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[personal profile] mtvessel
Feb 2015
Earth is Room Enough - Isaac Asimov - Panther, 1960
* * * *
My brother and I had the same experience when we encountered the Foundation Trilogy as teenagers. We took them on a holiday to France and although we both usually got sick when we read in the car, we literally could not put the books down. I still consider it one of the great literary experiences of my life, on a par with reading the whole of The Lord of the Rings over a weekend (teenage years are great for an introvert bookworm - all that free time!). So I have a great fondness for Dr A and read various of his novels at college, even a couple of the disappointing sequels which tried to combine his Robots and Foundation universes. This one, a book of short stories mostly set on planet Earth, I never got around to. I had some trepidation about trying it now because my tastes have changed somewhat in the intervening years and I thought that his mid-twentieth century sensibility might start to grate. It is certainly true that his characters have a distinctively 1950s feel to them and his shaggy dog stories no longer amuse me as once they did. But I had forgotten what an effervescent writer Asimov was, and just how prescient some of his ideas were. So I wasn't disappointed at all.


The first and most substantial story, The Dead Past, is a classic SF what-if about a chronoscope, a device that can see into history. When a history professor called Pottersley is refused permission to use the government chronoscope to prove his theory about the Carthaginians, he befriends a young physics instructor called Jonas Foster and inveigles him into researching the technology behind chronoscopy, with an unexpected consequence that has a chilling resonance for today's world. This story also features Multivac, the giant supercomputer that appears in several of Asimov's stories (including one of my favourites, Franchise, which takes the the application of technology to democracy to its logical extreme). It's worth stopping to consider what an astonishing feat of extrapolation Multivac is, given that most of the stories about it were written less than ten years after the development of the world's first stored program computer. Not only did he anticipate massive supercomputers running incredibly sophisticated modelling programs, he also predicted some of the social consequences, albeit manifested in the more diffuse form of the internet.

Asimov's great strength is his use of engaging dialogue both to explain concepts succinctly and to elucidate character. 1950s attitudes are noticeable, particularly in the lack of obvious cultural diversity and the two-dimensional nature of the female characters, but to be fair the women do at least have some agency and I can forgive him a lot for the fascinatingly flawed character of Dr Susan Calvin in the story Satisfaction Guaranteed, which raises some of the same concerns about human-android interactions as the recent oh-so-original TV series Humans, but 65 years earlier.

Alas, most of the other stories are forgettable poetic parodies, weak puns or comic tales based on religious ideas that didn't really work for me. But the good ones in this collection are still enjoyable and relevant today, and it was a pleasure to read them.
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