Skip to main content

Foundation - Isaac Asimov ****

If a science fiction expert is asked to name the top ten of the genre, it's very likely that Isaac Asimov's sweeping Foundation would be in there. But I think it's also true that many such experts won't have read it in a long time - so it's worth revisiting with a more modern viewpoint.

What Asimov does so strikingly is to take the lessons of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and apply them to a vast future galactic empire. Of course much is different - but the basic occurrences of Roman decline are echoed strongly. Asimov's masterstroke is to add in a fictional psychology/statistics crossover science, 'psychohistory', which makes it possible for Hari Seldon and his researchers to lay out the future of the empire and a route involving rare interventions which will take it from collapse to a new empire spending a fraction of the time in barbarism than otherwise would be the case.

This whole psychohistory thing fascinated me when I first read the books as a teenager, so much so that it influenced my move into operational research, probably the closest thing in reality to it. But Asimov is clever enough not to make it a dead, guiding hand (despite Seldon's occasional reappearance in a video vault), leaving the crises to able rule-breakers on the ground.

The book is still very readable, helped by being (to modern eyes) unfashionably short, though it does suddenly stop like the ending of part of a modern movie trilogy. (The three books were cobbled together from a collection of short publications, so the stopping point is arbitrary.) There are some interesting challenges to face, and fun is had with future technology. All in all this a thoroughly enjoyable piece of 50s science fiction. But that position of reverence - and the reason I can't bring myself to give it the three stars it really deserves - is down to Asimov's cleverness in making use of Roman precedent and invention of psychohistory. There are some significant issues with the book otherwise.

Famously Asimov was not good at characterisation. His heroes are cookie cutter clever rebels and the baddies are mostly pompous and stupid. Yet that isn't the biggest problem. Neither is the technology prediction. Despite many journalists' mistaken view, science fiction isn't about predicting the future. So it doesn't really matter that in a galactic empire where there are atomic powered, faster-than-light ships, blasters and nuclear power devices the size of a walnut, we have the Foundation producing an encyclopaedia in the form of books and the main data storage mechanism is microfilm. This was written pre-transistor. The only real issue was not thinking through the clash between the scale of the galaxy and the Roman decline model. Asimov has the peripheral systems losing atomic power to parallel the loss of Roman tech - that's fine. But these people still flit around distances of 50 parsecs without a problem. If they have working hyperdrives, atomic power would not be an issue. But even that is trivial.

No, what's a bit disappointing (and I didn't spot it as a teenager) is that, culturally, Asimov's future world is anchored in the American 1950s. What brought this home to me is having recently watched the TV series Mad Men. You could have taken characters from the first season of Mad Men and transplanted them to Foundation seamlessly, but for Asimov's other main failing of not coping with sex, which simply doesn't come into things in Foundation. There's lots of smoking, and women know their place. In the 189 pages, women appear on five - and that's just a secretary answering a phone, a servant being enthralled by baubles and a viciously sniping wife. For page after page, every character is male. For all the ideas of technology changing, Asimov totally misses that the way we behave might develop as well.

I don't want to be too heavy - it's still a very special book in the history of science fiction and an enjoyable read. But we have to be aware of its limitations.

The other two books in the trilogy - Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation - will be reviewed shortly. 

Paperback:  

Bizarre, doesn't appear to be on Kindle

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…