November 5, 2008

Finding the Foundation

I have been reading Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series lately though I have taken a break to quickly finish Terry Pratchett‘s Nation before getting back to the next novel in the Foundation series. (Yes, I know, I should have read the Foundation series a long time ago! But I was waiting till I had all the books in the series and then I did have the books but didn’t have the time … and you know how it goes …)

The Foundation series started sometime way back in 1942 and the first novel in the series, Foundation, was actually a collection of short stories which was later published as a novel in 1951. The other two books in the original trilogy, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation, were similarly combinations of short stories and were published as novels in 1952 and 1953 respectively. You do have to keep these facts in mind for what follows 🙂

Basically, while I found the books in the original trilogy enjoyable, I did find them also slightly dated 🙂 See, I don’t recall noticing so many inconsistencies and implausibilities when I read Gordon R. Dickson‘s Dorsai!, and that was written in 1959. Of course, this might simply mean that I wasn’t as critical when I last read Dorsai! or that a lot changed between 1951 and 1959 🙂

Whatever the case, there are things which bug me about the early Foundation novels. For instance, you have a galactic civilization which spans from one end of the galaxy to the other but which still relies on paper! Communications are sent via capsules which contains thin strips of paper, paper is used in all reports, and they have what are called book projectors which seem to indicate that it’s some sort of machine which throws an image of a book on to the wall. Rather primitive when you consider that these people are also supposed to have hyperspatial travel and can go from one star to another in a few days, if not hours!

This perhaps can be attributed to the level of technology existent at the time Asimov wrote the books since there is no mention of computers either. Such an advanced galactic civilization appears to do all their navigational calculations by hand 🙂 And I found that rather funny. But at the same time, given that we have taken computers for granted, I am not sure if I can try to imagine if it would have been possible to imagine back then how ubiquitous computers would become a mere 50 years later.

Plus, I find myself wondering if I were to write a novel of the future and included handheld computers which are the equivalent of the super-computers of today, whether somebody 50 years from now would find that reference charmingly antiquated because technology had moved on in a completely different direction and electronic computers are as outdated as paper 🙂 That I guess is part of the joys of science fiction, trying to anticipate (and sometimes succeeding but also failing at times) how technology will change …

Of course, Asimov corrects these issues in his later Foundation novels 🙂 He returned to the Foundation series after a hiatus of about 30 years and so, the next novel in the series, Foundation’s Edge, was written in 1982. This book does not mention paper very much at all and everybody uses computers. In fact, they have computers which can be controlled via the human mind! So that was quite interesting in how changes in technology changed how a fictional universe worked in under about 200 years according to that universe’s timeline.

I have read only up to Foundation’s Edge and so have no idea if technology would change further in the novels. Additionally, I’m curious as to if Asimov’s Foundation prequels, which were written even later, would include computers and so change the history of the original novels or not. I have read the prequels before but I wasn’t paying attention to technology at that time. So it will be interesting to find out … 🙂