Friday, February 19, 2010

Reading Foundation in Seattle

Not quite as catchy as Reading Lolita in Tehran but I'm not in Tehran and I'm not reading Lolita. What I am doing is re-reading Isaac Asimov's original Foundation stories (collected into the "novels" Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation). They're not traditional novels, more a collection of connected short stories and novellas where the course of human history itself is a major character embodied by the Seldon Plan. The plan is to carry the Galaxy forward from the fall of the current Galactic empire through "Dark Ages" and on to a second reign of peace. The Foundation is the steward of this plan; or more accurately it's pawn as the dead hand of Hari Seldon moves historic forces this way and that to curtail the Galactic Dark Ages from 30,000 years to "only" 1,000 years.

I've had a few thoughts reading through this series again. I'll share them with you now; aren't you thrilled. Asimov's fictional method for predicting the course of history is a form of statistical analysis of large bodies. The same kind of analysis that is done on things like gasses and other large collections of atoms. This "Psychohistory" combines math and psychology to predict and manipulate humanity on a grand scale. While reading the first stories I came across an article on NPR talking about "The Quants." These are a group of highly skilled math geeks that have revolutionized the financial world; both for gain and now almost to the brink of ruin. The Godfather of the quants is a guy named Ed Thorpe. He and those that came after him are profiled in "The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It" by Scott Patterson. I'm going to pick up this book (or check it out of the Library).

My second thought on the Foundation stories is that almost everyone smokes. The only person who doesn't smoke, so far, is one of the bad guys. Every hero is chomping on cigars while others smoke cigarettes or pipes. Unless they do something to tobacco in the next 15 to 20 thousand years, I don't see a space-faring culture where even the air you breathe is a commodity being quite the smokers that are portrayed in the stories. Of course this is more a sign of when the stories were written and the place that tobacco had in America of the 1940s and 50s.

Along that same vein, the stories are fairly sexist. It's kind of a cultural sexism that America isn't quite over yet. And even though there are some strong female characters (Bayta Darell and her granddaughter Arkady), they and the culture of the Foundation treat them like women in the 1940s and 50s. Again, not surprising in the context of when they were written but it makes the stories oddly dated in a way that the more science-oriented parts aren't. It probably goes more to a generic deficiency of the "Hard" SF authors; whose reputation is that of being more interested in the ships and ray guns than the characters and other societal what-ifs that the "New Wave" SF authors addressed. Asimov usually has good characters but unlike other classics of the genre there is no main figure that strides across the saga. There is no Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter or even Paul Atreides or Lessa from the Dragonriders of Pern, or Ripley, Buffy or Xena for that matter.

Foundation really suffers from being a collection of short stories and it's probably one of the main reasons it hasn't been made into a movie or mini-series. That and the collection of stories is seen as a whole; The Foundation Trilogy more than any one book or story. Interestingly enough the second set of Foundation books written by Benford, Bear and Brin all have Hari Seldon as a main character and are more easily translated onto the big screen.

With all of that said, I still love the stories and will probably re-read them every decade or so. I first read them in the sixth grade and I think that remembering and recapturing a bit of that youth is one of the things that make this series special to me; like listening to Boston or Styx and thinking about all of the people I hung out with in middle-school and high school.


Blogger Brian said...

Mike, you really need to proofread your work a little better! First paragraph, final sentence : "it's" --> "its" please. I wouldn't normally nitpick like this, but details matter, if you want to claim the title of a writer :-) Sorry, pet peeve.

I agree with your assessment of Foundation, I re-read it about 6-7 years ago and had many of the same thoughts.

2/21/2010 5:14 PM  

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