The Foundation Trilogy

Isaac Asimov wrote the several short stories that make up the Foundation trilogy in the 40s for a magazine. They were later compiled into three books, and eventually Asimov added to the series with two sequels and two prequels in the 80s and 90s.

The trilogy, and later series, revolves around the decline of a galaxy spanning empire far in the future, and the plan of the foremost expert in the fictional science of psychohistory, Hari Seldon. Seldon’s plan is to establish a Foundation at the edge of the galaxy that will grow and envelop the whole, shortening the period of galactic decay between the old empire and the new rule of the Foundation.

The short stories are heavily inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, rather than the decline of the British Empire which was more contemporaneous with the novels’ writing. It gives the books a substantial historical feel with references to emperors, generals, and barbarians while still clearly being science fiction. I think this helped to ground the books and establish Isaac Asimov as a writer, and science fiction generally as a serious genre. While certainly compelling, the books are clearly written a while ago, and not just because of the technology mentioned in the book, which often focuses on nuclear and atomic energy as the most advanced possible. The characters themselves feel like science fiction stereotypes with wizened bureaucrats, rule-breaking rogues, and tactical generals. I suppose they likely established those as science fiction tropes, but perhaps they also borrowed them from Roman historical fiction.

The books’ influence is interesting. The series won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-time Series” in 1966, beating out The Lord of the Rings (!). It was likely one of the first science fiction novels to explore the ideas of advancing not just physical sciences, but social sciences. The namesake Foundation is built on the concept of “psychohistory” which purports to predict human behavior mathematically at the level of planets and galaxies, with trillions of beings. Asimov never mentioned this, but it seems that this theme of social prediction must have been inspired by the dominance of Samuelson and Keynes in economics at the time. Friedrich Hayek would later have much to say about the limits of such social science knowledge. It’s some 60+ years after the publication of these stories, and the concept of psychohistory seems much more like fiction than science.

Before I get into spoilers, I want to state a qualified recommendation of the Foundation series. It’s an important part of science fiction history, but if you’ve never read science fiction before, other classics are a bit more accessible with more action and less history, like Ender’s Game or dystopias like 1984. Science Fiction is a really broad category, but one axis I’ve found useful to categorize sci-fi is “amount of world-building needed”. The range would be from a story that takes modern society largely as-is and only changes a couple things, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle to narratives where almost nothing is retained from modern society. This could be because the piece takes place in outer space or the far future or confronts and explores the implication of new technology. Examples include Dune and Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star. The far end of this axis is fantasy like Lord of the Rings. This axis is interesting but also quite subjective. I would consider Seveneves to have more world-building than Jurassic Park (both movie and book) even though both are pretty hard science fiction, take place in about the present day, and assume one unusual science-breaking event (finding enough dinosaur DNA to clone a dinosaur or the moon spontaneously exploding). I think it’s because Seveneves‘ story takes place over a much longer period of time and so the world is built up around it. But that’s my rule, others might think differently about this axis.

Bringing it back to Foundation, I find that the further down the “world-building” axis a science fiction book goes, the more it risks becoming outdated in the future. 1984 does a pretty good job world-building, but the core of the book is the devastating social commentary on totalitarianism. It remains an interesting book because of that and because the technology explored aged pretty well into the 80s, when the story takes place (Orwell wrote it in the 40s). It’s not too important to the story, but there are several places in 1984 where the technology used betrays its 1940s origin, like the way Orwell talks about helicopters or the use of “telescreens” when hidden microphones would have been fine. Nonetheless, it doesn’t detract too much from the story since it’s supposed to take place in something approximating Earth’s past. But Foundation is a whole galactic society thousands of years in the future, and so the way that society is constructed is pretty important to the story. But of course, it was written almost 70 years ago and so you can’t help but notice this far future society has a very 1950s attitude on nuclear power.

How should we approach this science fiction limitation? To some extent, all books should be read in the context of when they were written, but for purposes of recommendation, since modern science fiction authors literally have more information than past authors, does it make sense to recommend to newcomers more modern science fiction — since it requires less context?  I think so, and it is for this reason that I qualify my recommendation of the Foundation series unless the reader has some context on when they were written and how they shaped other science fiction later on.

Finally, on to the spoilers. Once I got into the story, I found it extremely compelling. I thought at first it was going to be just a series of Hari Seldon’s genius plans going well as the Foundation steadily conquered the galaxy. And don’t get me wrong, I love stories where the protagonists have a genius plan that comes together, but I also thought it was a pretty silly view of the world to imagine that human action was so predictable. I suspect that’s how Asimov initially saw his magazine series, but then came the story about the Mule, which was much more engaging. The Mule is a genetic “mutant” which has more similarity to mutants in the X-Men than actual genetic mutations. His role in the story is to provide for a part of the Seldon plan that could not be predicted. The plan falls apart and the Mule conquers the Foundation. This re-introduced a lot of uncertainty into the story just as you were coming to understand how the Foundation might win by following the Seldon plan. True to it’s serialized initial publication, I was very excited to read about what came next, and I think the trilogy delivered well on that front.

In fact, as a consequence of everything I’ve stated in this article about how sometimes the technology seems stuck in the 50s, I’m pretty interested in reading the additional Foundation stories Asimov wrote later in the 80s. I am still wondering how the story of the Foundation continues, but I suspect the technology will be a bit more relevant to today with these books written 30 years later. Overall, I’m glad I got to finish this trilogy and my first foray into Asimov’s books as it helps put many other of my favorite sci-fi stories in perspective.


Book Review: Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle was my third Vonnegut novel after Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. It was published in 1963, a few years before Slaughterhouse-Five was published and Vonnegut became a household name. From a biographical perspective, it was one of his earlier novels that helped to define his style and approach.

Consequently, the book is ridiculous, absurd, amusing, dark, and self-referential as you would expect. It follows a writer who is trying to track down what famous Americans were doing the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The narrator gets caught up following information about a fictional scientist Felix Hoenikker and his now grown children, and the novel ends up on the fictional Caribbean island nation of San Lorenzo, which is ruled by a stalwart anti-communist and American allied dictator. The islanders are nonetheless uninterested in geopolitics and are instead obsessed with an invented nihilistic religion that everyone apparently follows, despite its official (and ignored) ban, punishable by death.

My thoughts on the book were mixed, but not strong; it’s probably good if you are already a large Vonnegut fan, otherwise, I’d probably opt to skip it. It is funny, in the bizarre Vonnegut way, but the bizarreness sometimes veers too far. I would often find the characters unrelatable. Nonetheless, there are some ideas that I did find historically interesting which I would like to discuss.

Having read Starship Troopers this year as well, these two novels capture the overriding sense of doom in the Cold War that we just don’t have any more. Heinlein’s response to what he saw as this existential and inevitable conflict with the Soviets was to argue for a hardline military response to save civilization.  Vonnegut saw the destruction of the second world war and then the creation of the nuclear bomb and the arms race as a trend in human history towards greater destruction. His response was to write black comedies and satirize the entire ridiculousness that humans were so technically intelligent yet so tribally stupid as to create the gadgets of their own destruction. Given humanity was stupid enough to fight the deadliest war in human history less than 20 years prior, it was inevitable that the next war would come and prove even more horrific. It’s a powerful view and I’m sure made a lot of sense at the time. Cat’s Cradle in this context is fascinating.

Felix Hoenikker is a ridiculous character; he just tinkers and builds without any regard for the consequences of his actions, inventing an ice crystal that will turn any water that touches it into room temperature ice. Its application as a superweapon becomes apparent, but Hoenikker is so short sighted that he leaves it out for his children to find without any thought. In turn, when his children take the ice crystal, they are swindled out of it, allowing both the US and USSR access to it. I found this whole narrative pretty weird and silly, but from Vonnegut’s perspective this “what-are-social-consequences” caricature of the scientists who created the atomic bomb must have been compelling. As a general techno-optimist, I’m not so sure I agree. Trying to stop technology from advancing seems pretty difficult, and had the US not pursued a nuclear program, it seems unlikely that the Soviet Union would also have followed after having captured German scientists.

Moreover, reading this book in 2018, I have a similar critique to what I said about Heinlein; both author’s worries seem to have been incorrect. The Soviet Union collapsed without us fighting a war as Heinlein thought and without us destroying ourselves as Vonnegut seemed to expect in Cat’s Cradle. Is this just luck or actual evidence they were wrong? It’s hard to know.

But whereas Heinlein’s book also established the “space war” genre, meaning it remains a staple of science fiction, Cat’s Cradle is pretty meh outside of the social commentary. There are a lot of references to the invented religion of San Lorenzo (which parodies actual religion, which perhaps is also invented), called Bokononism. Such references are strewn with made up words and some of the made up San Lorenzen dialect. I’m not an absolutist when it comes to inventing words and language, but I feel that any invention of made-up words comes at a cost of reader understanding. The payoff is usually in terms of world-building, but Cat’s Cradle‘s world is ridiculous and constantly absurd, emphasizing its bizarreness. There is no world-building going on, and so I don’t feel like I bought into it as a reader, and thus the invented words were just annoying.

On the plus side, this book made me wonder what narratives seem obvious and ridiculous to us today will be forgotten about in 20 or 30 years. For example, we all know social media is creating fake news and promoting vile extremism and trolling. Our country is being divided and politicized and there may be no escape. Cat’s Cradle suggests instead we may not have any idea what our future problems will be like.