The only Isaac Asimov I had read prior to this was his non-fiction essay Not as We Know It: The Chemistry of Life (which I still like to link to) and a critical review of Orwell’s 1984 noting how it should be too dysfunctional to be an effective surveillance state. My plan had been to start with the original Foundation novel, but that was checked out at the libary while this was available and since Asimov himself seemed to endorse a chronological reading order (although I had only heard that this was significantly worse than the original series) I figured it was ok for me to do so as well. I had fretted earlier that I was behind in my classic scifi, and perhaps that is true insofar as I read Dune long before I read Foundation when Herbert was responding to Asimov (and may well have copied the technique of epigraphs from an in-universe text preceding chapters, as the Encyclopedia Galactica gets used here). But it’s fortuitous that this was the next work of fiction I read after The Dispossessed due to the striking similarity between the premises of the two novels, and that surprises which didn’t work on people who’d read the preceding Foundation stories could still work on me.

Prelude to Foundation is about mathematician Hari Seldon coming from the provincial planet of Helicon to the imperial capital on Trantor due to interest in his claim that a worked out theory of “psychohistory” could theoretically predict the future. Dispossessed was about physicist Shevek leaving the provincial moon of Anarres for its wealthy opposite on the planet Urras, where it is hoped he will make a theoretical breakthrough that will enable faster-than-light communication (even giving the name to the “ansible” device that would appear in other authors’ scifi). In both works the scholar worries that the authority over the university they work in will try to monopolize their breakthrough for their own narrow purposes, but they come by this in entirely different ways reflecting the different politics of the authors and their works. Shevek really was an anarchist who believed in the ideals of the society he was raised in even if he no longer saw the rest of that society living up to what he saw as those ideals. Seldon, regardless of whether he’s a legendary figure in later novels, is defined by his naivete. He has to be pushed to such a conclusion by the cynical-yet-idealist journalist Chetter Hummin and Hummin’s many allies (most notably, historian Dors Venabili). The politics are front-and-center for Le Guin and the actual physics are an afterthought, and while actual physicist Asimov doesn’t actually dive into problems raised within the book like the complexity of meteorological systems, the political hubbub is treated as something Seldon has to just keep ahead of to do his real work without him giving that much regard to who will use it (only that he won’t have to lie and say he already has a practical version when he doesn’t). Asimov is a relatively conventional New Deal liberal (rather than someone sympathetic to anarchism, even to the extent Heinlein was) reflecting on Gibbon’s Whig history of the Roman empire, so even if the decadence of the empire is treated as a real problem, the breakup of said empire is regarded as a tragedy to be avoided, even if someone has actually thought through that as a goal which would give rise to more efficient scales of government (which should really be more of a problem for Seldon since he’s relying on the Emperor’s rivals on Trantor to jealously guard him from said Emperor’s grasp).

While the background issue of decadence presaging a collapse of the empire aligns with Great Stagnation pessimism, the primary focus on a scientific breakthrough that must be safeguarded by the most idealist/ethical resembles nothing moreso today than Singularitarians worried about General AI (all the moreso recently). Asimov is best known for his Laws of Robotics that are supposed to protect humans from these potentially powerful technologies, but robots would have to execute code rather than vague English verbiage that humans make laws (such as Asimov’s own) out of. In case you’re wondering if Asimov got more sophisticated by the time he wrote this book and could come up with something tighter than such verbiage, the answer is not really. I guess if he had then the Friendly AI folks would have less to do.

Even if we don’t get much actual scientific advances in this story about a scientific breakthrough, there is a decent amount of worldbuilding inside the page-turner story of Seldon’s misadventures around Trantor. It’s a world that has developed into one giant city, which I believe is also the case for Star Wars’ uninteresting Coruscant, but here that world is divided into innumerable sectors that get to be distinct so Seldon can have completely different mini-worlds to explore. After the university sector the more provincial ones do seem rather homogenous internally, but then you might expect an outsider to view them that way. They can also be seen to embody some of Asimov’s political complaints about social traditionalism and economic inequality, but while Asimov may not be as nuanced as Le Guin the politics also just aren’t as important so you can breeze past that material relatively easily. What’s harder to breeze past is the ending, and I don’t just mean how shallow the explanation Seldon gives for how he made his theoretical breakthrough. There are some big twists in order, and while I noted above that I may have experienced more of the surprise than Asimov afficionados would, I also can’t appreciate the full effect of them. I just didn’t care about certain things more removed from the story nearly as much as Seldon (and Asimov) did. I find interesting the idea of the present-day of the novel being so distantly removed from the pre-galactic past that no reliable history exists (which is also the case for the sufficiently ancient past of humanity now), but since I haven’t read any of Asimov’s stories taking place in that past (which would be our future) connecting this story to those is lost on me.

If you go by my blog posts it would appear that I have violated by decision to alternate between fiction & non-fiction, but in fact I read but just haven’t written a review of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook because I wanted to finish How “Natives” Think and review them both at once. That should be my next review, and I’ll probably move on to the original Foundation after that rather than Delany’s response to The Dispossessed.