Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

A chum tweeted about Foundation this summer, prompting me finally to read it.

It's a short, breezy book covering events over a hundred years. In the first section, 'psychohistorian' Hari Seldon is arrested for predicting the future - and the inevitable ruin of the Empire of which he's a subject. We gloss over the exact process by which he comes by this prediction, or how it's shown to be chillingly accurate. But the authorities are convinced he's right - so place him under house arrest.

Obviously, there are parallels here to the fate of Galileo, but it also made me think of the Drake equation - a clever attempt to quantify the unquanitifiable, marshalling the known unknowns involved to best estimate the number of live, chatty alien civilisations in our galaxy. I wondered if the equation had influenced Asimov, but it turns out the equation was conjured a decade after the book.

In fact, Asimov is ahead of the game quite a lot. On page 8, there's an ingenious device that sounds almost contemporary: a ticket that glows when you're heading in the right direction. Then, as a result of Seldon's predictions, a project is established to gather the Empire's knowledge in the hope it will survive. Sections are book-ended by excerpts from the book this results in, the Encyclopedia Galactica - mocked in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the 1970s, and a precursor of the internet.

It's influence on science-fiction is also evident. Back in my academic days last millennia, I wrote for the journal Foundation. I assume Han Solo being Corellian is a nod to the Korellians here, and Hardin in Doctor Who story The Leisure Hive a nod to the character in the book. Maybe the Doctor Who story Terminus owes a debt to this as well.

Then there are things that seem so much of an ancient past: the smoking of cigars (I initially read "a long cigar of Vegan tobacco" (p. 47) as meaning it was free of animal producrs), the news printed on paper, the merchant who offers tech-fashions to women but tech-weapons to men. A key element in the story is different groups' access and understanding of nuclear energy - "atomic power can be conquered only by more atomic power" (p. 164) - which feels very 1951,  when such energy was a pretty neat idea.

If we're not told how psychohistory actually works, Asimov at least places limits on the super-science to keep things dramatically interesting. Seldon predicts a series of crises, and those that follow him are left to guess how to meet such challenges without making the impending Dark Ages worse.
"I quite understand that psychohistory is a statistical science and cannot predict the future of a single man with any accuracy." (p. 21)
"Because even Seldon's advanced psychology was limited. It could not handle too many independent variables. He couldn't work with individuals over any length of time; any more than you could apply the kinetic theory of gases to single molecule. He worked with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only blind mobs who do not possess foreknowledge of the results of their own actions." (p. 97)
It's also all told in short, punchy chapters and sections - one chapter is barely three paragraphs long. We often jump forward years, and having to catch up on the monumental events we just skipped. There's an awesome scale and a sense of playing an active part in making sense of the bigger picture behind all these fragments.

Asimov occasionally makes sly comment on the politics presented:
"Korrell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal 'honour' and court etiquette." (p. 172)
But in large part the pleasure comes from smart, compassionate men (they're all men) who use that intelligence and compassion to avoid conflict and stick to Seldon's plan. It's an alluring idea, but I can't help feeling that it would be a more rewarding read if it didn't all go as predicted. It's a book that couldn't have been written after the Bay of Pigs or Watergate.

In fact, in 2002 David Langford spelled out a rather fine conjecture about Foundation influencing a real movement that has shaped so much of the 21st century.

I'm now keen to read Alex Nevala-Lee's new book Astounding: John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein, L Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science-Fiction (Dey Street Books, 2018).

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