Review of Foundation by Isaac Asimov


Asimov, Isaac
1951
Foundation
192 pp
Panther Science Fiction (10807)
1969
25p
Isaac Asimov - Foundation

Isaac Asimov – Foundation

Foundation - back cover

Foundation – back cover

This post came about as a result of chit-chat with Chester_Goode, Lao, Quinx and RetiredGrumpy on MyTelegraph round about here

Asimov’s Foundation – Report
Foundation deals with a future human star empire and, by virtue of careful planning and a discipline known as Psycho-history, takes us from its collapse through to rebirth,
It portrays the story through a narrative broken by the passage of years, even decades and populated with invented extracts from the Encyclopedia Galactica. Think of the story as a dotted line from a future present leading to an even more distant future. The reasoning for this method of telling the story is contained within the novel – Psychohistory / Seldon Crisis are the main plot device and determine the way the story is told.
In the course of the tale we are introduced to new ideas in the sphere of technology. Technology is described by what is achieved rather than by how each gadget works. And a powerful application of social science is proposed.

Concept break:
Psychohistory. This deals with macro management of society. Early on, terms like human conglomerate are used. Think ‘society’ whenever this happens.
A Seldon Crisis. A synchronised internal and external political crises that has been precisely predicted by Hari Seldon (and his redoubtable calculator pad).

Along the way we may feel the urge to compare Asimov’s empire with an earlier empire – the Roman Empire. This idea was heralded outside the book but it isn’t ‘in your face’ in it. However I noticed occasional parallels such as the use of title, patrician for a high ranking citizen and the mob and religion as a dangerous and uncontrollable force.
He rarely dwells on nihilistic and destructive actions. Perhaps he saw that as unnecessarily provocative (a matter that much recent literature might learn from) but then of course the dangers of law and order breakdown were all too evident at that time; it was 1951 and Europe was still healing from the savageries of WWII. Who needed reminding of that?

I first read Foundation over thirty years ago and I greatly enjoyed my reread. It did however require some suspension of disbelief. I’ll deal with that next.

Science… Fiction
It is an axiom that Science Fiction should provoke discussion. If it doesn’t, it has failed. It can also entertain. Serious propounders of the genre would consider that achieving the first makes other considerations superfluous. Entertainment can go a long way to livening up a dreary narrative but can’t make up for bad science. Ideas need to be adequately explained and need to fit into what we know. Sometimes. Lovecraft’s fantasies lie a long way from the conventions of science but he still has useful things to say.

But lets get to the good stuff – the science.

Science changes. It ain’t hard and fast as its proselytisers would have us believe; instead the thinking changes and the acolytes with it. Where necessary that’s accompanied by reputational blood-letting. The changing of the old guard is rarely pain-free. I say this as ritual propitiation for what follows.
🙂

Assumptions

Go forth!
Assume human propagation (how we behave as a species)
For propagation throughout the galaxy, meaningful methods of star travel are required. Assume jump technology (call it anything you want). Suspend disbelief.

An endless hall of mirrors
Evolution has gone in weird directions in the hundreds of millions of years on this planet. By comparison, our genesis is recent. There are life bearing compounds in outer space – sometimes they fall to earth. If life here, why not elsewhere? Well Foundation is silent on this.
Assume only human intelligences.
(Why this long winded rationale? Check later in Power me up, Scotty)

Land ho!
There are 25 million planets (in a Milky Way of 200 – 400 Bn stars.
That equates to less than one habitable world per 10,000 stars.

Someone changed the science, Jim!
Trantor is in the centre of the galaxy. Terminus is on the edge.
The emperor is 50,000 parsecs away
What is a parsec? It is 3.26 light years; a unit of measurement (that I haven’t heard too much of recently).
This implies a galactic radius of 160 kly (kilo light-years) which current thinking puts at between 50 kly and 60 kly. The distance from the centre of the Milky to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud is 180 kly.

Make Room! Make Room!
Population check: nearly 1 quintillion: average population 40 Bn.
Earth pop. at the moment = under 10 Bn.
This is an empire bursting at the seams. No garden planets.

Manage my empire:
Using the example given in Foundation: Terminus is close to: Anacreon, Smyrno, Konom, Daribow; the Four Kingdoms that originally made up the province of Anacreon….
Now: 4 prefectures in this province? A span of control at only 4? The Empire would need 12 levels to administer its 25 million planets. Inefficient? Unmanageable? Probably.
Anyway. there are only five levels of administration: Quadrant, Sector, Province, Prefecture, and Planet.
Assume a span of control at 30; the respective levels would work out at 30 Quadrants, 900 Sectors, 27,000 Provinces and 810,000 Prefectures respectively, which all fit nicely into the 25,000,000 planets.
Justification: Terminus is well out in the sticks – at the end of a spiral; a span of control at only 4 – yep I’d expect that. This math would suck big-time over the full empire but this deviation from the norm is plausible.

Power me up, Scotty!
Atomics.
Yessir; that dusty old word from the fifties. What’s it doing here? Asimov needs to take a stab at power economics and what will work in the future. So atomics. When I first read this, the term passed muster; it might not now, so make it a placeholder for some new power source. After all, it’s main purpose is to act as an illustration of falling away from civilisation. This is where we come to a doozy!
Fall away from atomics and you have what?
Err fossil fuels.
What?
Yep. Fossil fuels.
You heard it right first time. Many minerals are reusable in one way or another but energy bearing compounds are a once only bonanza. Must be laid down hundreds of millions of years in advance for best quality. Use ’em and burn your bridges – when it’s gone it’s gone!
Digest and reread Endless hall of mirrors.
Fossil fuels pre-suppose life, in order that the necessary carboniferous resources can be there ready to exploit.

Fill yer boots, there’s no-one home!
Life and all its random directions that ends up creating just carboniferous resources? No tenants? An endless prairie of mineral rich, habitable worlds with no higher life forms? Full of untouched fossil fuels? After 10,000 years of a human galactic empire? After 50,000 years of human propagation, with all that implies?
Now that is a heroic assumption.

🙂

Quibbles
The approach to Trantor, early on, provokes a puzzle. Jump travel was through vast interstellar distances. Could a sun grand enough that it shone more brightly, drowning out the rest, paling them and thinning them out between successive jumps, be habitable? Sol is barely larger than a star at Jupiter’s distance. How vast is the star that Trantor orbits?
The big moment – the meeting of the tiny Foundation with a tattered but vast Empire – could have been built up more, eg by dwelling a little more on the patrician.

In retrospect:
Worth the read (or reread)?
Yes. By page 19 I was hooked.

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About Terence Park

Collections: vinyl records, comic books, paperbacks; I've plenty of them all. I also do spreadsheets.
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One Response to Review of Foundation by Isaac Asimov

  1. GP says:

    Reblogged this on misentopop.

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