Sunday, May 06, 2018

Fortnightly Book, May 6

The next several weeks will be quite busy, so a lighter read seems to be in order.

Due to the success of the run of the Lone Ranger, whose television run had begun in 1949, producers cast about for some new variation that would be suitable for television, which was still a fairly new medium. Some science fiction programs -- 2000 Plus on the Mutual Broadcasting System and Dimension X on NBC were the most obvious examples -- had been doing fairly well, so this may have led to the proposal, pitched to Isaac Asimov in 1951, for a science fiction analogue of the Lone Ranger -- a Space Ranger. The idea was to bring out a novel to build up some prior interest and then follow up with a series. Asimov, not much of a fan of what he had seen thus far on television, said he would only do it if he could do it under a pseudonym, and it was agreed. Asimov began writing, using the pseudonym 'Paul French', and finished David Starr: Space Ranger in two months. It was published soon after. The TV series fell through completely (probably because of conflict with another 'space ranger' series, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger), which in Asimov's view was the best possible result. Asimov continued to write in the series. He quickly became tired of writing under a pseudonym; when they were later put out in new editions, he insisted that his real name be on the cover. There are six Lucky Starr books in total:

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 Mercury (1956)
Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957)
Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958)

The stories get more obviously Asimovian as time goes by, with typical mysteries and even the Three Laws of Robotics showing up at one point; the tone of the stories also becomes less the Wild-West-in-Space of the first book and more suggestive of Cold War espionage.

The first Asimov works I ever read were the Norby books he wrote with Janet Asimov (Boys' Life had serialized some of the stories in comics form, which had led me to pick up the Norby books), and I enjoyed those enough that I picked up the next Asimov books I could find, which were David Starr: Space Ranger and Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, after which I read all the rest. Some features of the former, vaguely, and of the latter, vividly, have stuck with me through the years. They are quite solid science fiction adventure stories, and from a unique period, still bearing some of the earlier optimism of science fiction, before it became clear just how utterly hostile most of the planets in the Solar System are for life, that period where Venus would have been a hot, tropical ocean, and Mercury was thought to show one side to the Sun at all times, and the other planets were probably inhabited by some kind of robust life. While Martian canals were regarded skeptically by astronomers, those astronomers had reason to think parts of the Martian surface were covered with something like algae. Asimov seems to have later been a bit embarrassed that these works turned out to be so wrong about the planets, but the stories themselves are probably the better for having been written at a time when everyone was overly optimistic.

So, since I have an omnibus edition, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr, that will be the next fortnightly book. The entire series has some interesting ideas in common with the Foundation novels and the Robot novels of the 1950s, given some rather different twists; and they are in some ways more fun works, real adventures, that served as the germination grounds for other ideas that Asimov uses in more famous works later.

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