Friday, January 02, 2015

Lucky Starr's lessons for life in space - a tribute to Isaac Asimov

Like many an archaeologist, as a child my fascination with the past went hand-in-hand with a fierce desire for the other worlds of the future. And like so many others of my generation and before, the fiction of Isaac Asimov was massively influential. In his sparse prose and sardonic humour, he opened up realms of philosophy that extended from the surface of the Earth to the furthest reaches of space and time.

My favourites included short stories Nightfall (1941), The Last Question (1956), and The Dead Past (1956), and novels The Stars Like Dust (1952), the Lucky Starr series and the original Foundation trilogy. I read them over and over again (and still do, to be honest).

(And just quietly, Jonathan Nolan, writer of Interstellar, may be going to make a film of Foundation ....).

Some of them stand the test of time better than others, and I guess that is why they stay favourites. The Lucky Starr young adult series is still a very entertaining read, and there are some aspects of it that I've often found in the back of my mind when writing about space archaeology. My two favourites are The Oceans of Venus (1954) and The Rings of Saturn (1958).

Lucky Starr and life in the solar system.

Venus was a mystery until the 1960s. With an impenetrable sheath of clouds and limited data, no-one knew what surface conditions on Venus might be and there was much room for speculation. Was Venus a dry desert planet, awash in oceans of carbonic acid, studded with pools of molten metal, or lush and swampy, a bit like Palaeozoic Earth (from 542 to 251m years ago)?

Asimov's Venus is an ocean world inhabited by telepathic frog-like creatures. Over the surface of the ocean grows a crust of seaweed that forms the main resource of the human colonies, living in domes on the ocean floor. Lucky and his sidekick Bigman find out that the V-frogs have been manipulating the human inhabitants to protect their own interests, and needless to say, they foil the plot. The V-frogs are rare examples of Asimovian aliens; he stopped writing about them in the 1960s.

This is actually Sealab 2021 ... but you get the idea. Nowadays it's all about floating cities.
The enticing vision of a Venus teeming with life was dented by NASA's Mariner flyby mission in 1962, and destroyed by data from the USSR's Venera missions from the 1960s onwards. Sadly, Venus had surface temperatures of around 430 C and pressure over a ninety times that of Earth, and not an ocean in sight.

So no Venusian frogs for us. But I still love this novel for the suspenseful plot, and for the sense it gives of just how quickly our knowledge of the solar system expanded from the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. For later editions, Asimov had to write a preface explaining why his Venus was so different to that revealed by the orbiters and landers. It makes me long, though, to have experienced the days before I was born when Earthlings could dream of wonders in the rest of the solar system, before we found out that we were effectively alone.

Lucky Starr and territorial claims in space

The Rings of Saturn is interesting for a completely different reason: the underlying theme is who owns space, and the justification for territorial claims. This is a theme particularly relevant in the present, when we may see a radical revisioning of our current treaties and agreements about the exploitation of resources in the solar system.

In the Rings of Saturn, the evil Sirians from the Sirius system build a secret colony on the Saturnian moon Titan. (One of the reasons they're evil, incidentally, is because they practice eugenics. On the upside, their robots are accorded rights. Lucky is told that roboticide is considered almost as serious a crime as homicide). It has been an unwritten principle that a solar system is the territory of the first colonisers or original inhabitants, whether or not they have a presence on all bodies within it, or make use of any of the resources.

 Lucky Starr discovers the Sirian's plans and an interplanetary crisis ensues. The Sirians declare that 'An empty world is an empty world, regardless of the particular route it travels through space. We colonized it first and it is ours'. Earth had not paid any attention to the Saturn system, so it was 'use it or lose it'. However, the wily Lucky had previously planted an associate on one of Saturn's other moons, Mimas. When the Sirians remove him as a spy, Lucky argues, at an interplanetary conference before the representatives of the Outer Worlds, that the Sirians have revealed the hypocrisy of their intentions, as they were not prepared to harbour another sovereign colony within the same system.

What I find really interesting is the development of a gravitation-based principle of space tenure, if you like. The objects orbiting a more massive object are held to be part of the same entity, whether on planetary scale or solar system scale. This entity then assumes a customary law status.

At present space, and the celestial bodies of the solar system, are considered to be the common heritage of humanity and a global commons. According to existing treaties and conventions, which came into being after Asimov had written The Rings of Saturn, no-one can make a territorial claim on space and the resources of space are meant to be equitably distributed among the inhabitants of Earth. How exactly this might happen is not clear, and there are many who regard this principle as a major impediment to state-based or private organisations seeking to develop resources in space. At some point 'use it or lose it' might be back on the table.

Science and governance

In the Lucky Starr universe, Earth's Council of Science is one of the most important organisations in the solar system. Lucky is a member of this august body which is part interplanetary intelligence agency and part international advisory council. This is how James Gunn describes it:

With humanity flying about among the planets and even among the stars, science has become of constantly increasing importance, for solving both internal problems of health and energy and external problems of scientific and alien threats to Earth. So the Council of Science has become a major political force on Earth, and Starr is its best roving investigator (Gunn 1996:144-145).
The subtext is that scientists are not swayed by politics and emotions in the same way as politicians, and hence can be trusted to enforce goodness and niceness across the solar system (even if this means resorting to subterfuge from time to time). Indeed, Lucky has been referred to as a 'two-fisted philosopher king' (Weinkauf 1979-1980:130). The philosopher king is a concept from Plato's Republic: the person best suited to leadership is a philosopher who really doesn't want to do it, and has to be compelled. Because the philosopher cares nothing for personal gain, they will govern with fairness.

In Asimov's faintly utopian vision, the Council of Science represents the ascent of rationality in the world's affairs. This rationality, however, is compassionate, in contrast to the cold utilitarianism of Sirian culture. (Cold War much?)

With the current anti-science sentiment of governments in Australia, Canada and elsewhere, I've been reflecting on the importance Asimov gives to role of science in governance. We do actually have the International Council of Science, which represents all the international scientific unions, but it's not really political in the way that Asimov's Council is.

Space is no place for a girl - OR IS IT?

Let's not forget that Asimov was not writing Lucky Starr adventures for me and other girls like me. John H. Jenkins, in his fascinating account of the Lucky Starr novels, notes that they were aimed towards 12-year old boys.

Justine Larbalestier has documented a letter exchange in the pages of Astounding Stories magazine that demonstrates Asimov's opinion of the role of women in science fiction. While all very tongue-in-cheek, the exchange demonstrates some deeper issues about how women were portrayed in the genre and women as readers.

Females can breathe in a vacuum, doncha know

In 1938, Donald G. Turnbull opined in a letter to the editor (the famous John W. Campbell), that:

A woman’s place is not in anything scientific. Of course the odd female now and then invents something useful in the way that every now and then amongst the millions of black crows a white one is found.

The 18-year old Asimov could not have agreed more, replying 'When we want science-fiction, we don’t want swooning dames, and that goes double'.  Women only appeared in science fiction as romantic interests, and what had that got to do with science? In later letters, he complained that few writers wrote good female characters and everyone would be better off just leaving them out. Of course, he conceded,
we could have women-scientists. Madame Curie is immortal, so are many others. Unfortunately, instead of having a properly aged, resourceful, and scientific woman as a savant, what do we have? When there is a woman-scientist (which is very rare in fiction, believe me) she is about eighteen and very beautiful and, oh, so helpless in the face of danger (gr-r-r-r).
Another reader, Mary Evelyn Rogers, responded that the solution should be to write more realistic women into science fiction rather than doing away with them altogether. The young Asimov, however, couldn't quite untangle women from romance - he called for better written love interests, rather that giving women a role as scientists.

A decade or two later, he didn't seem to have advanced on his youthful position much. In the Lucky Starr novels, Mary S. Weinkauf observes that
there are two females here, a clinging vine and a cat (1979-1980:130).
Blissfully unaware of such gender politics as a pre-teen, I WAS Lucky Starr. I was the resourceful, scientific, two-fisted philosopher king, outwitting the thugs in space battle through my knowledge of Newtonian mechanics.

It was only later that I realised my choices were rather the clinging vine or cat. By then it was too late. I was set on the path to science.

I might even be considered, now, to be "properly aged".

Happy birthday, Isaac Asimov - long may you continue to inspire!

Gunn, James 1996 Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press (Revised Edition)

Larbalestier, Justine 2002 The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press

Weinkauf, Mary 1979-1980 [2006] In Neil Barron and Robert Reginald (eds) Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review. p 130 The Borgo Press

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