Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Moving on from Psychohistorical Crisis, what other sequels are there to Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ Series and its galaxy? I’ve mentioned in an earlier post the enjoyable collection Foundation’s Friends. There’s the Caliban series by Roger McBride Allen, set in the galaxy of The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire: I enjoyed the glimpse of the more human side of the Spacers, and the first of the series was an original and exciting story — but in my opinion as a reader the remaining two stories of the series lacked the verve of the first. Mirage and its sequels, by Mark W. Tiedmann, set in the same galaxy but more Caves of Steel than Robots and Empire, formed a reasonable light read but lacked that ‘unput-downable’ quality of Asimov. I couldn’t get on with the ‘Second Foundation Trilogy’ series (based around Hari Seldon, Dors, and the galaxy of Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation). I’m sure there were more spin-offs, whose titles now elude my ageing memory.

The trick of a third-party sequel is to introduce new ideas while keeping the essentials of the original work. But what are the essentials? Not simply good ideas, for all the sequels and spin-offs I’ve listed above start from a good idea. Psychohistorical Crisis manages to put its own slant on Asimov’s galaxy and produce an intellectually satisfying adventure while also encouraging the reader to think about Asimov’s original concepts and how they might have worked out in practice. As Asimov’s psychohistory is a branch of mathematics, it needs a mathematician to develop the idea — Kingsbury is a professor of Mathematics — but not every professional mathematician can write novels, so it’s unsurprising that there have been so few attempts to develop Asimov’s concept further.


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I’ve just finished reading Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis (2001). It’s a compelling read, which kept my interest over the week of evenings it took me to read it; the characters and situations were well described and I enjoyed what Kingsbury did with the ‘Foundation’ galaxy. This is not quite the galaxy of Asimov’s Foundation: locations have different names; in this alternative future Foundation the Earth is still inhabitable, is inhabited by humans, and is known to be the original home of humanity — or, at least, of a form of humanity. There are robots, which have personalities but never take over the story. The places and physical appearance are much more richly described than in the original Foundation series, and in addition there are various in-jokes lurking in the prose. The central ‘original idea’ in this narrative is that all humans have a ‘personal familiar’ or ‘fam’, which is effectively a brain-extension, holding additional memory and analytical ability — the modern mobile phone currently performs the same function. Although as yet(?) no one’s brain is permanently wired to their mobile phone in the same way as a ‘fam’, it’s probably coming …

Psychohistorical Crisis is based in the galaxy of the original three Foundation volumes, not the two continuations that Asimov wrote later. Effectively it continues the events of Second Foundation, but thousands of years later. There is no Gaia-planet and there are no Solarians; yet humans have gene-engineered themselves so that they are very different from the original Earth homo-sapiens, so that the reader wonders what these ‘humans’ of the future galaxy actually look like.

I particularly enjoyed Kingsbury’s characters’ use of astrology as a means of teaching the complex mathematics required for psychohistory. Whatever you might think of its claims to be scientific, astrology requires an excellent grasp of trigonometry for starters, the ability to number-crunch, and then maths, maths, and maths.

So, now I’ve finished Psychohistorical Crisis, I must emerge from that galaxy and try to find another one to relax in. Has anyone else written a Foundation continuation on these lines?


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DSCF6334 I’ve been re-reading the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov.

I first read the original trilogy as a teenager in the 1970s. I loved the vast arena, the sharp one-liners, the humour and the vision of a far-off positive future. I thought that the first book and the first part of Foundation and Empire were thrilling; I was more uncertain about the Mule; but I thought Arkady in The Second Foundation was brilliant. She was a heroine that I could identify with, right down to her desire to write best-selling novels. As for the Second Foundation, they were intriguing but not particularly worrying.
Years later I read the Foundation Series again. I now realised that the story is based on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — that reference to the last emperor Dagobert is the dead giveaway. So the disintegration of the empire is followed by the rise of religion, carrying forward science and knowledge into the Dark Age; followed by Traders (a dash of the Pirenne thesis) and then merchant princes, followed by autocracy which is overthrown by the brave new world of democracy. Arkady now seemed a bit of a kid. The Second Foundation were still intriguing.
After re-reading the series I went in search of Asimov’s more recent works and found the continuations: Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. I enjoyed both, but the character of Fallom in Foundation and Earth was particularly intriguing. Did Asimov continue the story beyond Foundation and Earth?
I was very disappointed to find that he didn’t. I read the two prequels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, and the earlier stories which linked the Foundation series to the Elijah Bailey detective stories: The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire. I also found some spin-off series written around these ‘Robots’ stories and the Spacers, and read them with enjoyment. There were also some spin-off stories about the start of the Foundation, but I didn’t get on so well with them: I was more interested in what happened after Foundation and Earth.
Move on again many years to last month: I’ve been re-reading the stories again. I now see that the Second Foundation’s empire, if the Second Foundationers are allowed to set it up, will be a nightmare of mind control. Galactica looks like a much more friendly solution. I went in search of further sequels and with the help of the Wikipedia page found the wonderful collection Foundation’s Friends (ed. Martin Greenberg), a collection of short stories put together by Asimov’s friends and fellow science-fiction writers, and a treat for all Foundation fans. Now I’m reading Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis, which imagines the new Galactic Empire if the Second Foundation were to win.
Obviously, no one can write like Isaac Asimov, but it’s interesting to see how other writers have interpreted his visions and developed his ideas. Are there any more sequels or spin-offs out there?

Before anyone panics — no, I don’t intend to venture into continuing Asimov’s ideas. I’ll stick to parodies of Edgar Wallace.

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… is the title of a short story by Isaac Asimov, and also an episode in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: and what Alice found there. Readers will remember that the bolshy and perpetually bewildered Alice encounters the bossy Red Queen in the garden of the house of the looking glass. As well as giving Alice useful advice (‘curtsey while you’re thinking what to say; it saves time later’) she and Alice start running frantically faster and faster, until Alice is completely out of breath and exhausted. Then they stop: and Alice realises that they haven’t gone anywhere; they were running madly just to stay in the same place. When she protests, the Red Queen retotts that if she wants to go anywhere she will have to run a great deal faster than that.

Many of us in modern business and industry recognise this situation: we are in a Red Queen’s Race, wearing ourselves out forever running just to stay in the same place. It’s thought-provoking to realise that Lewis Carroll, in the supposedly more laid-back 19th century, obviously knew this feeling too. And obviously Isaac Asimov also knew it: the frustration of thinking you’ve made a big step forward, only to discover you’ve only enabled yourself to stay in the same place and not lose ground.

I was going to take a photo of the Red Queen’s Race from my own copy of ‘Looking Glass’ to accompany this post. But when I found it, there’s no picture of the race! (Sigh.)

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… on intelligent plants: take a look at the BBC’s report from last year: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34849374

and a report on a new book on ‘plant intelligence’, in the Guardian newspaper last month: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2015/aug/04/plants-intelligent-sentient-book-brilliant-green-internet

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‘Chemical Plant’ is a short story by Ian Williamson, which I first read in Out of This World 1, ed. Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen (1960). To spoil the story: the key figure (creature? character?) in the story is a plant that can manipulate the environment to produce the chemicals it requires to grow and flourish. This becomes a problem for the human space-explorers in the story when the plant gets hold of one of their space ships. Everything ends happily, and the plant is only slightly inconvenienced.

As a gardener I love this story, as would any gardener who has wrestled with plants which don’t grow or grow too enthusiastically. Plants do manipulate their own environment simply by growing in it, but most not so effectively as the ‘hero’ of ‘Chemical Plant’. At the very least, plants break up solid soil through their roots, and raise the local humidity, making the area more hospitable to other plants and to animals. I’m told that a patch of woodland can attract rain. Perhaps readers of this blog can comment?

The most famous plants in fiction are probably John Wyndham’s triffids, who have become a standard description of any disagreeable and over-enthusiastic plant — such as rambling roses that ramble too far or spiny trees that take over the garden and seem to threaten the life of any human who tries to trim them. But other authors have also described plants that manipulate those around them. Now, where did I find that short story about the lovely plant with blue flowers that makes its gardeners really happy by making them think they have all they want? – this fictional plant can manipulate minds at a distance, and so ensure its own survival and growth. The people who care for it don’t even realise that they are being manipulated. A very clever idea … wish I could remember where I read it.

In my own writing there are a few plants which are more than they seem. I refer in Kimball’s Kiss to oak trees being intelligent, but that’s a theme I haven’t pursued further as yet. Also in the ‘Gray’ stories, the alien rhuaans are reliant on the berries of the evergreen ‘singing trees’ to enable them to reproduce. The ‘singing trees’ sing through the rustling of their leaves. The implication is that they are talking to each other, but again that’s a theme I haven’t developed. One for a later story!

I think it is in Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone that the boy hero realises that although we think of trees as part of normal life, if we realise that they are giant plants they become altogether threatening and alien. It’s over 40 years since I read that book, but this image has stayed with me. Trees are not alien to this planet, but they are completely alien to us: they are living things that grow and operate with a completely different worldview from ours, massive chemical plants that use sunlight to split carbon dioxide and water and make cellulose. They can live for hundreds of years: to them, our puny little lives must seem contemptible. Until, that is, a human produces a chain saw.



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