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The Adventures of Lucky Starr - Summer of Asimov I


Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.


The Adventures of Lucky Starr
I wasn't picturing Joe Pesci and a young Peter Weller

In the early fifties, Asimov was commissioned to write a series of young adult short stories--novellas, really--that could serve as the basis for a television series akin to a sci-fi version of The Lone Ranger. Asimov, notoriously skeptical of screen adaptations large and small, decided to write under the pseudonym Paul French when he created Lucky Starr, the "Space Ranger." Plans for the character to appear on TV fell through, but Asimov enjoyed the exercize enough to pen a total of six Lucky Starr stories, the first three of which I'll cover today. (I'll get to the other three next year, concatenated in the volume The Further Adventures of Lucky Starr.)

These stories are Asimov having fun, a seamless blending of his love for mystery (the man was a Baker Street Irregular, after all) and his love for sci-fi fantasy. While a lot of the science details became dated almost immediately after publication (we now know Venus is not covered by a tropical ocean, for example), the stories are entertaining, if a little kitschy to modern readers. Asimov is clearly trying to instill a lot of wholesome scientific thinking in his younger readers, and he doesn't get as bogged down by minutae as Heinlein does in his juveniles. Fans of the pulpy fifties aesthetic would be hard-pressed to find anything quite as well-done as Lucky Starr.


David Starr--Space Ranger
(first published 1952)
David Starr--Space Ranger
David Starr--Space Ranger
(first published 1952)
David Starr--Space Ranger

Even though it starts with descriptions of transparent tabletops made of force fields and exotic food grown on Mars, there is no doubt within the first two or three pages that what you're reading is primarily a murder mystery. Make no mistakes; it's also a comic-book-style origin story for a superhero possessed of alien technology that deals with some pretty wild stuff, but David Starr, with his fake indentities and powerful deductive skills, has more in common with Sherlock Holmes than he does Flash Gordon.

Asimov's writing style is brisk and clear, not as technical as Clarke's nor as florid as Heinlein's, and his characters are incredibly vivid. There are sequences in this story that really stick in my mind, like the low-gravity fist fight on the Martian surface or the suspenseful hike through the most deadly dust storm imaginable, and there are moments that feel like precursors to the original Star Trek, such as David's mental communion with non-corporeal aliens. As the launching point for a franchise of young adult novellas, it's promising to say the least.


Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids
(first published 1953)
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids
(first published 1953)
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

This story has a lot of potential--it involves deeply personal stakes for our hero, throws space battles in the mix, and introduces the broader threat of the Sirians--but it follows the basic formula of the previous story a bit too much. There's a bad-tempered henchman who immediately tries to kill Lucky in single combat and a mastermind who is hiding in plain sight for most of the story, but probably more unforgivable is the fact that Lucky only dons his superhero mask once, when nobody is even around to see it. I appreciate that the villains are actually a bit smarter this time around--they seem to be a step ahead of Lucky quite a lot--but it's kind of a shame that the Space Ranger, an alter ego we were promised in the previous story would become infamous, doesn't help out more.

Of all three of the stories I'm covering this week, this one is the most scientifically accurate, though it's still more fantasy than hard science-fiction. The part where Lucky flies through the corona of the sun is particularly good, and the idea of space hermits living on tiny asteroids is fairly ingenious. However, the action beats aren't as memorable this time around, with Asimov's descriptions of space battle not being quite as well-realized as his descriptions of action on the ground.


Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus
(first published 1954)
Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus
Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus
(first published 1954)
Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus

Even though the Space Ranger once again fails to be a major player in the plot--this time, Lucky doesn't put on the mask even once--this is still my favorite of the first three Lucky Starr stories. It shakes up the formula a lot more and deals in a more fantastical mystery. The setting is also the most interesting, with the underwater city of Aphrodite proving to be more alive and full of surprises than the Martian farms, and with the oceanic dogfight with a giant, mind-controlled behemoth proving to be more interesting than the space battles among the asteroids.

This story also doesn't hold back information as much as the previous story did, with most of the mystery unveiled by the half-way point of the story, after which it becomes more a question of how our heroes can deal with the problem than why they've needlessly hidden critical information from the reader. The final chapter does feel a bit too similar to the climax of the original "David Starr--Space Ranger," but all in all, the main plot is more interesting and consistent, built upon ideas introduced in that original story.


I'm kind of glad Lucky Starr never became a TV show in its day, because I can't imagine it possibly working. It might work a little better today, with the improved quality of modern television, but I think producers and filmmakers would be too likely to misunderstand the Space Ranger by treating him like Iron Man or something. Given the disastrous flop that was John Carter, though, I doubt anyone in Hollywood is in a big rush to adapt a character whose origin story involves Martians.

I look forward to finishing the Lucky Starr stories next year, and though I hope the titular Space Ranger makes more appearances, I'd be perfectly happy to just read more of Asimov's young adult sci-fi mystery stories. I've even been reading them to my son.



-e. magill 5/21/2020


SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS:
Diane Magill-Davis
John Burrill
Warren Davis

Become a Patron today!
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SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS:
Diane Magill-Davis
John Burrill
Warren Davis

Become a Patron today!
patreon.com/emagill


THE SUMMER OF
ISAAC ASIMOV, PART I:
  • The Adventures of Lucky Starr
  • The Complete Robot
  • Bicentennial Man (film)
  • The Caves of Steel
  • The Naked Sun
  • The Robots of Dawn
  • Robots and Empire
  • I, Robot (film)
  • Pebble in the Sky
  • The Stars, Like Dust
  • The Currents of Space
  • The Gods Themselves

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