Foundation or Federation

Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, has been doing daily “homeroom” live streams to help students and their parents manage during the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school closures. Though I’m neither a parent nor a student (not officially anyway; I like to think I’m always a student because I always love learning), I have listened to some of the homeroom sessions because I respect Sal and appreciate the advice he dispenses. Today someone asked him about his favorite books, and the first thing Sal mentioned was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a favorite of mine too, and at least in part for the same reason Sal gave: The series paints a distant future in which an age of darkness looms. Though this new dark age is inevitable, one man, Hari Seldon, believes its length and impact can be greatly lessened if a group of scientists, inventors, etc. can come together to forge a Foundation which will serve as a warehouse of knowledge. (This is a conceit also explored in other science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Walter M. Miller’s  Canticle for Leibowitz, and others.) Asimov doesn’t gloss over the coming dark age, but his vision is optimistic nonetheless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I see Star Trek’s Federation as another optimistic picture of the future. I have also mentioned how impossible it seems, given the current tenor of discourse on nearly any topic both here in America and abroad. This is nothing new; our optimistic Mr. Asimov many years ago said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ (Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, January 21, 1980)

The fear of society’s devolution into dystopia is a mainstay of science fiction. The possibility of it actually happening feels truer today than ever, however—at least more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. Maybe that explains my obsession with ongoing learning. I may not ever zoom around the galaxy on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I can do my part to help bring about the Federation…or the Foundation.

Science Fiction

Yesterday I mentioned Library of America. I recently bought two boxed sets of science fiction from them, American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1950s and American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s. When a schoolmate turned me on to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in junior high, it was love at first sight. I devoured every science fiction book I could lay my hands on. Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison (don’t tell him I put him in the sci-fi category!), and many others. This lasted most of the way through high school.

But tastes change, with books and in other things. I drifted away from science fiction, and mostly ignored it except for an occasional dose. But lately I’ve picked it up again in a big way. I’m especially drawn to the classic sci-fi of the 1970s and earlier, so the two LOA collections mentioned above are perfect, promising 3100+ pages of entertaining reading.

Here are a couple of lists I’ve found with some good book recommendation:

And if your science itch needs more scratching, check out a couiple of fun YouTube channels from VlogBrother Hank Green: