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

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…