by Isaac Asimov
Spectra, originally published 1951
Okay, in preparation of the upcoming television series, I finally read Foundation, Isaac Asimov’s first book in what is widely considered the greatest science fiction series ever written.
As one who usually doesn’t seek out science fiction in his reading, I’ve got to say, this was fantastic, and represents what everyone says about the best sci-fi: the actual science and premise itself isn’t so much the point as it is seeing the human condition play out against its backdrop. On those terms, this book is a masterpiece and success in nearly every way.
The basic premise is fairly straightforward. A brilliant scientist comes up with a way of merging mathematics and psychology to make a probabilistic way of knowing the future. The problem is that when he looks into this crystal ball of mathematics, he sees the downfall of the galactic empire, leading to a galactic Dark Ages predicted to last 30,000 years as all human knowledge is lost and humans have to rediscover everything. However, if the empire allows him and a band of followers to establish a foundation on a different planet, they can collect and centralize all human knowledge and let that Dark Age last a mere thousand years instead.
And that is first few pages of the book. The rest of is more like a short story collection, as we move through time to several generations of human society (about 200 years pass in very short order in these pages). We do not get the grand narrative of the galaxy, but instead zoom in on a series of vignettes: a handful of key moments in time with entirely different characters, planets, and circumstances, to focus on specific people in the midst of specific crises. Though the geography, time, and implications of these stories is vast, the scope of each section is actually incredibly small, human, and intimate.
Having read none of Asimov’s work (nor seen any movies based on it), I had the preconceived notion that the book be incredibly nerdy, tedious, and spend inordinate time with the conceits of the book. But it doesn’t. I had to keep reminding myself that this book was written in the 50s, as it reads like a very, very contemporary book. Asimov is a beautiful, literary writer and he seamlessly blends the science elements into casual conversation and asides, rather than didactic speeches.
Well, didactic speeches about the science, that is.
There are plenty of expositional speeches here. It’s perhaps the primary way the plot moves along. As has been pointed out in every think piece about how this series is “un-filmable”, the plot moves through conversations, more like a stage play, and the most “exciting” parts of the story happen off-page.
Entire multi-year wars are described in a single sentence; huge swaths of time pass between stories; we are dropped into different periods of time between two people and don’t know what caused their relationships to change in the interim. This is all fine, though, and Asimov moves the stories along at a great pace with ingenuity and cleverness.
But about that cleverness. I’d say that is perhaps the only weakness here. As you begin reading the stories, you will come to realize that, structurally, every vignette and story here is more or less the same: a clever, over-confident (but endearing) man is able to outwit people more powerful and more annoying than him and save the day.
Really. Every story.
Whoever the primary character is at any given time has lots of external obstacles thrown his way, but always keeps his cool, knows he’s going to outsmart everyone, and without any effort or difficulty at all (just a lot of forethought and planning) calmly reveals at the end that he’s been in control the whole time, knew everything that was going to happen, and worked it all to his favor.
To be sure, it’s pretty fun to see how they pull it off when everything seems stacked against them, but sometimes the solution can seem a little contrived and too clever by half.
Nevertheless, this book is so fun, and the continuity of human nature between now and this imagined future tens of thousands of years away is fascinating. They are still dealing with politics, trade, economics, and basic human desires, with the winners are able to leverage these to their advantage.
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books to see if he breaks the formula while still exploring the nooks and crannies of this world he’s created–a world that has spanned nearly every other major work of science fiction since. But one thing I know at this point is that it certainly deserves such honor and imitation.