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Book Review: The Wizards of Odd edited by Peter Haining

How can you go wrong with a collection of 25 stories that includes heavyweights such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Douglas Adams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Pratchett, C.S. Lewis, Fritz Leiber, Phil K. Dick, Brian W. Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and more?

To be honest, I only enjoyed about half of them. My favorites include:

“The Twonky” by Henry Kuttner – When Kerry Westerfield’s brand new cabinet radio begins walking around the house dictating Kerry’s  every move, he calls in psychiatrist pal Mike Fitzgerald, but this radio is constructed like no other… and it defends itself against anyone who might pose a threat—with fatal results.

“A Great Deal of Power” by Eric Frank Russell – When military scientists create an android assassin to kill top officials and scientists in the enemy’s ranks, they program its mind with a pure hatred of power… but what will the android do when the enemy is eliminated and those giving the orders become the powerful?

“Doodad” by Ray Bradbury – Running from the mob, Gyp Crowell finds himself in a shop called Thingamabobs, Doodads, Whatchamacallits, Hinkies, Formodaldafrays, Hootenannies, Gadgets, and Doohingies. While there, Gyp finds a device that might help him out of his predicament… in ways he didn’t expect.

“Not By Its Cover” by Phil K. Dick – When a special, translated edition of an ancient Latin book is published with animal hide cover, it is quickly discovered that certain passages in the book have been translated differently that in the paperback version, which leads to an astonishing conclusion about the animal hide covers…

“A Good Knight’s Work” by Robert Bloch – Sir Pallagyn of the Black Keep is hurled forward in time by the legendary Merlin to find the Cappadocian Tabouret in a “house of the past.” First, however, he decides to help a new found friend defeat the local mob boss…

“The Rules of Names” by Ursula K. Le Guin – Mr. Underhill lives a reclusive life in the village, practicing his wizardry with often questionable results… until a pirate named Blackbeard arrives with certain suspicions and accusations against Underhill. In response, the old bumbling sorcerer shows his true colors…

“Mythological Beast” by Stephen Donaldson – Norman is a librarian in an age of ignorance when so many among the population can barely read. Norman has a problem when he notices a horn growing in the middle of his forehead. Shortly after, his entire body begins to change into the shape of a creature than cannot be allowed to exist in a controlled society…

“The Adventure of the Snowing Globe” by F. Antsey – A man stops into a toy shoppe to purchase a present and is drawn to a snow globe containing a miniature castle. After shaking the globe, the man is transported to the real castle, meets a real princess being held prisoner by her cruel, oppressive uncle, and finds himself face to face with a real dragon…

“Zaphod Plays It Safe” by Douglas Adams – Zaphod Beeblebrox is hired by the Safety and Reassurance Administration to retrieve items of secretive nature from a crashed ship in the depths of an alien ocean. Despite Zaphod’s increasing misgivings, the authorities assure him that “it’s all perfectly safe”…

“The Odd Old Bird” by Avram Davidson – When the frivolous Prince Vlox indicates to two royal scientists that his property has been frequently visited by a rare bird, the Emperor’s wizard Eszterhazy requests that the prince capture the bird and have it sent to him. However, there is some confusion on the part of the temporary help when the bird is delivered around the same time as the cook was expecting a chicken…

“The Gnurrs Come from the Voodwork Out” by Reginald Bretnor – Quack inventor Papa Schimmelhorn arrives at the local Secret Weapons Bureau determined to demonstrate how his new invention, which resembles a bassoon, will win the war… in the most unimaginable way!

“Captain Wyxtpthll’s Flying Saucer” by Arthur C. Clarke – A pair of hapless aliens land in England on a mission to find and retrieve an intelligent human specimen only to end up incarcerated by the local police as mental patients… until the town drunk helps them escape!

“There’s A Wolf in My Time Machine” by Larry Niven – A time traveller finds himself in a parallel dimension where mankind evolved from wolves instead of apes.

“2BRO2B” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. – In order for newborns to be permitted to live in a dystopian future under strict population control, someone must volunteer to die. What happens when a married couple is expecting triplets, but could locate only one volunteer?

The Wizards of Odd




Book Review: The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

After releasing I, Robot, Isaac Asimov produced an anthology of eight stories dealing with his Three Laws of Robotics. Some of these are standalone tales published in various magazines in the 1940s, while others were written later and include some characters from I, Robot, such as Dr. Susan Calvin.

Of the eight, my favorites include:

“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” – A confused robot, intended for work on the moon, wanders through the woods until it encounters Randolph Payne working at his shack. Although fearful at first, Randolph quickly surmises that the robot’s manufacturer would pay a handsome reward for its return since robots were not yet permitted for use on Earth. Payne convinces AL-76 that his work assignment has changed and keeps him occupied at the shack—until he realizes the robot’s true purpose…

“Victory Unintentional” – Three robots are sent to the surface of Jupiter as emissaries from the human colony on Ganymede. The inhabitants of Jupiter have continually threatened to exterminate the “vermin infesting Ganymede” as soon as they finish development on a forcefield that will allow them to leave the planet and invade the largest of the Jovian moons. However, a hilarious case of mistaken identity leads them to a change in plan…

“Let’s Get Together” – In a dystopian future where the world is divided between two superpowers, the United States government learns that the “other side” has advanced further in robotics than anticipated—to the point of creating robots in the form of humans. Further, it is revealed that certain American scientists who spent time on the “other side” might have been replaced by automatons and if brought together in the same place at the same time, would detonate a devastating bomb…

“Risk” – Orbiting an asteroid known as HyperBase, a test ship called Parsec fails to launch into hyperspace as planned. There is no way to determine if a component of the ship or its robot pilot is at fault without sending a human to investigate. However, the Parsec is unstable and could launch into hyperspace at any moment. Since every animal used in hyperspace experiments either died or returned as a mindless vegetables, Dr. Gerald Black is none too thrilled about being ordered to undertake the mission…

“Galley Slave” – In an effort to assimilate robots into society and eliminate prejudice against them, U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Incorporated chooses Northeastern University for an experiment. A robot named EZ-27 (aka “Easy”) is brought in to provide proofreading services for academic papers and textbooks written by the faculty. However, when one professor’s galley is drastically altered, ruining his reputation after it’s publication, he files a lawsuit against the company. But what happens when Easy is allowed to speak in court?


The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov


Book Review: Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn by Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French)

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has been claimed by invaders from the planet Sirius, the first of many extrasolar Earth colonies. Over several generations, the Sirians and their allies on many of the outer worlds turned against their planet of origin, citing social, scientific, and military superiority after generations of ethnic cleansing. Despite an intergalactic law stating that any planet in an inhabited solar system belongs to the people of that system, the Sirians have constructed a military base on Titan as their first step to attacking Earth. The Council of Science, an organization sworn to protect Earth and its neighboring planets with minimal violence, fears that the Sirians have become too powerful to defeat.

After a Sirian spy named Dorrance escapes Earth custody, Councilmen David “Lucky” Starr and and his tiny-but-mighty companion John Bigman Jones set off after him in their ship, the Shooting Starr along with several vessels from the Terrestial fleet. They pursue Dorrance into Saturn’s rings, where his vessel is destroyed. However, a Sirian vessel contacts the Shooting Starr and orders it away from Saturn, informing him that the Sirians now occupy Titan and any aggression from Earth will be considered an act of war. Starr retreats and orders the Terrestial fleet to do the same.

Later, Starr, Bigman, and fellow councilman Ben Wessilewsky return to Saturn in an unauthorized expedition aboard the Shooting Starr to find a information capsule that Dorrance had stolen from Earth. When Sirian ships again detect their ship and pursue, Starr “crashes” the Shooting Starr on Mimas, Saturn’s closest moon. There, he leaves Wessilewsky behind and takes off again with Bigman–only to be captured by Sirian forces. The leader of the Sirian base on Titan, an irascible tyrant named Devoure, attempts to coerce Starr into confessing to espionage and to testify against Earth at an upcoming peace conference on the asteroid Vesta. Devoure offers to spare Bigman’s life in exchange for Starr’s compliance.

Will Lucky Starr betray Earth at the conference and join the Sirians? What of Councilman Wessilewsky on Mimas? Will the other planets vote against Earth and allow the Sirians to occupy Titan as a prelude to war?

Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn is the final volume in a series of six. Much like its predecessor, Moons of Jupiter (reviewed here), Rings of Saturn takes on a noticeably darker tone than the first four books.

I was forced to wonder if perhaps Asimov started off with the intention of creating a light-hearted space adventure, but later allowed real world tensions of the time, such those between USA and the USSR, to inform his fiction. The tension and stakes in Rings of Saturn are higher than they’d been in the previous books, but it could also be construed that each story builds upon the last to culminate in this final confrontation between Earth and Sirius. Though it’s easy to see the potential for future adventures in this universe.



Book Review: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter by Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French)

On Jupiter’s most remote moon Adrastea, or Jupiter Nine, a revolutionary anti-gravity project, known as Agrav, is under investigation—again. This time, the Council of Science has sent their most resourceful troubleshooter, David “Lucky” Starr, and his diminutive sidekick, John Bigman Jones. Though what Bigman lacks in stature, he compensates for in bravery and bravado—a combustible mix that often ignites trouble for the pair.

Upon arrival on Jupiter Nine, Starr and Jones are immediately met with hostility from workers who have been repeatedly questioned and interrogated by government authorities in search of a possible spy from Sirius, an Earth colony settled generations ago that had turned against its planet of origin.

In an attempt to gain an advantage in their search for a possible Sirian infiltrator, Starr brings with him a V-Frog, a small amphibious creature from Venus that possesses remarkable empathic ability. Through this creature, Starr and Bigman hope to determine if the spy is human or automaton.

Unfortunately, an intruder kills the V-Frog in their quarters shortly after their arrival, leaving Starr bereft of his main tool for detection. However, the event raises suspicion that the perpetrator was most likely a robot, for any human that approaches a V-Frog is instantly affected by the animal’s empathic projections of affection and benevolence.

Meanwhile, the Agrav vessel Jovian Moon is ready for test flight to Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon. Against the wishes of Mission Commander Donahue, Starr and Bigman join the expedition, as Starr is confident that the Sirian robot will also be on board—and quite possibly a human saboteur as well!

The question is, will the Jovian Moon successfully complete its round-trip voyage or will all hands meet their doom when the vessel plunges into the heart of Jupiter?

Lucky Starr and Moons of Jupiter conveyed a more sinister tone than its four predecessors. This was the first time in the series that David Starr did not always have the upper hand in every predicament and was, in fact, foiled on multiple occasions both by his own incorrect assumptions—or inexperience—and by the ingenuity of the Sirians. Of course, Bigman’s typical immature and rash antics did little to help the situation, except for a tense anti-gravity brawl at the beginning of the book.

At the time of publication in 1954, the Jovian moon now known as Ananke was called Adrastea (aka Jupiter Nine). In 1975, some of the minor satellites of Jupiter were renamed and Adrastea was assigned to Jupiter XV.

Onto the final volume, Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn

Book Review: Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury by Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French)

There’s no time to waste as young Council of Science member and troubleshooter David “Lucky” Starr arrives on Mercury with his tiny-but-mighty companion John Bigman Jones. No sooner do they land their ship inside the Dome city than lead engineer Scott Mindes escorts them outside onto the surface of the planet where he speaks of giant men in metal suits who can remain on the surface for hours despite the intense heat and deadly radiation from the sun. Yet each time Mindes attempts to approach them, the apparitions vanish into the shadows.

The engineer seems to be growing increasingly irritable during their discussion, until he finally pulls a blaster from his holster and fires at Lucky. Fast reflexes and low gravity save Starr’s life as Bigman tackles Mindes to the ground.

Later, Starr and Bigman are informed by Chief Medical Officer Doctor Gardoma that Mindes, a genuinely cordial young man, has been under enormous strain due to repeated acts of sabotage against Project Light, an experiment intended to produce planet-wide cooling and even disbursement of heat via orbiting space stations. Worse, Earth politician Senator Swenson has accused the Council of Science of extravagantly “wasting” taxpayers’ money by supporting Project Light. To that end, Swenson sent a ham-fisted investigator of his own named Urteil, who has managed to bully and intimidate almost everyone working on the project, especially Mindes.

Even the elderly Lance Peverale, senior astronomer of the observatory, distrusts Urteil so much that he refuses to speak of him when Starr broaches the topic.

At a banquet the following evening, tensions rise as Urteil harasses Starr and maligns the Council of Science. While Starr takes the comments in stride, the short-fused Bigman characteristically lashes out at Urteil in a violent rebuttal that begins a savage feud between them.

By way of distraction, Peverale launches into a polemic against the people of the planet Sirius, accusing them of sending saboteurs to Mercury in an attempt to thwart Project Light. Although Peverale has no tangible evidence to support his claim, the Sirians have a well-earned reputation as pirates and terrorists.

If not the Sirians, then perhaps the perpetrator is Swenson’s lackey Urteil, or someone else inside the Dome, or even the strange men in metal suits witnessed by Mindes. With as many theories as there are suspects, Starr and Bigman take to the gelid underground mines and the scorching surface of Mercury to unlock the mystery.

This is the fourth book in the Lucky Starr series and just as enjoyable as the previous three as long as you take them for what they are—fantastic, light-hearted adventures of space opera, cleverly written, but with occasional phrasing that would be considered dated and clumsy in the eyes of today’s readers. These stories are a departure from Asimov’s usual “hard SF” novels and sagas such as I, Robot, The Gods Themselves, and The Foundation Series, to name but a few.

Much like the previous volumes, the 1972 Signet edition of Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury includes a disclaimer by Asimov regarding his inaccurate description of the story’s main planet, which was based on the best astronomical data available in 1956 when the series was first published.


Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury



Book Review: Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus by Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French)

Along with his diminutive but dauntless sidekick, Bigman Jones, David “Lucky” Starr travels from Earth to Venus when fellow Council of Science member and longtime friend, Lou Evans, is charged with corruption and theft of an experimental yeast formula.

During their flight to Venus, a message from Evans warns Starr to stay away from the planet. This of course only entices Starr to press onward. As they approach Venus, Starr and Bigman discover that their pilot and navigator have succumbed to mind control and turned against them, sending the vessel crashing into the ocean.

After a brief scuffle, the pilot and navigator regain control of themselves, but recall nothing of the incident. Starr and Bigman repair the vessel and dock in the underwater dome city of Aphrodite. There, Starr and Bigman meet with senior council member, Doctor Mel Morriss, only to learn that previous incidents of mental aberrations have occurred in the recent past—and Lou Evans might himself be a victim.

Starr requests an interview with Evans, but his fellow councilman is reluctant to explain his actions. Their conversation is then interrupted by an emergency—a junior engineer has fallen victim to mind control and is threatening to open one of the airlocks and flood the entire city! Worse, Lou Evans takes advantage of the distraction to escape in a personal submarine into the oceans of Venus.

Can Lucky Starr save the underwater town of Aphrodite from destruction, recapture his fellow councilman, and solve the mystery behind the mind control before the next incident destroys every living human on Venus?

Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus is the third book in the series and is just as entertaining as the previous entries. Asimov creates a clever and plausible mechanism by which the mind control is executed.

The feisty Bigman is noticeably more subdued than in the first two volumes. His most heroic moment is hustling through the city’s ventilation shafts in an effort to cut off power to the airlock before the engineer can flood the city. After that, Bigman is reduced to steering a ship and asking Lucky for clarification about certain scientific concepts during their adventures.

Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus Cover

In the 1972 Signet editions of the series that I’m reading, Asimov added a disclaimer regarding the inaccurate descriptions of the planets when this series was originally published in 1954. Such details as the existence of an ocean on Venus, for example, were merely speculation prior to the images sent by the Mariner II probe launched in 1962 that debunked the theory.

Onto Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury