I came across this particular text when I was browsing through an actual bookstore, and added it to my list almost entirely because of the author on the cover; everything I’ve read of Asimov’s, from his Robot books, to two massive compilations of his short stories, to Foundation, which is one of my most frequently referenced books, has been enjoyable, so I figured I was pretty safe to add Fantastic Voyage to my reading list, even though the description didn’t sound very compelling to me. It’s surprising, therefore, that I mostly found this story disappointing.
The book was written based on a 1960s movie as part of the marketing campaign for the screenplay of the same name, and somehow the producers managed to get a name like Asimov to do their adaptation. The only instance I can think of where I’ve similarly read a book that was based on a movie that I enjoyed was an adaptation of The Phantom Menace, written by Terry Brooks, but I had high hopes for one written by someone like Asimov, and since I have never seen the movie, I figured I could avoid what I’ve taken to calling primogeniture syndrome, which I use to describe how whatever came first (book before movie or movie before book) is almost always better than the derivative work. That was not the case; this book felt like a low-grade science fiction film all the way through, and had nothing of Asimov’s usual insight.
In other words, this is another case of managing expectations. If you could pick up this book without knowing it’s by one of the founding fathers of science fiction, you would probably enjoy it. It’s a fairly straightforward adventure romp with some hard science fiction elements, with very Cold War overtones (what didn’t have strong Cold War overtones during that timeframe?), and some decently interesting characters, even if the more interesting characters weren’t viewpoint characters – I found the main character rather annoying, actually. There’s a minor mystery to solve, problems to overcome, and some fascinating visuals, even if you’re one of the apparently few people who doesn’t find the idea of being miniaturized and exploring the inside of a human body fascinating (I’m included in that number). It’s a decent story. It’s just doesn’t meet my expectations for an Asimov story.
To some extent, I wonder if it is a factor of how movies are plotted different from books. The movie medium is materially different from that of books, with different capabilities and limitations, and that, I think, lends it particularly well to certain types and styles of story-telling, while books have their own properties that lend themselves to different styles and techniques. Movies will tend to cover shorter time periods, have fewer subplots, and more straightforward plotting, simply because of how they are consumed – usually in one sitting, via a passive viewer. Books can afford to be longer and more complex, since they have an active reader who reads over an extended period of time, but the visuals are missing, and the author has to be more rigorous about addressing potential questions and plot holes, because the reader, unlike the viewer, has the time to consider and wonder about such flaws before moving on with the next scene.
From any other author, this would probably have gotten four stars and a lukewarm recommendation. Instead, I’m going to conclude by using this as an excuse to encourage you to go read Asimov’s other books, like Foundation, and maybe don’t waste your time on this particular novel.