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

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…