Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I had no idea what to expect from the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s renowned science fiction series when I picked it off the ‘staff recommended’ shelf in a Sydney CBD Dymocks bookstore. The little note underneath it said the book ‘defined a generation of science fiction’. I had been shopping for a copy of Asimov’s The End of Eternity (as recommended by a friend) but it wasn’t in stock. And, besides, the Foundation series sounded enticing.

I’m admittedly a little cautious of reviewing an award-winning series with a well-established cult following, particularly as a reader relatively new to the genre. But then, I enjoyed this novel and would like to read the rest of the series – and don’t need to know the characterisation or storyline of Star Trek inside and out for that to be the case. And that’s the perspective from which I’ll be writing about Foundation. Just like a review of Harry Potter might only be useful for a lingering sceptic of that series’ worth, so too would I like to present Foundation to readers new to, or even wary of, science fiction.

Foundation is set in the distant future – when the study of the planetary origins of humanity, the Origin Question, is a mere intellectual curiosity (“…it is thought that originally the human race occupied only one planetary system … Of course, no one knows exactly what system it is – lost in the mists of antiquity…”). In this future, a seemingly omnipotent Galactic Empire has formed – but ‘psychohistorian‘ Hari Seldon has predicted (using an invented mathematics discipline of sociology, probability and statistics) that the demise of the Empire is inevitable. He therefore sets up two Foundations solely to reduce the impact of the millennia of barbarism and chaos that will follow. The first volume of the series is set in the first Foundation, established under the guise of developing an encyclopaedia of all knowledge to ensure its survival during the futuristic dark ages. The role of the second remains a mystery.

The book then skips through the centuries and to the several crises Seldon predicted to occur (called Seldon Crises) in the lead up to the establishment of a Second Empire. Each section of the book hones in on the individuals and the plots involved with solving these crises. And if there was one thing I struggled with reading this book it was keeping up with the new characters and centuries that carried the plot forward.

Reading a futuristic novel written before the digital revolution saw the curve of our technological development take an exponential leap is interesting to say the least. Asimov is applauded for his daringly imagined future, but from where I stood, its late-1940s/ early-1950s origins were obvious.

While intergalactic travel is taken for granted, and the Foundation has managed to build atomic reactors “the size of a walnut”, I found most other developments were simply those domestic appliances that so excited the 50s with the word atomic latched on (atomic washing machine, atomic air conditioning, even an ‘atomic’ carving knife). The themes of nuclear tension are also clearly placed in Asimov’s Cold War context – which planets ‘still’ have nuclear power, which have nuclear weapons and nuclear warships? “Atomic blasters point both ways,” becomes a favourite quote of Master Trader Hober Mallow.

Stepping aside from the sci-fi futuristic conceptions, the political content of the story is also fascinating. According to Wikipedia, the premise was based on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Part of the Foundation’s course is to develop a religion of technology – training ‘priests’ in its use as dogma, rather than teaching them how it works. “[Religion] is the most potent device known with which to control men and worlds.” The populations of the Four Kingdoms that the Foundation comes to rule therefore worship the technology they need, but never really understand it, leaving them reliant on the Foundation (which develops a standing of something like the Vatican – specifically, an historical Vatican that keeps its ‘flock’ illiterate). Towards the end of the book, however, it appears that ‘trade’ (mostly of ‘atomic’ knick knacks of the aforementioned kind) will usurp religion as a controlling force – i.e. the move from ‘spiritualism’ to materialism. It’s difficult to assess Asimov’s own standing on all of this, although there seemed to be an overriding idea that religion is false but useful.

The next book in the series, Foundation and Empire, introduces a new villain and the second Foundation – on the other side of the Galaxy, where psychohistory still thrives. Asimov also published prequels to the original trilogy, but I am going to save them for later, and read the series in the order it was originally published, rather than chronologically. And I am still on the look out for The End of Eternity.

And who knows, maybe there is still room for Mr Spock in my life?

Lying by Sam Harris

discoodoni by Flickr

Is it ever okay to lie? Even those tiny white lies we’ve all told at some point (and probably tell every other day). No, your bum doesn’t look big in that. Sorry, I can’t make it, I have something else on that night. Thanks, I love it; I’ve always wanted one these…

What about with Nazis knocking at the door and Anne Frank in the basement?

This is the premise of author (The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape) and neuroscientist Sam Harris’ recent e-book titled simply, Lying. His answer is given loud and clear: No, it’s not okay.

Harris first came to this conclusion after attending a Stanford seminar in which the lecturer (Ronald A. Howard) asked the very same question of his students. The result was an epiphany for Sam Harris – the seminar affected him, he said, “in ways that college courses seldom do: It made me a better person.”

Of course, the bold statement that even lies to protect another’s feelings are wrong requires some disclaimer – truthful intent versus absolute truth being an important one. As for the infamous Do I look fat in this? If you are sure that there is, in fact, a subtext to the question, Harris says, and the questioner is really asking for assurance that you love the asker, then it is not untruthful to answer in the affirmative. But don’t take that as the easy way out if the truth is that the person is, in fact, fat. A more truthful answer might be, ‘I love you no matter how you look.’ But, if the questioner really is overweight, you are certainly not doing them or their future health prospects any favours by giving them false assurance – you are, more likely, protecting yourself from an awkward or confrontational situation. It is, in effect, a cowardly way out.

This is a short book (58 pages including notes and acknowledgements), so I won’t go into its content too deeply as it has already been presented so clearly and succinctly by Harris himself. Simply put, Lying is a thought-provoking read and a great conversation starter well worth its $3 asking price.

It’s easy enough to say ‘thou shalt not lie’, or ‘white lies are okay’, but have you really thought about the moral implications of your words and actions? This is your chance.

6 books that defined my childhood

The ability to read is a gift, and for children and young adults learning how to visualise people and situations outside your own experience is a vital step towards developing imagination, empathy, a sense of humour and many valuable life lessons. (Actually, the same goes for adults, too).

There are countless books that filled my childhood (in the 90s), and some that I haven’t added to this list include Mrs Wishy Washy by Joy Cowler, read to my kindergarten class by our infallibly kind teacher, Miss Hartman, the ‘tween’ rite of passage, The Babysitters Club series and my introduction to horror fiction with the popular R.L. Stine Goosebumps books. Of course there was the hilarious books of Morris Gleitzman and Paul Jennings, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series which became a part of my life in my early-to-mid teens – I could go on for, oh, about 18 years, but the ones listed here were particularly powerful.

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen (published 1836)

I was always a huge fan of Disney’s animated version of The Little Mermaid as a child and, recognising this, my mother read to me her copy of the original story – bought when she was a child visiting the real little mermaid (pictured) in Denmark. The idea seemed incredible to me at the time.

Thus, my memories of this story are a mix of a red-haired Ariel and Sebastian singing ‘Under the Sea’,and scenes from my imagination with a much more muted palette, involving difficult emotions like regret and the cruel, painful consequences of Ariel’s decision to walk on human feet (which felt like walking on knives) in the name of love.

While Disney movies were as much an enjoyable part of my childhood as many of these books, I am grateful to have been exposed to the original stories because I think so many modern children’s texts (books and movies) underestimate the ability of young people to take on real-life themes, like love and loss and regret.

The Silver Slippers by Elizabeth Koda-Callan (published 1989)

This book from Elizabeth Koda-Callan’s ‘Magic Charm’ series came, as the name suggests, with a little silver necklace with a charm of two little silver ballet slippers – just like the girl in the story wears. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. I’m not sure how old I was when I got this as a birthday present (although, being born in 1988, I’m going to guess I was around pre-school age).

It’s one of those stories with a ‘moral’ – the girl receives the silver slippers as a reminder to practice her ballet every day, until she is chosen to be the prima ballerina. I.e. you can achieve anything you set your heart to. And I honestly remember taking that on board like an epiphany at the time. And while the book has been misplaced or given away over the years, the necklace (which now seems so tiny!) lives on, stowed away in a little box of mementos.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski (published 1941)

This book took the position of my ‘favourite book’ for quite a few years at a time when I felt the need to have an answer to that oft-asked question (I no longer do – it’s just too hard). It is a fictionalised version of the story of Mary Jemison (1743–1833), who was kidnapped from her home as a teenager by the Seneca, who she bonded with and chose to remain with.

While I can’t remember the details of the plot (a good reason to re-read the book, I’d say), I do remember being enthralled with this book – and its central character – for a long time.

 

 

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (published 1980)

This classic children’s book is one of two in this list by Australian author Ruth Park (and in fact I only just realised on this trip down memory lane that My Sister Sif is by the same author. It never occurred to me at the time).

This is definitely one that I’d like to read again as an adult. Like most of these books I can only recall a few scenes in mental pictures (not words) and the feelings I got from the book – a little spooked when she first travels back in time, and sad. In fact, this is how my memories of most books I’ve read are stored (like a film playing out, rather than a mass of text), which is why I have trouble quoting books off the top of my head. Just an observation.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (published 1977)

Now, here’s an interesting fact about this book that I only just discovered, years after reading it as a pre-teen. According to Wikipedia attempts are regularly made to censor its content, particularly in America. “The censorship attempts stem from death being a part of the plot;Jess’ frequent use of the word “lord” outside of prayer; concerns that the book promotes secular humanism, New Age religion, occultism, and Satanism, and for use of offensive language.”

I’ve gone over a decade and never thought of this book as anything other than a touching, tragic story of friendship and bravery. If it promotes secular humanism, I’m glad I was exposed to it at a young age. If it contains offensive language, it apparently didn’t offend or shock me, and as for Satanism, etc, I am intrigued enough by these accusations to want to read it again.

This all stems back to what I said before about giving young people a little more credit for being able to cope with complex themes, because that’s the world they are living in and that’s what makes life interesting.

My Sister Sif by Ruth Park (published 1986)

As a little girl who grew up in Sydney with a love for the ocean and an environmental conscience at an early age, this book had a huge impact on me. I can’t remember if it was before, after or during reading My Sister Sif, when I paddled my little foam board what seemed at the time a long way out to sea to retrieve a piece of floating rubbish. Was I trying to protect the sea people I’d been reading about? I also spent a lot of time staring hard at the horizon hoping to be summoned by a beautiful mermaid or merman to their secret world. Alas, it never happened, but my burgeoning imagination was no worse off because of it.

Holy Cow! by Sarah MacDonald

I received Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure as a birthday gift, having expressed an interest in travelling to India (which, sadly, remains on my to-do list almost a year later). Even my birthday dinner was Indian themed and involved sarongs fashioned into saris, home-made curries, store-bought samosas and bindis drawn on with lip liner.

Having recently taken on the imagination tour de force that is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I’ll save for when or if I feel I can do the Booker of Bookers justice), I was delighted to sit down with my shiny new paperback copy of Holy Cow!

After all, here was a book written by a fellow young Australian woman – a journalist based in Sydney, no less. So while Rushdie sent my head spinning with his eccentric characters, intricately weaved plot and fantastical vision of his own country, Sarah could take me there like an old friend gossiping in a coffee shop.

And like the coffee gone cold, or the phone hot against my ear, I couldn’t put it down.

Having vowed never to return to India after travelling the country as part of her “middle class rite of passage” backpackers adventure over a decade earlier, Sarah finds herself back in the over-crowded, pungent place of her nightmares in the name of love: Her soon-to-be husband has taken a work placement there as the ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) south-east Asian correspondent.

The bulk of the book covers Sarah’s search for spirituality in a country where mysticism and idolatry are available in bulk – and for a budget price. She spends ten days in silence at an ashram, and rather than preaching the virtues, her frustrated honesty is refreshing – and often hilarious. She spends hours waiting in sweaty, oppressive crowds to be smothered by the ample breast of a world-famous matriarchal guru and contracts a serious illness from the holy but filthy Ganges.

She calls herself a reformed atheist, replacing her steadfast views with curiosity. And fair enough – she went about it the wrong way. Atheism can only be founded in curiosity and is in fact a rejection of religion, which by definition discourages it. But that’s for another blog…

You can almost taste the stark contrast when she returns home to (what is also my home) Sydney, Australia, and relishes in the enormous blue sky and clean air, but you can also relate to her angst, her sense of something missing. Something like a connection with reality. This is why India remains at the top of my list of countries to visit. And I will get there one day, but when I do, I probably won’t write a book about it: The market for ‘young white person finds themselves in India’ has already been covered – and quite adeptly so – with this book.

Death Sentence by Don Watson

Don Watson’s Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language is vital reading for anyone who speaks and/or writes in the english language.

It espouses the importance of originality, clarity, brevity and honesty – the cover picture of a parrot is fitting.

“To write clearly is not to think shallowly,” its Australian author and public speaker Don Watson reminds us, lamenting that corporatespeak – disconcertingly akin to Orwellian doublespeak and Newspeak – has even found its way into sports commentary (“There has been a lack in terms of numbers of free kicks”) and weather reports.

The book is littered with painfully dull examples of ‘the decay of public language’ – of which John Howard (former Australian Prime Minister) and George Bush (no introduction required) provide ample material, contrasted to great effect with literary gems from the likes of J.M Keynes (“Words ought to be a little wild for they are an assault of thoughts on the unthinking”), Vladimir Nabokov (you know the one: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. …”) and Winston Churchill (“We shall fight on the beaches…”).

Watson’s own national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ doesn’t (and quite rightly) fair very well in his assessment, described as “thick”. (The line “So long as we’re required to sing ‘our home is girt by sea’ we are not likely to start putting our hands over our hearts” had me laughing out loud – literally, that is, not in acronym form).

So, next time you hear the words “moving forward” (here’s looking at you Julia Gillard), “in terms of” or [insert anything here]-“wise” making their way into your vocabulary (and that includes pointless and trite euphemisms that only muddy your message) consider tracking down a copy of this book, which even closes with a series of handy exercises for the reforming corporatespeaker.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Land’s Edge by Tim Winton

Entropy, 2006 from New Colour Works, Narelle Autio

Australian author Tim Winton has a way of witnessing the magical in the mundane; the poetry of the everyday, and this is especially so when it comes to coastal Australia. The beach.

Ever since Cloudstreet was compulsory highschool reading, I’ve been hooked on Winton’s words: Dirt Music, The Riders, An Open Swimmer, Breath, The Turning and, more recently, Land’s Edge. In almost all of his works, the ocean plays a pivotal role, if not a key character.

This short (just 104 pages) ‘coastal memoir’ looks back on the author’s own life lived in coastal suburbia, and his pursuit of a childhood dream of hot, sunburnt days at the beach, followed by long afternoons (cooled by the Fremantle Doctor) of escapism into the world of literature. His blunt, raw honesty is inseparable from his deep spirituality and sense of awe in the face of nature’s “blessings” and “miracles”. (“Blame it on a childhood of Sunday Schools… Call them marvels or natural wonders.”)

Winton’s vision of coastal Australia is perfectly complimented by the dream-like underwater prints of Sydney-based photographer Narelle Autio. Any Australian that grew up on the coast – the edge – will see themselves and their own stories in this tiny, poetic book, in which Winton manages so adeptly to explain the inexplicable. It’ll make you proud to be an Aussie kid that grew up in the ‘burbs.

“Robert Drewe has long argued that almost every Australian rite of passage occurs on or near the beach. The beach is where we test and prove our physical prowess, where we discover sex; it is often the site of our adulterous assignations, and where we go to face our grown-up failures. In the end, it is where we retire in the sun to await the unknown.” – Tim Winton, Land’s Edge

Fallen by Lauren Kate

On October 31 I tweeted about the recent Man Booker prize controversy surrounding the introduction of a readability judging criteria. Need there be a difference, I asked? A similar sentiment was expressed far more eloquently by poet laureate Andrew Motion, who argued that the inclusion of readability as a new judging criteria “opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true”.

He is right, of course. But as this debate circulated (and after my related Twittering) I was also reading the teen cult book Fallen by Lauren Kate, which is, I feel, direct proof that while readability and quality are by no means mutually exclusive, they can also quite happily stand alone.

Somewhere into the first chapter of Fallen I decided I probably won’t read the rest of the popular four-book series – and yet that wasn’t because I found the first installment a drag to read. It frequently produces cringe-inducing clichés and is terribly predictable (I mean, really, trick us a little bit more before the disarmingly good-looking boy produces the serpent necklace and announces himself in the first quarter of the novel as the bad guy), but then again, I’m not a 13-year-old girl, and it’s from that perspective that this book should be judged – and it is from that perspective that it has been hugely successful.

But that brings us back to the relationship between readability and quality. According to the Fallen website (hosted by publisher Random House), the series is “intensely addictive” – and I can’t deny that. I looked forward to pulling it out of my bag every afternoon on the train commute home, in the same way I look forward to the next episode of my (until now) secret soap-opera obsession, Greys Anatomy. But let’s look at that word addictive. Like sugar. Or heroin. I once heard watching television described as sitting in a lukewarm bath, which seems to fit with my experience of reading this book: you become increasingly restless and uncomfortable, but lying there is just too easy to really think about doing anything else. The question is, is that a bad thing? Is it worse than reading something so impenetrable that you get through a chapter and realise you’ve somehow been thinking about something completely unrelated the whole time?

Maybe I should re-read some of the books from my old favourite series, The Babysitters Club and see if I’ve simply lost the ability to relate to my 13 year old self. Except that I only have to think about other books I enjoyed at around that age: the Tomorrow When the War Began series (and, also from John Marsden, Letters from the Inside, So Much to Tell You, Dear Miffy), or Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, and it’s clear which books have had more of an impact and stayed with me far longer – and which I would likely enjoy just as much today as I did a decade ago. Perhaps that’s the difference.

Or maybe I’m just jealous of Lauren Kate’s enormous success, because I can’t argue with what is surely indisputable proof she’s done something very right with Fallen. So good on her.

Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux


Reading this travel tome from start to finish is almost as mammoth a journey as the one undertook by Theroux himself: island hopping with just his collapsible kayak as company throughout the Pacific from New Zealand all the way to Hawaii.

Theroux’s success as a travel writer comes just as much from his astuteness as an observer as from his uncompromising and unforgiving honesty. Any visions of paradise are quickly tempered with images of shit-covered beaches (“The village beach was the toilet in the Solomons; it was where people shat”); obese islanders gorging tinned spam – circumstantial evidence, Theroux felt, for past cannibalism; and over-zealous Christian missionaries pilfering souls.

The narrative is carried by Theroux’s personal struggles, which were also the catalyst for his epic journey in the first place; his wife leaving him and a thankfully short-lived cancer scare (“I heard melanoma and thought Melanesia”).

While I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the author’s more partial observations (“bandy-legged” Japanese businessmen “Nipponizing” virgin islands), I was impressed at least by the sincerity of his opinions – you get the feeling that nothing is held back, and I also had to take it on the chin as he described his experiences of my own Meganesian countrymen and women.

The pages of Happy Isles are lined with comedy, tragedy, politics and a credible touch of the mundane. A Pacific Island tourism organisation might hesitate to use the book in their marketing, but they’d be foolish not to. Any perceptive reader with a sense of adventure couldn’t help but feel drawn to the islands as Theroux describes them – their idiosyncrasies, history, culture, beauty and repulsiveness in equal measure – which speckle the Pacific Ocean like stars in the night sky.

There were stars everywhere, above us, and reflected in the sea along with the sparkle of phosphorescence streaming from the bow wave. When I poked an oar in the ocean and stirred it, the sea glittered with twinkling sea-life. … It was as though we were in an old rickety rocket ship.

It was an image that afterwards often came to me when I was travelling in the Pacific, that this ocean was as vast as outer space, and being on this boat was like shooting from one star to another, the archipelagoes like galaxies, and the islands like isolated stars in an empty immensity of watery darkness, and this sailing was like going slowly from star to star, in vitreous night.” – Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific