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

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…