Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov (Italian edition)
Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov (Italian edition)

The novel “Fantastic Voyage” by Isaac Asimov was published for the first time in 1966.

Jan Benes is a scientist who has discovered a way to miniaturize matter for an indefinite time. Thanks to agent Charles Grant, Benes manages to escape to the West but on his arrival, he gets wounded in an assassination attempt by Soviet agents ready to die in order to prevent the USA from discovering how to improve miniaturization technology.

A quick medical examination shows that a blood clot in the brain is going to kill Jan Benes. The only hope to save him is to miniaturize a submarine and insert it into the scientist’s circulatory system so it can travel up to the clot and destroy it with a laser. The problem is that the miniaturization technology available to the USA allows to maintain that state for an hour and within the group sent to that mission there might be a spy.

When the movie “Fantastic Voyage”, based on a story by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby, was produced, Bantam Books obtained the rights to publish a novelization. Isaac Asimov, contacted for the job, had several concerns because he found the script full of plot holes and scientific inconsistencies. Eventually, he was allowed to make any changes deemed necessary and, partly because of delays in the production of the movie, the novel came out six months before it. For these reasons, many people thought that the movie was based on the novel when it’s the opposite.

The result is a novel told in Isaac Asimov’s style, which is very rational so he tries to give a plausible scientific explanation to the various elements of the story, while the plot aims to create a spectacular movie. The screenplay was written based on a science fiction concept but without great regard to the overall consistency of its use. It was put into a spy story of the Cold War, which at the time increased considerably the drama of the story.

In “Fantastic Voyage” miniaturization is a technology that both the USA and the USSR developed but in a limited way. When Jan Benes discovers a way to miniaturize an object indefinitely, the Eastern bloc could get a substantial advantage. Benes manages to escape to the West but is nearly killed by an attack and the only way to save him is to insert a miniaturized submarine in his body so it can travel up to his brain and destroy the blood clot that is killing him.

The plot is based on the tension of a seemingly impossible mission made ‚Äč‚Äčeven more dangerous by the possible presence of a spy in the submarine crew. Jan Benes’s is the first source of dangers that often can’t be avoided because miniaturization has a time limit of one hour.

Isaac Asimov sought a balance between the explanations that aim to give plausibility to the various elements of the story and the adventure in Jan Benes’s trying to maintain the tension. In my opinion, he succeeds quite well even though the description of the emotional side of the characters has never been his strength. The result is that the tension comes more from the events than from the characters’ reactions.

Inevitably, a story of this type works best in terms of visuals and the production focused a lot on that element, in fact, the movie was a success despite its scientific inaccuracies. The production values were so good that the movie won the Oscar for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects and received a nomination also for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Editing.

Isaac Asimov was never really satisfied with the novel “Fantastic Voyage”, so much so that in 1987 he published “Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain”, which, despite the title, is actually a remake of the previous novel with more plausible bases.

In my opinion, “Fantastic Voyage” is overall a pretty good novel despite its flaws. Another problem is that it’s aged, like all the stories in which the Cold War is an important element. Today it’s mostly a sort of historical curiosity in Isaac Asimov’s career connected to a famous movie. It’s available on Amazon USA, UK, and Canada.

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