“Fantastic Voyage” — the inner space of the cold war

I commute between home and office by subway, the only decent way of traveling in the downtown of our city. Half an hour each way with a book as company. Every now and then I choose some classic title for re-reading and currently I am into Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage.

It’s the Cold War, though the antagonists are called only Us and Them. A defecting top-notch scientist suffers a skull injury during the extraction and the only way of saving him is by micro-miniaturizing a research submarine, crewed by a brain surgeon and a few other specialists, injecting it into the scientist’s blood vessels and open a congested brain artery from the inside.

Dr Asimov wrote the story as a novelization of a film manuscript. It was in the early 1960s, before the good doctor’s style deteriorated into meandering verbosity, and the composition is a combination of period action-adventure and whodunit penned in an economical prose. The protagonist, the fairly hard-boiled spy Grant, is the expedition commander and has to deal with dangers inside the human body and the suspicions of sabotage on-board. The crew has 60 minutes to do the job and get out of the body, after which the miniaturization process will reverse itself automatically because of [insert scientific double-speak here].

The story is still a good read, unlike many other of Isaac Asimov’s tales that have gone stale with age. Yes, the gender roles are outdated: the brain surgeon’s competent specialist nurse gets an unfair treatment at several occasions, but Dr Asimov also makes sure to show how unfair this behavior is. If one compares it to other stories from those years, e.g. by Poul Anderson, Asimov’s stance is progressive. The authorial research appears to be meticulous (it’s Asimov after all) and the reader gets a lot of state-of-the-art (for circa 1964 that is) information on human physiology.

Anyhow, the micronauts’ initial plan falls apart and they are is forced to improvise a lot as they navigate through a human body. But they are quick-thinking and competent people and I like reading about ingenuity. A hawk-eyed reader might be able to solve the whodunit mystery by spotting several clues in the text, but that requires a certain amount of thinking outside the box. I read the story for the first time in Swedish translation when I was 14 years old and I failed. It ought to be easier for an adult who has read crime stories before.

This a good adventure yarn in an original setting. Keep in mind that it is 50 years old and then some of its idiosyncrasies become easier to handle. Yes, there was a certain tunnel vision in all societies during the Cold War and it is obvious here. Even though ideology like democracy or communism is never discussed, the story’s us-or-them morality is antiquated in the post-Vietnam War era.

The set-up can be transformed into an unusual role-playing adventure, though that would require quite a lot of pre-game map-making by the gamemaster, because she cannot know what routes the players will choose when things go bad (in this case the expression flow chart acquires at least one extra layer of meaning). Dr Asimov only had to account for one of them.

By the way, many years later Isaac Asimov wrote a similar story called Destination Brain. Don’t bother with it. It is chatty with some lousy attempts at in-depth characterizations. It is unfortunately one of the good doctor’s inferior late-in-life stories.