Life imitates Asimov

Over each of the next three years, successive volumes of Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction masterpiece, the Foundation Trilogy, will reach the 60th anniversary of first publication — Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). Notwithstanding his much more recent authoring of two sequels, and then two prequels, the Trilogy can’t help but show its age. This is most noticeable with some of the props, for example, the “Transcriber,” a voice-activated device that converts human speech into pen-on-paper writing, with the author required to insert the paper one sheet at a time; and the kitchen-of-tomorrow “nuclear knife” offered by itinerant traders on the galactic periphery.

One prop, however, seems as magical-yet-plausible now as when I first read the Trilogy: the Prime Radiant. This mind-activated device both stores and projects the equations of Psychohistory, the mathematics devised by Hari Seldon as a statistical description of galaxy-scale human behavior. The equations predict collapse of the Galactic Empire of Seldon’s day (some 50,000 years after this blog post, you may be glad to know) and a subsequent Dark Age of 30 millennia. He sets up two Foundations, famously described as being at “opposite ends of the galaxy,” one to preserve scientific knowledge, the other to evolve and protect the Seldon Plan, with the hope that a new empire can emerge after a mere thousand years. The latter — the eponymous Second Foundation — operates in total secrecy, an evocative plot detail if ever there was one.

Unlike the Transcriber, which seems ridiculously clumsy in the era of the iPad, let alone the laughable nuclear knife, the Prime Radiant is elegant in both its functionality and simplicity. In the original Trilogy, it is mentioned in only one chapter, “Seldon’s Plan,” of Second Foundation. It is described quite simply as “featureless” and a “black, shining cube.” (It is also mentioned in a dozen or so chapters of the prequel Forward the Foundation (1993), the last book written by Asimov before his death, but there are no other substantive details.)

Here is arguably the most revealing passage about it, an exchange between the First Speaker, the leading psychologist of the Second Foundation, and a novice student:

He depressed a lever on his side of the desk and the room was in darkness. But only for a moment, since with a gradually livening flush, the two long walls of the room glowed to life. First, a pearly white, unrelieved, then a trace of faint darkness here and there, and finally, the fine neatly printed equations in black, with an occasional red hairline that wavered through the darker forest like a staggering rillet.

“Come, my boy, step here before the wall. You will not cast a shadow. This light does not radiate from the Radiant in an ordinary manner. To tell you the truth, I do not know even faintly by what medium this effect is produced, but you will not cast a shadow. I know that.”

They stood together in the light. Each wall was thirty feet long, and ten high. The writing was small and covered every inch….

“Do you recognize any portion?”

A slow silence. The student pointed a finger and as he did so, the line of equations marched down the wall, until the single series of functions he had thought of — one could scarcely consider the quick, generalized gesture of the finger to have been sufficiently precise — was at eye-level.

The First Speaker laughed softly, “You will find the Prime Radiant to be attuned to your mind. You may expect more surprises from the little gadget.”

I’ve had two reactions to that passage as I re-read the Trilogy over the years. Firstly, cool, I want one of those. And, secondly, how might that no-shadow thing work? Of course, with contemporary technology, we can imagine rear-projection systems, plasma-filled walls, or a low-voltage filamentary coating, either off-the-shelf components or some coming-soon-to-a-theater-near-you possibility. But I prefer to fantasize that it is along the lines of a James Turrell art work, similar to one of his wonderful, illusory light installations.

As for actually owning that small black cube, well, that seems impossible. Or so I thought, until I ran across the ProLaserFX Showcube. It could easily be marketed as the Prime Radiant Home Edition. Mind you, it’s $1995, so I will not be getting one any time soon — ever, actually. But somewhere there is surely a consummate Foundation fan, with money to spare, who will think that having a small black cube that can project “a Rigellian integral, using a planetary distribution of a bias indicating the presence of two chief economic classes on the planet, or maybe a Sector, plus an unstable emotional pattern,” is worth the price.

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