Review: Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

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Better late than never, I guess. January is the Vintage Science-Fiction Non-Challenge month hosted by Little Red Reviewer. I had intended to read a few more vintage sci-fi novels during the month to participate, but the best laid plans often go astray….

However, I was able to pull a book off the TBR pile and read it, as well as watch the movie. It’s Isaac Asimov’s adaptation of Fantastic Voyage.

If you want to read what others have done for the month, check out Red’s page. You’ll find some great stuff!

Fantastic Voyage

Being a bibliophile (aka literary snob), I generally like to read the book (or short story as the case may be) before I see the movie. But in the case of Fantastic Voyage, it isn’t necessarily that simple. The novel is a tie-in into the movie and it’s likely the book wouldn’t exist without the movie. But a quick clicks of the keyboard quickly helped me discover that Isaac Asimov’s adaptation of the 20th Century Fox blockbuster hit the shelves a few weeks before the movie opened, so I felt comfortable in my decision to read the book first and then see the movie.

And I think it all worked out for the best.

My research leads me to believe that Asimov had to be talked into adapting the movie’s script for the printed page and that he agreed to do it if he could be allowed to at least bring some put some science in the science fiction of the plot and premise.

And you can certain see Asimov trying to put some credible science into the concept of miniaturizing a top-secret, top-of-the-line submarine with five people inside down to the point where they can be injected into the body of an injured man. The man in question is a high ranking scientist who is defecting and could help keep the balance of power in check for both sides during the Cold War. The Enemy (they are always capitalized by Asimov) try to take him out on the way to the top-secret installation where he will reveal his secrets to our side and help us either keep up with our Enemy and maintain the balance of mutually assured destruction.

Just as the film spends the first half hour or so setting up the situation and the characters, so does the book spend its first third or so setting up the background. As I said before, it’s interesting to watch as Asimov attempts to reconcile the fantastic premise with real-world science of the day and to speculate on if this could or would happen in the future. The concept of shrinking down people to go inside a person and help break up a clot in a near inoperable place is a fascinating and intriguing and it was apparently very influential. Most genre shows worth their salt will feature a story with character shrunk down a bit — in fact, Doctor Who did it at least twice that I can think of during the classic series run.

Interestingly, Asimov’s book inserts a bit more drama to the situation by emphasizing that this is a race against time — not only to help break up the clot and help reduce any permanent damage to said scientist but also because there is a limit to how long the sub and crew can be miniaturized before the process wears off and they began to revert back to normal size. There’s also the intriguing idea that the passage of time will FEEL different to our heroes in their miniaturized form as opposed to how time is really passing for all of the normal sized people on the outside. The movie does give a nod or two to this, but it doesn’t feel quite as pressing and weighing on everyone as much as it does in the novel.

There’s also the angle of a saboteur being on board the ship and wondering who it might be. Again, the movie brings this up, but it’s not quite as pervasive as Asimov makes it out to be in the novel. Of course, it could be that reading the novel takes a bit longer than watching the film and that allows time for these ideas and turns of events to sink on the reader, rather than just being another obstacle to overcome on-screen.

And while the mission is fairly straight-forward on the outside, once inside the body of the scientist, things go a bit awry. Both the movie and the novel have to come up with a crisis point every few minutes or pages to keep our heroes on their toes. And it’s probably a good thing because it would be rather dull if they just zipped right to the clot, broke it up and got out again without any complications. It’d also make for a shorter book and movie.

Honestly, I have to say that I enjoyed the novel more than the film. The film is good and I can respect and admire how ground-breaking and spectacular the effects were for the time. But there are large parts of the film that feel like stretches of Star Trek: The Motion Picture — we’re supposed to sit back in awe and wonder of what’s unfolding because holy cow, this is fantastic and amazing. And while I’m all for stunning visuals, I still think there should be a plot driving these visuals.

It’s also interesting to see that Asimov expands the ending a bit more — he gets out two love-crossed heroes together (sort of) and we get confirmation the mission was a successful one. Watching the movie, I guess we can figure that it worked because our heroes remove the clot and escape before they revert back to regular size, but the movie doesn’t confirm this for us. Instead, everyone is shaking hands and congratulating our heroes on a job well done and ignoring the fact that we left one guy behind for dead and the sub breaking up inside the scientst. After putting so much emphasis on why we had to get out in time, the movie seems to say — well, it’s OK cause those white blood cells took care of it all. Asimov at least attempts to explain why it’s OK in his version of events.

One thing I find interesting is that outside of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, this is probably his best known work. And while part of me wishes that his Robot novels were better known, I still can’t help but think this book is a good entry point for readers who want try some Asimov but not necessarily feel like they want to take on his Foundation series just yet. It’s a good entry point book. And the fact that you can go out and see the movie after you’re done reading is probably another good selling point.

Is this great Asimov? Probably not.

Is it good Asimov? Absolutely.

It also intrigued me enough to make me want to pick up Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage 2: Destination Brain and read it. I’ve read that it’s less a sequel to this on but instead more of a re-telling with Asimov trying to put better science into the science fiction.

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3 Comments

Filed under review, science fiction, SciFi Month, vintage science-fiction

3 responses to “Review: Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

  1. I’ve heard of the Asimov book, I’ve heard of the movie, how did I not know until just now that that they were related in this way? Nice little jibe at Star trek the Motion Picture, those visuals were pretty damn boring, actually. I think i’ll stick to the Asimov novelization!

    • I wouldn’t say that you should overlook or skip the movie. But if you’re only going to experience once, I say go for the book. And if the movie shows up on cable or you can check out the DVD from your library, I’d say give it a whirl. The special features on the DVD helped me appreciate it a bit more.

  2. Pingback: Vintage Science Fiction Month Comes to a Close | the Little Red Reviewer

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