Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review - Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn by Isaac Asimov

Short Review: The Sirians try to claim Saturn, and it is up to Lucky Starr to stop them without causing an interstellar war.

While Earth dithers
The Sirians seize Titan
Lucky saves the day

Full review: In the 1950s Isaac Asimov was approached to create a character that could form the basis of a science fiction television series. Writing under the pseudonym Paul French, he produced David Starr, Space Ranger, modeling his hero as a sort of interplanetary Lone Ranger, complete with a Martian-born sidekick to fill in for Tonto in the form of the diminutive and pugnacious Bigman. Although the television series never materialized, Asimov wrote six books featuring his dashing hero (known through the rest of the books in the series by his nickname "Lucky", since Asimov thought David didn't seem like the name of a space faring hero). The Rings of Saturn is the sixth, and final, book in the series.

Although he had originally envisioned Starr as a semi-sanctioned crime fighter in outer space, the story more or less morphed into a spy series, with Lucky taking the side of the Earth against her Cold War rival from the star system of Sirius. The Sirians are not aliens, but are instead men originally from Earth who had moved to the stars. Although the struggle between Earth and Sirius has some overtones similar to the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, the attitudes of the Spacers seem much more like those of members of the Nazi Party. Although the Earth government is ostensibly democratic in nature (in contrast to the autocratic Sirian government), the unelected "Council of Science" wields substantial power and seems to add an elitist faction to the structure of the government.

Several elements that crop up in Asimov's adult novels show up in this book. Reflecting his novels such as The Caves of Steel or The Naked Sun, the Spacers are heavily reliant upon robot labor, disdainful of the "rabble" of Earth, and believe that those who ventured to the stars are simply superior men. The Three Laws of Robotics feature fairly prominently in the story, as does the idea that one could attempt to get around the First Law (which bars robots from harming humans) by redefining humanity in a manner that would include "superior" Sirians, and exclude "inferior" Earthmen.

The story itself is a fairly straightforward Cold War conflict. The Sirians establish a base upon Saturn's moon Titan, claiming that as it was uninhabited, it is fair game. The Earth espouses the position that star system integrity cannot be compromised, and threatens war, which plays into the Sirian's hands as they wish to cast Earth as the aggressor, and thus rally the other outer systems to their cause. Lucky is called upon to dislodge the Sirian base and avert a war while doing so. As this is a novel aimed at younger readers, the trap Lucky sets for his Sirian adversaries is not particularly hard to spot, but it is fairly clever, and the story is decently executed.

A secondary goal of the series is to impart scientific information to the intended audience of juvenile readers, and despite the fact that this books was originally written in 1958, the science relating to Saturn mostly holds up. Although some of the details are wrong in small ways (for example, Titan is identified as the third largest moon in the Solar System, when it is in fact, the second largest), most of the data inserted into the story is reasonably accurate. I do question one major plot point, that being Lucky Starr using the Cassini Division to pass from above Saturn's rings to below them. In the 1950s, the Cassini Division was believed to be mostly empty, but data from the Voyager probes showed that there is much more material in this part of the rings than had previously been thought. As a result, Lucky's maneuver would have been, at a minimum, much more hazardous, and might be impossible.

As the last of the Lucky Starr novels, The Rings of Saturn is a decent finale to the series. It is also the most like an adult Asimov novel, which might serve to help younger readers interested in more science fiction of similar nature transition to reading something like I, Robot or Foundation. With equal parts science and well-plotted intrigue plus a dash of impetuous hot-headed comic relief courtesy of the always amusing Bigman, this final adventure of Lucky Starr is a decent book that any young science fiction fan will probably enjoy.

Note: Although the cover of this edition states that this book is "Number 5 in the Series", this book is, in fact, the sixth book in the Lucky Starr series. This might be explained by the fact that this edition was issued in England, and thus may not have counted David Starr, Space Ranger as part of the series, since the practice there was to omit the "Lucky Starr and the" portion of the titles found in the American editions. Other than that possibility, I have no idea why this edition is misnumbered.

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