Posts Tagged ‘Asimov’

Old-School Scifi

So, a few months ago, we were at our local thrift store on one of their half-off-everything days, and I discovered that someone had donated a ton of old scifi books from the 50s. Andre Norton, Asimov, people I’ve never heard of but the stories looked cool. And among them was an anthology entitled SF: ’59 The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy.

(I bought them all. Don’t judge me.)

Yesterday I finished reading the anthology, which was kind of enlightening, honestly. It was like a snapshot into what science fiction and fantasy was over fifty years ago. And it was interesting because most of these stories, the best of the year, would never get published in today’s climate. Part of that is that they would be seen as derivative, but I’m sure they weren’t back then. Some of them aren’t science fiction or fantasy, but just a little off-kilter (like one telling the story of Hickory Dickory Dock in the style of Jack Kerouac). And the editor uses “SF” to mean science fantasy, which she uses interchangeably with science fiction.

There’s still a couple of great stories though. My favorite was a longer story called “The Comedian’s Children” by Theodore Sturgeon, whom I know mostly because he wrote some of my favorite original series Star Trek episodes (including the infamous “Amok Time,” thus delighting fanfiction authors for decades). I should probably read some of his novels or more of his short stories at some point.

Even more interesting than the stories was, at the back, they had a nonfiction section, with essays about space travel and the state of science fiction. In 1959, the manned space program was still a few years out from starting (NASA wasn’t even NASA yet) and Sputnik had just been launched a few years before (in 1957). So it’s very interesting to see them trying to puzzle out how to solve space flight issues since I can look back and see how it actually happened (and I am a huge space nerd, and have read a ridiculous amount of books on early manned spaceflight, so it’s an area I know quite a bit about). And Asimov wrote an essay about the state of science fiction, and how science keeps coming along a few years behind them and proving them wrong, which is kind of hilarious (and I think he meant it to be).

(I think it’s worth pointing out that most of the non-scifi/fantasy stories included were originally published in Playboy.)

Some aspects of this anthology are kind of depressing, because it goes to show how few authors ever truly are remembered past their times. Of the authors included, the only ones I recognize are Gerald Kersh, Fritz Leiber, Brian W. Aldiss, Theodore Sturgeon, and John Steinbeck (who of course wrote one of the non-SF stories from Playboy). Now, I wouldn’t consider myself a SF expert, but here are a bunch of authors who wrote what was considered some of the best SFF of their time, and I’ve never even heard of them. And that’s a humbling idea.

Do you have an experience with old scifi, Squiders? Do you like the style? Who’s your favorite?

The Foundation Trilogy Readalong: Foundation and Empire

Moving on in our Foundation readalong, today we’re going to discuss the second book, Foundation and Empire. Last time, with Foundation, I speculated about how Asimov had written the book, and the answer was given to me in a forward that Asimov wrote in my edition of this book. (I have the 1983 version, which has some truly horrific front cover art.)

And essentially, Asimov says that the entire original trilogy was made up of (increasingly longer) short stories, originally published in magazines, which is probably why it reads like it does. Foundation had four stories; Foundation and Empire has two.

And someone remind me–was the Second Foundation mentioned at all in the first book? I feel like it’s suddenly become a fairly major plot point out of nowhere.

So, Foundation and Empire is made up of two distinct stories, two distinct crises. For those who are reading this but not reading along, the basic plot here is that the Galactic Empire was falling apart, and Hari Seldon, who was a psychohistorian (and I am taking an online psychology course, and the professor said something about psychohistory and I did a double-take), uses math to predict the course of human society and to come up with a plan to lower the dark ages between empires from 30,000 years to 1,000 years. And so he engineers a Foundation, which will manage this, though purely through Seldon’s manipulations and predictions.

The first book covers the founding of the Foundation, as well as the first three “Seldon crises.” Society automatically changes so that the Foundation endures and grows in power, according to Seldon’s predictions.

The first half of Foundation and Empire focuses on the fourth Seldon crisis. I found this one a little unsatisfying, honestly, because in previous stories the viewpoint characters were directly working to change society so that the Foundation survived the crisis. The viewpoint character here, though he tries, accomplishes nothing, and the crisis is automatically resolved without him. The only thing that seems to be of note is that this is a direct confrontation between the remains of the Empire and the Foundation. (Hence the name of the book, I assume.)

The second half is more interesting. An external crisis, one that Seldon didn’t account for in his calculations, ruins the whole thing. The Foundation falls. The Empire falls. It sets up nicely for the third book, and I’m interested to see what the Second Foundation is like.

Also of note, in the discussion for Foundation, Ian brought up how sexist the book was. And he was absolutely right. The first book has exactly two women in it, both of who are easily distracted by fashion. In the second half of Foundation and Empire, one of the main viewpoint characters–the most main, I would say–is a woman. And while there are the occasional throw-away comments that kind of made my eye twitch, she’s actually presented quite well, considering the time period (late ’40s for the original short story publication). In fact, she figures out the plot twist, saves the entire thing, and is probably the strongest character in that part of the book. So good on you, Mr. Asimov.

Reading along, Squiders? What did you think of the book? How did Bayta’s characterization strike you?

Discussion for Second Foundation will go up in early May.

Foundation Trilogy Readalong: Foundation

First of all, I’m sorry this is a little later than I said it would be. From here on out, we should be good with a book a month. (Especially because the books are a nice, reasonable length, and fairly readable.)

So! Foundation is the first Asimov book I’ve probably read in at least 10 years, but there is a reason why Asimov is my favorite of the “classic” science fiction authors. To be honest, I’m not sure why I haven’t read the trilogy before, because I went through a definite Asimov phase as a teenager. I even read his collection of fantasy short stories. I don’t recommend that one.

But, onto the book. I really liked it, Squiders. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t read any decent science fiction lately, or if it’s just because Asimov and I get on, or if it was just awesome, or some combination of the three, but I enjoyed the experience.

I’d say stop here if you don’t want to be spoiled, but I really think that, after 50 years, you don’t get a warning anymore.

I also thought it was interesting how the book was set up, with the time jumps. I mean, I guess I should have expected them, because I’ve read things like I, Robot and Bicentennial Man, but I honestly went into the trilogy having absolutely no idea what the books were about. Apparently the parts of the trilogy were originally a series of short stories, so it makes sense in retrospect.

Also, Asimov has always been quite good at developing characters in a short period of time. A lot of older scifi is so focused on plot and science that the characters become unimportant, but that’s not Asimov. So, you know, even though you only get characters for 75 pages, you remember them and understand them.

I wonder how it went when he was writing the stories. Did he just start with the one and thought he was done? Or did he lay out all thousand years (and beyond) from the beginning, expecting to slowly dole out the stories as the urge hit him? I almost feel like it might be the first, that he had the first idea, with the psychohistory and Hari Seldon and the founding of the Foundation, because the tone of that part of the story read a little different than the rest.

But it’s rather ingenious, really, how one thing flows into the next, from the intellectual, to the religious, to the capitalist. (Though I admit I was a little skeptical about how quickly and fanatically the religion set in. But not enough to really care about it.) I’m interested to see where we go from here in the next book. After all, we’re only 150 years into the Foundation, and we’ve only had three Seldon crises.

Have you read Foundation, Squiders? What did you think? What’s your favorite Asimov story, or who’s your favorite “classic” scifi author?

We’ll discuss Foundation and Empire on April 8.