30 January 2015

Books: Foundation By Isaac Asimov (1951)

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series was on my list of classic science fiction novels I decided to read in the coming months, after skipping over them for decades. But knowing Asimov wrote two sequels and two prequels some 25 years plus after completing the trilogy, I wondered if I would need to read them (or want to read them) just so I could get to the original three. Upon a few inquires of other people, most said the later books -published in the 1980s- were not as strong as the original three and I would not be missing anything if I skipped over them.
So that's what I've decided.
The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon has spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory. Using this knowledge -which can predict the future on a large scale- Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire. It would be a horrible dark age that will last some 30 thousand years before a second great empire arises. But Seldon foresees an alternative where the interregnum will last only one thousand years. To ensure the more favorable outcome, Seldon creates a foundation of talented artisans and engineers at the extreme end of the galaxy, to preserve and expand on humanity's collective knowledge, and thus become the foundation for a new galactic empire. The novel opens with Seldon arriving on Trantor, for he's to be put on trial on allegations of treason -for foreshadowing the decline of the Galactic Empire. 
Not to be put off by threat of imprisonment or death, Seldon explains to those prosecuting him, if allowed, he would collect the most intelligent minds and create a compendium of all human knowledge, entitled Encyclopedia Galactica that would cut the fall to only a thousand years. Despite some reservations, these men allow Seldon to assemble whomever he needs, provided he and the "Encyclopedists" be exiled to a remote planet of Terminus. Seldon agrees to set up his own collection of Encyclopedists, and also secretly implements a contingency plan—a second Foundation—at the "opposite end" of the galaxy.
Despite being one of the most classic books the of the genre, Foundation is awfully dry. Not much actually happens and there is very little in the way of action. I liked the premise, as it often reminded me of Nate Silver, the statistician who predicted a few elections. Of course, Asimov's Seldon does it on a grander scale (and some 60 years before Silver). Plus there was a lot of analogies going on here, especially with religion as political figures trying to suppress the knowledge that the Empire is failing. Still, it's challenge to get through this book as really addresses my thought process that I'm a well-read, intellectual chap. The other issue with reading these books now, instead of when I was young (or better, grew up with them) is that my ideas have already been shaped and what Asimov was doing here, some sixty-plus years ago seems less mind-blowing now. 
And while science fiction can and has predicted a plausible future, after reading this and authors like Heinlein (and the early works of David Gerrold) it surprises me that not one thought smoking would've ever gone out of style. I guess, because of the era, smoking was seen as okay. But it still, in some ways, surprises me that these "futurists", so to speak, could not predict a future where smoking was seen as unhealthy and dangerous. 

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