Cover of Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection
Book 511 Fantasy Collection 1995
Yours, Isaac Asimov It’s Been a Good Life
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Asimov fan
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Target reader

Isaac Asimov and science fiction are one at the same to millions of readers. He was the field’s transcendent genius, its reigning prophet, its genial patriarch, and its most prolific author. Over his fifty-year career, “the good doctor” [sic] saw the literature he loved—and indeed helped create and nurture—grow from a tiny pulp subculture to a world-wide empire that has changed not only our books but our movies, our enthusiasms, even our dreams. In the process, a shy kid from Brooklyn became the most famous science fiction author the world has ever known.

But Asimov also wrote fantasy, and invariably of an enduring quality. Magic is his final original collection, containing all of his uncollected fantasy stories that have never before appeared in book form. Wry and witty, they carry his unique, personal stamp of rationalism and logic.

This final collection of Asimov’s best-loved fantasy stories assembles his most popular tales of the two-centimeter demon Azazel, with his tiny red horns and belly the size of a BB (was this a wishful projection on the good doctor’s part?).

Here also his most conventional but equally enchanting fables in the classic fairy-tale mode, complete with magical coins, lustful princes, and even a flameless dragon. Not to mention a delightful almost-fantasy about Batman’s old age!

But while fiction is priceless, perhaps most valuable in this farewell collection are Asimov’s writings on the field of fantasy itself. Here are the fascinating musings of a wide-ranging intelligence, discussing everything from Tolkien to Spielberg, from unicorns to King Arthur, from the differences between maidens and damsels to the speed of Seven League Boots—scientifically calculated at last!

Magic is the last word on fantasy by the renowned science fiction author. Though Isaac Asimov had fun writing all his works, these are the stories he wrote for fun. They are an essential part of his irreplaceable legacy.

Nobody is more surprised than I that I enjoyed this anthology as much as I did, given how disappointing Gold was. This is hardly a flawless book, mind, and Harper Prism is to be blamed for not doing as well as they might have with it—the book was clearly put together by someone not terribly familiar with the corpus of Asimov’s writings—but it is quite enjoyable, nonetheless.

The book has four parts to be discussed separately. They don’t really have much to do with one another (the main point wherein Harper Prism is to be faulted).

The first is the introduction, which is not by Asimov and is truly awful. I’m not aware of a worse introduction to an Asimov book except, perhaps, for the one to Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts. The author is essentially trying to prove that all four parts have something to do with each other and that something is that they’re all about fantasy. Asimov, they say, was after all a great fantasist as well as sf writer and had a huge impact on the field.

Bovine excrement.

Asimov was only tangentially involved in fantasy and wrote virtually none—and certainly none of it was influential in any particular fashion. I really doubt that any dedicated fantasy fan could name any true fantasy he ever wrote; I even doubt that most true Asimov fans could do that. His main impact on fantasy was in the end as an sf writer, and that mainly because of the considerable overlap between the readership of the two fields. Indeed, of the eleven stories in this book, exactly two are fantasies in the strict sense. (Of course, another eight are very borderline indeed.)

The next section is a collection of eleven “fantasy” stories: eight George and Azazel stories, one Black Widower mystery (!), and two gentle but humorous fairy tales.

The George and Azazel stories vary between sf and fantasy, depending on Asimov’s editor at the moment (the exact genre is entirely irrelevant). Ironically, Magic includes an essay which explains why they ended up on the sf side of the fence and all of the eight here are written as if they were sf. Still, it’s nice to see they’ve found a home. They may not be as good, on the whole, as the ones in Azazel, but they’re good enough. I enjoyed them.

Much better is the Black Widower story, “Northwestward,” although it has an unexpected theme (Batman). Still, it’s nice to see Henry in the harness once more and I even forgive it the fact that I figured out the ending before he did. (I should point out, however, that a week before I read the story for the first time I actually flew Northwest myself.)

The final two stories, “The Fable of the Three Princes” and “Prince Delightful and the Flameless Dragon” are modern-type fairy tales with kings and knights and dragons and stuff, done much in the vein of The Rose and the Ring or “The Reluctant Dragon.” They’re mildly humorous but not unpleasant.

What makes a difference here as compared to Gold is that in Gold, the material anthologized was in many cases the dregs—stuff that had been left unanthologized for a long time for good and sufficient reasons. Moreover, as his focus in short fiction shifted from sf to mysteries and George-and-Azazel stories (whatever we end up categorizing them as), the quality of the shorter sf he did write by and large suffered.

The next section consists of book introductions and essays from Asimov’s Science Fiction which actually have to do with fantasy. Some have already seen print in Asimov books, some haven’t. They’re OK, but nothing spectacular and hardly anything deeply insightful or influential.

The final section of the book has nothing to do with fantasy, but does have to do with irrationality in our society. It consists of seven essays, two from Asimov’s syndicated column which formed the basis for Frontiers and Frontiers II, one from goodness knows where, and four from F&SF (!)—but these aren’t new essays, they’re old: “Knock Plastic!,” “Lost in Non-Translation,” “Look Long Upon a Monkey,” and “Thinking About Thinking.” These four, in particular, are wonderful; among my very favorites of all of Asimov’s works period, and finding them here was an unexpected delight—except, of course, that they really have nothing at all to do with the rest of the book.

(Even more mysterious is the fact that the copyright section of the book all gives them a 1989 copyright date. Huh? What the heck is responsible for that? Either there’s some vagary of copyrights involved that I don’t know about or the book’s editors didn’t know that these were old essays.)

Anyway, largely on the strength of these last four essays, but also allowing for the overall quality of the short stories earlier in the book, I found this a very pleasant read and a welcome addition to my collection.

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