- Fantastic Voyage
- By Isaac Asimov
- Bantam Books
- First published 1966
- Paperback 1993
- ISBN 0-553-27572-0
After years of stalemate, a scientific breakthrough of Promethean proportions threatens to shatter the Cold War, spelling certain victory for the side that possesses it. Secretly, the governments of both sides have developed miniaturization, a technology that allows large objects to be made small by shrinking their very atoms. Unfortunately, it's severely limited: things miniaturized soon revert to their original size. But a professor named Benes has made a breakthrough that will strip away these limitations, and military leaders on both sides are quick to see the crucial role that unfettered miniaturization could play in deciding the war. So when the unnamed Other Side fails to hold on to Benes, they attempt to kill him before he can turn the tide for Our Side -- and nearly succeed.
Now Benes himself has become the backdrop for a human drama as five people submit to the most extreme miniaturization ever in order to enter Benes' body and destroy a life-threatening blood clot deep in his brain. Assigned to the mission are Owens, operating the miniaturized submarine Proteus; Duval, the brilliant neurosurgeon; Duval's beautiful assistant, Miss Peterson; Michaels, who has mapped the human circulatory system; and Grant, a special agent and ex-football star who knows nothing about miniaturization but a great deal about successfully completing a mission.
Unplanned dangers, however, consume most of the precious minutes allowed the team before they deminiaturize -- a disaster if they don't get out of Benes in time. The skittish crew members knew they would face dire threats posed by monstrous white blood cells and harmless-looking antibodies that squeeze the life out of any bodily intruders. But other things start to go wrong as well, until sabotage can no longer be discounted. The race to complete the mission turns desperate as Grant pushes to get to the clot and destroy it -- and if possible unmask the saboteur -- before the Proteus and its crew return to normal size.
A Miniature Whodunit
Science fiction writers who deal in technological innovation are often as eager to explain their latest idea as the excitable geniuses they write about, sometimes wading into awed technospeak before the plot -- or even the characters -- have been introduced. Isaac Asimov, conversely, goes the other way with Fantastic Voyage (based on a screenplay by Harry Kleiner), postponing detailed explanations until he's sure he has his readers' attention. Throughout the story, Asimov places a premium on action and suspense, lacing technology into the story only as much as would seem natural, a method that makes for a fast-paced and at times riveting narrative.
Though sometimes a nonconformist, Asimov was no radical. There is a distinct whiff of the commercial in the presence of Cora Peterson, in the favorite Sixties role of the shapely but apparently cool female scientist. Though Cora complains that she gets only indulgence or condescension from colleagues, clearly she exists to adore Duval unrequitedly, while Grant responds hormonally to her, gallant and foolish in turns, until she comes to her senses and realizes who the real man is. Still, Asimov makes the potentially cardboard Cora as three-dimensional as he can.
On Its Own Terms
And despite this commercialization, there are layers to this story. The applicability of miniaturization to the Cold War suggests the space race, which was dominated by the military at the time Fantastic Voyage was written. This lends color to the conflict within the crew as they face the question: Mission aside, is what we are doing right?
In the end, however, Fantastic Voyage is an engrossing adventure and a mystery set in a universe more fascinating, and more immediately visceral, than any stars-and-planets panorama. Surely humanity would find awe and mystery inside that magnificent creation that is the body, and the true test of Fantastic Voyage is whether it makes that awe and mystery come alive for readers. By that measure this novel succeeds admirably.
Asimov's sense of what it would be like to be a tiny adventurer inside the body is startling enough to make you wonder if he's been there himself.