Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Predicting the future…

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In the far distant future, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, inhabiting countless planets. All are ruled from Trantor, the administrative centre of the Galactic Empire. Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian on Trantor. He has calculated that the Empire will collapse in 500 years time, resulting in millennia of chaos and barbarism. But he has a plan to shorten this to 1000 years, ostensibly by gathering all scientific knowledge into one massive Encyclopaedia Galactica. The Empire sees Seldon’s predictions as a threat but nevertheless they agree that a Foundation to prepare the Encyclopaedia should be set up, based on two uninhabited planets on opposite edges of the galaxy. Published in 1951, this, the first volume in what was to become an extensive series of Foundation books, tells the story of one of these settlements, on the planet Terminus, and gradually reveals that Seldon’s plan is more drastic than he let on…

The Foundation series is considered one of the great classics of science fiction and, as with much of Asimov’s work, its influence can be seen on many later books, films and TV series. I loved the early books in the series as a teenager many years ago, though I didn’t like the way Asimov developed it in later years, when he was more or less driven to write more by his fans. It’s several decades since I last read this one and I came away from this re-read with mixed feelings.

The basic idea is interesting. Psychohistory is a bit like what we now call social science – the study of how society in the mass shapes and reacts to events. In this time period, the science is so well developed that these things are precisely measurable and can therefore be used as a method to predict the future. It must, I think, have been one of the earliest science fiction novels to be looking at the mass of people as the driving force of history, rather than at princes, presidents, warriors or even specific scientists as “heroes”. However, Asimov doesn’t carry this idea forward too well – at various points along the way, there are what are known as “Seldon crises” – moments predicted by Seldon (now long dead) where a particular path must be chosen. In each of these crises, a leader arises who drives and determines the outcome. So Asimov, having made the argument that progress is driven by mass historical movements, quietly drops that idea and brings out one far-sighted individual – a hero, in all but name – as required. He gets round this by suggesting that Seldon’s plan is so detailed he was able to predict and manipulate the future so that the right person would be available to deal with each crisis, but it all seems too pat to be credible.

Hari Seldon, long after he’s dead…

The spreading out of the story over hundreds of years also means that each crisis requires an entirely new cast of characters. Apparently the book was originally developed as a series of short stories, and that’s how it feels – episodic. The result is that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters – they appear, play their brief part, then are long dead before the next chapter begins. It’s really more about the ideas that Asimov plays with at each episode, many of which are quite interesting, but this reader needs more of a human angle to feel truly involved. Again because of the format, sometimes things happen too quickly to be credible – for example, at one point a new religion manages to convert billions of followers within a period of a decade or so.

One of the more amusing aspects of reading this kind of future-of-humanity science fiction is seeing how the predictions sound sixty-six years on. Poor Asimov couldn’t guess at the internet or Wikipedia – the idea of people working for hundreds of years to collect all human knowledge seems odd to us, used as we are to Googling anything we want to know from how to make an exciting cheese sandwich to how to build an atomic bomb. However, he did foresee the development of the automatic washing machine – an invention that personally I think ranks as at least as important as the internet.

Isaac Asimov

Asimov never made much effort to see how people’s habits and attitudes might change in the future, so what you always get are a bunch of mid-twentieth century people doing mid-twentieth century things set in the far future. In this one, his characters all smoke incessantly, while talking in that instantly recognisable American language of the 1950s where everything is “tremendous”, etc. It’s a wonderful throwback which always makes me chuckle. His attitudes to women are usually strictly mid-twentieth century too – closer to neanderthal than new man. He treats them with 1950s respect, as valued pretty pets, for the most part. However, that’s not so noticeable in this one since he just doesn’t bother having any women characters at all! (Slight exaggeration – two minor female characters make brief appearances: one a maid, naturally bedazzled by shiny jewellery, and the other a harridan of a wife.) Sad news, sisters – apparently even in the distant future all scientists, politicians and even criminals will be men. Still, at least we have automatic washing machines…

So a mixed bag, but some of the ideas are original and interesting, Asimov’s writing style is always effortless and entertaining, there’s some welcome humour, and a mystery surrounding what Seldon’s real plan is and how it will play out. Add the book’s influential status and this is one that, despite feeling somewhat out-dated, is still well worth reading.

Book 17 of 90

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The Caves of Steel (Elijah Bailey 1) by Isaac Asimov

caves of steelJehoshaphat! It’s tremendous…!

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In the far distant future, Earth has become vastly overcrowded and the strain on resources has forced humanity into living cheek by jowl in massive closed in cities – the caves of steel of the title. They no longer ever venture into the outside world, having basic robots to do any outside work that’s needed. Living accommodation is small – meals are taken in huge communal kitchens and bathing and toileting facilities are all contained in the Personals, again communal and with strict social rules to preserve some semblance of privacy. The Outer Worlds are inhabited by Spacers, the descendants of people from Earth who colonised some of the planets thousands of years earlier. Spacer worlds are the opposite of Earth – underpopulated and disease free. Spacers no longer allow immigration from Earth, guarding the comparative luxury of their lives, along with their health. Naturally, they are resented by the people of Earth.

Spacers have developed much more advanced robots and, with the agreement of the government of Earth, are introducing them into Earth society. The robots are hated since people see them as a threat to their jobs, and loss of a job can mean loss of the few privileges that people can still have – their own washbasin, the right to an occasional meal in their own home. So when a Spacer robotocist is murdered, it seems obvious the culprit will be an Earth person. Elijah Bailey, C-Class Detective is called in to investigate and, to his horror, is partnered with a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, so advanced that he can easily pass as human.

Now, for you non-sci-fi-fans out there – yes, it’s sci-fi… but it’s also a great murder mystery. Proper crime with all different kinds of motivations at work, clues, detection, departmental politics, the works! Asimov wrote it after someone challenged him by saying sci-fi and mystery were incompatible genres. Asimov’s own view was that sci-fi can incorporate any literary genre (I agree), and this is his proof. Lije Bailey and R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw are one of the great classic detective duos, and this is your opportunity to sample sci-fi without ever having to leave Earth!

Which one is the robot?
Which one is the robot?

Along with the mystery Asimov creates a fairly chilling view of a possible future if Earth’s population continues to increase. It’s fairly easy 60 years on to pick holes in some of the things he foresaw, and didn’t, and personally, doing that is one of the great pleasures for me. I love that he could create something as sophisticated as the positronic brain – still being used by sci-fi writers as the basis for robots and androids today – but didn’t think of the mobile phone, so that poor Lije has to go out to phone boxes in the middle of the night. I love that he claimed that women still stuck to traditional clasps on their purses rather than adopting new-style magnetic catches. (We finally made it, Mr Asimov! We advanced that far!) I love that he came up with a kind of method for information retrieval that sounds not unlike the old punch-card system, but couldn’t take the extra leap that would have led him to computers. I love that people happily use all kinds of nuclear devices, cheerfully spraying radiation around as they go. He almost comes up with an e-reader… but not quite…

But the basic idea of an over-populated world where every human activity is carefully regimented and controlled to make best use of dwindling resources is very well done, and the resentment of humans over machines taking over their jobs has proved to be pretty prophetic. The Medievalists who look nostalgically back to a time not unlike the 1950s have more than a little in common with our more fundamentalist back-to-the-earth green groups of today.

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov

One of the other things I love about the Elijah Bailey books is that, although the world is thousands of years older, all the people are stuck in a ’50s time-warp. Gee, gosh, the language is simply tremendous! Lije’s favourite exclamation is “Jehoshaphat!” – I always find myself using it for weeks after I’ve read one of the books. The women stay at home, try to look pretty for their husbands, and bring up the children, which is all their limited brains and talents are really fit for, while the men go off and do manly things, like science and running about the streets with blasters and such like. So you not only get a look at how Asimov saw the possible future, but you get a real picture of ’50s American attitudes thrown in for free.

The plot is great and totally fair-play. Lije’s detection methods are a bit on the slapdash side, I admit – basically, he decides whodunit, accuses them, is proved wrong, and then decides it was actually someone else… and so on. But each accusation adds something, both to his future guesswork, and to the reader’s understanding of the society he’s operating in. And Jehoshaphat! When the solution finally comes, it’s a good one!

Golly gee, I hope you read this book. It may be a bit dated, but it’s still loads of fun and with plenty of interest to either sci-fi or mystery fans. Jeepers, you’ll be sorry if you don’t…

(Now, I know that Data was inspired by R Daneel Olivaw, but d’you think Neelix might have been inspired by Asimov’s sideburns…?)

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov

Water, water, everywhere…


robot dreamsOne of the ‘Big Three’ of sci-fi writers of the mid-to-late twentieth century (with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke), Isaac Asimov was not just incredibly prolific but also hugely influential – on actual science as well as on later sci-fi authors. He also happens to be my favourite sci-fi author of all time and the one I’ve read most extensively, though mostly long, long ago. Most of his stuff is ‘hard sci-fi’ – roughly speaking, possible human futures based on realistic science – and he’s arguably best known for his robot stories. Pretty much all the later robots and androids of our acquaintance are direct descendants of Asimov’s characters and he was, as far as I know, the first to really speculate in any depth about where the dividing line is between ‘machine’ and ‘life’. Anyone who watched Commander Data of Star Trek fame struggle to become ‘human’ was in fact watching an Asimov-inspired creation – a credit the Star Trek team were glad to give. The ‘positronic’ brain and the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ have not just become a sci-fi standard, but also something that real robotocists (another Asimov term) still use as a goal – as is evident from Michio Kaku’s recent book on The Future of the Mind.

commander data

So when I downloaded this collection of Asimov’s short stories, Robot Dreams, I intended to review a robot story…but I may have previously mentioned my Mars obsession, so instead went straight to the following story for this week’s…


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The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov


As this longish short story begins, the colony on Mars has been in existence for around three generations and the people born there have begun to think of themselves as Martians rather than colonists. However they’re still dependent on Earth for some of their food and, more importantly, for the water that they need not just to live, but to provide their rockets with the power that they need to get their ships into space. As each water-holding shell is used it is jettisoned into space, and the first people we meet are Martian ‘scavengers’, who search for these shells and recover them for their scrap value.

The original pubblication in Galaxy magazine in 1952
The original publication in Galaxy magazine in 1952

But back on earth a politician is whipping up a storm about the amount of water that is being taken from Earth and ‘wasted’ in space or in the colonies. And when Hilder gets into a position of power, he aims to stop providing supplies to Mars, effectively ending the ability of the colonists to stay there. The option is open for them to return to Earth to live – but they feel they are Martian now. So one of the scavengers, Ted Long, comes up with a daring and dangerous plan to find a water source elsewhere in the solar system…

This is hard sci-fi at its finest. Asimov takes what is known at the time of writing and builds realistically on it to speculate what might be possible in the future. Obviously the science is sometimes out-dated now with new discoveries making Asimov’s speculations look wrong – but when you know as little about real science as I do that really doesn’t matter. I once asked a couple of sciency-type people if Asimov’s science is robust and, while they were a bit sniffy about the way he sometimes makes incredibly complex things sound reasonably straightforward, I felt that said more about sciency-type people than it did about Asimov! 😉











But it’s not all science, and that’s why he’s so readable. His stories are exciting, with a great mix of suspense and humour, his writing style is approachable even when he’s explaining the connection between quantity of water required and mass plus velocity(!), he sets out to entertain and never patronises the reader, and his characterisation is great. In this one, as is often the case in his stories, the scavengers aren’t scientists – just practical working guys using their skills and experience to solve problems. And, of course, things don’t go smoothly, so they have to be able to think fast and act faster…

An excellent story that is a great introduction to Asimov’s style, you can also read this story online  together with the original illustrations, including the ones I’ve posted here. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go read some robot stories…

Little Green Men: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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