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: Snow Crash

Snow Crash has been on my list for a long time. It’s the third Neal Stephenson novel I’ve read after The Diamond Age and Seveneves and is considered his breakout novel. Published in 1992, it’s actually somewhat unbelievable how forward looking this book is. I actually found myself a little bored when Stephenson was describing the technology for the virtual world, the “Metaverse”, of Snow Crash since I just read Ready Player One a few months ago, and many of the concepts that ended up in that novel’s conception of virtual reality, published in 2011, were already present in Snow Crash, 19 years prior.

Besides virtual reality, which Snow Crash explores extensively, the novel also entertains the idea of anarcho-capitalism or post-national capitalism, where nation states have regressed, and the world is made up of a autonomous corporate states, seemingly inspired by David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom or Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. Interestingly, The Machinery of Freedom saw its second edition published in 1989, right before Snow Crash came out. Several of Stephenson’s novels explore this idea of decentralized post-state economic systems, including his other 90s books The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. Concepts covered include the decentralized implementation of a legal system, private roads, quasi-state citizenship and security, and the ineffectiveness of government. The Federal government does still exist in this bizarre Los Angeles, but it seems to do nothing useful except spend lots of resources ensuring the loyalty of its own employees. There is a memo about toilet paper usage in the federal offices that goes on for pages.

I don’t know what an anarcho-hyper-capitalist world would really look like, but Snow Crash‘s world feels vibrant and real. From a political perspective, I think its obvious Stephenson is intrigued by these ideas, as he’s written about them several times. It’s also undeniable that technologies like the decentralized anonymity, networked virtual realities simulations, and especially cryptography, although it wasn’t in the book, automatically contribute to a world where power is subverted by individuals who can hide from authority. The “hacker” mindset is that today’s technology can be used to coordinate against power, while keeping people anonymous. The technology itself is inherently punk-rock.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash isn’t necessarily a world you want to live in. Libertarian utopia, maybe, but we are following interesting characters who can navigate this world. In the background, millions of desperate people are part of the story too, and they are not doing too well. It’s a bad idea to reason from a work of fiction, but at least from the author’s political views, I thought this was a fair representation of interesting wonders and harsh horrors of a possible libertarian wonderland.

The story itself was actually fairly unexpected for me. I knew this was a cyberpunk novel going in, and so I expected the vast discussion of the hacker world and the gray legality the characters occupy. Because this novel was so early, some of the technology I expected, especially cryptography, didn’t play a big role, even though a rewrite of the story today would most certainly include the importance of encryption to anonymity and privacy in this decentralized virtual world. However, there was a significant reliance on Sumerian mythology which I had no idea about, and despite the incongruity, it was actually a really compelling part of the novel. The skills it takes to interweave 8000 year old myths the reader has never heard of into a modern sci-fi cyberpunk story should not be understated. It wasn’t all perfect of course; I had to suspend disbelief anytime the novel discussed the particular way in which it stated “hacker” minds were wired to make them susceptible to the Snow Crash virus, because that was pretty absurd. Nonetheless, it’s a minor issue in an otherwise highly creative work.

The characters were solid too. The reader ends up meeting the heads of several of the quasi-state corporations in the book, and their nature and juxtaposition creates a particularly American cyberpunk setting. I won’t go into more details to avoid spoiling large parts of the book. The best character is probably one of the villains, and every scene with him is properly terrifying. Y.T., the main character’s associate is also fun to follow. However, I’m still not sure I understand why the main character, Hiro, chose his last name to be “Protagonist” to make the absurdly ridiculous name Hiro Protagonist.  Despite being the character you follow the most, he’s not particularly dynamic. At the beginning he’s a smart hacker who helped build the Metaverse although things haven’t gone great for him and he’s not leveraged his important role to fame and fortune. But he uses his skills to uncover the main plot that drives the novel and works with others to end the threat. He’s centrally important to the story, so he’s the main character by definition, but his personality feels a bit like a video game protagonist (I guess that’s the reason for the name) as he’s more of a vessel for the audience to see the world through. Even his relationship with Juanita doesn’t really change that much over the course of the book.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash is an easy read and amazing sci-fi premise. I really enjoyed the book, although I think Stephenson has continued to improve as a writer, especially of compelling characters. The unique ideas in this book make it a classic of the cyberpunk genre and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Book Review: Artemis

I’m planning on reading at least six fiction books and six nonfiction books this year. This continues my fiction book review series, which will be hosted on this blog. My nonfiction book reviews will likely end up on my other blog, depending on the topic.

Artemis is Andy Weir’s second novel after The Martian. It’s a fun read, and I found it primarily engaging for its setting. Artemis is the name of lunar colony some 70 years in the future. Weir takes his hard sci-fi approach that was so successful in The Martian, and applies to what a moon colony would look like with technology that isn’t too far removed from our own. Most impressive is his exploration of the economics of this small town.

It’s expensive to live in a harsh environment where you can’t venture outdoors without a spacesuit or plant crops for food, and so the book explores how the town can be economically successful. Artemis has two major industries: aluminum smelting and tourism. International treaties mean no country has a claim to governance on Artemis, and so the single law enforcement officer maintains a hands off approach. There are, of course, tradesmen and scientists in Artemis, but a vast amount of products must be imported. This leads to the de facto currency, slugs, from Soft Landed Grams, a credit that can be redeemed by the Kenya Space Corporation.  Kenya, located on the east side of a continent on the equator, is in a prime geographic location to launch rockets to space (rockets launch east to take advantage of Earth’s rotation, and Earth spins fastest at the equator). A launch corporation charges by weight, thus launching a kilogram of something to the moon costs 1000 slugs. The company credits become a valuable interchangeable asset, as quick wireless credit transfers easily facilitate trade.

There’s also just interesting points the book discusses that you wouldn’t have thought about unless Andy Weir had researched it, like that they breathe mostly oxygen at 1/5th atmospheric pressure since nitrogen would be difficult and annoying to transport there, or that fire would then become a massive threat to the moon base, as anything flammable in a 100% oxygen atmosphere will burn quickly and spread. There is also a lot more than you would expect to find about welding in the vacuum of space, or about how moon dust could cause lung problems.

The story itself is also pretty fun, although I don’t want to give too much away. The book follows delivery driver/smuggler Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara as she makes her living through the grey market underbelly of Artemis. As she uncovers more of what is happening behind the scenes, you learn more about the economy the lunar town and science and technology that allow it function. There are EVA/spacewalk sequences where several characters are isolated far from Artemis out on the lunar surface, there are action sequences where criminal elements take advantage of the lax law enforcement policies, and there is even a cameo of an unidentified botanist. I would say that the while the conflicts in the story were interesting, the characters are all portrayed as fairly realistic and flawed, so much so that the moral ambiguity of some of the choices Jazz makes leave it somewhat uncertain she should really be forgiven, at least in my opinion. My largest critique would be that the book wraps everything up nicely, when perhaps in real life, an international moon colony with no real law would have more abrupt and uncertain growing pains.

Artemis doesn’t really ask deep probing questions about what it means to be human, or whether robots will replace human minds in the apocalypse; it sticks to the hard and social science questions of what human society might actually look like on the moon. It’s a quick read, but it touches topics as disparate as immigration of various ethnicities, social cohesion and the lack thereof, population dynamics, economic growth, physical construction on the moon, and biological and chemical realities of lunar living. Overall, it’s a nice exploration of these topics in science fiction, at a time when I see more stories focusing on the dark side of technology destroying our humanity, when instead we could also be asking how humanity can tackle the questions of how to explore and create on worlds outside our own.