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Monthly Archives: August 2009

One of the covers for the novel

One of the covers for the novel

Yesterday I realized that I couldn’t remember what book I had read most recently, so I examined the library’s book display and looked for a book that I had heard about but not read. The theme for the display was “Beyond Reality,” which was basically just Science Fiction/Fantasy. After adding The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett to the display, I picked out the book Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I ended up finishing the 255-page book later that night, but got a headache from reading to much. I hate it when I do that, but perhaps this was because I hadn’t read anything in so long. I plan to read the next two books soon, but haven’t had the chance yet. I might read the next two sequels after that. Maybe then I’ll read the next two prequels. Maybe then I’ll read the (basically) fan fiction written by other famous authors. In short, there’s a lot of stuff to read out there, and I’m still on book one.

Written in 1951, Foundation is about a future in which a man named Hari Seldon developsa sort of mathematical sociology that can accurately predict large-scale history in advance. He uses this knowledge to plan a better future by subtly altering initial conditions. He attempts to shorten a predicted dark age by starting two Foundations on opposite ends of the galaxy to avoid losing the knowledge created by mankind up to that point. If you want to know more, read the book. If you want to know more and are lazy, read the Wikipedia article.

There are several interesting connections I made while reading them, and I will now list them in order of obscurity, ascending.

There were two jokes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglass Adams that I didn’t understand until after reading Foundation. The first was that the eponymous Guide is a parody of the Encyclopedia Galactica, the book that attempts to store all of mankind’s information. Douglass Adams even compares the Encyclopedia to the Guide, but I don’t have space to quote it here. You can find it yourself. The second joke is that the fifth book in the Hitchhiker’s series has the subtitle: “The fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhikers Trilogy.” I think this might be poking fun at the fact that the Foundation series was originally a trilogy, but was later expanded, causing confusion. It may also be that Adams independently did exactly the same thing, planning on making a trilogy at first. I don’t really know.

The book has a very strong emphasis on large-scale history and constantly reminded me of Mr. Butler’s teaching style. In my extensive research (Wikipedia) I determined that Asimov patterned the events in the book after actual historical events, such as the rise and fall of Rome. I have half a mind to flowchart it myself, if I have the time. I’ll talk to Mr. Butler about it tomorrow. Anyway, I was never very good at history and there was probably all sorts of subtle stuff I missed. All in all, it made a lot more sense than most other science fiction I’ve read, and that’s important to me.

The picture for The Last Question, with a picture of Asimov to boot.

The picture for The Last Question, with a picture of Asimov to boot.

Finally, this book is unique in that it attempts to reconcile long-term, impersonal history with short-term personal novel. It may not be unique, but I haven’t read anything like it, anyway. It does this by having short stories explaining key events with huge gaps in between. Short stories aren’t new, Asimov had experience with rapid character development and in medias res and other short story tricks. He wrote a lot. He’s one of the most prolific writers of all time, having at least one book in each Dewey decimal category (except philosophy). Before reading Foundation, I read a short story written later by Asimov called The Last Question. He uses the same trick in this story as in Foundation. There are some differences, though. In Foundation, each part is it’s own short story, lasting perhaps 50 pages. Each story shows how the last solution stopped working and presents a new one. In The Last Question, each story is only a few paragraphs, and they all follow roughly the same pattern. The whole thing is one short story, and it shows a much much much much much much much longer period of time. In other words, he just made the method more extreme, shortening the parts and lengthening the whole. Perhaps he was able to do that because of his practice on Foundation. I don’t really know. I have never seen another author use this technique.

Well this is what I thought about while reading this book. If you have time, you can read The Last Question. I recommend it.