Author: Isaac Asimov
Type: Fiction, short stories
Full title: The Martian Way and Other Stories
Published: 1955 (this collection), 1952-1954 (original stories)
I read it: July 2015
This $2 paperback caught Laura’s eye because the weekend that we perused Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, we were partway through reading The Martian. Used bookstores are great places to poke around for some Asimov, and this one in particular with its clever red page edges was a clear winner.
The title story is one of only four in this slim collection. It tells the tale of a few “Scavengers” out on a routine, not-quite-legal mission. They are Martians, a few generations from the first colonizers of Mars. They travel space in pairs to scavenge water from the atmosphere, which they need for their planet. The water comes from Earth, after being released by spaceships that need it for propulsion. Earth politicians get it in their head that the Martians are opportunists who are effectively stealing Earth’s resources without permission. In turn, the Martians write off those on the boring planet as “Grounders” and “dirt-eating farmers.”
This tale is about human expansion into the universe, and overall is daring and celebratory in a manner that Carl Sagan would appreciate. It’s not without its drama—the Scavengers fret about leaving family behind, keeping up their profession, and risking their lives to venture further out and become independent of Earth. The phrase “the Martian way” is spoken by the characters to capture this sense of enterprise that the Earth folk lack. There’s also the passion for aesthetics that Asimov is familiar for, when he writes about the feeling of the explorers drifting through space and finding “complete peace in the middle of a beauty-drenched universe.”
The second story, “Youth,” also focuses tightly on its title. A bit thin on story development, it tells parallel stories of species crash-landing and first being discovered by the youth of an alien planet. It basically serves to reemphasize the point that a discerning extra-terrestrial visitor “would not harm the young of an intelligent species,” at the very least for the sake of its own safety. The story is very pro-youth, pro-patience, and anti-shoot first, ask questions later. Score another one for Asimov.
“The Deep” kicks off with a great first sentence: “In the end, any particular planet must die.” It nicely echoes the previous story in that it features a species that could be the same as the aliens presented in “Youth,” as if Asimov finished one story only to furiously start another before he lost a new thread. “The Deep” once again explores colonization and expansion, the concepts of humanness vs. alienness, and, most specifically, the mysterious qualities of a parent-child bond. It’s one of the strongest entries, along with the final selection, “Sucker Bait.”
The fourth story is the longest, probably enough to earn it novella status. This made me wonder why the entire book wasn’t called “Sucker Bait,” but I suppose that’s not quite as appealing as the chosen title. Either way, it’s a quality tale that Asimov uses to bring several of the book’s themes home. Psychology is big here, focusing on the capabilities of special humans instead of alien intelligences. Civilization’s expansion and need for more space is the central driver as a specialized crew explores a planet that houses a mystery: the complete death of earlier colonizers. The thirst for knowledge is balanced with the awe of space travel (“figures are one thing and stars are another”) and human unease of confronting the unknown raises interesting questions (at one point a character points out, “You’re watching the birth of a superstition, and that’s something, isn’t it?”). An intriguing slice of humanity is packed into “Sucker Bait.”
This book strikes me as an appropriate starting point for a newcomer to try out Isaac Asimov. I’d recommend these four stories over the mostly shorter, but less impactful, ones in Buy Jupiter. And you can get the full breadth of the author’s style and interests without being pinned down to a novel. It’s still no overstatement that the covers of these books boldly proclaim him to be the master of science fiction.
Cover art corner: Speaking of covers, this one is gorgeously effective. A strange planet hangs in a rainbow of colors. The top half shows a glistening mass of designed structures, its middle is circumscribed by a zipping spacecraft, and the bottom half is covered in dimness and cracking foundations. A satellite burns in the distance, and a probe or ship floats from the foreground toward the planet. Someone at Fawcett Crest 60 years ago knew what they were doing.