Posted on March 24, 2017
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov, but having read Gold – the final collection of his short stories and essays – I think I now know (and love) this legend of science fiction even more.
Gold is divided into three sections: the first is dedicated to his short stories that have not previously appeared in book form elsewhere, the second is a collection of his essays on science fiction (including how he discovered it and how he created elements of his own work), and the third is a collection of his essays about the art of writing science fiction. Out of the stories and the essays, it was the latter that I found most fascinating.
But let me start with the short stories. As you would expect, robots and alien planets feature heavily, and there are also a couple of stories focused around the art of writing itself – such as ‘Cal’, which is about a robot who wants to write and whose master aids him in his desire, up to a point. But there are also a couple of unexpected stories in here, in that they differ from Asimov’s usual style (or at least, my experience of it). For example, ‘Kid Brother’ – about a mother who must make a fatal choice between her human son and his robot companion – is one of the darkest and best Asimov stories I’ve read. On the other end of the scale there are ‘Battle-Hymn’ and ‘Feghoot and the Courts’, both of which spend several pages hooking you in, only for Asimov to reveal in the final line that it’s all been building towards… a pun!
The titular story, ‘Gold’, was a very interesting meditation on art and interpretation and legacy, and although I didn’t love the story itself, I did love the comparison the introduction writer Jon Silbersack drew between this story and its creator:
“At the heart of this unique collection is the title story, ‘Gold’, a moving and revealing drama about a writer who gambles everything on a chance at immortality – a gamble Asimov himself made. And won.”
But I think it’s the essays that really make this collection, mainly for the insight they give you into Asimov as a person and the culture in which he started out writing. First, he paints a picture of the path of his career, particularly its origins in the pulp sci-fi magazines of the 1940s onwards. He compares the relative lack of competition in early sci-fi to its modern iteration ‘now’ (or at time of writing, in the 1980s), and describes how the world of sci-fi writing felt very much like a fringe group on the outskirts of literature, not taken seriously as ‘proper’ writing. He talks about his own literary breakthroughs (including his invention of the Three Laws of Robotics, and indeed of the word ‘robotic’ itself), and those of others – how he felt jealous of others’ successes and had to remind himself that a success for one sci-fi writer is a success for all.
He also writes occasionally about women in sci-fi: he discusses how the sci-fi market used to be almost entirely male dominated, and how he himself made certain clumsy assumptions about women in his early stories because “I had not yet had my first date with a young lady”. Asimov fully embraces women in sci-fi and praises the brilliance and wit and intelligence (and beauty) of certain female writers and editors he has met. I have to admit I was bracing myself for a far more ‘1950s’ attitude towards women in his essay ‘Women and Science Fiction’, but I finished it pleasantly surprised.
As for Asimov the man, he comes across as funny and warm, perhaps a little old-fashioned but that’s to be expected. He doesn’t begrudge the developments of technology or society – in fact he recognises that these are what feeds science fiction at large. He also doesn’t shy away from his own reputation, often poking fun at his oft-mentioned giant stature in the literary world, and his own ego too. He seems proud of himself, but not in an overly smug way – he is a proud man with much to be proud about, and I appreciate him not faking humility or self-depreciation.
I really can’t fault this excellent collection. Asimov’s stories both shocked and amused me (and occasionally made me roll my eyes – not just a master of sci-fi; he seems to be a master of the dad joke too), and his essays painted a picture of a funny, intelligent man looking back on an astonishingly successful career and feeling really rather pleased about it all. Good for him.
“…a person of my own wholesale proclivities considers nothing worth doing that isn’t worth doing a lot.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy Gold here.