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Why I turned to Isaac Asimov in the pandemic

Amidst the nearly paralysing gloom of life inside a virtual lockdown, reading science fiction offers hope

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series
Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series

Would you live in a world that is supremely comfortable, where robots do all the work and all disease has been eliminated? There’s only one teeny, tiny catch. You live in a house by yourself and can’t meet anyone because you’ve lost immunity to all diseases and so have they. A meeting with another human being thus might prove fatal.

That’s the universe Issac Asimov imagines in The Naked Sun, a murder mystery set on a planet called Solaria. This is a planet where human beings live in huge estates set thousands of miles from one another. They are waited on hand and foot by robots. They have to substitute virtual ‘viewing’ for simple human touch. In case you’re wondering, reproduction takes place in labs.

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Disease and social response are once again a theme (though an ancillary one) in the plot of Caves of Steel, also a murder mystery set on a future Earth. The planet has seen a population explosion, and scientific advances have just about allowed the food supply to keep up. Human beings crowd into a few large cities—the caves of steel—and earthlings are looked down upon by fellow humans on other planets where most work is done by robots and most diseases have been eliminated. As developed countries that have vaccinated most of their populations close their doors to an India that’s in the middle of a devastating new spike in cases, the book seems eerily similar to our own reality.

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I wasn’t a very ‘science-y’ kid growing up. I didn’t dream of inventing new cool things or solving humanity’s great problem through clever gadgets (in retrospect, I probably should have). But the science fiction of Issac Asimov exerted a massive force on my imagination. Most people who haven’t read him, know him through I-Robot, a book that was turned into a movie in 2004. But the breadth of his writing extends far beyond that one story.

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If you are sick of reading about disease in the news and hence not inclined to get an additional dose of it in fiction, try Asimov’s Foundation Series instead. This is a trilogy set in a distant future in the aftermath of the collapse of a great space empire. A few farsighted individuals create two ‘foundations’ on distant planets, destined to restore humanity’s glory by slowly conquering the universe. The founders have perfected ‘psycho-history’ a scientific study of psychology and history to an extent that the future (of large numbers of people) can be predicted and acted upon by the would-be conquerors. The foundations (teeny tiny planets) with few resources gradually fulfil their destiny through use of technology, economic force and ultimately, mind control. Yes, the parallels with covid-19 models and rising and flattening ‘curves’ do exist, but hey, let’s pretend I didn’t point them out. And if you aren’t big on books, Apple TV is coming out with a series on the Foundation Trilogy, slated for release sometime in 2021.

As for me, amidst the nearly paralysing gloom of life inside a virtual lockdown, Asimov offers hope. In the Foundation Series, a mutant being called the ‘mule’ with the ability to read minds conquers planet after planet. The mule is a ‘freak of nature’ and not something the founders of the two foundations had provided for. He throws the two foundations off course and with it the psychohistory that was supposed to set them neatly on a path to restoring inter-galactic civilization. But ultimately, heroes emerge and put an end to the chaos that the mule has unleashed. A final revelation suggests that their actions were also part of the grand plan of psychohistory. Reality is also throwing up heroes in unexpected places from doctors and nurses to good samaritans offering help of all kinds from delivering food to finding hospital beds. Perhaps they too will see us through the worst of this pandemic.

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