Asimov's travels with Gulliver; The Annotated Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift. Edited and with biographical introduction and notes by Isaac Asimov. New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc. $19.95
Asimov is, if anything, a prolific writer. His forays into the fields of science and literature have brought recognition far beyond his sphere of first renown, science fiction. The latest venture, an exhaustive annotation of Swift's classic satire, is a welcome addition to the ever-burgeoning Asimov collection.
The most striking aspect of this book is its almost cumbersomely minute attention to detail. Asimov provides the reader with extensive historical background on the Britain of Swift's day, word origins and derivations, and, most unusually, checks for the accuracy of scientific and geographical references. For every page of text, Asimov has at least a page of absorbing notes.
The marginal notations are alluring in the way trivia is; one finds oneself eagerly gobbling up the tidbits Asimov has so bountifully provided.
For instance, when Gulliver arrives in Lilliput and attempts to communicate with the little people, he tries lingua franca. This, according to Asimov, is:
In general, any jargon consisting of words from several different languages, used between people with no common language. . .. One modern lingua franca is "pidgin English," used in various places in the Pacific. The term "pidgin English" is itself a corruption of "business English," the language in which different people are forced to do business.
The language Gulliver used was one that grew up in the Mediterranean, when Europeans and Muslims tried to trade, in a language mixture containing Italian, French, Spanish, and Arabic. (Lingua franca originally meant "Frankish language ," since to the Muslims all west-Europeans were "Franks.")m
Rather than detracting from the text, the historical notes give unsuspected insights into the targets of Swift's satirical arrows. The notes themselves are reason enough for a second look at this classic.
Within the notes lies another treasure unique to Asimov's annotation: a piercing and witty analysis of "Gulliver's Travels" as science fiction.
Asimov has gone to extraordinary lengths to point out the accuracy (or lack thereof) of sizes and places described in Swift's volume. For instance, at one point, Gulliver is trapped in a cage that gets carted off by a giant eagle of the Brobdingnagian world. In the margin next to this account Asimov checks on the veracity of Swift's description.
Eagle. The largest recorded wingspan of an eagle is eight feet three inches for a female Australian wedge-tailed eagle. The brobdingnagian eagle might have a wingspan of nearly one hundred feet in that case. Eagles can, in real life, carry weights up to their own, and if a Brobdingnagian eagle weighed 1,728 times an ordinary eaglem [the Brobdingnagian world being 1,728 times larger than our world, according to earlier Asimov calculations], then, he could certainly carry Gulliver and his cage. However, the support of the wings is only proportional to the square of the linear measurements, while the weight of the eagle is proportional to the cube, and in real life a brobdingnagian eagle simply couldn't fly, let alone carry weights. (Not that I want to spoil the fun.)m
Indeed, Asimov has kept the fun and the facts in impeccable order. Scholars, too, will find this annotated edition of particular interest. The text is based on the edition printed by George Faulkner in 1734 -- an edition often considered definitive by experts on swift's work. It contains Swift's own corrections and additions to the original story, published in 1726.
Garnishing this definitive text are illustrations which lend as much to the reader's appreciation of Swift's satire as Asimov's notes. The pages are laced with contributions from illustrators, of Gulliver's adventures, of the last three centuries.
Shelving this latest Asimov creation next to his annotated editions of "Don Juan," "Paradise Lost," and "Familiar Poems," one can't help wodering: What's next, Isaac?