April 05, 2010

Wicked Cool Overlooked Books: Old Skool Asimov

Aaargh! I'm beginning to get the feeling that I cannot keep up! Surely it's not already April!

But, it is. Last month found A.F. and me doing some ruthless revisions, and I realized with horror that I had nothing for WCOB this month. And then I realized -- I've been reading this cool old book by a guy named Paul French...

By the time he died, science fiction demigod, Isaac Asimov, had nearly five hundred books in a variety of genres to his name. This prolific writer was approached by his editor in 1951, when he'd already written his first handful of books, to write a juvenile science fiction series, with the idea that the book would be used as a jumping off point for a TV series.

Now, Mr. Asimov was not a big fan of TV. I think he and I might have even agreed that the book-to-film adaptation thing is an abomination unto Nuggan. Embarrassed about the series before it even happened, Asimov invented the pen-name of Paul French just so that he could avoid being tied to what he just knew was going to be a completely crap TV series. (Way to have faith in the people paying you, Mr. Asimov.)(Though I totally feel his pain.) It took him a matter of months to craft the first volume in the series, and David Starr was born.

David Starr has a hero's tragic beginnings -- his parents both have died battling aliens, and his mother's last loving act was to shove his infant self into an escape pod, and eject him from their aircraft, all whilst still shooting with one hand. Now a newly elected member of the Council of Science, the governing body for the planets of the Solar System, of which Earth and Mars are members -- this orphaned biophysicist finds his first case dumped into his lap. In a restaurant, he witnesses a man die -- who had only taken the first few bites of his dessert.

He was poisoned, like so many others on Earth are being poisoned; dying quickly and horribly from a substance no one can trace, and no one can survive. The only clue in each of the deaths is that they were eating food from produce raised on Mars. Is someone on Mars trying to kill off Earth? The Council of Science is investigating -- and David slips out from his guardians' protection and travels to Mars to investigate the deaths for himself.

Thus, the hero begins his journey!

A.) With fact that this series was made for a TV series, and B.) with a character name like David Starr, and C.) with name of the series being Lucky Starr, you know very well that Mr. Space Ranger is going to go to Mars, kick some patootie, and solve the mystery. But, of course! But the fun is found in the style of writing -- this is supposed to be Earth in 2100, and the technology of the fifties is clearly visible on every page. All the things that people dreamed of back then are real in Starr's world. When he meets the Martians - bodiless, mind-to-mind communicators, who have surpassed the piddling annoyances of matter, in their triumph over time and space -- their tech is even better.

Each step along the archetypal hero's journey is also carefully illuminated. Starr is an orphaned child, destined for greatness, taking a journey, finding a new name, and then returning with his new position, his new strengths, and his new self all intact. There is something tremendously satisfying about reading a book which characterizes a hero's journey, despite pretty much knowing what's going to happen already from A-Z.

It's old-school science fiction - a little quaint, a little dated especially those HORRIFYING but traditional SF covers -- but spectacularly cool, in the way only Asimov could write it.

Oh, and about that TV series -- it fell through, after all Asimov's panic. The writer, intrigued by his own creation, continued to create the Lucky Starr books, and a few novels in, introduced the three laws of robotics which famously appeared in his short story Runaround, published in 1942, and in every other robot or Foundation novel he ever wrote thereafter -- so his fans soon knew the truth about Paul French.

So, that's my Wicked Cool Overlooked Book this month! There are so, so, so many Asimov books that I could pretty much read on from here to breakfast, but I like that this one has such a backstory to it on its own, and I'd never heard of it until just recently. It's a quick, classic read.

You'll find David Starr, Space Ranger and the other five books in the Lucky Starr series probably at an independent bookstore like Powells or AbeBooks, because they have stuff that's older and out of print. Look for it -- it's still out there.


Charlotte said...

Cool! I dunno as I will actually go forth and seek this out, but I will keep a look out for it...and perhaps heven buy it, which I would not have done based on the title alone. David Starr, Space Ranger indeed.

I am now wondering if I would be able to keep firing while putting my child into an escape capsule. I think not--it would probably take both hands to subdue said child. They are getting too big to empod easily.

Sarah Stevenson said...

HA! Charlotte. Your use of "empod" is cracking me up. :)

These sound like fun books. I'll have to remember to look for them next time I'm at the used bookstore--one thing I can say about our used bookstore is they have a fairly impressive collection of ancient fantasy and sci-fi...

E Wein said...


I read practically all of those when I was in high school. My aunt had them on a bookshelf when I was visiting and I found them addictive.

I was a Buck Rogers fan long before that... a natural progression, I suppose!

tanita✿davis said...

I empod. You empod.
He empods
She empods.
They empodulate.

Charlotte, I love how your mind works.

Liz: It struck me as funny that he based these on The Lone Ranger, not Buck Rogers. But, maybe Bigman is Tonto?!