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.
Wikimedia

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.

Article: The Problem Facing Book Publishing


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the major issue that has been facing book publishing for some time.

For more visit:
http://www.futurebook.net/content/elephant-graveyard

Article: The Privacy of Readers in the Digital Age


The link below is to an article that reports on the privacy of readers in the digital age – something that will probably be a major issue in the days ahead.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/31/readers-privacy-under-threat

Ebooks: Not There Yet?


The following article Wired lists five reasons as to why ebooks are not there yet. I would say that ebooks will never be the same as traditional books and they probably are never meant to be the same. I would also say you should probably never expect them to be the same. Television is not the same as going to the movies and never will be. I think waiting for ebooks to be the same as traditional books is to ensure you never use ebooks all that much. Just my opinion.

There are some useful considerations in the five points raised in the article – but there are also some fairly ordinary ones also, which suggest to me a bias against ebooks from the start. Being concerned that ebooks don’t allow you to use them in home design – I mean, really??? If that is a major concern with ebooks – you have to be kidding.

Some years ago I never thought I would ever like ebooks – I love them now and I don’t even have an ebook reader (I use by laptop) at this stage. I can see myself buying one in the near future – that would make ebooks so much more convenient to me. I could read one on a bus or ferry, I could read at work without too many difficulties (in my breaks of course), etc.

How many books can I now own? For a bibliophile like me ebooks are a dream come true. I have well over 1000 traditional books and I will soon eclipse that number in ebooks – many of which are old and out of print works which are very precious to me. These brilliant old books are now so accessible to me and I can store them all in such a small place. Fantastic I say.

See the article mentioned above at:
http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/06/ebooks-not-there-yet/all/1

 

Fresh Start


I have neglected this Blog a bit – a fair bit – and for that I apologise. I am hoping to change that a bit from now on and post at least once a week, if not more. I have been really busy – which is the truth of the matter. I maintain a lot of sites and Blogs, with some of them getting major re-designs and so on. That is still an ongoing process, but I no longer want that to stand in the way of this Blog.

So a fresh start from today. I won’t post updates on what has been posted before, but begin with a fresh approach, etc. So on to the first post in my ‘reawakening’ here.

Changing the World: December 13 – Hunger Banquets


Today’s suggestion is yet another with a website to provide further information. I like the idea of hosting a ‘hunger banquet’ in that it provides an opportunity for a bit of fun, yet increases awareness of a major global crisis and the opportunity to raise some money to help.

Visit the website at:

www.hungerbanquet.org

 

A response to reading ‘365 Ways to Change the World,’ by Michael Norton

Changing the World: December 1 – AIDS Prevention and Treatment


Today’s suggestion is probably one that most people wouldn’t think a great deal about these days. In the Western World, the issue of AIDS is probably somewhat on the backburner so to speak, though that would depend on the community you live within or deal with on a daily basis.

Though AIDS remains a major health threat in Western countries, the real frontline is in the Third World, where entire countries are under serious threat from AIDS/HIV and/or the consequences of the disease on the economy, the community, the family, etc.

So helping to prevent AIDS and to assist in the provision of treatment for AIDS/HIV, as well as caring for those left in it’s wake are all very important.

Some web sites with valuable information:

www.unaids.org

www.aids.net.au

www.afao.org.au

A response to reading ‘365 Ways to Change the World,’ by Michael Norton