In his introduction to Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, Issac Asimov tells us that he wasn’t satisfied with his novelization of Fantastic Voyage and that this novel is an attempt to correct some things he didn’t like about the first novel.
The result is this book which is less a sequel to the original and more a re-telling of the original story and concept. Asimov tries his hardest to make the concept of miniaturization more scientifically plausible, but it’s at the the cost of making the second installment far less interesting and page-turning. The first novel took about half its page length to get the crew miniaturized and inside the human being in question to try and save life. Unfortunately, so does Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain. At several points, I found myself muttering “Let’s get on with the shrinking already” as our hero, Morrison expresses a sense of trepidation about the procedure he is about to undergo.
And it may be with Morrison that this book finds its biggest flaw. Asimov sets up our protagonist as a scientist whose fortunes and favor in the scientific community are on the decline. When approached by a Soviet agent about coming to the Soviet Union to help in an experiment, Morrison is quick to decline, despite the fact that he has no prospects on the horizon in the United States. Even when asked by his own government to go, Morrison declines and eventually has to be kidnapped and taken to the Soviet Union in order to become part of the team.
Morrison protests this treatment a lot over the course of the novel. It feels almost like Asimov wants to remind us every ten or so pages that Morrison has become part of this project against his will. This works to the detriment of the book. Part of the fun of the original was no matter who fantastic the situation, the participants were at least enthusiastic about the opportunity to travel inside a human being and possibly save his life. Here the motivation isn’t so much saving a life but not allowing a scientist to die without passing on vital knowledge that could make the process of miniaturization easier and more cost effective.
Yes, you read that correctly. One of the motivating factors for this journey inside the body of a man and to his brain is to unlock his secrets is entirely budgetary. A good reason, sure. But not exactly one that compels you to turn pages and wonder what will happen next. At least the first novel had the specter of the Cold War hanging over it to drive some of the character and plot motivations.
I kept hoping that once our team of scientists got miniaturized and injected into the subject that things might pick up. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and the novel plods along at its leisurely pace even once we’re injected and running against the clock. The only moments of tension come when the ship is diverted by a white blood cell and later when Morrison is forced to go to extreme measures to try and make the mission a success. (And even then, he has to be blackmailed into it by the Soviet team though threats of destroying what little is left of his academic reputation.)
The book also suffers from the same flaw that several later Asimov projects do — his desire to tie all his universes together. Thankfully it’s not quite as egregious as Robots and Empire, but there’s a coda that makes Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain a stepping stone toward Asimov’s Robots and Foundation novels. It’s only a couple of pages and it’s meant to serve as a coda, so it’s a bit easier to overlook and forgive than some of the other examples from the Asimov library, but it’s still there.
Had I not read the original novel first, I might have liked this one more. Of course, had I not read the original I might not have been willing to give Asimov the benefit of the doubt I needed to keep plowing through this one in the hopes things would get better.
This one just validates my theory that 80’s Asimov output is no where nearly as entertaining and readable as those stories from his early career. I can see what he’s trying to do here, but I still think the original novel, despite all of its scientific implausibilities, is a more entertaining and enjoyable reading experience.