Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan

Whenever he spoke on TV or at an event, an audience member would beg Carl Sagan just to say it, please! But his use of the phrase ‘Billions and billions’ was a misquotation, he insists early on in this collection of essays and articles. Ever the scientist, he’s sure he would never say something so vague or unspecific (what does it even mean? Four billion? Four hundred billion?). But like many other famous misquotations before him – ‘Play it again, Sam’; ‘Elementary my dear Watson’; ‘You dirty rat’ – it stuck. Probably because when he did use the word (in a more accurate context, of course) he made an effort to pronounce it with an “explosive” ‘b’, he says, so as not to confuse it with its poorer cousin, millions.

There’s an old joke, Sagan tells us, in which a lecturer explains that the sun is predicted to expand and consume the earth in around five billion years. A nervous audience member raises their hand and asks, ‘Excuse me, did you say the sun will burn up the earth in five billion years?’

‘More or less,’ replies the lecturer.

Phew,’ the audience member sighs with relief. ‘I thought for a minute you said five million years.’

Like it’d make any difference to us.

The content of this book is vast – it covers everything from climate change, to the nuclear arms race, abortion and finally Sagan’s own encounter with painful death as a result of a rare blood disease; myelodysplasia. His final essay is written from his hospital bed, followed by a heartbreaking, posthumous epilogue written by his wife that set my bottom lip trembling.

Each chapter could be read on its own and provides great conversation starters – but I relished (and therefore recommend) reading this cover to cover, especially if you’re new to Carl Sagan’s writing, as I was. It felt like an opportunity to get to know one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century after which his death at the end, while expected, arrived like a bit of a sucker punch. But it’s inspiring to think that his words and ideas are enduringly relevant and inspiring today as they were in the 80s and 90s, and will continue to be so far into the future. Possibly even when the Voyager Golden Record a spectacular project in which he was closely involved – is hopefully discovered by extra-terrestrial life some time in the next billion years.

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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?