Saturday, May 23, 2009

Magic

Magic: the Final Fantasy Collection
© 1996 Isaac Asimov
275 pages

It amuses me to no end that Isaac Asimov, who made being prolific the point of his professional existence, manages to have books published under his name and added to his hundreds long after his death. Magic, like other Asimovian books published after his death, is a collection of material that has has either not been collected in book form or merits, for whatever reason, being republished along with uncollected works. Interestingly, this book is not simply a collection of short stories or a book of essays: it is both. The first half of the book contains short stories, the third quarter of essays relating to the theme of fantasy, and the fourth quarter essays that have no connection to fantasy but which were probably published to see that they were in book form or to pad the book's length. (This is pure speculation on my part.)

Most of the included fantasy stories are about a man named George and an interstellar alien named Azazel. Azazel, initially conceived of as a magical being, was turned into an alien with exotic (but scientific) powers at the request of a magazine editor (as Asimov explains here and in I, Asimov). The stories are told in the first person -- at first, from the viewpoint of an unnamed friend of George's, and then from George's view as he begins relating the story of his most recent encounters with Azazel. George has the power to summon Azazel from his own world, and he only does so to ask him for favors -- wanting Azazel to use his powers to help George's friends with some difficulty in their lives. The stories included here almost all remind the reader to be careful of what you wish for.

After an oddly-placed but pleasing Black Widowers story, Asimov's editors include two straightforward fantasy fables that seem to be set in the quasi-medival world that fairy tales and fantasy novels often rely on -- with kings, castles, dragons, sorcerers, and peasants, but which contains anachronisms that may be unique to Asimov's particular taste. (In one of his stories, the "sorcerer" in question seems to be a misplaced 20th century scientist -- perhaps a wink at Clarke's Third Law.) I found the two fantasy fables to be the high point of the first part of the book: however much I enjoyed the Black Widower surprise, I'd just read the very same story only a few weeks ago.

After the last fantasy story -- one that involved a dragon who spoke like he lived in Brooklyn being approached by a clumsy prince whose job it was to slay him -- the book becomes a collection of essays. The first essays are written "on" fantasy, or on the general theme. In them, Asimov explores questions of the genre: given Clarke's third law, how can we differentiate science fiction from fantasy fiction -- science from magic? What makes science fiction what it is? To essays addressing these questions, the editors add essays praising Tolkien and pondering on the literary origins of creatures like giants and unicorns. To this date, I think the only essays I've read about Asimov have been on science, and more specifically with types of science that I find hard to appreciate -- biochemistry and subatomic physics. It was then a delight for me to read essays by Asimov on topics of history, mythology, and literature -- themes I'm more familiar with, and which I can enjoy reading about more.

In the final section of the book, the editors have compiled a few unrelated essays by Asimov. They label this miscellaneous section "Beyond Fantasy", and it was here -- in the section most removed from the theme of the book -- that I found myself enjoying the book the most. There's no way to summarize this section without doing some injustice to the essays, so I will list them:
  • He begins with "Reading and Writing", an essay concerning the potential consequences of the decline of said skills in American children.
  • Next, "The Right Answer" addresses the ways that religious people who want to take sacred texts literally but who don't want them to be compromised by claims of scientific inaccuracy can interpret the Bible to support various inflections of the Big Bang model. (By inflection, I mean stationary versus inflationary, or repeating versus linear)
  • "Ignorance in America" is third.
  • "Knock Plastic" is unique: as much of Asimov as I've read and listened to, and as much of a skeptic as he was, I've never read any direct contribution of his to skeptical literature. "Knock Plastic" contains six "security blanket" beliefs that he identifies in humanity, including people who praise themselves on rationality. (I will be listing them on my philosophy/humanities blog soon.)
  • "Lost in Nontranslation" concerns the importance of translating the connotation of words, using the biblical stories of Ruth and the Good Samaritan to illustrate his point. In both, modern readers lose the meaning because to them, "Moabite woman" and "Samaritan" don't have the bite that they would have had to their original listeners.
  • "Look Long Upon a Monkey" is an essay on anti-evolutionists' obsession with "WE DIDN'T COME FROM MONKEYS!" and the problem this obsession causes for educators.
  • "Thinking About Thinking" criticizes intelligence tests and ponders on the nature of intelligence in general.

This book was a lovely surprise for me. I approached it only out of mild curiosity, but the more I read it the more I liked it: my enjoyability began picking up steam with the two fables and absolutely took off when I got to the essays, which were a particular delight. This may be just the gushing of someone who finished the book not half an hour ago, but I think this is one of the more enjoyable books by Asimov I've read.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting. I've read *lots* of Asimov (mostly years ago) and have never even heard of this book....

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  2. Me, either: it was just happenstance that my library has the book.

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