Foundation: an introduction to five major themes in the work of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov

Mike Ryder, Lancaster UniversityBased on the award-winning novels by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the new Apple TV series Foundation follows a band of exiles on a mission to rebuild civilisation after the fall of a galactic empire.

Asimov, for the uninitiated, is one of the most important figures in science fiction and is often regarded as one of the “big three” authors, along with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Together they helped bring about the so-called “golden age” of science fiction in the mid-20th century.

As a writer, Asimov was remarkably prolific over his 50-year career. In that time he wrote 40 novels, 383 short stories and 280 non-fiction books. Once you finish watching Foundation you might want to delve into some of these. With such a vast body of work, it’s hard to capture it all in a single short article. So instead, here are some of the most important themes in his work to look out for when Foundation has given you the itch to discover more of his stories.

Sometimes, the rules don’t work

Asimov is perhaps most famous for his book I, Robot (1950), a collection of short stories that introduce us to Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”. These are a set of rules designed to protect humans from harm and ensure peaceful coexistence between humans and machines:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Plus the zeroth law: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

Picture of Asimov.
Issac Asimov was a scientist and one of the greatest science fiction writers of his age.
Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

These laws have become so ubiquitous in science fiction over the years, you may have heard of them without realising where they came from.

However, as the I, Robot stories go to show us, the Three Laws of Robotics don’t actually work. This is because any rule, when applied fully and to the letter, cannot ever work as intended in all cases.

A blurring of genres

One of the things that makes science fiction so compelling for its fans is the way that it can so seamlessly shift between genres, and incorporate many different ideas in a single form. Asimov was one of the first great proponents of this blurring of genres. This can be seen in early works such as The Caves of Steel (1953), which blends science fiction with the detective story.

Book cover of The Caves of Steel.
The caves of steel doubleday cover.

Many of our most loved science fiction TV series owe a great deal to Asimov and his pioneering work blending genres. It’s thanks to him that we can now enjoy such madcap concepts as wild-west-in-space (Firefly) and the isolating madness of being trapped three million years in the future with only a robot, a hologram and a creature descended from a domestic cat for company (Red Dwarf).

Science is important

It may seem a strange thing to say about a science fiction writer, but Isaac Asimov did place great weight on the importance of science in his work. When he wasn’t writing award-winning short stories and novels, he published widely in the non-fiction scene, including the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space (1991).

Of course, all this work in the realm of science fed into his fiction work too. His books abound with talk of quasars and quarks, and ponderings on the nature of the strong nuclear force. You’re also likely to find thinking about how such developments might impact upon society and what effect new technologies might have on the way we live our lives.

Sustainability, the environment and other problems

Asimov is perhaps underrated for his work in this area, but his 1974 Nebula Prize-winning novel The Gods Themselves gives a fascinating insight into a world of over-consumption, where the solution to the energy “problem” is to simply pump it in from elsewhere using a device known as an Electron Pump.

Unfortunately, the “elsewhere” in this case happens to be another dimension where a race of intelligent beings starts to suffer the consequences of a cooling universe. Meanwhile, it transpires that the device used to pump in the so-called “free” energy is also altering the laws of physics in our world as well – with the inevitable consequence that it will soon cause the sun to explode – and destroy Earth with it.

This is but one example of many in Asimov’s work where he warns against the dangers of hubris, and extrapolates real-world problems – and their perceived solutions – and takes them to their absurd and often terrifying conclusion.

Where next for humanity?

Of course, no discussion of Asimov would be complete without mention of his famous Foundation series, which features some of his most ambitious and important novels.

The series follows mathematician Hari Seldon and his followers as a galaxy-spanning empire goes into decline. Seldon has developed a theory of psychohistory, a mixture of history, sociology, and mathematical statistics, which he uses to make general predictions about the fate of future populations. While the decline of civilisation is impossible to stop, Seldon devises a plan to deflect the onrushing events with incremental changes in the present which have big effects in the future, lessening the impact of the worse parts of his prediction.

What makes Foundation so compelling is just how familiar some of the themes feel even today, some 70 years after the first novel’s publication. Partly, this is due to Asimov’s deep understanding of science and the potential consequences of where certain technologies, and certain ideas, might lead. And, as you’ll discover as you delve into his vast back catalogue, in an age of climate crisis, global pandemics and sinister corporations, his warnings about the future of humanity are as pertinent as ever.The Conversation

Mike Ryder, Teaching Fellow in Marketing, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: an introduction to the man and his writing

Abdulrazak Gurnah during the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017.
Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International UniversityThe Nobel Prize in Literature, considered the pinnacle of achievement for creative writers, has been awarded 114 times to 118 Nobel Prize laureates between 1901 and 2021. This year it went to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was born in Zanzibar, the first Tanzanian writer to win. The last black African writer to win the prize was Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is the first black writer to win since Toni Morrison in 1993. Charl Blignaut asked Lizzy Attree to describe the winner and share her views on his literary career.

Who is Gurnah and what is his place in East African literature?

Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Tanzanian writer who writes in English and lives and works in the UK. He was born in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island off the east African coast, and studied at Christchurch College Canterbury in 1968.

Zanzibar underwent a revolution in 1964 in which citizens of Arab origin were persecuted. Gurnah was forced to flee the country when he was 18. He began to write in English as a 21-year-old refugee in England, although Kiswahili is his first language. His first novel, Memory of Departure, was published in 1987.

He has written numerous works that pose questions around ideas of belonging, colonialism, displacement, memory and migration. His novel Paradise, set in colonial east Africa during the first world war, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994.

Comparable to Moyez G. Vassanji, a Canadian author raised in Tanzania, whose attention focuses on the east African Indian community and their interaction with the “others”, Gurnah’s novel Paradise deploys multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism on the shores of the Indian Ocean from the perspective of the Swahili elite.

A distinguished academic and critic, he recently sat on the board of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature and has served as a contributing editor for the literary magazine Wasafiri for many years.

He is currently Professor Emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, having retired in 2017.

Why is Gurnah’s work being celebrated – what is powerful about it?

He was awarded the Nobel

for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.

He is one of the most important contemporary postcolonial novelists writing in Britain today and is the first black African writer to win the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is also the first Tanzanian writer to win.

Copies of Afterlives by Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

His most recent novel, Afterlives, is about Ilyas, who was taken from his parents by German colonial troops as a boy and returns to his village after years of fighting against his own people. The power in Gurnah’s writing lies in this ability to complicate the Manichean divisions of enemies and friends, and excavate hidden histories, revealing the shifting nature of identity and experience.

What Gurnah work stands out for you and why?

The novel Paradise stands out for me because in it Gurnah re-maps Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad’s 19th century journey to the “heart of darkness” from an east African position going westwards. As South African scholar Johan Jacobs has said, he

reconfigures the darkness at its heart … In his fictional transaction with Heart of Darkness, Gurnah shows in Paradise that the corruption of trade into subjection and enslavement pre-dates European colonisation, and that in East Africa servitude and slavery have always been woven into the social fabric.

The tale is narrated so gently by 12-year-old Yusuf, lovingly describing gardens and assorted notions of paradise and their corruption as he is pawned between masters and travels to different parts of the interior from the coast. Yusuf concludes that the brutality of German colonialism is still preferable to the ruthless exploitation by the Arabs.

Like Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958), Gurnah illustrates east African society on the verge of huge change, showing that colonialism accelerated this process but did not initiate it.

Is the Nobel literature prize still relevant?

It’s still relevant because it is still the biggest single prize purse for literature around. But the method of selecting a winner is fairly secretive and depends on nominations from within the academy, meaning doctors and professors of literature and former laureates. This means that although the potential nominees are often discussed in advance by pundits, no-one actually knows who is in the running until the prize winner is announced. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for example, is a Kenyan writer whom many believe should have won by now, along with a number of others like Ivan Vladislavic from South Africa.

Winning puts a global spotlight on a writer who has often not been given full recognition by other prizes, or whose work has been neglected in translation, thus breathing new life into works that many have not read before and deserve to be read more widely.The Conversation

Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

An introduction to the literature of Indonesia, 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honour

Manneke Budiman, University of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and among the most culturally diverse. Yet not many people are familiar with literary works by Indonesian writers. Why is that? Well …

Indonesian literature plunged into obscurity following an anti-communist massacre in 1965-1966 that brought Suharto’s repressive New Order regime to power.

As we enter the 50th year of the communist purge, this is about to change. Indonesia is the Guest of Honour in this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, taking place from October 14 to 16.

That means, for the first time, Indonesian literature is in the global spotlight at the world’s largest book festival.

Below, Manneke Budiman, of the University of Indonesia’s literature department, gives an introduction to Indonesian literature and explains how colonial legacy plays a part in determining “Third World” authors’ place on the international literary stage.

What is the state of Indonesian literature in translation globally?

Indonesian literature is not widely known compared to works from other countries. Writings of Indonesian authors do not get translated as much as works by other authors of “Third World” countries. Colonial legacy plays a part in this.


Authors from the former colonies of France and England have the attention of French or British publishers that own a large international market share. Big publishing houses such as Heinemann and Penguin have translated and published authors from India, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, and Morocco.

In contrast, Dutch publishers rarely publish literary works from their former colonies, which includes Indonesia. Except for academic publishers, there are only few, if any, Dutch publishers with international access to global market.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, published by Penguin, are the rare works that got translated into foreign languages during Suharto’s rule. His tetralogy eventually caught the attention of the Noble Prize Committee, which nominated him several times for the Noble Prize in Literature.

The Nobel Prize nominations show that Indonesian literature is not inferior to the literature of other countries. But there are questions as to whether it was his works or his status as political prisoner that made the Nobel Committee nominated Pramoedya. Some wondered whether the Committee nominated Pramoedya to pressure the Indonesian government to release him from prison.

How was the production of literature like following the communist purge?

Equinox Publishing Indonesia

Literary production remained consistently high even during the repressive era of Suharto.

In the 1970s and 1980s, works by women authors – such as Mira W., Marga T., La Rose, Ike Supomo, Titi Said, Nh. Dini, and Marianne Katoppo – dominated the scene. But many male critics tended to brush them aside as “women’s fiction”, which carries a negative connotation of having low literary quality.

After Suharto’s regime collapsed, the atmosphere changed dramatically. More women began to write. Very soon there was an “explosion” of titles by a new generation of female authors such as Ayu Utami, Linda Christanty, Nukila Amal, Fira Basuki, and Dewi Lestari. Ayu Utami’s Saman, for instance, has been translated into several Asian and European languages.

What are the characteristics of Indonesian literature?

The styles and characteristics of Indonesian literature change from time to time. They sometimes follow the political dynamics of the country and the region.

In the colonial era, local authors were heavily inspired by Western novels and poetry. Many writers produced adaptations of Western fiction in their local setting or even “plagiarised” works produced by their Western counterparts. Popular works such as Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Sherlock Holmes were translated and adapted in Malay, Sundanese and Javanese languages in the late 19th century in the Netherlands Indies by Dutch, Chinese and indigenous translators.

In the 1920s and 1930s authors were preoccupied in finding the “right” language. Writers such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana and Sanusi Pane debated whether Indonesia had to abandon its traditional values and fully embraced Western modernity or vice versa.

Dalang Publishing

In the 1940s, as the nation struggled to free itself from colonial rule, authors became more straightforward and blunt. As the Japanese invaded and defeated the Dutch, a spirit of nationalism and militancy grew among authors. They also experimented with forms that were “borrowed” from the West – such as English war poems and works of fiction by European writers. Chairil Anwar and Idrus are examples par excellence of this instance.

Chairil’s poem, Antara Kerawang dan Bekasi (Between Kerawang and Bekasi) is suspected to be an adaptation of Sir Archibald Clark Kerr’s poem, whereas Idrus’ short-stories show striking similarities with works written by European writers in terms of the modernist ideas in his works, as discussed by Indonesian studies expert Keith Foulcher.

The Golden Age of Indonesian literature, according to many scholars, was the period between the 1950s and 1960s. Authors were working out how to connect traditions and local flavors with modern trends in literature.

In that period, the Cold War was raging. Many authors were fiercely involved in ideological tug of wars among themselves. Authors also began to seriously search for a distinct Indonesian identity through their works that could become part of the world culture. Unfortunately, that vibrancy had to abruptly end with the take over of power from Sukarno to Suharto.

After Suharto stepped down in 1998, there was a brief moment of euphoria among authors as freedom of speech and democratisation began to flourish. But the 32-year authoritarian rule seemed to have taught them not to be too optimistic. This is clearly reflected in the works of the post-Suharto writers, which are strongly marked by doubt and ambiguity about the future.

In those works, readers may sense a yearning for freedom from the haunting legacy of Suharto’s rule.

What are the main styles and themes?

Realism remains to be the dominant style, although sometimes it also blends with some kind of romanticism – a nostalgia for the lost past – and a sense of disillusionment that replaces it.

Dalang Publishing

There is also a trend of looking outward to what happens in other parts of the globe. Contemporary Indonesian writers are curious and adventurous in embracing cosmopolitanism and transcending national boundaries.

That’s particularly visible in the works of many current women authors. At the same time, their works also rebel against customary laws and traditions that marginalise women.

Young authors are not oblivious to the conditions of their country. They show genuine concern about what has happened in outer islands outside the primary island of Java.

Are there efforts to publish Indonesian literature in translation?

Amid the relatively meagre attention from big international publishers to Indonesian authors, a foundation and a small publishing house in the US are working to bring more English translations of Indonesian literature to international readers.

Lontar Foundation, founded by American John McGlynn, has done extraordinary work translating and publishing Indonesian literature in English. Lontar regularly publishes the Menageries Series containing translated works by Indonesian authors. It also published a collection of poems written by Indonesians about their American experience (On Foreign Shore) and a series of Indonesian classics.


California-based Dalang Publisher, owned by Lian Gouw, a Chinese-American who spent her childhood in Indonesia before her family migrated to the US, has published several works of contemporary Indonesian writers in high-quality translation.

Some of the works that have been published by Dalang in translation are Remy Silado’s My Name Is Mata Hari (Namaku Mata Hari), Lan Fang’s novel Potions and Paper Cranes (Perempuan Kembang Jepun), Erni Aladjai’s Kei, Anindita S. Thayf’s Daughters of Papua (Tanah Tabu), Ahmad Tohari’s The Red Bekisar (Bekisar Merah), and Hana Rambe’s Cloves for Kolosia (Aimuna dan Sobori).

That list is by no means exhaustive, and it keeps on growing. Gouw seems to have a sharp sense of knowing which works may appeal to non-Indonesian audience. Her choices include works that are concerned with pluralism, ethnic and religious conflicts, colonialism, and injustice.

McGlynn, meanwhile, prefers choosing works of established or well-known authors, such as the poet Sapardi Djoko Damono, short-story writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma, and novelist Oka Rusmini.

There are other small-scale publishers that have published Indonesian works in German, Dutch, and French. But in general those publishers do not have the requisite international stature to draw a significant attention.

For newcomers to Indonesian literature, what are the titles to start with?


Pramoedya’s tetralogy – The Earth of Mankind, The Child of All Nations, Glass House, and Footsteps – remain the most important books for foreign readership. Mangunwijaya’s The Weaverbirds is another classic that has become a must-read. These two senior authors are the best introduction to the dynamics and complexities of Indonesian society.

Oka Rusmini (Earth Dance), Seno Gumira Ajidarma (Jazz, Perfume & the Incident), Nukila Amal (Cala Ibi), Ayu Utami (Saman), belong to the generation that follows; and then young writers such as Erni Aladjai (Kei), Lan Fang (Potions and Paper Cranes), Anindita Thayf (Daughters of Papua), and Okky Madasari (Maryam).

The works of the new generation of writers works contain rich panorama of Indonesian social, cultural, and political dynamics viewed from different generational lenses.

The Frankfurt Book Fair runs until October 16. Details here.

The Conversation

Manneke Budiman, Lecturer at the Literature Department, University of Indonesia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Book Review: Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet

‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques BonnetThe introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.

Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).

I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.

The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.

The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.

Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.

Buy this book at Amazon:

Article: Building a Library with Diigo

The link below is to an article, which though old, will still be a useful introduction to the bookmarking service Diigo. The service is so much more than a bookmarking service though, being a very useful service for research and online library building.

Diigo V5: Collect and Highlight, Then Remember! from diigobuzz on Vimeo.

For more visit:

Video: Skitch – An Introduction

Sure, this web application isn’t directly about books or libraries, but it can be useful while using books – particularly ebooks. So hopefully it will be of interest to someone. I love Evernote and this is from the Evernote people, so I don’t mind plugging it.

Software: Calibre

Free Open Source Ebook Management Software

The link below is to a website for Calibre software, software for managing your ebook library. The software is free and open source software. There is a 10 minute introduction video on Calibre at the site.

For more visit: