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Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection, Isaac Asimov, Harper, 1996, 434 pp.
Asimov was one of the world's most lucid, prolific writers. He was the Great Explainer, and he was always just as clear about his viewpoint. For example, in the book of non-fiction by Asimov that I've read most recently, Constantinople, it's obvious that he was summarizing from out of the great wars/great men school of history. That book was a good starting point for further study (things like day-to-day life, the place of women), because Asimov has such a gift for laying out a framework. Only about a third of Gold is fiction; the rest of the pieces are non-fiction. Many are editorials taken from his years as editor-in-chief of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. In each of those short pieces, Asimov makes his point and supports it with utmost rationality. He shows himself to be a gracious writer, even to those who do not share his calm sense of logic.
Gold opens with a section of fiction. Most of them are short-shorts, often with a silly pun to cap it off. For example, "Left to Right," is a story about Robert L. Forward (and his name) that I'm sure Forward found rather amusing. Others are much more groan-inducing, like "Battle Hymn" or "Feghoot and the Courts." Read these at your peril if you are not fond of puns. There are two longer stories, "Cal" and "Gold," the latter of which won Asimov a Hugo Award. "Cal" is an excellent story about a robot named Cal, put under almost unendurable pressures because his owner wants him to be a writer. I liked the way Asimov chose to end this story. "Gold" is another straightforward, strongly-felt story -- here we follow the adventures of a humble writer and a movie-maker he hires. But not just any movie-maker, as these are the movies of the future. As usual, Asimov's speculation isn't particularly intense or detailed, but he writes convincing humans.
The non-fiction is divided up into two sections, "On Science Fiction" and "On Writing Science Fiction." Each piece is short, pithy, and hard to argue with. For example, I was much impressed with his views in "Religion and Science Fiction," and was certainly glad to get a clear picture of his take on the subject. This editorial was in response to negative feedback over a story published in Asimov's, and here is Asimov's response. I quote: "It is the very essence of literature that it considers the great ideas and concerns of human history. Surely that complex of ideas that goes under the head of 'religion' is one the most central and essential, and it would be rather a shame to have it declared out of bounds" (299). Asimov explains himself further, in a section I found relevant to his harsh rebuttals of someone like Velikovsky (who said that all the miracles in the Bible were due to scientifically verifiable events). He says: "I have opposed those people who attack legitimate scientific findings (evolution, as an example) in the name of religion, and who do so without evidence, or (worse yet) with distorted or false evidence. I don't consider them true religionists, however, and I am careful to point out that they disgrace religion, and are a greater danger to honest religion than to science" (301). Well put, and something that I was curious about since writing an essay on Velikovsky and his critics many years ago. Asimov's writings about writing are a bit simplistic, but he sets out the basics of a story straight-forwardly, much like what he demonstrates in practice in his own fiction. I appreciated his discussion of "Plagiarism," an apt topic in an idea-driven genre like science fiction. I was definitely cheering for Asimov when he takes on the subject of "Dialog." He explains his reasons for avoiding profanity, and tells an amusing story about the response he once received after telling other writers to use a bigger vocabulary: "All I got for my pains were a few comments to the effect there must be something seriously wrong with me" (429). He demonstrates his exact point through this witty comment.
Gold reads quickly and seems much shorter than its 400+ pages. Yes, the margins are padded and the number of words per page low, but this is also a function of Asimov's ability to make his point seem inevitable. For example, when he writes about "Women and Science Fiction," he characterizes the state of the science fiction field in the so-called Golden Age as adolescent and even afraid of women, while the changes for the better were due to women becoming readers of science fiction and demanding something better. The situation is probably more complicated than that, but he sketches it out with conviction. Gold gives us a number of sketches, all done with grace and amiability.
One final note. Oddly, the page numbers given in the table of contents is often incorrect compared to the page that a story can actually be found on. Only one or two pages either way, but it's still somewhat disconcerting, especially when flipping back and forth while writing a review. Other than this, Harper does a great job of putting together a professional package to remember the career of an important writer.
Last modified: July 13, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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