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Hari Krugman
December 9, 2012 3:52 PM   Subscribe

"There are certain novels that can shape a teenage boy's life. For some, it's Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; for others it's Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. As a widely quoted internet meme says, the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man's character forever; the other book is about orcs. But for me, of course, it was neither. My Book – the one that has stayed with me for four-and-a-half decades – is Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, written when Asimov was barely out of his teens himself. I didn't grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation." [Paul Krugman: Asimov's Foundation novels grounded my economics]
posted by vidur (79 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
This explains so much....
posted by heathkit at 3:55 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


You know who else was inspired by the Foundation trilogy?
posted by chavenet at 3:59 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Krugman, Paul, The Theory of Intersteller Trade, 1978.
posted by RichardP at 3:59 PM on December 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


This would be a time where "RTFA" is important.
posted by eagles12 at 4:01 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now, there isn't, to my knowledge, a secret cabal of economists with a thousand-year plan to save our current civilisation (but then I wouldn't tell you if there was, would I?)

Let the rumors begin!

Elsewhere, some while back the now-motheaten kuro5hing spawned a pretty epic rap battle. I ended one thread, peppered as much rap is with dire threats, braggadocio, and promises of takedown, with this, which was mostly acknowledged to be pretty good:

To Asimov I have sometimes been compared
You ought to check out an opinion he aired
Though violent energy must sometimes be spent
It's still the last refuge of the incompetent.


Edit: I was going to remove the stray g that tacked itself onto kuro5hin, but on rereading it seems, well, apt.
posted by localroger at 4:07 PM on December 9, 2012


YES!

Not an economist, but Second Foundation was the very first grownup novel I ever read. You rock, Paul Krugman.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:08 PM on December 9, 2012


Hmm, I read a lot of old scifi stuff (including Asimov) during my teenage years, particularly year end collections. There was also the Flowers in the Attic series, which did something oddto my young brain, still not sure what.

If anyone influenced me if was Harlan Ellison, which suddenly explains a whole lot about these later years.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:20 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I couldn't finish the first Foundation book, but then again that was 6th or 7th grade. I loved some of his short stories though, like 2340 A.D. Ray Bradbury too. My thinking has influenced a lot by Ishmael and One Straw Revolution.
posted by gray17 at 4:25 PM on December 9, 2012


Krugman, Paul, The Theory of Intersteller Trade, 1978.

I like how one of the works cited is from 1987.
posted by Nomyte at 4:28 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Foundation Trilogy? I thought there were a lot more than that...do some people only talk about the first three books (because the others suck or something)?
posted by zardoz at 4:29 PM on December 9, 2012


I guess I'll RTFA but no Known Space? Dune? come on now!
posted by Max Power at 4:32 PM on December 9, 2012


zardoz, Asimov ultimately wrote a couple of sequels and prequels, but the original 3 books can be considered to be a complete work. I read the others - they were pretty good.
posted by thelonius at 4:36 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


The difference between the first three books and the latter four is something of a matter of taste, perhaps. The original trilogy was first published as a series of short stories in Astounding Magazine, then collected (with a new story at the front) into three books. That was it for about thirty years.

Then Asimov went back to the Foundation series and began to expand it with an ever growing number of sequels, eventually joining them together with his other work into one big "universe," but they were written at a later point in his life and which books you prefer may depend upon which version of Asimov you were first exposed to. I really like his early, John W. Campbell influenced style.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:41 PM on December 9, 2012


Maybe the first thing to say about Foundation is that it's not exactly science fiction – not really. Yes, it's set in the future, there's interstellar travel, people shoot each other with blasters instead of pistols and so on. But these are superficial details

Weird. The central concern of the books is working out what the implications might be if history, economics and the other social sciences became hard sciences, gaining predictive power as impressive as the ability of astronomers to predict eclipses millennia in advance. It's fiction about the sciences and social sciences. If that's not science fiction, what is?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2012 [14 favorites]


zardoz: Pretty much. The story told in Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation is self-contained and it's long been a staple to publish them as the "Foundation Trilogy." The fact that Asimov later retconned everything to fit together is best ignored by people who want to get what he originally wrote, a much more idea-driven trilogy.
posted by graymouser at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2012


I like how one of the works cited is from 1987.

In addition to that, it's written by Krugman himself and the title has its words in reverse order!
posted by ymgve at 4:49 PM on December 9, 2012


Foundation is my favorite Asimov book and probably one of my candidates for favorite book ever, so this post instinctively makes me almost as happy as a post about corgis in bee outfits. :-)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 4:55 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like how one of the works cited is from 1987.

Yep, one of the benefits of FTL travel is the opportunity to cite your own articles from future time lines.
posted by RichardP at 4:55 PM on December 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Also, the first two books were written during the Second World War (when he was supposed to be doing research at the Philadelphia Navy Yard) and have a certain mortals-struggling-against-Gotterdammerung quality to them that's really effecting. (A bit like Tolkien's LoTR, although that was published later.)
posted by Kevin Street at 5:05 PM on December 9, 2012


"There are certain novels that can shape a teenage boy's life. For some, it's Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged..."

Can you imagine if the Lululemon Founder had read Foundation instead? Maybe trendy yogis would be spouting off endearingly poor interpretations of psychohistory in place of poor interpretations of objectivism.
posted by Paper rabies at 5:07 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


In addition to that, it's written by Krugman himself and the title has its words in reverse order!

Yeah I made a post about that a few years ago. We rehearsed a bunch of the jokes in the thread.
posted by grobstein at 5:12 PM on December 9, 2012


I wanted to become an Encyclopedic Synthesist

I got about as far as the letter C in the encyclopedia
and synthesis of three-carbon chains.

Sigh.
posted by hank at 5:12 PM on December 9, 2012


I spent my entire life trying to avoid making decisions until they became a personal Seldon Crisis. In retrospect, that might not have been such a good strategy.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:30 PM on December 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


As I was reading the first couple of sentences of your post I was thinking "Well, for me it would be Asimov's Foundation Trilogy." I was stunned to see that was precisely where you were going. I have never reread them since my teenage days. Sort of afraid that they might not hold up to where I am now and sort of don't want to mess with my perception of them.

Anybody reread them as an adult that would care to comment?
posted by spock at 5:37 PM on December 9, 2012


I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon

I liked The Mule better. But who I really wanted to be was George Garvey. "When first we meet DaDaDaDave he is nothing at all. Later he'll wear a white poker chip monocle, with a blue eye painted on it by Matisse himself. Later, a golden bird cage might trill within DaDaDaDave's false leg, and his good left hand might possibly be fashioned of shimmering copper and jade."
posted by DaDaDaDave at 5:44 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a mildly terrifying thought that the books we read in our teens imprint themselves onto our future development.

In retrospect though, Good Omens essentially defined my sense of humour for a good chunk of young adulthood.
posted by cacofonie at 5:51 PM on December 9, 2012


You know who else was inspired by the Foundation trilogy?

chavenet, IOU a drink whenever we are in the same city. Ha!

cacofonie, I was talking earlier today, out of the blue, with a date about how Sam Vimes' Theory of Boots* informed our buying behaviour, so apparently it's not too uncommon.

*Vimes reflects that he can only afford ten-dollar boots with thin soles which don't keep out the damp and wear out in a season or two. A pair of good boots, which cost fifty dollars, would last for years and years - which means that over the long run, the man with cheap boots has spent much more money and still has wet feet. This thought leads to the general realization that one of the reasons rich people remain rich is because they don't actually have to spend as much money as poor people; in many situations, they buy high-quality items (such as clothing, housing, and other necessities) which are made to last. In the long run, they actually use much less of their disposable income. He describes this as The Samuel Vimes 'Boots' Theory Of Socio-Economic Injustice.
posted by ersatz at 5:57 PM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anybody reread them as an adult that would care to comment?

I re-read them every few years. Age 48. They hold up.
posted by localroger at 5:58 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


But like the cardboard characters, this little implausibility in the Foundation novels matters not at all.

Krugman's fanboy love for Asimov's early work has from the start seemed to me embarrassing. The last thing I would encourage new fans of the genre to read is the Foundation books. They're just really bad science fiction written by a teenager - shallow, ridiculous and with such dated social science that it's astonishing Krugman has been plugging them so hard. Seriously, that "little implausibility" he mentions above is, of course, the whole idea underpinning the work, that Hari Seldon can predict the future. Add to that the absurdly underdeveloped plot and characters - setting up a false dichotomy between Asimov and Tolstoy doesn't begin to do justice to the badness of the writing - and you have a supremely overrated book.

I mean, it's nice Krugman is getting to revisit one of his childhood pleasures, but anyone who believes him when he says a modern adult reader will get much of value out of Foundation is bound to be very, very disappointed.
posted by mediareport at 5:58 PM on December 9, 2012


I finished reading the Foundation trilogy a few weeks ago, and mostly agree with Krugman. All the flaws he identifies are definitely there, but there is some interesting stuff. The books went very quickly for me, but then so did Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

If you enjoy sci-fi, you should read the Foundation series because so much other science fiction is influenced by it or directly references it. The Hitchhiker's guide very clearly takes place in the same universe. I found the read worthwhile if only for that discovery.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:03 PM on December 9, 2012


I mean, it's nice Krugman is getting to revisit one of his childhood pleasures, but anyone who believes him when he says a modern adult reader will get much of value out of Foundation is bound to be very, very disappointed.

But you have to admit, it's still far better than an adult reader getting inspired by Atlas Shrugged.
posted by Ber at 6:08 PM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Foundation trilogy is very over-rated, boring, and poorly written stuff indeed. Even as a teenager I thought they were underwhelming, I can't imagine going back to read them as an adult. But they did have a couple of pretty cool elements, and being (apparently) the first of the "galactic empire" genre, they were part of the inspiration for Dune, Star Wars and all the rest.
posted by moorooka at 6:08 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


The dream of predictive social science lives on in computational models derived from large-scale surveillance systems built in to our communication technologies. There are a million Hari Seldons out there salivating for the chance to build the algorithm that predicts whatever slice of the future they're aiming at.
posted by codacorolla at 6:25 PM on December 9, 2012


The difference between theory and practice is that in theory the Foundation Trilogy is a galaxy-and-millennia-spanning epic and in practice it's people talking in rooms.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:29 PM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis is explicitly about the million Hari Seldons scenario, set in the Foundation universe. Extraordinarily good book.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:29 PM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


From the comments at the Guardian:

Quote: "When I first read Foundation all those years ago, I resented the Mule's appearance, which interrupts the smooth tale of psychohistorical inevitability. On a reread, however, I see that Asimov knew what he was doing."

Actually, the departure from the Plan was resented by Asimov, as well. It was a requirement set down by the editor, John Campbell.


From AsimovOnline:

Campbell also told Asimov that in the next Foundation story, he wanted to upset the Seldon Plan. Asimov was opposed, but in the end Campbell got his way, and Asimov agreed...When Asimov began work on the next Foundation story on January 26...he still didn't like the idea of upsetting the Seldon Plan. To get back at Campbell, he decided that the next Foundation story would be the biggest, longest, most wide-ranging of the lot

Krugman is not doing himself any favors with this Asimov kick.
posted by mediareport at 6:30 PM on December 9, 2012


and being (apparently) the first of the "galactic empire" genre

Only if you leave out E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, whose readers perhaps had a slightly greater appreciation for the main plot arc of Babylon 5.
posted by adamg at 6:30 PM on December 9, 2012


Anybody reread them as an adult that would care to comment?

I just re read Foundation for the first time since middle school. While enjoying the read I couldn't help but notice that there was literally one female in the book with dialogue. I am not exaggerating.
posted by Think_Long at 6:30 PM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


I loved E.E. Doc Smith (especially the Skylark novels) as a junior high school kid, but he's one author whose output really doesn't age well. As in, it doesn't seem as cool when you age.

Psychohistorical Crisis is a novel I really wanted to love, but it always felt like a grind compared to Asimov's early books.
posted by Kevin Street at 6:35 PM on December 9, 2012


For me it was Zelazney and Adams.
posted by edgeways at 6:56 PM on December 9, 2012


"it's not exactly science fiction – not really." ... justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: It's fiction about the sciences and social sciences. If that's not science fiction, what is?

In my limited experience of occasionally following links to Krugman, this seems to be his speciality: Well-written articles that make some good points and are worth thinking about, with one little line thrown in somewhere that make you wonder how somebody so intelligent could be so completely wrong about a basic fact fundamental to what he's writing about.

b1tr0t: The Hitchhiker's guide very clearly takes place in the same universe.

Funny, that. I was thinking of Hitchhiker's, suspecting that it being the trilogy that most contributed to shaping my teenage boy mind was probably one reason that my first reaction to Krugman was to find it immensely silly of him to even consider asking seriously the question of whether it was plausible that social sciences might ever be able to reliably make accurate long-run forecasts of anything, let alone detailed prediction of future events.
posted by sfenders at 7:05 PM on December 9, 2012


Krugman is not doing himself any favors with this Asimov kick.
With you maybe.
posted by localroger at 7:07 PM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, yeah, that's a given. But I'm guessing his not-quite-familiarity with how the books he's praising were written might seem relevant to other people, too.
posted by mediareport at 7:30 PM on December 9, 2012


The haters forget that Asimov was inspired by Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when writing this trilogy. Hardly irrelevant to understanding and appreciating history.
posted by Apocryphon at 7:52 PM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Somehow I managed to have a fulfilling sci-fi childhood without ever reading an Asimov book. I decided to rectify that last week and just finished the Foundation trilogy (the only advantage of commuting - enforced reading time).

I have to say that I find it pretty abysmal. You've gotta allow a book its premise, so the psychohistory was fine, and flat characters are all part of the charm of the best early sci-fi, but I knew I was in for a rough ride when, somewhere in the first couple of chapters, the suave Empire ambassador visits the Foundation and signs a treaty. Afterwards, the Mayor has the document analysed with 'symbolic logic', which shockingly reveals that all of the diplomat's phrases somehow cancel each other out and he managed to say exactly nothing without anyone noticing.

(Having spent two years struggling to keep up in Propositional Logic, the hearty snort I expelled at this earned me a handful of quick commuter stares, like curious birds.)

This happens all the time - Asimov has an idea that could be convincing with a little more work, but instead he just has all the characters swallow the silly stuff whole, and they only argue back when they have an unreasonable position to slow the plot down a little.

It's not without its charms, though, and who am I to judge? As a teen, I enjoyed Piers Anthony's Diary of a Space Tyrant.
posted by forgetful snow at 8:41 PM on December 9, 2012


Anybody reread them as an adult that would care to comment?

Apart from the fact that there are seriously no women in them, they're pretty good. I read them in my late twenties/ early thirties, for the first time.
posted by KathrynT at 8:47 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


While teenage-me found the Foundation series to be pretty darn awful, teenage-me did fall in quite madly in love with Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series. Now that is a sci-fi trilogy!
posted by moorooka at 9:35 PM on December 9, 2012


(Having spent two years struggling to keep up in Propositional Logic, the hearty snort I expelled at this earned me a handful of quick commuter stares, like curious birds.)
Better - in one scene, a computer is described that can model the stars in the Milky Way galaxy from any desired perspective. I chuckled to myself when Asimov commented on the sophisticated circuits that made this possible (no, it is symbolic logic and miniaturization that lead to ever-increasing compute power. An analog computer for rendering stars would be insanely complex. That's why we don't do it that way). But in the next scene, Asimov describes a character who solves a problem using the Slide Rule To End All Slide Rules. He really didn't get computers.

Ironically, Asimov did get the importance of miniaturization. He just applied it to nuclear power instead computational power. And he didn't really think through communication at all. Which would be more easily excused if his contemporary, Arthur C. Clark, wasn't busy inventing the communication satellite at around the same time.

But all this misses the point of Foundation. As several others (including Krugman) have stated, Foundation is Romans In Space. Its flaws may have been instrumental in prodding later authors to think things through more carefully and write better fiction.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:07 AM on December 10, 2012


mediareport: "Krugman is not doing himself any favors with this Asimov kick."

I have to agree. Krugman is giving Asimov way too much credit for the way he handled the Mule. Even teenage me was disappointed - the best solution he could come up with to counter the upending of his tidy, mathematically deterministic society was to have everything (up to and including semi-sentient rocks) jacked into a mystical Matrix. Campbell was Asimov's Mule, disorienting him and pushing him from sci fi to fantasy in one muddled step.

Asimov must have seen it though, since he appeared to almost capitulate on the larger psychohistory arc in the later books and concentrated on turning them into a space romp tied into the Spacer books. That stuff may not have had a big point to it, but it was quite fun.
posted by vanar sena at 2:42 AM on December 10, 2012


Maybe the first thing to say about Foundation is that it's not exactly science fiction – not really.

Much like Middle Earth isn't really fantasy, because it doesn't feature flying brooms and magic wands?

Despite it's flaws, this article does boost Krugman a couple of ranks on my "list of favorite economists".
posted by wheloc at 3:04 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anybody reread them as an adult that would care to comment?

Lord knows I tried. Great ideas, but the writing kept grinding away at me until I had to quit.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:34 AM on December 10, 2012


I was a big Asimov fan as a teen in the 80s with a school library full of out of date sci-fi books.
But the influencers were definitely D. Adams (even the weak 4th and 5th).

What is surprising to me, who read the foundation books a couple of times, but not in the last 20 years, is that it still finds an audience.
To me, it was wrapped up in cold war era USA and rocket age politics.
Does that suggest Krugman is kind of antediluvian in his political viewpoint too?
I wouldn't have said so, but I'll read his writing with a eye open for it in future.
- other influences? Neal Stephenson for the win and a bit of Gibson.
posted by bystander at 3:42 AM on December 10, 2012


The Mule
Frisco D'Anconia

Sure, but this thread made me choose so I go for the first textual man I fell in love with. I was 9, and his name was Jason dinAlt. A favourite to who guesses the book/author/trilogy.
posted by infini at 4:28 AM on December 10, 2012


The concepts of positronic pathways, Trantor and a Second Foundation have made their mark nonetheless.

I. Asimov

RIP
posted by infini at 4:30 AM on December 10, 2012


That article that claims that bin Laden was influenced by the Foundation series was quite weak. Kind of like the movie adaptation to Contact, it noted some surface similarities, but entirely missed the main philosophical point.
posted by eviemath at 4:46 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read an Asimov autobiography (I think he has two and I read the later, more comprehensive one?) a few years ago, and he explains that he didn't include many, or sometimes any, female characters in his earlier writing because he was a typical nerdy, totally shy and nervous around the ladies, sort of young man, and didn't feel that he could write decent, multidimensional female characters at the time. As a teenage girl reading Asimov, I noticed the dearth of female characters, but I seem to recall that the ones he wrote were generally pretty good - especially for the genre of science fiction:-P
posted by eviemath at 4:52 AM on December 10, 2012


What is surprising to me, who read the foundation books a couple of times, but not in the last 20 years, is that it still finds an audience.
To me, it was wrapped up in cold war era USA and rocket age politics.
Does that suggest Krugman is kind of antediluvian in his political viewpoint too?


An analog computer for rendering stars would be insanely complex. That's why we don't do it that way). But in the next scene, Asimov describes a character who solves a problem using the Slide Rule To End All Slide Rules. He really didn't get computers.

It's probably worth mentioning that these stories were written during World War II. No computers, no cold war, no rockets. (But the '30s had been an ideological decade too...)

I don't think Foundation is really science fiction in the sense that the predicted future science, or even the contemporary science, is very convincing. They're thought-heavy stories set in a sort of "consensus of their times" science fiction universe. In that way they're like Philip K. Dick's novels.

Politically, Asimov was a left-wing New Dealer. (In the early '70s he described himself as a liberal democrat in the American sense, which is far to the left of what that means now.) I think it's easy to forget, in 2012, that this was (and still is) an idealistic and coherent political philosophy/movement. He had been a member of the Futurians, a science-fiction fan group with a strong Socialist element, and I suspect the Foundation stories are as much a wrangle with the possibilities of (not-quite-Marxist) historical determinism as they are Romans In Space.

I read an Asimov autobiography (I think he has two and I read the later, more comprehensive one?) a few years ago, and he explains that he didn't include many, or sometimes any, female characters in his earlier writing because he was a typical nerdy, totally shy and nervous around the ladies, sort of young man, and didn't feel that he could write decent, multidimensional female characters at the time. As a teenage girl reading Asimov, I noticed the dearth of female characters, but I seem to recall that the ones he wrote were generally pretty good - especially for the genre of science fiction.

I remember reading this too! It's in I, Asimov I think. I know in his 1940s stories, there were one or two female characters who were there because editors had pushed him to include one, despite his discomfort. (These were the same people who said Susan Calvin wasn't "really a woman" because she's too intellectual.) When that happened, he would put some dislikeable henpecking wife cliché in the background, or something like that. Later when he got more experience he wrote actual, believable women ... well, OK, "believable" to the extent that his male characters were actual men either, which is not much.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:22 AM on December 10, 2012


I don't think Foundation is really science fiction in the sense that the predicted future science, or even the contemporary science, is very convincing.

Science fiction that purports to predict the future isn't very interesting; in my opinion, it isn't science fiction, it's speculative futurism.

Science fiction is writing where the main characters aren't people, they're ideas. The setting is deliberately removed from the mundane reality we know today in order to reveal something else, but the thing being revealed is supposed to be relevant to us, today, as we are, not some hypothetical future - because it is we, today, that are doing the reading.

Asimov wrote lots about robots. But to mock him for misunderstanding or failing to predict the powers of computers is to be utterly naive and dense about the purpose of writing about robots. He wrote about robots because their differences from humans reveal things about our own nature.

Take "Bicentennial Man" - the gist of which should be familiar to people even who haven't read Asimov. The story isn't about robots; it's about what ultimately makes us human.
posted by barrkel at 7:08 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the comments at the Guardian:

Quote: "When I first read Foundation all those years ago, I resented the Mule's appearance, which interrupts the smooth tale of psychohistorical inevitability. On a reread, however, I see that Asimov knew what he was doing."

Actually, the departure from the Plan was resented by Asimov, as well. It was a requirement set down by the editor, John Campbell.


Sometimes the limitations an editor gives you can spur you to write your best work. Campbell told Asimov to upset the Seldon Plan. How he did it, though -- that was Asimov knowing what he was doing.

Asimov also claims Campbell came up with the Three Laws Of Robotics in idle conversation. Campbell says Asimov invented them himself. It doesn't matter who you give credit to, since it's Asimov who developed them and made them the generator for a lot of fascinating fiction.

Come to think of it, the Three Laws are a good model for a certain kind of science fiction. They're nonsense as Computer Science. They aren't even very credible if you're a 1940s reader who knows nothing about robotics. But once you credit their existence, what follows from them makes for a heady story. This kind of SF isn't even about "ideas," it's about the pleasure of "thinking about ideas."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:44 AM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


This kind of SF isn't even about "ideas," it's about the pleasure of "thinking about ideas."

This is the bit I'm favouriting.
posted by infini at 7:46 AM on December 10, 2012


I just re read Foundation for the first time since middle school. While enjoying the read I couldn't help but notice that there was literally one female in the book with dialogue. I am not exaggerating.

Not only that- the sole female character in book 1 is, if I recall correctly, a bitchy trophy wife princess whose objections are ultimately quelled with sparkly jewelry. I stopped reading at that point. I know it's a classic but jeez.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:21 AM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


No, you're right, she was a total shrew. But the jewelery was really pretty, so there's that.
posted by Think_Long at 8:28 AM on December 10, 2012


totally shy and nervous around the ladies

That's one way to describe him, I suppose. We've talked about this before in discussions of scifi creeping, but it's worth remembering that Asimov was so well-known for pinching the asses of women at cons (they would warn one another not to get into elevators with him) that the organizers of a 1961 gathering offered him a chance to give a talk called "The Positive Power of Posterior Pinching." It was all treated as a big laugh at the time.

I get that being "totally shy and nervous around the ladies" as a teenager may have had something to do with his sexual harassment of them as an adult, but it still seems a strange way to describe a man who often felt comfortable pinching strangers in the ass.
posted by mediareport at 8:30 AM on December 10, 2012


He referred to himself as a dirty old man. I think it was Niven's autobiog collection that referred to him in that way in a satire as well.
posted by infini at 8:50 AM on December 10, 2012


Yeah he wrote a book about it, The Sensuous Dirty Old Man, in 1971. Excerpts here. In (hang on, let me pull it from the shelf) chapter 32 of the 2nd volume of his autobiography he says the idea mostly came from his publisher Beth Walker, in response to the success of a couple of how-to-sex books, and that both he and his wife found it "funny and inoffensive."

It's pretty awful stuff.
posted by mediareport at 9:28 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


b1tr0t - The Hitchhiker's guide very clearly takes place in the same universe

Really? What makes you say that? Both universes contain an encyclopaedia, both universes refer to an emperor, and both contain robots. But the encyclopaedias have different names, one emperor is dead while the other is in stasis, and robots in the Guide's universe don't follow the three laws. Maybe the biggest difference is that HHG's universe has loads of aliens while Foundation has none.

Am I missing something big from the books, or have I missed an obvious joke? Either way, I suspect I'll come out of this looking a bit dense...
posted by metaBugs at 9:29 AM on December 10, 2012


One of the few things I found interesting about Marvel's Civil War is that it was all based on Reed Richards taking Asimov too seriously. Of course, then they took it all to shit with Reed Richard's rationalizing the wibbly wobbly timey wimey clusterfuck of continuity that's the Marvel Superhero Singularity Apocalypse.

Asimov playing fast and loose with computer science its reasonable given that many of the early stories were written while Asimov was apparently at work on analog calculating devices for the U.S. Air Corps during WWII. The first digital computers based on Turing's work were still under development. The whole point ended up more about how deceptively simple, rule-based ethics might lead into more complex conflicts than anticipated, so it's forgivable.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:00 AM on December 10, 2012


Asimov also claims Campbell came up with the Three Laws Of Robotics in idle conversation. Campbell says Asimov invented them himself. It doesn't matter who you give credit to, since it's Asimov who developed them

If the apochryphal story is to be believed, Dr. A had taken ownership -- even magisterium -- by 1968.

Asimov is supposed to have attended a 'black-tie' opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. At intermission, so goes the tale, he stormed up to his friend Carl Sagan and cried, "They're breaking the First Law!"

Sagan replied, "So why don't you strike them with lightning, Isaac?"

Interesting, if true, that he put it 'breaking" not "broke". At intermission, HAL hadn't actually killed anyone yet, but it's clear at that point that HAL is the villain and what happens next won't be good for Dave and Frank.

What had happened by that point is more in opposition to Asimov's original motivation in deploying the Three Laws in the first place than to the laws as such. Asimov wanted to counter the tiresome 'Frankenstein complex' he saw in earlier SF: artificial humans / robots / AIs were nearly always the monster of the story or else the mindless henchmen of the real villain.

The Three Laws allowed him to write stories in a new different (better?) universe. He may have taken the idea of HAL as Frankenstein's Monster -- technology's most sophisticated creation gone wrong -- personally, as well as seeing it as artistically regressive.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:14 AM on December 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Not just technology's most sophisticated creation, but a creature of pure logic gone wrong. I wonder if the Three Laws were Asimov's way of showing that morality can come naturally from reason, instead of being imposed by a higher power.

The moral of Frankenstein is "There Are Some Things Man Should Not Do," like bring dead meat back to life without a soul. Asimov's robots take the opposite approach - they are dead matter, but possess an inbuilt morality that is usually superior to that of humans. The triumph of thought over flesh.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:55 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


One interesting aspect of that observation is that HAL was a very moral monster trapped between conflicting imperatives.

The Laws of Robotics get a quick nod in Moore's Top 10. Robot exchange officer Joe Pi asks if they exist in the current jurisdiction, then proceeds to creatively violate them.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:11 PM on December 10, 2012


One interesting aspect of that observation is that HAL was a very moral monster trapped between conflicting imperatives.

Yah. Not explored in 2001; done to death in 2010.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:15 PM on December 10, 2012


All of this carping about Asimov is like blaming the Ford Model T for not being fast enough or the original Apple Macintosh for not having enough features.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:49 PM on December 10, 2012


I wonder if the Three Laws were Asimov's way of showing that morality can come naturally from reason, instead of being imposed by a higher power.

Except that the Three Laws are pretty much the opposite of that. Three unchangeable axioms imposed arbitrarily on the robots' brains by their creators.

If anything, the stories are like Rabbis with their Three Commandments arguing about how exactly the commandments should be lived out in day-to-day practice. "But what if..."
posted by straight at 3:56 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Except that the Three Laws are pretty much the opposite of that. Three unchangeable axioms imposed arbitrarily on the robots' brains by their creators."

But isn't that what morality is?
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 the 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 Laws.
Two is just there to make sure robots serve humans, but One and Three are the same as saying that robots must care about humans and care about themselves (as long as humans come first, naturally). Not just physically care for them, but ensure that no emotional harm is done as well. In other words, the Three Laws program robots to be empathic.

We're programmed for empathy too, but in our case it was done by the blind mechanism of evolution. It's still programming though, and we know this because it's possible to be human and feel no empathy for others. We call those people psychopaths.

Could a planet of psychopaths build a civilization like ours? I don't know, but there's no logical reason to assume psychopathy is inferior to empathy if you don't start from the axiom that the welfare of others is as important as your own. Morality, in other words.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:41 PM on December 10, 2012


Kevin Street, I actually think robot and human moral axioms are sufficiently different to make the opposite point, that there isn't only one possible starting point for morality. In any case, in neither the Three Laws nor in your account of human morality do we find that "morality can come naturally from reason, instead of being imposed," which is the point I was making.
posted by straight at 7:17 PM on December 10, 2012


Asimov was so well-known for pinching the asses of women at cons

Well that does put things in a different light.
posted by eviemath at 2:10 AM on December 11, 2012


The moral of Frankenstein is "There Are Some Things Man Should Not Do," like bring dead meat back to life without a soul.

Apologies for the derail, but this is one of my peeves. The way you have phrased it is not quite so bad as some other misreadings that I have seen, but one of the morals of Frankenstein is more that one has responsibility for one's creations, and should not abandon them. I don't think it's correct to assert that Frankenstein's monster didn't have a soul. He most certainly felt emotions.

Other misreadings of Frankenstein seem to think that it is anti-science. Rather, perhaps the larger/main moral of the novel is that science (then a brand new shiny Enlightenment idea still being adopted) was better than alchemy and related practices. One critique of the newly articulated scientific method, that Mary Shelley has Dr. Frankenstein voice, is that it focused too much on minutiae - it was too focused, rather than looking at the big picture. (I seem to recall that there is a Nietzche quote along these lines as well, that a scientist will say that, oh no, he [in the quote] isn't the expert on [esoteric subject that I am forgetting], but only the expert on [sub-sub-field of esoteric subject].) As I recall, the philosophical passages in Frankenstein that don't otherwise move the narrative along mostly focus on a rebuttal of this critique, explaining why making progress by small, careful increments was better: ultimately more effective despite the critique of its seemingly narrow focus (science had been around long enough by the time she wrote the novel to demonstrate it's superior power over the older systems of explaining and exploring the material world), more accessible to all human beings (so in many senses more democratic, which was also a major concern or theme of the Enlightenment), and also more ethical or moral in its aims.

Back to Asimov: many, or at least a number, of Asimov's robot stories(*) seem to explore the idea that the Three Laws of Robotics are not moral rules, but the sort of autocratic rules given to slaves, specifically prohibiting the robots from developing their own morality.

(* Perhaps I am misremembering the frequency because I found this a particularly interesting direction of investigation. Likely this is more frequent in his later stories too. I consumed all of them voraciously in the order that I could get my hands on them, without paying much attention to chronology of when they were written.)
posted by eviemath at 2:32 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics Applied to User Experience
posted by infini at 6:06 AM on December 11, 2012


eviemath: "I read an Asimov autobiography (I think he has two and I read the later, more comprehensive one?) "

He wrote three, more or less. In Memory Yet Green, In Joy Still Felt, and I. Asimov.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:06 AM on December 11, 2012


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