As it has been a while since I last wrote about books, I thought I’d write about books I’ve recently read, which happen to be The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov and The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron. I read these books concurrently, the Asimov at home and Byron’s wonderful travel diaries while commuting to and from work.
I actually hadn’t read any of these books before, despite the fact they have been around for decades.
The Foundation Trilogy is quite an engaging read, somewhat old fashioned as you’d expect from Science Fiction novels of the 1950s and 60s, but full of interesting ideas. In fact, in some ways they remind me of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Anathem, which is based on the similar premise that scientific and intellectual pursuits are the safeguards of civilisation.
Asimov’s Foundation series is set in the far future; there are faster than light space ships and mankind has spread across the galaxy. However, there is a curious, rather drab, 1950s feel to the society portrayed in the books. Considering that tobacco products are anathema these days, Asimov’s characters cheerfully puff away on cigars and cigarettes. The technology also seems rather primitive by today’s standards
The Foundation of the title is an enclave, or society of scientists which was formed after Hari Seldon, foremost practitioner of psychohistorical analysis. predicts a collapse of the Galactic Empire which would lead into 30,000 years of barbarianism. He estimates that in order to save knowledge and shorten the period of chaos to 1000 years, a solid knowledge base would need to be established in a remote part of the galaxy. To this purpose a colony of scientists and intellectuals is moved to the remote planet of Terminus, ostensibly to work on a Galactic encyclopaedia. A second Foundation is established at another end of the galaxy and remains undiscovered throughout the first 300 years of the history of the Foundation
The first volume Foundation details the establishment and history of the colony at Terminus, called The Foundation, and the various challenges and crises it has to face and solve in the increasing chaotic galactic empire.
Foundation and Empire, the second volume, deals with a new unforeseen challenge in the ascendancy of The Mule, a mutant with extraordinary powers that can enslave whole planets and even causes the collapse of the first Foundation.
In Second Foundation the final volume, as the title suggests, the Second Foundation comes into its own as a force to be contended with. Unlike the first foundation, who were masters of technology, the members of this society are masters of mind control, so have a fair chance to defeat The Mule.
Overall, I’m pleased to have finally read this trilogy – the books have been sitting on my bookshelf for over 30 years, so I suppose it was about time I did.
Robert Byron’s Road To Oxiana is a completely different type of book to Foundation, being a travel journal. It is Byron’s description of his travels through Persia and Afghanistan during the early thirties - a journey it would be unwise to undertake these days.
I read the 1981 Picador edition with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin, to whom the book was a sort of bible.
Robert Byron was Oxford educated and interested in ruins, most particularly in Islamic architecture. His writing style is witty and lyrical. He charts his travels through Persia and Afghanistan as a diary and describes in vivid prose the sights, sounds, smells and the people he meets in his journey.
As I am ignorant of Persian and Afghan history I was very interested to read about the various conquerors of the area. Most fascinating was the extraordinary history of Gohar Shad, wife of Shah Rokh Khan the eldest son of Tamberlane. Gohar Shad was remarkable for her time, a patroness of the arts she commissioned the beautiful mosque at Meshed (pictured below) and many other architectural wonders of the ancient Middle Eastern world.
Very much a document of the time it was written, Byron’s diary still serves to be enlightening. I was amused by his referring to the Shah of Persia as Marjoribanks after he was told not to mention the name of the Shah in Persian society or write it in his diary.
At the moment I am reading The Bones of Time by Kathleen Ann Goonan. After recently rereading her nanotech novel Queen City Jazz and enjoying it very much, The Bones of Time is keeping me interested as well. It is set in a future Hawaii and also focuses on how nanotech might be used in the future, and the consequences of such usage. I intend to seek out Goonan’s other novels. I realised recently that she wrote several sequels to Queen City Jazz which I have not read, so second hand bookshops here I come.