Although I’m geeky in a bunch of different ways, I’ve never been a big science fiction reader. Lately, though, I’ve been trying out some of the classics of the genre. I just finished Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I think it gets better as it goes along: things get more morally ambiguous and interesting in the last part.
It’s hard (at least for me) to read futuristic stories without evaluating them for accuracy or plausibility. That’s not necessarily a fair form of criticism: the author’s goal is to tell a good story, regardless of whether it’s accurate. But it’s an irresistible game to play, at least for me.
In that spirit, this description of a new navigation system, just implemented in the starships of 25,000 years in the future, struck me as amusing:
Bail Channis sat at the control panel of the Lens and felt again the involuntary surge of near-worship at the contemplation of it. He was not a Foundation man and the interplay of forces at the twist of a knob or the breaking of a contact was not second nature to him. Not that the Lens ought quite to bore even a Foundation man. Within its unbelievably compact body were enough electronic circuits to pinpoint accurately a hundred million separate stars in exact relationship to each other. And as if that were not a feat in itself, it was further capable of translating any given portion of the Galactic Field along any of the three spatial axes or to rotate any portion of the Field about a center.
So this amazing device can manipulate a few gigabytes of data, applying translations and 3d rotations to it? That’d be a difficult job for your phone, but utterly trivial for, say, your XBox, let alone the high-end computers of today. The Foundation has nuclear power plants you can carry around in your pocket, but their computing expertise is stuck in the 20th century.
Asimov goes on to describe how a human operator can use this to figure out where he is in the Galaxy, by looking at the patterns of stars and matching them up by eye, in “less than half an hour.” Of course, this would, even today, be trivial to do in software in a fraction of a second.
(In fairness, I should mention the possibility that “million” is a misprint for “billion.” The number of stars in the Galaxy is of order 100 billion, as Asimov surely knew. If you make that switch, it becomes a more daunting task, although still perfectly manageable with good present-day computers.)
Again, I don’t mean this as a serious criticism of Asimov. I just thought it was amusing.
If you really want to criticize Asimov for mis-guessing about the future, you’ll find much more fertile ground in his depictions of how people behave. Asimov’s characters act an awful lot like men (pretty much always men) of the mid-20th century. They spend an astonishing amount of time reading newspapers and offering each other cigars, for instance.
One more thing. According to Wikipedia,
In 1965, the Foundation Trilogy beat several other science fiction and fantasy series (including The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien) to receive a special Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series.” It is still the only series so honored. Asimov himself wrote that he assumed the one-time award had been created to honor The Lord of the Rings, and he was amazed when his work won.
I’ll reveal my geek allegiance: Asimov was right to be amazed. The Foundation books are good, but the idea of them winning in a head-to-head competition with Lord of the Rings is absurd.