In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the first novel in Isaac Asimov’s juvenile science fiction series
Science fiction set in our own solar system arguably began with Lucian, the classical author whose short satirical piece True History paved the way for later planetary adventures using Mars, Venus, the Moon, and various other locations as the backdrop for almighty battles, fearsome imaginary monsters, and numerous ‘there and back again’ narratives. In the Victorian era, George Griffith, the contemporary of the far more famous and enduring H. G. Wells, wrote his Stories of Other Worlds, starring a newlywed couple who choose to spend their honeymoon travelling around Earth’s neighbouring planets.
But it was in the twentieth century that planetary travel really ‘took off’ in the world of science fiction. To offer just a few of the more notable and enjoyable examples, we got Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Leigh Brackett’s tales of adventure on Venus and Mars, John Wyndham’s early Martian adventures, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and Michael Moorcock’s enjoyably daft ‘Kane of Old Mars’ books. But one of the most popular science-fiction authors of the entire century, Isaac Asimov, also turned his sights on Mars and other planets from our own solar system in a sextet (sextalogy?) of novels featuring David Starr, Space Ranger. Known perhaps inevitably as ‘Lucky Starr’, this Lone Ranger of the Milky Way was conceived in the early 1950s as the protagonist for a series of books aimed at a juvenile readership – what we’d now call ‘young adult’ fiction, I suppose, although Starr is a little older than the typical young adult protagonist (being well into his twenties). This first book, David Starr, Space Ranger, was published in 1952 and later partly influenced the DC Comics hero ‘Space Ranger’.
Asimov didn’t intend the Lucky Starr novels to be considered part of his proper oeuvre, and published them under a pseudonym, Paul French. Like virtually all of his fiction, the books were written quickly, and barely redrafted: just the initial draft and then some minor emendations before being sent off for publication. This work ethic, combined with a high IQ (Asimov was a member of MENSA) and a robust constitution (he was said to need only four hours’ sleep a night), enabled Asimov to publish more than 500 books of fiction and non-fiction, spanning nine out of the ten Dewey library categories. No other writer has managed all ten; no other writer has managed nine, as Asimov did.
However, it should be said that Asimov didn’t try too hard to keep his real identity a secret. The name ‘Paul French’ may have adorned the covers of original copies of the Lucky Starr books, but references to Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in one of the follow-up books, Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, were, Asimov later recalled in one of his autobiographies, ‘a dead giveaway to Paul French’s identity for even the most casual reader’. After the initial novel, David Starr, Space Ranger (1952), five more planetary adventures followed: 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), and Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958). Such are the vagaries of charity-shop purchases and book-fair hunting, that I ended up picking up the last of these, The Rings of Saturn, as a teenager and reading it first. From a distance of two decades I can remember little about that final volume, but then perhaps my not being the man I once was isn’t the only reason for that. These books are pulp fiction, done very well, high on action and with plenty of adventure, but the concepts Asimov is dealing with don’t run as deep as, say, Hari Seldon’s psychohistory from the Foundation series (surely Asimov’s magnum opus) or the ingenious blending of science fiction and the detective novel in his quartet of Robot novels, starting with The Caves of Steel and running through to Robots and Empire.
This is not to say that David Starr, Asimov’s own Lone Ranger, is given lightweight SF fodder simply because he’s in what we’d now call a young adult novel. Instead, Space Ranger opens with a topic that’s all too current for our own time – a political poisoning – and the story takes in big business, the intersections between politics and consumerism, and many other hot topics which have only grown hotter in the sixty-plus years since this first novel appeared. If you see Space Ranger or its sequels for sale in a second-hand bookshop, they’re worth picking up, especially if you’re an Asimov fan. They’re slim, light, and fun, if totally forgettable. But they certainly qualify for decent Saturday matinee of the mind fare.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.