Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Happy Science Fiction Day!

As I write this, it is National Science Fiction Day, and all over social media, readers are being asked to name their all-time favorite piece of SF. Now, I’m always happy to play along with these, but there’s no way I’m wasting good column material on Facebook or Instagram. So here we are.

Honestly, it’s a tough call. You can trace my love of science fiction all the way back to the TV shows of Irwin Allen, which I first encountered at the age of six…

…and around that same age I’d found Ruthven Todd’s Space Cat. (Still in print, by the way.)

That led to things like Tom Swift and Danny Dunn and the Heinlein juveniles.

By the time I was eleven, I’d discovered Star Trek… which for me meant the James Blish books. And in his prose adaptations of the episodes, Blish was always studiously careful to include the names of the original screenwriters, which provided youthful me with a shopping list. Ellison, Bloch, Matheson, Gerrold.

Then there’s the comics, but let’s not go down THAT rabbit hole.

So from about 1966 to today, it’s been a big chunk of my entertainment. Even excluding comics and movies and TV, just trying to narrow the books down to a favorite is almost impossible. Being as exclusionary as possible–leaving out all the horror, the fantasy, the sword-and-planet, all the stuff on the fringes– even just counting the ‘hard’ science fiction there’s everyone already mentioned, to say nothing of Clarke and Bester and Anderson and so on and so on.

Pretty much everything pictured up above would get a place on the list. Yes, even Space Cat. But if I had to pick just one, out of all the hundreds of SF novels and collections and everything else over the years….

…then I think it has to be Fantastic Voyage, the novel by Isaac Asimov.

It’s easily my favorite Asimov, and upon reflection I think it’s probably my favorite SF novel, period. I came to it by a very roundabout route, though that’s part of the reason it imprinted on me so hard.

You see, before I knew there was a movie or a novel or anything, in 1968, there was a cartoon. As far as little Greg was concerned it was the greatest cartoon ever.

It was from Filmation, and it had all the flaws one traditionally associates with that studio. The animation was poor even by mid-sixties TV standards, and the voice cast was basically Ted Knight and a player to be named later.

But I still loved it. Most of the episodes are up on You Tube and I have to admit the series doesn’t really hold up, but I think it was more about the way it fired my imagination. I have vivid memories of drawing the characters and making up my own adventures for them.

Now, you have to understand, I was seven years old. I had no idea there had been a movie.

I’d also somehow managed to miss the comics.

One adapting the movie itself, notable mostly for the Wally Wood art…

And a couple more, original stories using the cartoon cast.

Looking at those old Gold Key comics, the stories have a lot more adrenaline to them than the actual cartoon did. Scripter Don Christensen managed to pack a lot more excitement into his stories and the art from Paul Norris and Mike Royer was actually more kinetic and appealing than Wood’s was in the movie adaptation. I’d have been thrilled with them if I’d ever seen them.

But I didn’t. In those days, entertainment was a lot more ephemeral. TV shows aired and then went away. Comics were on the spinner rack and then they weren’t. Movies were in theaters, then maybe in a year or two they might show up on television. But for something that was going to last it pretty much had to be a book.

It took me a while to get to it. Fast forward a couple of years, to September of 1973: my first day of junior high school. I decided to check out the library.

And this was literally the very first book I saw, on a spinner rack of paperbacks by the front desk.

Moments later, it was the first book I had checked out of that library. And it just about took the top of my head off. Because here was the breathlessly exciting awesomeness that I sort of remembered from the Saturday morning cartoon.

For those of you that only know the movie…. trust me when I tell you that Asimov made the story better in every conceivable way. Not just by fixing all the science (including the ending, where he made sure the wrecked submarine was safely out of the body before it enlarged) but also by improving all the characters, differentiating them into real people and giving agent Grant an actual sense of humor, as well as making the conflict between Michaels and Duval much more believable.

The irony is that this book, which made me a fan of Isaac Asimov from that day forward, was one he himself disdained. I feel sure this was largely his ego; he hated that it was an adaptation, a novelization of someone else’s story. Years later he did an all-original story that he swore was better in every way, Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain.

But it’s really not. It’s an okay book but nowhere near as much fun as the original. There was also another sequel from Kevin Anderson, Fantastic Voyage: Microcosm. Another okay book that’s maybe a little better than Asimov’s own follow-up.

And of course we made it a point to hunt down the movie on home video.

I was bitterly disappointed when I saw it, I have to admit. Stephen Boyd as Grant is almost robotic, as is Donald Pleasance as Michaels. Honestly, compared to the lively characterizations Asimov gave us, the entire cast comes off as wooden.

None of them, movie, cartoon, comics, sequels, can hold a candle to Asimov’s novel. I made it a point to hunt it down in hardcover and that’s the edition I have here today…

…although that original movie paperback, the one I think of as ‘the junior high edition,’ is here in the stacks too. Saw it at a garage sale for a quarter a few years back and couldn’t resist.

Anyway. There you have it. That’s my favorite. As much for the memory of seeing it in junior high and thinking oh my God there’s more! and then having it exceed my every expectation, as anything else. But it’s the one I’d put at the top.

Feel free to play along down in the comments with your own pick, and I’ll be back next week with something cool.

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  1. Edo Bosnar

    First things first: damn, I loved Space Cat back when I was in grade school. I checked those books out of our school’s library so many times when I was in first and second grade. I’m also fascinated by the fact that they’re still in print – although I’d prefer an omnibus that collects all four.

    Second: Fantastic Voyage – I have that very movie tie-in paperback edition. I only read it for the first time a few years ago (I picked it up because you talked it up in another column). And I liked it well enough, but not as much as you do, apparently. It certainly is a fun and engaging book, though.

    Third: my all-time favorite piece of SF? Impossible to pick out any single thing, although it’s definitely books over movies, TV shows or comics. I’ll just say one of my favorites by my favorite author: Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. It’s such a deeply thought-provoking book, but also a top-notch, engrossing story.

  2. Lee

    I was already an Asimov fan when I got to Fantastic Voyage — in high school I was gobbling up every Asimov novel and short story I could get my hands on. The fact that this is an adaptation (although, as you point out, one that is expanded quite a bit from the movie script) makes it different from Asimov’s other work. Even so, I found it wildly entertaining.

    A couple of years back, I watched the movie and read all three Fantastic Voyage novels — the two by Asimov as well as the Anderson. I agree that the first Asimov is the best of the lot, and I also concur that the movie is pretty lousy in comparison. However, I liked Asimov’s second effort better than Anderson’s, which I found quite disappointing.

    As for my favorite piece of science fiction, I’d probaly go with Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Some of Card’s views may be questionable, but he sure can write. I think the sequel, Speaker For the Dead, is probably the better novel, but I can’t help but like Ender’s Game more.

    1. Lee

      I should also point out that Science Fiction Day — which inspired this post, after all — was selected to coincide with the chosen birthday of Isaac Asimov, January 2nd (Asimov was born in Russia and there was no accurate record of his actual birth date, so January 2nd was chosen after the Asimovs came to the US).

      So it is fitting that your selection is an Asimov novel!

  3. Darthratzinger

    So after reading just Your first paragraph I already started thinking about my favorite Sci-Fi story and, well, I´d have to say Star Wars in movies (original trilogy), comics (Marvel and Dark Horse) and books (almost everything before the new movies/continuity) but I figured “too obvious, look for something a bit more hard Sci-Fi” so I arrived at Asimov as well:-)
    In my case it´s the Foundation cycle: i read some of the books out of order as a kid, not sure what came first, the Robot short stories, the two “Detective” books (read `em all in German, so the titles don´t come to mind) and the original trilogy plus two or three of the follow-ups to that. In my late twenties after I had looked up the chronology and filled some of the gaps I finally reread them in order and it was a really satisfying experience despite the lack of space battles, action and whatnot. At some point I´d like to finally read it all in English as well but my room of shame is probably keeping me from that for at least another decade.

  4. JHL

    For me it have to be the four (four, not five, certainly not six, four) books of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. They brought me endless mirth in a time of my life (junior high) that was notably lacking in mirth. I do not recommend either the TV or movie adaptations. I’ve heard mixed opinions on the various radio adaptations, but I have not personally listened to any of them.

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    For me, I’d have to say Star Trek. I saw it in syndication and it is my earliest memory of sci-fi, beyond comic books. For comics, it was Adam Strange, in the JLA. There was just something so infinitely cool about the character, from the costume, to the jet pack, to the fin. I didn’t know the suit was a swipe from Buck Rogers and the basic premise from Flash Gordon (and John Carter); I just knew he was cool and he used his brain.

    In terms of prose, it is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I saw the Truffault film first, while on a family vacation, late at night, in a hotel room. There was just something about the images of firemen turning up in a house and tearing it apart, finding hidden books, and throwing them in a pile to burn. Since I was able to read, we went every week to the bookmobile, from the nearest public library (in Decatur, IL), climbed in, and entered a world of imagination and knowledge. It was parked right next to our little towns firehouse. Imagine see firemen burning books, when my associations were of them polishing their equipment, while I checked out books from a bus. That led me to the novel, which I still have. I have read it multiple times. Books were always special in my household and this is a book about a totalitarian future where books are burned because their ideas are too dangerous.

    I haven’t read a ton of hard sci-fi; more sampled from some of the names. A little Asimov, a little Clarke, a bit of Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Ellison….some movie novelizations, a bit of space opera (I tend to prefer my sci-fi to get up off its butt, every now and then). Heinlein I read Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Thankfully, I also read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, to counter some of the more fascist elements of Heinlein’s book.

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