‘Space Ranger’ identity to intervene when he can’t himself.
- David never reveals his discovery of the Martian intelligence. He keeps that, and his mask, secret.
- All the men smoke pipes or cigars. (Curiously, Asimov came to loathe smoking, but it was common in the era of these books.)
- The future envisioned here, in International City, is oddly familiar given 5000 years have passed; but that is a very typical failure of imagination in virtually all science fiction, which underestimates the rate of change over centuries or millennia.
- Asimov imagines a society apparently run by a Council of Science, experts who decide all the important things. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
- David ‘Lucky’ Starr picks up a sidekick, the ironically nicknamed Bigman, a short loud man ever anxious to defend himself in fights, who initially befriends David and later recognizes that David and the ‘Space Ranger’ are the same person. Bigman appears in all the following books.
The second book concerns the “pirates of the asteroids,” presumably the pirates who killed Lucky Starr’s parents. Lucky’s father figures Conway and Henree prepare an unmanned rocket as a booby-trap for those pirates, but Lucky sneaks aboard. When he’s found by the pirates he pretends to be disaffected, with no opportunities for him on Earth or the colonies, and wants to join them. He’s taken to meet a wealthy hermit, Joseph Hansen, in his own private luxurious asteroid – who knew Lucky’s father, and recognizes Lucky. Escapes and pursuits ensue, with much detail about relative coordinates and positions of various asteroids. Key points:
- As with the first book, this plays out as a mystery that Lucky solves and reveals in a long speech at the end.
- This book introduces the ‘Sirians’ (presumably from Sirius, though it’s not clear in this book if these are aliens or human colonists – eventually clarified to be the latter, since all of Asimov’s early works depicted a human-only occupied galaxy) as villains, collaborating with the pirates.
- There are info-dump passages here about asteroids, moving in orbits, etc.
- With this book we see that there are one or more fistfights in every book, sometimes involving Lucky (incognito) as a means of establishing his order in a social group, sometimes with Bigman anxious to defend his honor. Was this because TV series of the times required action scenes? Certainly Star Trek exhibited the same taste for physical action, as in Westerns, a taste that had faded by the time of Trek TNG (cf Pinker).
- Lucky uses his Martian mask to protect himself as he transits across the solar system on a close pass over the sun, with much detail, calling it his ‘glimmer shield.’
- The resolution involves Lucky’s understanding that he’s met, and captured, the pirate who killed his parents. So there’s a nice emotional resolution here.
Book three takes us to Venus, and it’s the traditional Venus of early SF, a warm world decked by clouds, here imagined as inhabited by people in underwater domes. Lucky and Bigman come to Venus to investigate a charge against an old roommate of Lucky’s, Lou Evans, that he stole information and ruined a vat of yeast, the planet’s main commodity and valuable export. Action scenes: the ‘coaster’ ship used to take them to the surface crashes when the pilots suffer a blackout. A man barricades himself at a sealock and threatens to flood the city; Bigman crawls through ducts to save the day. Evans flees as if guilty; in pursuit, Lucky and Bigman’s subsea craft are buried under a huge orange ‘patch’ creature. Specific interesting bits:
- Early on a long (two-page) description of a six-legged V-frog, apparently merely a common pet, signals part of the solution – that humans are having strange blackouts due to telepathic manipulation by these frogs.
- Late in the book Lucky has telepathic contact with the frogs, who claim they distrust humans because they end life by eating meat, and threaten the extermination of humans on Venus.
- But Lucky realizes the frogs are only tools, being controlled by the bad guy, chief engineer Turner, whom when introduced earlier carries a ‘computer’ around with him always – an invention unlike anything in the galaxy, he says.
- What was Turner’s motive? Apparently just dictatorial ambitions, p141. But because he’s built this unique computer, he will be rehabilitated, not executed.
- As in the first book it seems the entire galaxy is occupied by humans, and here it’s said Earth’s system is the oldest in the galaxy, p35.
Book four, Mercury, again relies on 1950s ideas of what the planet was like – and in this case, Asimov provides a new foreword to this 1972 Signet edition to explain that Mercury does not face one side to the sun after all. (He had an analogous foreword in the Venus book.) But that’s what was thought at the time, and like one of Asimov’s robot stories, “Runaround,” the setting is the narrow band between the sunlit side and the backside forever in shadow. Lucky and Bigman come to Mercury to investigate failures that are plaguing Project Light, an ambitious project to send energy from the sun, via sub-etheric options, to Earth. They meet various supporters and critics of the project: an operative sent by a Senator on Earth afraid of wasting taxpayer money [anticipating Proxmire!], and Perverale, an observatory head afraid the project will leave Earth more vulnerable to the Sirians, among them.
- Perverale provides some background about the Sirians, humans who’ve refined themselves into a unified race, and developed positronic robots as servants. Ah ha! Asimov had written his early robot stories and early Foundation stories by the time he wrote this book, without ever suggesting why there were no robots in the empire of the Foundation. Since the Lucky Starr books might well be taken as being set in a precursor to that empire, it’s significant that he suggests reasons why some planets might have adopted the use of robots, and others not.
- Yet the discussion of robots isn’t incidental; the solution of the mystery involves a Sirian robot instructed to damage the project and is half insane from the heat. Lucky even recalls and tries to use the three laws to control it. [The books were originally published under a pseudonym, Paul French, but by including discussion of the famous three laws of robotics, Asimov was giving away the author’s actual identity.]
- This book’s fight is a duel between Bigman and another, initially held in Mercury gravity until one of the villains switches gravity back to Earth normal.
- And this book’s alien life-form is something in the old mining tunnels that feeds off heat, but which plays no part in the mystery about the project.
- And once again Asimov asserts that scientists are the ones to best run the world, p21: “In this age of Galactic civilization, with humanity spread through all the planets of all the stars in the Milky Way, only scientists could properly cope with mankind’s problems. In fact, only the specially trained scientists of the Council were adequate.”
- And yet, at the book’s very end, Lucky reflects on that hostile senator: “No, Senator Swenson is not a real cause for worry. He’s ruthless and dangerous, but for that very reason he keeps the Council on its toes, keeps us from getting flabby. Besides, the Council of Science needs its critics, just as Congress and the government do. If ever the Council began to consider itself above criticism, then the time might come when it would establish a dictatorship over the Earth, and certainly I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
Book five takes us to Jupiter, or least the moons around Jupiter. This time the project is an experimental anti-gravity ship, and again the Sirians have perhaps infiltrated the project to sabotage it.
- Lucky brings a V-frog with him to check for telepathic leaks.
- This book’s fight is a challenge to Lucky in an agrav corridor.
- Despite the hostility of the local engineers – some hundreds of men, apparently, living inside Jupiter Nine, which is riddled with caverns and corridors – to Lucky’s visit, and despite the possibility of a hidden saboteur (perhaps a robot in disguise?), the first test flight of the agrav ships gets underway. Asimov provides much detail about Jupiter and its moons and the trip.
- They land on Jupiter’s moon Io, where Bigman plays in ammonia snow and gets trapped down a crevasse. Fortunately one of the crew, the blind Harry Norrich, has brought his dog, who helps rescue Bigman. (Yes the dog wears a spacesuit too.)
- They depart. Someone sabotages the controls of the agrav ship; they land on Jupiter Five, Amalthea, for repairs, and realize that one of the crew never boarded at Io. Tracked down, that saboteur admits having sold out to the Sirians, for a decent way of life away from Earth (recalling a story Lucky used in book two).
- There is in fact a robot involved, but not in the shape of a human. (Saw this coming several chapters early on.) Not a mechanical robot; a creature with a robot mind. At the same time a biological creature, or people would have noticed.
Finally to Saturn, with its two rings – again per astronomical knowledge of the time. Lucky and Bigman come there because a suspected Sirian spy on Earth has fled in a ship toward Saturn. When Lucky, Bigman, and another Councilman, Wess, approach, they are challenged by a Sirian ship. So Lucky withdraws! But soon returns by himself to investigate whether the Sirians have occupied Saturn’s big moon Titan.
- An interesting legal point is at the core of the dispute: a so-called Hegellian Doctrine (p125), whether or not an unoccupied world is open to colonization by anyone, even if it’s in the same system as other inhabited planets. That is, is it OK for Sirians, on a planet orbiting the star Sirius, 8.6 light years away, to occupy Titan, in Earth’s own solar system?
- We get Asimov’s usual astronomical tour as they linger near Saturn: the rings, the gap, the ‘crepe ring’, the Cassini division; As in previous books, frequent descriptions of how far they are from earth, how big the nearby planet appears in the sky, how much dimmer it is than the earth or moon, etc. We also learn about the small moon Mimas, where Lucky’s ship drills a hole and hides—the moon is just a big snowball—until it emerges and they are challenged by the Sirians.
- Eventually Lucky and Bigman are taken to Titan, where a colony inside a dome looks just like Earth, with buildings and lawns. The Sirian leader, Devoure, is contemptuous of Earthmen, especially ‘deformed’ ones like Bigman – who shortly challenges him to a personal fight, and wins. (This book’s fist fight.)
- There’s some nice steady tension as the book’s climax approaches—a formal conference, on Vesta, to determine Sirian rights to Titan. Lucky is willing to testify, and his compatriots worry that he can’t help but support the Sirian case. Lucky testifies—and points out that his extraction from Mimas by the Sirians is exactly what the Sirians claim Earth is, unfairly, doing to them. Their case is lost.
- This story is more political than the others, having the flavor of the Foundation stories, with immediate action backed up by larger issues of principle.
- There’s also a strong theme in what we might understand today as nationalism vs. globalization: The Sirians are obsessed with racial purity and improving their breed, while Lucky claims the diversity of Earthmen is their strength.
So these books are pleasant but not terribly consequential. The paperbacks are all about 140 pages, and so are quick reads. They’re significant in that Asimov as always does the science right, even as he uses commonplace space opera devices like pseudo-gravity and telepathy, but especially because the books can be seen as part of Asimov’s grand project of imagining a future galactic civilization, one entirely populated by humans, that already saw its culmination in his earlier Foundation stories. And here (and also in 1950’s PEBBLE IN THE SKY, which I happen to be reading now) he was already considering how to reconcile that future with the one dominated by robots he had imagined in the stories in I, ROBOT, a concern he addressed in much greater detail in his later 1980s novels.