#3 – Foundation Review – Isaac Asimov

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I have to admit, when I first read Foundation (probably sometime around age 15), I didn’t really understand much of what was going on. I remember reading it partly because it was supposed to be a “classic,” but mainly because it had a cool cover. The overall ideas and themes interested me, but the dense exposition, foreign settings and growing list of minor characters (whose names I had trouble pronouncing) were just a little too much for my impatient teenage mind to process. Maybe it was because it was one of the first real science fiction novels I’d read and I just wasn’t accustomed to the peculiarities of the genre. Either way, I’m glad that I gave it a second chance later in life.

The part of the book that intrigued me the most (both times I read it) was the concept of Psychohistory: a fictional branch of science that used elements of mathematics, history and sociology to help predict human behavior over long periods of time. While not quite true prescience, the idea that you could use statistical principles and human psychology to, essentially, look into the future was a fascinating idea. In the novel, the main character Hari Seldon is able to use psychohistory in order to predict the downfall of the current Galactic Empire – as well as a 30,000 year period of barbarism to follow. In order to shorten the time period between the fall of the Empire and the rise of a second empire, Seldon sets out to create a collection of the entirety of human knowledge (the Encyclopedia Galactica) – compiled and protected by an organization known as the Foundation.

Foundation Summary

As the first novel in the Foundation Trilogy (originally published as a collection of five short stories), the book recounts the founding and strengthening of the first Foundation amidst a skeptical empire and a location amidst
planets that were rapidly devolving into barbarism. The second novel, Foundation and Empire, introduces another threat to the Foundation: The Mule – a mutant conqueror whose unique ability to alter people’s emotional allegiances was not accounted for in Seldon’s predictions, and which ultimately leads to a confrontation with the Foundation. As its title suggests, the final book in the original trilogy, Second Foundation, recounts the discovery of a parallel Foundation at the opposite end of the universe – whose true purpose is eventually revealed.

Foundation Review

While it would be hard to call Foundation action-packed (most of the actual fighting and war takes place “off-screen”), there is just enough intrigue and suspense to keep the story humming along. But even though it has its entertaining elements, I would recommend this book to a friend as a novel of “Ideas.” Sometimes you’re just not ready to appreciate something like that at first (I wasn’t). But if you are, there are few better places to start than Asimov’s crowning achievement.

Foundation Quotes

“It is the invariable lesson to humanity that distance in time, and in space as well, lends focus. It is not recorded, incidentally, that the lesson has ever been permanently learned.”

“Any dogma, primarily based on faith and emotionalism, is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user.”

The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation | Foundation and Empire | Second Foundation

Other Books in the Foundation Series:
Foundation’s Edge | Foundation and Earth | Prelude to Foundation | Forward the Foundation

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September 29, 2010

#52 – The End of Eternity Review – Isaac Asimov

Time travel is an idea that has been examined by science fiction writers for almost as long as the genre has existed. Whether it’s being used to provide a shocking glimpse into the far future of humanity (as in H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine), as a convenient device to construct a non-linear narrative (as in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five), or as a clever mechanism for revenge and redemption (as in Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer), the peculiar scientific, philosophical, and practical questions that time travel raises have captivated millions of readers over the years – this one included. But for all of the time travel yarns I’ve read in my life, I can’t remember one as thrilling and unpredictable as Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. In general, I’ve always considered Asimov to be an interesting, thought-provoking, and imminently readable author. But nothing quite prepared me for how much I would enjoyed his unique take on time travel. After powering through the book in two days, my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer.

The End of Eternity Summary: The novel is set primarily in a mysterious netherworld known as Eternity, a realm that exists outside of time and provides the means in which to travel to almost any century imaginable. Eternity is used by a small group of humans (known as Eternals) who have been plucked out of various time periods and tasked with monitoring the course of human history and making changes to reality in order to prevent any major events that might threaten humanity. Using a complex organization of specialists, including Observers (whose job it is to provide detailed notes on the current situation in each century prior to a change), Computers (who are able to calculate the effects of those changes on future societies and individuals), and Technicians (who are in charge of actually performing the “Strategic Minimum Actions” necessary to bring about a reality change), the Eternals noble goal is to perform changes to the temporal world that will minimize human suffering in the long run. While these changes can be as minor as leaving a door open where before it was closed (as illustrated by the theory of The Butterfly Effect), the eventual effects of those changes can often be quite drastic (erasing innocent people from existence altogether).

While the idea of silent observers altering the course of history is a fascinating idea (one that one my favorite TV shows Fringe seems to have borrowed), what’s even more fascinating is Asimov’s description of the different centuries that the Eternals have access to and the difficulties that arise from living in many different eras. By traveling “upwhen” and “downwhen,” in time, the Eternals can travel to almost any century they want through the use of a temporal elevator known as a kettle (which, in a brilliant bit of hard science, is supposedly powered by the almost inexhaustible power of Nova Sol, our exploding sun, hundreds of thousands of centuries in the future).

The only eras they can’t go to are the Primitive era before Eternity was created (pre-24th century) and the “Hidden Centuries” (above the 100,000th) that are blocked by some unidentified force. Some centuries look much like our own. Others are “Energy-Centered” and bear no relation to our own. But no matter how far they travel (one character is from the 30,000th century), they notice that man is still basically the same throughout the centuries. It’s as if human evolution stopped after Eternity came into being. Another thing they notice is that, while many centuries have developed space travel, all of them have eventually given it up after finding the universe a crowded, hostile place.

The story’s protagonist is Andrew Harlan, a technician who becomes involved with a non-Eternal woman (also known as a Timer) named Noÿs Lambent. After finding out that a change in her reality will end up causing her to have never existed, Harlan attempts to protect her by hiding her away in one of the furthest centuries of Eternity while he tries to make his case to save her. In the process of trying to save Noÿs, Harlan begins to realize that he is actually part of a much larger and more complicated plot that has to do with the very existence of Eternity and the Eternals efforts to preserve it.

 The End of Eternity Review: What really sets this book apart in my mind is the fact that it kept me guessing up until the very last page. There are so many tantalizing questions that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Will Harlan be able to save Noÿs and live happily ever after? Who is Noÿs anyways? Who is the real creator of Eternity? What role is Eternity playing in stunting the evolution of humanity? What does that have to do with space travel? Who or what is keeping the Eternals from reaching the “Hidden Centuries”? While Asimov’s deft explanation of the various paradoxes that arise is fascinating and masterful, his skills at misdirection and subtle foreshadowing are what make this book so great and lead to such a satisfying conclusion. Maybe one day I’ll be able to travel back in time to before I read this book so I can read it all over again.

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#30 – The Caves of Steel Review – Isaac Asimov

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While the novel takes place in the same fictional universe as I, Robot, Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is a much more conventional novel, although one that delves a lot deeper into the relationship between men and robots in a real-world setting. Where the former details the emergence of robots and the theories of robopsychology (rooted firmly in the Three Laws of Robotics), the latter takes place well into the future in which robots are an accepted fact of life.

Written by Asimov as an example of how science fiction can be applied to any genre (as opposed to being just a genre itself), the book is basically a boilerplate detective story – albeit set thousands of years in the future and featuring thinking robots that are nearly indistinguishable from humans. And while the plot mainly revolves around an unsolved murder, Asimov uses the central mystery to explore a variety of larger themes about the complex and contentious interactions between men and robots.

The Caves of Steel Summary

Set three thousand years in the future, the majority of Earth’s population live in giant, mega-city enclosures (the titular “Caves of Steel”) – completely sealed off from the outside world and self sufficient due to large scale harvesting of various strains of yeast. Living in a smaller enclosure just outside of the city are representatives of The Spacers, descendants of the first humans to travel into space. Over many generations of colonization, the Spacers were able to extend their lifespans and cure themselves of most Terran diseases – making them almost a separate race from Earth bound humans.

Through population control and the extensive use of robot servants, the Spacers are able maintain a high standard of living – something that the overcrowded population of Earth come to resent. But where Spacers have completely embraced robots as a way to enhance their lives, the citizens of Earth are still wary of robots – mainly due to the fact that they have been slowly taking away jobs from humans.

The murder that opens the book (or rather precedes it) is that of a prominent Spacer scientist (presumably by a human). Since relations between Spacers and the Earth population have been strained for some time, the investigation is especially sensitive. Elijah Baley is the human police officer who is assigned to the case and given a most unusual partner to work with: one R. Daneel Olivaw (the R stands for Robot).

Unfortunately Elijah has a pathological dislike of robots (as do a vast majority of the population). Talk about an odd couple. Over the course of the investigation, Baley’s impulsive reasoning and intuitive detective style meshes (and clashes) with Olivaw’s calculating, reasoned and unbiased analysis. And while their styles initially make them more foes than friends, they eventually begin to trust and appreciate each other (or at least Bailey does).

Adding to the intrigue (and list of possible suspects) is the presence of a small faction of the population known as the Medievalists, a group of possible revolutionaries who favor a return to mankind’s organic, traditional origins (outside of cities) and who fear that robots will eventually overtake human society. Because the murdered Spacer was a scientist working on creating robots that look completely human, and due to the fact that it is discovered that the Spacers real agenda on Earth is to help introduce more robots into the society, the Medievalists are the ones with the most compelling motives for murder. However, not everything is always as it seems (as it usually isn’t in these types of novels).

The Caves of Steel Review

While this isn’t the most thought provoking science fiction novel ever written (or the most exciting detective story for that matter), it is nonetheless a very effective and engaging example of both. The setting is unique, the action is fast moving, the mystery is intriguing and the characters are complex and challenging (except for the robot of course).

If Asimov set out to prove that science fiction is a malleable art form that can be used to enhance any genre, then he ultimately succeeded. The Caves of Steel is just the first in many Baley and Olivaw novels, and I plan on reading those at some point. But as you all know, I still have a long way to go on this project, so I’ll just have to let those two relax for a bit while I move on to the next book!

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August 29, 2010

#9 – I, Robot Review – Isaac Asimov

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The second book from Isaac Asimov on this list actually takes place in the same fictional universe as the first one, albeit thousands of years previous. Years before Hari Seldon starts preparing the Foundation, I, Robot shows us a time in which mankind is taking its first baby steps out into the universe with the help of intelligent robots. While these robots are able to perform tasks that no human would possibly be able to do, they also start to exhibit some unexpected behavioral and psychological tendencies that threaten to derail the use of robots altogether.

I, Robot Summary: Told primarily through the perspective of robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, the book is made up of 9 separate short stories that detail the early history of robotics and the different stages of robot development. As the robots become progressively more intelligent and sophisticated, the unique peculiarities of their psychology (informed primarily by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics) take on many different forms that their human creators are forced to deal with. The majority of these incidents occur as a result of a conflict between the laws that the robots are taught to obey and the ways in which their actions affect the humans that work with them.

I, Robot Review: While most depictions of robots in fiction up to that time had been of the “Frankenstein Complex” variety (in which a robot turns against its master), Asimov’s Robot stories offer a much more complex vision of the interactions between men and thinking machines. Because of the three laws of robotics that are programmed into every intelligent robot, complex moral ambiguities and situations begin to arise as humans are forced to ask more and more of their mechanical creations. While some of the stories do tap into our traditional fears of robots (including one in which a politician is accused of being a robot or another one in which a robot can read minds), the reasons for the robot’s dysfunction is never seen as malicious or aggressive – merely the product of a mind that is incapable of thinking outsides its pre-set parameters.

Besides creating a blueprint for all future science fiction writers (and some actual scientists) to use when dealing with robots, Asimov also gives the reader 9 effortlessly captivating detective stories in which Dr. Calvin (or the team of Powell and Donovan) are forced to play Sherlock Holmes in order to deduce the reason for a particular robot’s erratic behavior. Told with Asimov’s usual biting wit and humor, I, Robot presents a compelling (and entertaining) argument for the notion that robots are often just a morally conflicted and complex as the humans that create them.

I, Robot Movie: The recent film adaption (in name only) of I, Robot, starring Will Smith, really has absolutely nothing to do with the book it stole it’s name from. The movie uses the basic premise of man’s growing wariness and suspicion of robots and turns it into a dull, formulaic action flick with the robots as the bad guys and Smith as the hero. Any subtlety or analysis of the robot psyche is discarded in favor of silly car chases as simple, moralistic sermonizing. It’s so bad I won’t even link to it below.

The Three Laws of Robotics:

  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 any orders given to it 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.

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