“If space voyages are ‘romantic,’ Holden Brooks was certainly carrying on the tradition when he stepped into the cabin of his best friend’s wife, with one straightforward objective in mind.
“He did not signal. He merely opened the door and walked in. She was waiting for him as, somewhow, he had known she would be, wearing a loose night garment. She held out her arms to him and they trembled slightly. Her dark hair fell below her shoulder, accenting the pale roundness of her face.
“Her name was Celeste Van Horne and her husband sat in one corner of the room, idly pinching his ear-lobe.”
So begins “The Portable Star,” a story Asimov hated so much that it is one of two stories he refused to have reprinted. (“A Woman’s Heart” is the other.)
So is it really that bad?
Well, no. Not really. It’s not nearly as bad as some of Asimov’s early stories (“Ring Around the Sun,” “Half-Breeds on Venus”), and not nearly as bad as some of his later ones (“Rain, Rain Go Away”). It’s a puzzle story in the tradition of “Marooned Off Vesta”: our heroes are stuck in a contrived situation and have to figure a way out of it.
In this case, we deal with two couples, Holden and Grace Brooks and Celestine and Philip Van Horne. Holden and Philip “worked in adjacent offices in the Administrative Service of the Housing Unit in which they lived.” The two couples go together on a six-month space tour in a small “space flivver” that Holden bought. When it breaks down far from any inhabited planet, and with a call for a mechanic to fix the ship to expensive to justify, they land on an uninhabitable and uninhabited planet to make repairs themselves.
While there, they are surrounded by the energy beings who, it turns out, live there. (The characters speculate that it had been labeled “uninhabitable and uninhabited” by a routine probe.) These beings make themselves visible to our heros as mounds of dirt and can maniupate them and control their emotions and actions. The aliens start by terrifying the men out of being able to work the ship’s controls and follow up with a round of hysteria.
(Note the sexism, by the way. Nobody seriously suggests that the women try the controls. I forget when Gertrude learned to drive, but I’m willing to bet it was after 1955.)
As a (ahem) climax, Holden bursts into the Van Hornes’ cabin, kisses Celestine and sweeps her up in his arms. When Philip finally objects, Holden slugs him. Philip starts to leave the cabin but his wife, spread-eagled, blocks him. They regain self control, and each of the four gets a chance to react to what just happened. (For the record, Celestine seems to have enjoyed it.)
Thus endeth the sex scene.
Finally Holden realizes that the creatures are just children and might be frightened into flight. He rigs a hydrogen torch from the ship’s water recirculator and fires it up in the atmosphere outside. As the atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen and argon, the inhabitants had never seen a flame before (the portable star of the title) and flee. The humans can then escape.
(As few Asimov fans will have occasion to actually read the story, the synopsis here is unusually long.)
The problem here is that Asimov was impressed by Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” and deliberately attempted to add a sexual element to the story. Now, in point of fact, there’s nothing that even remotely qualifies as sex. What we see is: a woman not entirely dressed, some passionate kissing, and then the woman in her not-entirely-dressed-ness standing with her legs spread. We get nowhere close to anybody’s knob A being inserted into hole B. In fact, we don’t even get any sense that A is much of a knob at any point.
Yes, for Asimov in the early 1950’s, this is a racy story. In fact, given the prevailing mores, the implied potential for adultery was decidedly in the not-for-children category. Frankly, however, Asimov botches it. It’s simply not particularly erotic. Such erotic elements as are there have a juvenile, junior-high-school feel to them, more like a teenage girl writing Harry/Draco slash fiction than one of the top names in science fiction writing—well, anything.
Even if the aliens’ climaxing their experiments by playing with libidos is a desirable plot point, it’s still done in an incredibly coy way. Nobody’s heart is pounding, nobody is breathing quickly, and certainly nobody’s thises, thats, or the other things are responding in any way.
Now, even in the 1950’s, Asimov could do sex well: the aforementioned “I’m in Marsport Without Hilda","What Is This Thing Called Love?,” and The End of Eternity exemplify that. (Granted, in two of the three cases, the younger, more callow me didn’t notice the sexual element until it was pointed out—but even I wasn't so callow that Asimov’s description of Noÿs left me, um, unmoved. I never could figure out how to pronounce her name, though; I must have been distracted by other things.) Asimov really doesn’t have much of an excuse here.
I do fault some of Asimov’s later novels for their sexual element ( Murder at the ABA, The Robots of Dawn). That’s different. That’s largely a matter of taste; sex is simply something I don’t read Asimov for. My disliking the sexual element is more a reflection on me as a reader than on Asimov as a writer—and even then, the extent to which the sex feels gratutious makes a difference. If it’s sufficiently integral to the plot and if he does it well enough (as in, for instance, the middle third of The Gods Themselves or “What Is This Thing Called Love?”), I’m fine with it.
At the same time, given the absense of actual sex and the relatively tame quality of what is there, Asimov’s use of the word “sleazily” to describe how he handled things here seems a bit extreme. I think, however, that his use of the word points out what’s really the key problem with “The Portable Star” and why Asimov disliked the story so much. It sounds as if his main objection was that he was upping the sexual quota solely in a cheap effort to cash in on the increasing respectability of eroticism in science fiction and show how hip he was. The problem is more a matter of motive than result, it would seem.
Outside of the sex scene, the story is OK. Not really good, not really bad. It’s a standard Asimovian puzzle story and really does feel like “Marooned Off Vesta” in a lot of ways.
Originally, I rated this story rather highly because of its interest for the Asimov fan. That’s really Asimov’s own fault. By refusing to anthologize it and by not including it in any of his collections, he made it a curiosity. Its failure also seemed to have stung him badly enough that he stopped writing anything with any erotic content for a long time. Being a curiosity that had an impact on his writing career, I felt it work a look for the fan interested in seeing Asimov’s development as a writer.
I was wrong. For one thing, “I’m in Marsport Without Hilda" came two years later, and although it, too, lacks actual coitus, it does have a distinct tinge of eroticism. It looks as if “The Portable Star” didn’t scare the Good Doctor off from including such things in his fiction for very long.
If it didn’t really have an impact on his writing, “The Portable Star” loses all real importance. It remains a curiosity, true, but it’s hard to rate a story highly simply because it’s a curiosity.
Besides, it’s not that much of a curiosity anymore. It’s included in the anthology Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 1, edited by Winston Engle and (as of September 2010) readily available from online booksellers. (Whose authorizing reprints for the Asimov estate these days, anyway?)
So, it’s not terribly important, it’s not terribly hard to find, and while it’s not terribly good, it’s not without its merits. The puzzle and its solution are interesting, Venus is said to be a planetary desert, which is at least closer to reality than a planetary ocean, and while the two men are pretty much carbon copies of each other, the two women are characterized reasonably well. (Grace is the scaredy cat, and Celestine is the party girl.) Sure, read it once if you’re curious. I just can’t see anybody getting excited about reading it a second time.