Sunday, January 15, 2012

On the Coffee Table: Isaac Asimov

Title: Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov

Image via Expanding Consciousness

I first read Foundation in my early teens, then made it through the next three books in the series. I've read an awful lot of other books since then. Most significantly, I've tackled Machiavelli. The Foundation series is really more political science fiction than anything else and I appreciate the story in a completely different light through a Machiavellian filter. Good books inspire one to read other books and I now feel I should reread The Prince, plus Discourses on Livy. However, Asimov's inspiration was Edward Gibbons's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I'll add all of those to my to-read list, along with Dante's Inferno, which is frequently referenced in classic science fiction. If we learn anything from such works, it is that the basic nature of power never changes and, as a result, history is doomed to repeat itself. Foundation foretells the rise of theocracy and despotism not because Asimov was a prophet, but because it's all happened before.

Han Solo Photo via Paste Magazine

Nearly every science fiction writer who followed owes a debt to Mr. Asimov. George Lucas, in particular, surely used Asimov's road map in creating his own Galactic Empire. A strong central authority being challenged by restless elements on the fringes of the galaxy - sound familiar? The character of Han Solo (and, later, Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds) has roots in the merchant-adventurers of the Foundation series. The Star Wars prequel trilogy makes attempts at achieving the macro-cosmic political scope of Foundation but, at least in my opinion, far less effectively.

Mal Reynolds photo via Empire

One major difference in subsequent visions of interplanetary society is the existence of alien species. Everyone in the Foundation narrative is human, evidently descended from Earth in a long-forgotten past. Alas, Asimov had no Wookiees or Klingons.

The danger of futuristic narrative is that the technology envisioned can seem archaic after only a few decades in real time. For instance, nuclear energy, while certainly important to the world economy, has followed very different directions from what Asimov prophesied in the 1940s. Also, everyone in the book smokes like a chimney. While it's possible that tobacco may have a resurgence over the coming millenia, the habit is in welcome decline in the 21st century.

It is my plan to read and review the entire series - originally a trilogy but now containing seven books in all. The first four, as noted above, are re-reads but three will be completely new to me. I'm looking forward to them.

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