Saturday, May 19, 2018

Isaac Asimov, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr

Introduction

Opening Passages: Asimov knows how to open, so it's worthwhile to see each one. From David Starr--Space Ranger:

David Starr was staring right at the man, so he saw it happen. He saw him die. (p. 11)

From Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids:

Fifteen minutes to zero time! The Atlas waited to take off. The sleek, burnished lines of the space-ship glittered in the bright Earthlight that filled the Moon's night sky. Its blunt prow pointed upward into empty space. Vacuum surrounded it and the dead pumice of the Moon's surface was under it. The number of its crew was zero. There wasn't a living person aboard. (p. 129)

From Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus:

Lucky Starr and John Bigman Jones kicked themselves up from the gravity-free Space Station No. 2 and drifted toward the planetary coaster that waited for him with its air lock open. Their movements had the grace of long practice under non-gravity conditions, despite the fact that their bodies seemed thick and grotesque in the space suits they wore. (p. 246)

From Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury:

Lucky Starr and his small friend, John Bigman Jones, followed the young engineer up the ramp toward the air lock that led to the surface of the planet Mercury.

Lucky thought: At least things are breaking fast. (p. 361)

From Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter:

Jupiter was almost a perfect circle of creamy light, half the apparent diameter of the moon as seen from Earth, but only one seventh as brightly lit because of its great distance from the sun. Even so, it was a beautiful and impressive sight. (p. 475)

From Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn:

The Sun was a brilliant diamond in the sky, just large enough to the naked eye to be made out as something more than a star; as a tiny white-hot pea-sized globe. (p. 592)

Summary: David Starr is the youngest member of the Council of Science, an advisory body whose advice seems to be taken as considerably more than advisory, in what is variously called the Terran Federation, the Terrestrial Empire, the Solar Confederation, and the Solar Federation of Worlds. We follow his adventures through the Solar System as he uncovers plots of various kinds. The first book tries to stay true to its Lone Ranger origins, with Lucky obtaining a personal shield (his mask); after the first book, this mask then plays virtually no role whatsoever, and by the end of the series one of Lucky's problems is that everyone knows who he is, so being a masked ranger seems to have been Lucky's only failure.

An interesting feature of all the stories is that they take standard tropes and turn them in a new direction. A man who would ordinarily be a typical mad scientist character turns out to be just alone and unhappy; a story that would ordinarily be a revenge story ends with mere persuasion; an attempt to control minds becomes recognized as a brilliant discovery; the sinister Sirians, while genuinely sinister, are sometimes just being framed; deaths apparently connected turn out to be unrelated; the leak for a secret project turns out not to be either human or alien; the Sirians' most aggressive move is foiled by a diplomatic vote. And in all of the tales, means that are sinister are not seen as inherently so: Lucky's detective work doesn't just solve mysteries, but advances the frontiers of science, to the benefit of all.

While there are some inconsistencies throughout the works, the real weakness of the books, I think, is the Council of Science. The books themselves recognize the potential issues with an unelected body of men having virtually unlimited sway over matters of government -- at least, Mercury does, but this is quite limited, and by the last books, Lucky keeps telling people that he outranks them, which raises all sorts of unaddressed issues about how the Council of Science even works. Because of this, it's often unclear what's at stake. We find a similar problem with the Sirians, although the Sirians we actually learn more about (they are very much like the Solarians in the Robot novels). This is, I think, the primary way in which the book's unrelenting optimism gets in the way of the stories -- we really don't know much about this shadowy organization that seems to work more like a high-tech intelligence agency than any scientific institution we know.

But in other respects the optimism of the books makes for excellent reading. Scientific progress is a mythic idea; it is capable of epic scope and inspiring detail; portrayed well, it has a sublimity that both overwhelms and exalts. The difficulty is always the 'progress' part: you can't have a progress without a teleology, and specific set of ends, that tells you whether you are going in the right direction. But if you posit the direction, even as a primitive, you can build beautiful stories, as long as the direction is something you can bring your reader to grasp as a good thing. Asimov here does this better than he does elsewhere, because it is a very human direction, and because each apparent danger becomes a stepping stone to something more human and beneficial to all.

Favorite Passage:
But Lucky shook his head. "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," he added thoughtfully, "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."

"Well, maybe," said Bigman, unsatisfied, "but I don't like that Swenson."

Lucky laughed and reached out to tousle the Martian's hair. "Nor I, but why worry about that now. Out there are the stars, and who knows where we'll be going next week, or why?" (p. 469)

Recommended: Recommended; all of them are worth a read if it comes your way. If you only do one, Venus is the best.


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Isaac Asimov writing as Paul French, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr, Science Fiction Book Club in arrangement with Doubleday (New York: 2001).

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