Looking at Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series.
November 13, 2014 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series [SPOILERS] (io9)
On the planet Terminus, a group of academics struggles to survive as the Galactic Empire crumbles. With no weapons, all they can rely on are the predictions of a dead genius named Hari Seldon. That's right — it's time to discuss Isaac Asimov's Foundation!

Welcome to Foundation Week, a Blogging the Hugos special event. In 1983, Isaac Asimov won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for Foundation's Edge, in which he revisited his groundbreaking Foundation mythos for the first time in over thirty years. Because the Foundation series is such classic, quintessential, and beloved science fiction — the original stories won their own unique Hugo for Best All-Time Series in 1966, and influenced artists from Douglas Adams to George Lucas — Josh Wimmer and Alasdair Wilkins will be discussing each of the seven books between today and Sunday. We begin with Foundation, published in 1951.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (87 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
Other than the original trilogy, this is my favorite foundation book: Psychohistorical Crisis.
posted by signal at 9:03 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Once again, joseph conrad is fully awesome is FULLY awesome. I cannot wait to read through these!
posted by blurker at 9:07 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


The discovery of Chetter Hummin's history in Prelude is one of my favorite teenage reading memories. I was gobsmacked!
posted by painquale at 9:09 AM on November 13, 2014


Sadly, Asimov decided against continuing the Foundation series back in the early eighties so we only have the original trilogy, but I refuse to believe he would write something as awful as in this counterfactual.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:12 AM on November 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


Holy crap, the HBO adaptation news is awesome. The only thing that would be as exciting would be news of a Rendezvous with Rama project.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 9:17 AM on November 13, 2014


DrAstroZoom: BBC did a rather good two-hour Rendezvous radio play in 2009. I'm sure you can track it down somewhere.
posted by Leon at 9:24 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I hate to rain on people's parades, but it just feels like Hollywood is 40 years behind the curve. I know Foundation is still in print, but reading it is like homework now, compared to newer fiction with more action and stronger characterizations.

I don't see how this is even filmable.
posted by suelac at 9:26 AM on November 13, 2014 [11 favorites]


Original trilogy == All the action happens offscreen == lots of room for "creativity" by scriptwriters == almost certain doom

Add on HBO and you get almost certain doom plus lots of gratuitous sex. So at least there's the sex.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:28 AM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


suelac: Well they managed I, Robot. /s
posted by Leon at 9:29 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


suelac, that's what the Old Man's War and Ancillary Justice TV series (might) be for.

*Crosses fingers*
posted by sukeban at 9:30 AM on November 13, 2014


I don't see how this is even filmable.

Easy. The thing about Foundation is that Asimov, bless him, couldn't write a three dimensional character to save his life. As the characters are basically sketches, there's plenty of room to update and improve them. The same goes for the story, the outline of which is sound but which can be updated a lot without losing its integrity.

For evidence of which, see the previously mentioned Psycho-Historical Crisis as well as Orson Scott Card's The Organist.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:31 AM on November 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


I read all bazillion books in the expanded Foundation timeline (that were written by Asimov), and it was a great use of my teenage coffeeshop time. I kind of want to revisit them, but I sent most of them back to the same used bookstore where I acquired them in the first place, and I don't have that kind of time anymore. One of my favorite memories of the series is in one book where the pilot of a space vessel is about to go on an FTL trip and the computer takes some time to calculate the course... and then the pilot checks the computers work to make sure it was correct. That was awesome. And I think magnetic tape may have been involved.

So, yeah, Asimov is a giant; the greatest. But it will need some updating for TV. Whatever. I'll watch it. If it sucks, it sucks.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:36 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


John W. Campbell [and Asimov together] came up with the Mule as a way of writing Asimov out of his corner.

O. Dam! I did not know that.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:38 AM on November 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Will they leave in all the cigarette smoking?
posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:40 AM on November 13, 2014


(mefi's own!) zompist wrote about psychohistory here and here (+review of Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis ;)
posted by kliuless at 9:41 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've only ever read the original trilogy which like a lot of Asimov's books, read more like an outlines of novels than actual novels. Great ideas and plot but not much else in-between.
posted by octothorpe at 9:41 AM on November 13, 2014


Why is the Foundation series so beloved? I like Asimov in general, have very fond memories of his robot novels, and loved his quirky, goofy short stories. Then, when I got around to reading the Foundation series, I was expecting something as epic and rich as LOTR based on how highly regarded it seemed to be in sci-fi. I didn't dislike it as much as wonder if I was missing something that everyone else was noticing. I hardly remember any of it, except thinking "wait, I thought he said you can't do that with psychohistory?"
posted by skewed at 9:47 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The thing about Foundation is that Asimov, bless him, couldn't write a three dimensional character to save his life. As the characters are basically sketches, there's plenty of room to update and improve them.

You know, there's no reason we couldn't set the whole thing in a southern California high school and fill it with sleek, sexy teenagers! Harry Seldon is the geeky kid who sees that the social order that's kept peace between the jocks and the stoners and the theater kids and the gangbangers and all the other cliques is doomed to collapse, and so he puts together a group drawn from all those subcultures. Can Harry's team save the school despite their differences, and of course their raging passions?

God damn, this is going to be great television. I'm seeing it as more CW than HBO, though.
posted by Naberius at 9:48 AM on November 13, 2014 [21 favorites]


I read the Foundation books when I was ten and eleven years old (and read them wildly out of order, at that) and it's funny seeing this recap how much is just straight out of Gibbon. I mean, I knew that intellectually, but seeing the examples is a pretty lovely way to drive that home. Like the great Roman Galactic Empire general Belisarius Bel Riose.
posted by Kattullus at 9:51 AM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


The short stories which the foundation books are written around could allow for a very good show, but I think you'd need some filler here and there (which I am not opposed to necessarily).
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:51 AM on November 13, 2014


Will they leave in all the cigarette smoking?

Yes, but any references to newshens will be left out.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:51 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]




Recently I've been reading the updated (this year, to include new historical facts) version of a 1978 biography of one of my favorite historical characters, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It still reads like that 1978 version of history, though, and the pop histories I read now are of a very different authorial voice. I mention this because my memories of the Foundation trilogy, which I read in about 1978, were very much of the same kind of historical voice, and I can't imagine filming them without a lot of updating/twiddling/etc. to make them palatable to modern tastes.

I'll keep an eye out for the miniseries version, but honestly they'd have to do so much to it to make it interesting to me, and I don't mean add T&A but Real Female Characters, that I seriously doubt I'll want to watch it. This makes me very sad, because I remember being impressed by the ideas when I was little.
posted by immlass at 10:06 AM on November 13, 2014


Filmable?

The rule is start the scene/film as late in the story as possible; so: Mule!
posted by sammyo at 10:06 AM on November 13, 2014


I'm a fan of SF: Dune, Commonwealth Saga, Vorkosigan Saga, Culture, etc. But this is one of those large reading gaps that has not been filled.

Does it still hold up today or will it feel dated? Some SF novels that you pick up have not aged as well and I always worry that this will be one of those.
posted by Fizz at 10:13 AM on November 13, 2014


Paul Krugman is a long-time fan.

As were some less savory characters.
posted by empath at 10:16 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I only read the first Foundation and found it very dated. A great concept at the center though. As an aside, I read the first Dune novel, and found it almost unreadable. As in poorly written, hard to follow, terrible dialog... but again filled with a huge amount of brilliant concepts.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:16 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Not only it is very dated, George Lucas also mined the series for Star Wars, so if you end up thinking the empire capital planet Trantor looks a lot like Coruscant... that's why.
posted by sukeban at 10:18 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've always pictured the mule to look like the clown from Twilight Zone's Five Characters in Search of an Exit.
posted by dr_dank at 10:19 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lucas also stole so much from Dune that I'm surprised there wasn't a lawsuit.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:27 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I re-read Foundation recently and it was pretty mediocre. As Jeff-o-matic says, great concepts, pretty wooden writing by modern standards. Foundation and Empire was marginally better but - SPOILER ALERT - the identity of the Mule was about as obvious as a fire on the prairie. You just stared at him as the he got closer to the reveal. I can't even be bothered to go sign out Second Foundation from my library.

At any rate, there's lots of opportunity to update the series and maybe this will be great. Hopefully it won't be the next Riverworld.
posted by GuyZero at 10:36 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think my early adolescent self, just entering the realms of scifi (an accidental find of Deathworld by Harry Harrison at age 9) will not put my opinion or feelings out here on this page.

Otoh, my post menopausal self says: Asimov needs to be read like Dickens or Austen and get off my lawn.
posted by infini at 10:36 AM on November 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


You know, there's no reason we couldn't set the whole thing in a southern California high school and fill it with sleek, sexy teenagers! Harry Seldon is the geeky kid who sees that the social order that's kept peace between the jocks and the stoners and the theater kids and the gangbangers and all the other cliques is doomed to collapse, and so he puts together a group drawn from all those subcultures. Can Harry's team save the school despite their differences, and of course their raging passions?

Will the Mule's surprise entry to the talent show throw Harry's plans into disarray? Will Dylan get in trouble when his mom discovers his hash pipe, the "atomic knife"?
posted by clockzero at 10:42 AM on November 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


You know, there's no reason we couldn't set the whole thing in a southern California high school

This is the adaptation I want to see. And young Harry does it all via mathematical simulations and statistics, and can predict the future makeup of the student body utilizing demographic data and cultural trends. His plan works brilliantly, for a while.

His plan could possibly work for decades but is interrupted when the extremely charismatic football player, nicknamed "Mule", transfers to the school and singlehandedly shatters all the delicately balanced coalitions into an unruly cult of personality. Harry must crush the Mule and change his plan without sending the school spiraling into a chaos worse than if the plan had never existed.
posted by honestcoyote at 10:44 AM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Holy crap, the HBO adaptation news is awesome. The only thing that would be as exciting would be news of a Rendezvous with Rama project.

"HBO announces an N-part adaptation of Consider Phlebas."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:46 AM on November 13, 2014 [20 favorites]


I'm looking forward to working my way through these. The first is thoroughly entertaining.

Toward the end of my college years, I realized that I'd never read any post-1940s science fiction, despite being a thoroughly geeky person surrounded by SF fans. I asked buddies for advice, and the universal recommendation was to read the Foundation series. I did, and followed it up with the Empire [sympathetic cringe] and Robot novels.

It's been a long time - and many tens of thousands of pages of SF context - since I've thought about Foundation. My vague memory is that the first books were really exciting, and then they descended into a forest of absurd coincidences and childish psionics that make it suspension of disbelief impossible.

Which is to say, I'm eternally grateful to the series for convincing me to look beyond the horrible cover art and explore science fiction. My live if much better as a result. But, I'm pretty sure I don't want to see the TV adaption.
posted by eotvos at 10:47 AM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Bander and the Solarians -- Galactic libertarians.

Also, one hell of a name for a punk band.
posted by wuwei at 10:49 AM on November 13, 2014


"HBO announces an N-part adaptation of Consider Phlebas."

I'm not sure that all of The Culture books would translate to film (e.g. Excession) because I don't know how you'd do Minds, but Consider Phlebas would be great.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:51 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, they are dated - they are from 1942, for heaven's sake. And they are somewhat thin - Asimov was never one for memorable, well rounded characters, and he was 22 when he started writing these. That said, they have some verve - nifty ideas, some memorable scenes ("Obligations of Anacreon to the Empire: None! "Powers of the Empire over Anacreon: None!").

If you have a tolerance for pulp/post-pulp era SF, the first three are worth checking out. They are short, after all.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:55 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was surprised Wimmer and Wilkins didn't draw parallels between the search for the hidden Second Foundation on Terminus and the McCarthyite hunt for hidden Communists in the US during the time Asimov was writing. In fact, I suspect that the idea of communism was in his mind as he wrote the original stories, like in the whole "opiate of the people" approach to religion. In fact, psychohistory seems to me like a chemist's articulation of dialectical materialism.
posted by Kattullus at 11:07 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I tried reading Foundation a couple of years ago. I didn't get very far.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:15 AM on November 13, 2014


I was surprised Wimmer and Wilkins didn't draw parallels between the search for the hidden Second Foundation on Terminus and the McCarthyite hunt for hidden Communists in the US during the time Asimov was writing. In fact, I suspect that the idea of communism was in his mind as he wrote the original stories, like in the whole "opiate of the people" approach to religion. In fact, psychohistory seems to me like a chemist's articulation of dialectical materialism.

Algorithms.

Ponders them.

They are based on mathematics, no?
posted by infini at 11:23 AM on November 13, 2014


Adapting these novels seems an odd exercise in futility. Attempting to stay at all faithful to the tone and style of the originals would produce pretty dreadful TV. They would require so much updating and transformation, that it would really be an entirely new product with a few names and ideas in common with the source texts. Might as well just do something entirely new. However, there is one good piece of news about the adaptation: "HBO nabbed the rights after an adaptation from Sony Pictures, with Roland Emmerich then attached to direct, never materialized." Thank Seldon that they didn't let that fucking hack Emmerich get anywhere with them. What an abortion that would have been.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:44 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Did anyone else read the Foundation books at too impressionable an age? I'm lucky I missed out on Atlas Shrugged when I was a kid, but I read these at age 11 or 12 and for most of my teen years, I couldn't get rid of the idea of psychohistory. I think it still sits in the back of my mind when I'm reading Nate Silver's latest prediction, observing how manipulative much of the Internet is becoming, or thinking up a new simulation.
posted by honestcoyote at 11:50 AM on November 13, 2014 [11 favorites]


Adapting these novels seems an odd exercise in futility. . . . They would require so much updating and transformation . . . Might as well just do something entirely new.

I'd like to hip the entire entertainment industry to this timely tip.



Oh wait wait no I know -- Foundation and Empire and Zombies -- that's the ticket!
posted by Herodios at 11:55 AM on November 13, 2014


I want the mule to be played by Rob Corddry

… in his Childrens Hospital attire.
posted by zippy at 12:04 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


And I think magnetic tape may have been involved.

I remember in Foundation the Encyclopedia Galactica was going to be saved on microfilm. I was torn between thinking, "Poor Mr. Asimov, that's the best he could come up with for a futuristic storage medium" or "See! Microfilm is the best medium for long-term preservation of information!"
posted by marxchivist at 12:11 PM on November 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


There's a short story, a side note actually, about a man who had to go to a library and went down the rabbit hole of some technology that was clumsily described, but today we'd recognize as a form of hyperlinks. I read it about 10 years ago (Oh my, how time flies) and wrote a blogpost on how it sounded like "the blogosphere", which of course, doesn't exist anymore in the way the term implies. #sigh #internet_time #nostalgia for the future imagined by my past self.

The Originist. The typo in a comment above derailed me from remembering.

*granny drags younger self out of the thread again.

posted by infini at 12:26 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


There's a short story, a side note actually, about a man who had to go to a library and went down the rabbit hole of some technology that was clumsily described, but today we'd recognize as a form of hyperlinks

There's a wonderful tidbit in Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth (1976) where it's mentioned that the lead character had once won a contest where the challenge was to locate pieces of information in a huge database of human history/events/knowledge that was obviously the Internet.

Of course at this point it's common realized that Clarke owned a time machine, so it's not really that impressive.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:48 PM on November 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


Why is the Foundation series so beloved?

I'm surprised that this doesn't seem to be the case for others, but even at the young age I encountered the books I was aware that they were inspired by The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. He gets away from that as the books go on, but for a lot of the story line the petty squabbles of a possibly delusional border state are set against a backdrop of magnificent decay.

That enormous backdrop is also where psychohistory makes sense. It never makes sense for the tiny population the Foundation begins with, and indeed we learn later that the Second Foundation was in there directly manipulating things. But the pressures on the Empire: on the military, on the border states, on the Emperor all ring true. It paints a vivid picture of how large human systems fail and what happens when they do. In particular it shows the choices groups make can become constrained and often self-defeating. It's very educational that way.

Anyway, that's why it's beloved for me.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:06 PM on November 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


See, I would LOVE a Foundation movie/series where all of the now-quaint tech that Asimov projected back in 1951 was kept and presented as the coolest, hippest, cutting-edgiest stuff around. Atomic ashtrays, microfilm, the whole thing, with not a single bit of our own modern vision of "future tech" to be seen and not a whit of irony or retro-hipsterism about it.
posted by briank at 1:07 PM on November 13, 2014 [23 favorites]


There's a short story, a side note actually, about a man who had to go to a library and went down the rabbit hole of some technology that was clumsily described, but today we'd recognize as a form of hyperlinks

I'd bet that Clarke and Asimov were familiar with Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay As We May Think, which basically proposed a sort of hypertext system using microfilm to create a giant desktop library.
posted by Pink Frost at 1:15 PM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm with briank on this. I love seeing references to outdated technology presented as far future technologies. It's nostalgic futurism.

I read the foundation novels just a few years ago. I absolutely loved the first 3 books. I love well developed characters and fast moving action as much as anyone (I'm a big fan of Brandon Sanderson), but a novel that's pure ideas is a different type of great fun for me.

What I hate is when a writer who's bad at characters but good at ideas starts trying to write well developed characters. What they end up creating is far worse than a novel with one dimensional characters. Vernor Vinge didn't write 1D characters, but his novels were definitely more idea focused than people focused. He used to be my favorite author and Deepness in the Sky and Fire Upon the Deep are still my 2 favorite scifi novels. But his recent stuff is not to my liking at all. He still has the ideas, but he has filled his recent books with annoying characters that I often tend to hate.

Along those same lines, I truly truly hated the foundation books that came after the original 3. I disliked many of the ideas in those books, but the biggest problem is that he started to develop the characters in those books and what he ended up with was a bunch of characters that I kept hoping would get killed.
posted by HappyEngineer at 1:50 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Atomic ashtrays, microfilm, the whole thing

God, it was nuclear everything in Foundation. Personal nuclear force shields, smelting iron with nuclear blast guns, etc, etc. The TV adaption should show a planet-sized cancer treatment hospital and have everyone glowing blue then entire time.
posted by GuyZero at 1:56 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised that this doesn't seem to be the case for others, but even at the young age I encountered the books I was aware that they were inspired by The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire.

Bel Riose > Belisarius was a bit too on the nose IMO.
posted by sukeban at 2:03 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]



>Did anyone else read the Foundation books at too impressionable an age?>
Yes! This was pretty much my introduction to science fiction, and I still remember my awe and excitement. I should NEVER EVER reread them.
posted by acrasis at 4:20 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm going to have to go back and re-read this series. It's been too long. I've re-read the works of Tolkien several times in my life. It's a mistake to have neglected the Foundation series. First though, I have to finish The Dispossessed instead of dicking around on MetaFilter all night.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:26 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I read the trilogy (but none of the follow-up books) at an impressionable age, and they still evoke the sense of wonder for me. I haven't re-read, them, but I think I will now.
As for the writing--yes, Asimov was young, it was pulp, and so forth, but the best description of his technique for me is that it is akin to a theater "bare stage". He just says "they went to the engine room"--and you imagine an engine room, your way, rather than having him spend two paragraphs describing his version. It always worked for me.
I think he was always much more interested in the ideas than characters.
posted by librosegretti at 4:59 PM on November 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


I remember reading Prelude to Foundation as a kid and thinking that Asimov was talking about life in modern America. The bit about the gravitic lift that will never really developed as a product, etc.

And in reading Forward the Foundation years later really confirmed it to me, that Asimov was writing about the present , more than anything else.
posted by wuwei at 4:59 PM on November 13, 2014


Somewhat coincidentally, I was already in middle of rereading the whole Foundation universe (including the Robot and Empire novels). I have no idea how any of you would feel about them on a reread, but I still love them even though their flaws are obvious. I really don't remember when I first read them, but it must have been in my teens, which means I was already a pretty big science fiction nerd and theoretically saavy to the evolution of the genre in the intervening 50 years, theoretically underwhelmed by the stilted 1940s aesthetic. Nope. Asimov is great, and I like his characters because of their sketched nature. I like that Foundation feels like a stone skipping lightly over future history. I like and do not resent his tying of major works into one fictional universe. I really like Daneel Olivaw and Elijah Baley, and I'm a sucker for the idea that a friendship can be so deeply instructive and deeply felt that it shapes the course of the next 30,000 years for the better.

I realize that this is almost certainly in large part because I read them as a teenager, and that if I were coming to them new now I might not feel the same way. I realize that I am, to use the blogger's very apt turn of phrase, a credulous reader. The Mule surprised me. The Second Foundation's location surprised me. Foundation and Earth surprised me. Future Solaria and future Aurora horrified me. I can absolutely understand why people don't enjoy it or wouldn't enjoy returning to it; why the uneven plotting, heavy-handed exposition, and mouthpiece characters are impediments; why his really quite poor attempts at writing women leave one cold. I think its Hugo for best series of all time is more than a little overstated. But I can tell you that I'm having a lot of fun diving back in, and it's really nice to remember just how much I like reading Asimov's work.
posted by Errant at 5:13 PM on November 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


I read the original trilogy when I was about 14 and I'm kind of glad I did, as I read here how their faults seemed so great to some older readers. I didn't care that the characters lacked dimension; the grandeur of the vision totally seduced me, and the books had me on the edge of my seat.
posted by thelonius at 5:21 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yes! This was pretty much my introduction to science fiction, and I still remember my awe and excitement. Me too. I reread them recently. They held up. But I'd actually bought the book for my son -"You should read this, it's foundational!" and I don't think he'd get a lot out of it.

Cracking pace, new ideas - for the time - cliched characters, lots of ingenuity. Well, and the sexism, but I don't think I ever read an SF novel then that wasn't reeking of sexism until I came across Rocannon's World.
posted by glasseyes at 6:07 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was so entranced by the Foundation stories as a teenager that I wrote horrible stories about endless political intrigues in science-fictional societies. Re-reading them decades later, they're... less impressive.

Thanks for the plug, kliuless. :) The main takeaway is that the stories aren't a demonstration of psychohistory, but a series of elegant attacks on it, just as his robot stories are a set of attacks on the Three Laws.
posted by zompist at 6:09 PM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Oh and the thing about rereading was: that large chunks of it, sentences, paragraphs and cadences, were actually burned into my brain and got reactivated. I hadn't realised just how many of my heady adolescent notions came straight from Asimov. "Violence is the last resort of the incompetent" indeed!
posted by glasseyes at 6:13 PM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


The best part of the Foundation series is how the characters can carry nuclear fusion reactors in their pockets but computers are still the size of an entire building.
posted by straight at 6:42 PM on November 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


I guess I'm odd because my reaction to the concept of psychohistory was to find it so offensively implausible that I immediately stopped reading.
posted by nicolas.bray at 7:25 PM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


The part where the Foundation series fell apart for me was the storyline of the Mule. To me, I felt that the series had a cohesion to it right up until this weird arbitrary wildcard was introduced... and then subsequently erased.

Seriously, what got me to stop reading the story line was how the Mule was written out almost immediately after he was put in as though he was no more than a slight aberration. The writing was almost apologetic in the way he was phased out. It kind of made me a little frustrated with Asimov's writing in general.

That being said, I could never hate you, mister Isaac Asimov. :)
posted by surazal at 7:43 PM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


In seventh grade, a friend and I checked out an omnibus edition of the first three Foundation novels (from our church library!) and pretty much mocked the original, unedited dialog mercilessly. Seriously, "The Galactic Empire is going to pot!" is the funniest thing to two seventh-graders who've never even smoked a cigarette.

Recently I re-read an edited paperback ("...Empire is dying!") and liked it much more now that I'm in my thirties.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:44 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Now you're on the trolley!
posted by thelonius at 1:05 AM on November 14, 2014


So, in my childhood, I LOOOOOVED Asimov's short stories (I forget how many times I reread Nightfall), but the Foundation series had zero interest to me. I remember staring at those garish covers in the library in the late '80s and I would think.... man, I wish they looked interesting to me... because I loved Asimov's short stories to little bitsy pieces... but the synopsis, with all that nonsense about 'psychohistory' (a concept which struck me as being so depressingly soulless) looked duller than paint drying.

A couple of years ago, I felt the urge to read some classic SF so I picked up the first volume of the Foundation series. A few chapters the book fell from my hand with a gentle thump, as I dozed off. It was as dry as my teenage self had feared it would be.

So I ended up rereading Nightfall instead.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 3:35 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Silverberg was addictive in my teens... (Nightfall reminded me of the extended version) but now its a plod. Otoh, I have never ever been able to read even a word of Douglas Adams.
posted by infini at 3:41 AM on November 14, 2014


I think half the problem with scifi written in the middle of the last century being read today is that we've crossed the mystical barrier of the Year 2000 and are still waiting for the Jetsons. The imagination and the visions of the future that enraptured our younger selves, even in the late 70s and early 80s, have reached 2014 and reality is such that its difficult to capture that idealism again.

Gibson and Sterling were fine for a while but sci fi - unless its completely operatic and out there like Bujold or McCaffrey - has become weird in the context of speculative 'reality' thanks to the interwebs and their pliability.

After all, what is 'reality' today?

And how much of it depends on your particular shape of the cloud, your specific info feeds and social networks?

I'm sure my daily stream of news paints an entirely different world from yours, gentle reader, and that alone shifts and fragments the foundation for leaping into the void of classic science fiction.

In a way, we're living immersed in it. [Insert a heh for cyberspace here]

Lately, its been easier to read Hercules Poirot's adventures again or divert myself with historical fiction and alternate histories for my speculative 'fix'.
posted by infini at 3:50 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Hagrid: “You’re a psychohistorian, Harry”
Harry: “I’m ..I’m a what?”
Hagrid: “A psychohistorian, Harry”

NEXT WEEK ON HBO.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:49 AM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


fwiw :P
The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past.

[...]

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public. (Nobody else in my kindergarten was grabbing for "You Will Go to the Moon.") People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories -- not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories -- that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.

Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas. New subdivisions represented a threat to the landscape rather than the promise of the good life. Too-fast airplanes produced window-rattling sonic booms. Insecticides harmed eagles’ eggs. Exploration meant conquest and brutal exploitation. Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and culturally influential people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.

Optimistic science fiction does not create a belief in technological progress. It reflects it. Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people -- that, in short, leaves out consumers. This perspective is particularly odd coming from a fiction writer and a businessman whose professional work demonstrates a keen sense of what people will buy. People are justifiably wary of grandiose plans that impose major costs on those who won’t directly reap their benefits. They’re even more wary if they believe that the changes of the past have brought only hardship and destruction. If Stephenson wants to make people more optimistic about the future and more likely to undertake difficult technological challenges, he shouldn’t waste his time writing short stories about two-kilometer-high towers. He should find a way to tell tales about past transformations that don’t require 2,000-plus pages. (I say this as someone who has enjoyed his massive Baroque Cycle of 17th-century historical fiction.)

Storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress. The trick is not to confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive. The past, like the present and the future, was made by complicated and imperfect people. Recapturing a sense of optimism requires stories that accept the ambiguities of history -- and of life -- while recognizing genuine improvements.

Fortunately, we now have an example of such stories: the Cinemax-HBO medical drama "The Knick," which is set in a turn-of-the-20th-century New York hospital. Creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler got the idea from early 20th century medical textbooks they purchased on #borrring old eBay. “We were astonished,” Begler told an interviewer. “We couldn’t put these books down.”

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the series depicts decidedly flawed characters living in an exciting but brutal period and improving surgery through clever, risky and -- by today’s standards -- often-high-handed medical procedures. It demonstrates how difficult advances can be, and how much ambition and arrogance even the most promising experiments can require. As you might expect, the show features the advent of electric lights and X-rays -- the technological progress we remember -- but it also highlights such forgotten incremental improvements as better suction machines, suture techniques and hand-made gizmos for stanching the flow of blood. Without preaching, it makes the idea of progress real.

“Back then something like syphilis, easily treatable today, could have devastating effects and a procedure as common as a C-section ended up fatally most of the time,” a review reminds not science-fiction fans but the readers of Vogue. When progress was popular it wasn’t just for geeks.
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 6:32 AM on November 14, 2014 [9 favorites]


Creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler got the idea from early 20th century medical textbooks they purchased on #borrring old eBay. “We were astonished,” Begler told an interviewer. “We couldn’t put these books down.”

I do this all the time! If you want a truly awesome and hilarious read, go buy some old textbooks. The assumptions and theories put forth as sober fact are well worth the time and there are always fun illustrations.

Also I don't remember the Foundation series being chock-a-block with nude women so I have no idea why HBO is doing this. Perhaps they will just tell the audience in the pilot that women in the future don't wear clothes.
posted by winna at 7:23 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also I don't remember the Foundation series being chock-a-block with nude women so I have no idea why HBO is doing this. Perhaps they will just tell the audience in the pilot that women in the future don't wear clothes.

Their first two options were John Carter of Mars and Gor, but Disney wouldn't sell the first and... yeah, no.
posted by sukeban at 9:36 AM on November 14, 2014


You would think they would love adapting Gor. It is right in their wheelhouse!
posted by winna at 10:31 AM on November 14, 2014


I guess I'm odd because my reaction to the concept of psychohistory was to find it so offensively implausible that I immediately stopped reading.
nicolas.bray

I remember reading somewhere that the idea was based on the concepts in Brownian motion, that you can't determine the path of any individual particle in a gas or liquid but you can predict the behavior of a large enough aggregate. He just extended that idea to human society. I guess some people might find the idea of humans being predictable at all offensive, but the principle doesn't seem so implausible.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:55 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I can see how psychohistory wouldn't actually work over the long haul, but I can't see how it's offensively implausible.

Psychohistory is basically taking group statistics, simulations, demographic trends and carrying them to the next (imaginary) level. People can already do limited versions of "psychohistory" now. I can't imagine what the future holds when a data scientist, working for Google or Facebook, discovers a new way to interpret their enormous amount of personal data.
posted by honestcoyote at 11:11 AM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't be surprised if something this isn't already being done with the copious amounts of data out there.

High probability of folks who like playing with data sets and maths and whatnot may also have read science fiction at some point in their life.
posted by infini at 11:26 AM on November 14, 2014


Ironically, Facebook & Google are doing the opposite of psychohistory - they're predicting individual behaviour based on group trends and demographics and past individual behaviour. Specifically, they try to figure out what ad a user is most likely to click on based on all that historical data.

I'm not sure if Google's data is really useful for doing psychohistory. Psychohistory always did seem influenced by chemistry, taking the bulk effect of a million tiny reactions. Google's doing particle physics.
posted by GuyZero at 11:27 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]




I think the closest thing to psychohistory today might be OKCupid Trends.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:43 PM on November 14, 2014


I devoured the Foundation books as a teenager. The tech from the original trilogy was already a little bit silly in the late 1980s/early 1990s but I loved the concepts. I guess I'm due for a re-read, although I'm a little apprehensive. A lot of stuff from that era of pipe-and-slippers sci-fi has not aged well.

It will be interesting to see how update and adapt the original tech, particularly in the early parts of the story which really call for that weird simultaneously high-tech-yet-low-tech aesthetic; the outer rim of the galaxy has lost most of its scientific knowledge, but can still manage space travel. It's not quite the same vibe as Dune's post-Butlerian jihad world, but it scratches the same itch. But it is HBO, so I'm sure Salvor Hardin will conduct most of his business in a strip club.
See, I would LOVE a Foundation movie/series where all of the now-quaint tech that Asimov projected back in 1951 was kept and presented as the coolest, hippest, cutting-edgiest stuff around. Atomic ashtrays, microfilm, the whole thing, with not a single bit of our own modern vision of "future tech" to be seen and not a whit of irony or retro-hipsterism about it.
I had this same thought, and realized that it would wind up looking pretty much exactly like Forbidden Planet.
posted by usonian at 2:50 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]




Thanks! I have an 11 hour flight coming up.
posted by infini at 1:47 PM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


If you are in the UK or can spoof your location, the BBC has a science fiction season, with several programmes about sci-fi.

EDIT: forgot to add this: BBC quiz - what sort of sci-fi fan are you?
posted by marienbad at 1:19 AM on November 23, 2014


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