Previous Contents

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (2022)

The Two’s Complementary Year

Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy is very high on my list of favourite books of all time. In my teens and twenties, I read it so often that the print wore off the pages. So I bought new copies and read those until they too fell apart. Lather, rinse, repeat. The story has just been turned into a TV series, so clearly I had to watch it…

The series starts off well. We are introduced to Hari Seldon and his psychohistorical predictions about the imminent fall of the Empire. We learn that a foundation has been established to preserve knowledge with the aim of reducing the interregnum after the empire falls. So far so canonical. But from about half-way through the first episode Asimov’s stories are discarded, the series turns into Star Wars, and the whole thing falls apart.

Almost everything about it looks and feels like Star Wars – the planets (apart from Trantor) all look like Tatooine, Hoth and Naboo and the space ships all look like X-wing fighters and the like. (And as an aside, the spacers who crew the ships that jump between the stars have clearly been nicked wholesale from Dune – the producers aren’t proud, they’ll steal from anyone). Foundation even has its own twist on the big Darth Vader  "I am your father" revelation, when one character declares to another that, "I am your daughter". I suppose if you are going to steal, you really should steal from the best, and that is exactly what the scriptwriters have done. There is absolutely nothing original about Foundation at all. Everything in it is terribly derivative.

The series also quickly loses sight of the major purpose that drives its source material. In the original stories, characters constantly tell each other that, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent". This aphorism lies at the heart of every crisis that the stories deal with and all of the crises (to begin with at least) are solved by non-violent means. The central thesis that propels the stories is that violence is always the worst possible solution to any problem.

In the TV series, the characters remind themselves of the aphorism, sneer at its childish naivety, and then immediately start shooting at each other. This is so contrary to the spirit of Asimov’s stories that it fair takes your breath away. In the credits, Isaac’s daughter Robyn Asimov is listed as an executive producer but clearly all the producers wanted from her was the cachet of her name. It is obvious that she had no creative control over the material at all. There is absolutely no way that she would have so badly misrepresented her father’s stories. The producers were clearly just using her as a figurehead and I imagine that she must have found that very frustrating. I hope they paid her well…

The on-screen violence, when it happens, is laughably dumb, and Hollywoodly unrealistic. Row upon row of bad guys advance across the screen firing energy weapons straight ahead of themselves in rapid, machine-gun like bursts. Any army that actually employed such a tactic would simply end up slaughtering its own troops as each soldier shoots into the back of the soldier standing just in front of him. But the bad guy tactics succeed on the TV screen because, like all Hollywood bad guys, they are completely incapable of hitting anything at all with the munitions that they spray with such profligacy all over the landscape. So the bad guy army is not slaughtered by friendly fire. And, of course, the good guy army remains completely unscathed as well because the bad guys can’t hit the good guys any more than they can hit their own troops!

The good guys, of course, are much more efficient in the use of their weapons than the bad guys are. The good guys never miss when they fire their single, carefully aimed shots at the bad guys. No machine-gun like spraying all over the place for the good guys! They make every single shot count. And so, one by one, the bad guys gradually succumb to the superior marksmanship of the good guys. We see most of this action through the viewfinders of the good guys’ weapons, viewfinders which make everything look like a 1990s videogame complete with cheesy special effects when the bad guy gets clobbered. Everything about the set piece battles emphasises that violence and death is only a game and it isn’t to be taken seriously...

I am perfectly happy to admit that Asimov’s stories are very cerebral and probably can’t be filmed in any literal way. But was it really necessary to throw so many babies out with the bathwater? The producers could have at least tried to stick to the spirit of what Asimov had to say, but they didn’t even pay lip-service to it. They treated Asimov’s ideas with such utter contempt, that I really wonder why they bothered to make the series in the first place. They obviously hated everything about it.

The programme also indulges itself in what it probably thinks is political satire but which is actually much more of a very heavy-handed attempt to replay America’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. In the first episode, we learn about the Starbridge, a space elevator that connects the planet Trantor to the orbital disembarkation point where arriving spaceships dock. The Starbridge is destroyed by suicide bombers and as its remnants fall back to the surface, millions of people die. The suicide bombers yelled something in a guttural, arabic-sounding language before they exploded themselves. The words that they yelled are quickly identified as coming from languages spoken on the planets of Anacreon and Thespis. Therefore the powers that be assume that those two planets must be responsible for the attack. On the basis of this very flimsy deduction, and with no other evidence at all to support their actions, the Empire embarks on a wholly inappropriate and utterly unjustifiable nuclear saturation bombing of both of those planets. The few survivors of this completely unjustified attack (there are always survivors) initiate a campaign of revenge, and who can blame them? They begin fighting a war of rebellion against the Empire – and suddenly we’re back inside a Star Wars plot again.

In all the remaining episodes, the terrorists fighting the Empire are invariably portrayed as Arabian looking people who speak a language that sounds not completely unlike Arabic, and because they are defined as the bad guys, they have no redeeming features whatsoever.  This all leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth, not to mention a certain one-dimensionality in terms of characterisation.

Amusingly, two of the people from Asimov’s original stories, Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin, are portrayed as female in the TV series, though they are male in the books. I was perfectly happy to accept this – their gender is completely irrelevant to the roles that they have to play, so what difference does it make? None at all, as far as I could tell.

Gaal is a mathematician. She has been employed by Hari Seldon to assist him in his psychohistorical analyses. Hari is very impressed with her mathematical skills – she has solved something called the Abraxas Conjecture, a problem which has puzzled mathematicians for centuries. This, of course, is a perfect opportunity for the scriptwriters to demonstrate their enormous mathematical ignorance, which they do by having Gaal declare that, "I solved the proof!". Since, by definition, the proof is the solution, this sentence is at best tautologous and at worst sheer unadulterated nonsense. Par for the course, I suppose.

In moments of stress, Gaal calms herself by reciting prime numbers, a practice which strikes me as a perfect meditative exercise for a mathematician to indulge in. Both she and several other characters refer to this process as "counting primes", but she isn’t counting them, she’s listing or enumerating them. Again, the scriptwriters demonstrate their profound lack of mathematical knowledge here. Not only do they fail to understand the meaning of the verb to count, they also have no idea what a prime number is. At least one of the numbers that Gaal lists cannot possibly be prime (it is an even number) and I have my suspicions about several others as well, but they vanished rather too quickly for me to be completely certain. Factoring large numbers to determine whether or not they are prime is inherently slow and cumbersome, particularly when you try to do it inside your head without the benefit of paper and pencil.

No mention is made as to exactly how Gaal manages to generate the prime numbers that she lists with such consummate ease – I doubt that she simply memorised them, that would be a completely pointless exercise that no mathematician worth her salt would bother with. Why memorise something that you can derive as and when you need it? Perhaps she’s had an Eratosthenean Sieve implanted in her brain.

These egregious errors are even more evidence (if more evidence is needed) that Robyn Asimov was not involved at all with the scriptwriting process.

Will I watch the second season of Foundation if it ever gets made? Probably not.

Sue Burke’s new novel The Immunity Index is set in an ultra-fascistic near future America, the kind of America that Donald Trump and his Rethuglican comrades tried to implement. The novel’s primary purpose is to satirise the shortcomings of such a government and to criticise the state of mind that would want to live under such an arrangement. Despite the fact that the actual Trump "Administration" was self-satirical way beyond any political commentator’s wildest nightmares, the novel manages to succeed brilliantly in its portrayal of the government’s asinine, and rather scary ruin of the American Dream.

One of the fundamentals of the American system of government is the right of free speech. In the world of the novel, we learn quite early on that the right still exists but that nobody is allowed to use it in any practical way. Everybody is forbidden from speaking out against anything they disagree with because the Supreme Court has ruled that protesters exercising their free speech rights might be hurt, injured or even (heaven forbid) killed by other people who disagree with them. Therefore all protests are banned in order to protect the protesters from harm. This is one of the most beautiful examples of Orwellian doublethink that I’ve ever come across. I was very impressed.

The rest of the book is equally impressive.

Roughly 20 years before the story begins, cloning and genetic manipulation of human embryos became a popular fad.  Children born of such techniques are known as "dupes" (short for duplicates – multiple clones from the same source are common). As the techniques fall out of favour, dupes become (literally and legally) second class citizens who find it difficult, if not impossible to fit in to a society that is massively prejudiced against them. They become a segregated, ghettoised social class, despised and reviled.  

Meanwhile, the president is facing a crisis – a new coronavirus pandemic has emerged in Siberia. But that’s OK – the president, who insists on calling the pandemic the Sino cold, says it’s very easy to combat the virus. Everyone just has to run an American flag up their flagpole. Excessive patriotism is the only certain cure for this nasty communist disease.

Initially I thought that these satirical story threads were far too clumsy to carry a whole novel. The allegorical points the story was making were all too obvious – dupe equals any non-white person and curing a pandemic with patriotism simply highlights the ridiculous incompetence with which the Trump government tackled covid-19. But as the novel progressed, I changed my mind. The heavy handedness is a necessary, deliberate and ultimately rather clever technique that, of course, holds a distorting mirror up to society. The reflection in that mirror encourages a revolution (referred to here as a mutiny) against the status quo, though when that happens it doesn’t take long for us to realise that the mutineers are not all that different from the people they despise. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. It’s a very old and rather cynical message which, unfortunately, is such a true one that every generation needs to be reminded of it. When I was a teenager we knew that if they gave us the world we could fix all its problems. Peace and love, man. It’s the age of Aquarius. So they gave us the world and we fucked it up far worse than our parents ever managed to do. Everyone needs to have their face rubbed in that truism as often as possible.

The story is told from four points of view. One of the protagonists is the person who discovered and implemented the techniques of genetic manipulation (in the days when it was still legal). The other three protagonists are cloned triplets though initially they are unaware of that fact because they have been adopted and brought up by separate high class families and so they are accustomed to lives of privilege. But as their dupe status becomes clear to them and to the people they live and work with, they begin to suffer the social stigma of being second class citizens. It’s a painful descent into purgatory. That’s a story as old as humanity, and it’s movingly told.

Sue Burke’s earlier novels have proved her competence with high-tech biological speculations. Nobody comes anywhere close to matching her expertise in explaining and extrapolating the cellular mechanisms that drive all living processes. She uses that expertise again in The Immunity Index to justify the genetic manipulation that gives such a solid basis to the novel’s plot. To that unquestioned expertise and skill she has now added clever and thoughtful political and social insights. She is leading from strength on all fronts. I suspect and hope that we will hear a lot more of Sue Burke over the next few years...

I almost never have any great emotional involvement in the stories that I read. They are just words on the page. I can admire the clever way that those words paint pictures in my imagination, but I know that those pictures aren’t real. I have a very clear dividing line in my mind between the real and the unreal, and the latter never moves me. How can it? It isn’t there. It never has been and it never will be.  As far as I am concerned trigger warnings on novels are a complete waste of time. If a story proves to be about something I don’t like, I just stop reading it and pick up something else. There are no traumas involved in doing that, no upsets and no nightmares. The story isn’t real so it doesn’t really matter that it didn’t appeal to me or that it dealt with something I found distasteful.

But non-fiction is quite different. It deals with things that are real, things that actually happened. And so, occasionally, just occasionally, a non-fiction book will manage to wrap itself around my emotions and hit me in the heartstrings. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff never fails to make me cry.

It’s a very small and very simple book which is made up of a series of letters from Helene Hanff, who lives in New York, to Frank Doel, a bookseller who works in shop housed at the eponymous address in London and from whom, over the years, Helene buys rather a lot of books. The letters start off quite businesslike, though even in the early ones Helene Hanff maintains a delightfully breezy air of informality. However as the relationship between Helene and Frank blossoms, the letters become livelier and more intimate, though there is never any hint whatsoever of impropriety.

On the face of it, there is really no reason for me to like this book as much as I do. Apart from a love of books in general, Helene and I have almost nothing in common. She reads non-fiction almost exclusively, much of it many hundreds of years old. She has no patience with fiction. In one letter she remarks, "...except if it’s fiction. I never can get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived." And that opinion, of course, is almost diametrically opposed to my own. While I do read a certain amount of non-fiction, I am much more interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived than I am in stodgy biographies and tedious essay collections.

Helene justifies her interest in such ancient tomes by quoting from Izaak Walton:

"The reader will not credit that such things could be," Walton says somewhere or other, "but I was there and I saw it." that’s for me, I’m a great lover of I-was-there books.

To be fair, Helene does eventually buy and read a little bit of fiction:

You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind over Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.

She even falls in love with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, an utterly mad, very Monty-Pythonesque novel that was published in nine volumes between the years 1759 and 1767.

...Tristram Shandy’s description of his father’s remarkable library which "contained every book and treatise which had ever been wrote upon the subject of great noses." (Frank! Go find me Tristram Shandy!)

Helene’s ebullient voice contrasts wildly with Frank’s dry formality. He does eventually bend a little and, by his own standards, his letters loosen up and become quite gossipy. But he never manages to match the exuberant informality that Helene brings to their correspondence.

Helene and Frank never met each other. By the time that Helene managed to scrape together enough money to visit London, Frank had died and the shop had been sold. But that in itself adds a poignancy to their letters. Both of them enjoyed a close and intimate relationship which was made up of nothing but words on paper. Truly, words can be very powerful things.

I initially read the book some time in the 1970s, shortly after it was first published. I felt an immediate kinship with Helene. Her book is itself a perfect example of the kind of thing that she herself liked to read. It’s a really great I-was-there book and partly because of that, and partly because it was about books (a subject close to my heart), I identified very closely with both Helene and Frank. The story the letters told really appealed to my emotions, and I was quite tearful when I got to the end of it. Over the years I re-read it several times and it never failed to move me. In 1987 it was made into a move starring Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel. I went to the cinema all by myself to see the movie. I was very pleased to be alone and even more pleased that the cinema was very dark and almost deserted (I think perhaps it wasn’t a very popular film). I saturated a lot of tissues watching it.

In December 2021 I found the audiobook of 84, Charing Cross Road. I listened to it over the course of about three days as I walked my dog. He was very puzzled by my tears, but he enjoyed the salty taste as he licked them off my face.


Isaac Asimov Foundation Apple
Sue Burke The Immunity Index Macmillan
Helene Hanff 84, Charing Cross Road Audible
     
Previous Contents