Very much of my life is spent in trying to decide how best to explain rather complicated phenomena in such a way that people can understand without…too much pain in the process.
And in this new volume, Isaac Asimov succeeds, quite painlessly, in explaining; the Energy Crisis, how the North Star proves that Roger Bacon did not write Shakespeare’s plays, and why science fiction writers are considered prophets—and much more.
This book has a special spot in my heart, because I remember anxiously waiting for the day when it would be available in paperback and I could snatch it up. Then, too, it’s a series of Ace science books by Asimov with their “keen-eyed peerer into the future” picture of him on the front cover. And to top it off, it isn’t all F&SF essays. “The Inevitability of Life” appeared in Science Digest (it was included, Asimov explains in the introduction, because in style and tone it matches the F&SF essay series).
As for the contents of the book, it is not the most outstanding member of the series, but outstanding enough. I mention in my review of “The Last Trump” that Asimov never read, I'm sure, Confucius' Analects. Ironically, then, the essay herein “Constant as the Northern Star” has a title which one could take as an allusion to the Analects, did one not know that it’s a quote from Julius Caesar by some guy named Shakespeare. It’s a nice discussion of the precession of the equinoxes, and is followed by “Signs of the Times,” which goes into the time when the vernal equinox will enter Aquarius, something Asimov touched on in the introduction to The Stars in their Courses.
Other highlights: “The Eclipse and I” has a fun anecdote of what happened when the Good Doctor finally saw an eclipse in person; “Look Long Upon a Monkey” is a definitive examination of why people don’t like the idea of evolution, while it’s near neighbor “The Double-Ended Candle” has been quoted by Duane Gish to prove that evolution is false (I swear!); and “Skewered!” is about big numbers and so earns a place in my heart.
Beyond that, the essays are all solid; none are badly out-of-date or embarrassing. This is a good collection, but just not at the top of the very high heap in which it resides.