Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

FANTASTIC VOYAGE

A novel by Isaac Asimov (1966, Bantam)

A team enters the body of a comatose patient, intent on using a miniaturized submarine to remove a blood clot in the brain.

 

 

2 stars

Read September 16th to 18th, 2001 for the second time  
    A neat trip into the human body. I certainly learned a lot in the process. Unfortunately, the book is short on actual setting (not including the body). While just about everything is given by characters talking, and talking and talking, there was no real setup to the story.

This book was written to accompany a movie, which explains why it was so short, and why it behaves the way it does. Every problem has an easy resolution, and there is very little setup as to why it happens. Sure, nearly half the book goes towards explaining about Us and Them (Americans and Soviets, to be sure), and how miniaturization is like a cold war, where developments are made on both sides, but neither side actually gains the upper hand, and where agents are placed on both sides to infiltrate the other organization. But it is too straightforward. There are no real characters. Each person involved has one aspect of the personality, as is typical in movies. There are no shades of grey.

The setup is very simple, indeed. Dr. Benes has defected from the Other Side, with a breakthrough innovation regarding indefinite miniaturization that could tip the scales of the cold war. Once Here, however, he is nearly killed by an intentional car crash. He has a blood clot in his brain, which is impossible to remove because of its location. The only solution is to miniaturize a submarine and send five people into Benes' body to remove the clot. They can remain miniaturized for up to sixty minutes, according to their size, which is as small as a bacteria, and convenient for a movie duration. 

In charge, we have General Carter and Colonel Reid, one military, the other life sciences. Every time the Proteus gets into trouble, they have a discussion, wondering why this is happening. They are not very interesting characters, but it drives home the sense of urgency, because we tend to forget that there is only a limited amount of time available, traveling through the body. Carter usually gets angry, gets coffee or a cigar, and ends up enjoying neither. The real wonder is how they will get the submarine out once things start going wrong.

Inside the submarine, we have the surgeon Dr. Duval, his gorgeous assistant Cora, the submarine designer and pilot Owens, Dr. Michaels, who mapped out the circulatory system that they will be traveling through, and Grant, the undercover officer who brought Benes Here from Over There. Because of the nature of what is happening, it is suspected that there is a traitor or saboteur on board. Grant is supposed to keep an eye on things, and to make policy decisions. Duval is aware of his superiority, and is not very likable, which makes him a target for suspicion right away.

Things start going wrong right from the very beginning. After they are miniaturized (this process was really well thought out, as there are incredible details involved), they are injected into the artery in the neck, only a short distance from the blood clot. However, they find themselves drawn by a small defect into a vein, moving away from the clot. After deciding not to give up, they travel through the heart (which is stopped for them for a minute), into the capillary system to the lung, where they replenish their oxygen after a valve was stuck open (sabotage, or did it happen when they brushed up against the heart? Owens knew right away how to stop the leak...). Grant is almost lost because his lifeline comes untied (Duval had tied it, leaning suspicions his way again). He goes floating into the lung, examining pieces of dust and grit stuck to the surface and getting slammed down during an inhale. They travel through a lymph node, where they witness a virus being attacked by antibodies (really cool), but they are nearly stuck when fibres clog the engine intakes. They cannot travel through the two more lymph nodes to get to the clot after sustaining so much damage, so Grant decides that they must travel the very dangerous path through the ear. Any sound, like a whisper or a footstep from the operating room, could kill them with shockwaves. They plan to be in and out again in a matter of a minute, but the sub stalls, because of the fibres in the intakes. Grant removes most of the fibres, but it has cost them time. Not to mention that somebody drops a pair of scissors on the floor outside! The noise is sharp, and is cut off quickly, but it is enough to send the three workers tumbling head over heals. Cora injures an ear-hair, causing her to be attacked by antibodies, some of which actually stick to her and begin the process of squeezing her to death. Grant gets her inside the sub just in time. 

Entering the brain, they see the clot. The laser had been damaged in the tumbles, but Duval thinks he has fixed it, with the help of a transistor from the Morse code machine that Grant cannibalized (leaving them without communication from the outside). When they are out in the blood stream, Duval successfully removes the clot, but Michaels takes control of the sub, intending to cause injury, killing Benes and attracting white blood cells to take care of the others. What actually happens is with one burst from the laser, Grant sends the sub out of control, and Michaels (with the ship) get sucked into a white blood cell, and is destroyed. But that doesn't help matters. They decide to exit Benes' body through the eye, but if the now-fragmented ship deminiaturizes within his body, he will die anyway, and they only have minutes left! So Grant lures the white cell towards him, and he gets it into the eye, they are scraped off just in time, as they start to grow to full size. 

Asimov does a terrific job of describing the human body. I don't know how accurate this is, especially since the book was written in 1966, and I'm sure we've learned a lot since then, but every thing that he describes seems so realistic, so real. From platelets to red and white blood cells, antibodies, the inside of the heart, brain, ear and other parts, to cell walls and the valves of the heart, it was really quite amazing.

Added into the story was the necessary romantic sub-plot. Cora is the only woman on board, and she is obviously attracted to her boss, Duval. But when Grant sees her, he falls instantly into lust. He says the first thing that pops into his mind at all times, showing that this was indeed a story written exclusively by men, and though she sounds offended at first, she must, of course, warm to his masculine charms. He saves her life twice, mostly because he was spending so much of his attention on her anyway. Cora was actually written not too poorly, but she is a typical Asimov-woman, very feminine, smart and attractive, but insecure. She seems secure, but through her actions, her words, her inability to keep her mouth shut during an emergency, she becomes exactly how Asimov writes female characters through most of his books. 

Actually, none of his characters are able to keep their mouths shut in this book. I suppose it comes from the fact that this was to be a movie, and we can't show thoughts on the big screen. Everybody has a theory, and everybody spews technical details. This was kind of refreshing, though, as the details were just technical enough, but didn't go overboard, la Star Trek. There were certainly things that I didn't understand, but I learned a lot anyway. 

As for the mystery of who not to trust, it was done fairly well, though I guessed right away who was supposed to be the saboteur. This was confused by the fact that he was a saboteur, but not a traitor. He simply didn't want the military to learn Benes' secrets. He was a medical man, and thought that miniaturization should be kept in the hands of the medical world. And he thought that what they already had achieved was good enough. Indefinite miniaturization was not necessary, except for military purposes. But he still didn't want the Other Side to win or lose. The stalemate was a good thing, because it wouldn't destroy the world.

But even though we were given all sorts of clues that pointed towards Duval (his nasty personality), Cora (she secured the laser, which got loose and broke), Owens (the leaking air valve), and Michaels (he mapped the area and possibly could have seen the defect that linked the artery and the vein), my reasoning always went to Michaels. Most of the story was from Grant's point of view, so it was pretty certain that he was not the saboteur. I thought maybe Carter or Reid could have been traitors, too, but that wasn't necessary. 

I thought of Michaels' mapping mistake almost right away, before it is mentioned as being suspicious. Whether that was because of a rogue memory from the last time I read this book, I don't know. I honestly can say that every page seemed to hold new information for me, that I consciously remembered nothing from the last time. But the subconscious can do that sometimes. What convinced me was Michaels' constantly negative attitude. Every time they encountered a problem, he decided that they couldn't go on, that they had to be removed. Every single time! And that's what finally gave Grant his suspicions, too. 

Was the mystery too obvious? It was more obvious than the way Asimov normally writes. But the book was not about the mystery of the saboteur. It was about an adventure through the human body. Yes, there was a love story, and the mystery, but they were secondary, existing only to give a couple of character a little more depth. Not quite enough, though. Every character was very stiff, as if cut from the same mold but given slightly different characteristics. All were tense, and that affected the tone of the book. Though very interesting, and extremely well thought-out on a scientific scale, the book feels very constrained, and every problem has a simple solution, which hurts it.
 

 

3 stars

Also read June 18th to 22nd, 1989  
   

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