Tag Archives: Asimov

Asimov’s humans-only galaxy

I attended the European Planetary Sciences Congress 2013 in London a couple of weeks ago, and gave a talk to a session on the societal implications of astrobiology.

It was an extremely interesting session. Although everyone there was interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and indeed many participants are actively searching for signs of life beyond Earth, I felt there was a recognition that it’s entirely possible that complex, multicellular life might be rare in the universe. (One of the talkers, David Waltham, has a book out next year entitled Lucky Planet. He argues that the four billion years of good weather enjoyed by planet Earth was an unlikely, although necessary, precondition for the emergence of intelligent life. He’s as gloomy about the prospect of SETI success as I am – although both of us would dearly like to be proven wrong! Be sure to read the book when it appears.)

I was reminded of the session yesterday when I read a yet another criticism of the “humans only” universe portrayed by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series. Such criticism was often levelled at the Good Doctor: his fictional universe contains only humans and robots, the argument goes, because he lacked the imagination to create convincing aliens. The criticism is unfair. Asimov limited his fictional universe because his editor at the time, John W. Campbell, insisted on a human chauvinism that Asimov simply did not share; better not to write about alien intelligence at all than be forced to write about human superiority in order to guarantee a sale. Besides, Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves disproves the allegation: Odeen, Dua and Tritt are among the most convincing aliens in all of science fiction.

Even though Asimov the science writer wrote about the likely prevalence of alien intelligences, the humans-only Galaxy of his science fiction writing might turn out to be a better description of reality. That was certainly the tenor of my discussions during EPSC13.


Almost Lagash

The accolade for “the greatest science-fiction story ever written” usually goes to Isaac Asimov’s wonderful tale Nightfall (though personally I’d agree with the master himself, and say that The Last Question is a better story). If you haven’t read Nightfall, it’s a story set on the planet Lagash. The planet is unusual in that it possesses a stable orbit around six suns. Inhabitants of Lagash have evolved in an environment in which they never see night, never see darkness. The story hinges on what happens during an eclipse when, for the first time, the natives of Lagash experience nightfall. Read the story. You’ll love it.

Illustration of Nightfall

Asimov’s “Nightfall”
(Credit: Dimension X)

Critics have often pointed out a weakness in the story: a stable orbit around six stars is, they say, impossible. Well, this week a team of astronomers working from Kepler data have posted a paper on arXiv (“Planet Hunters: A Transiting Circumbinary Planet in a Quadruple Star System“) that tells of the discovery of a planet that’s being pulled by the gravitational tug of four planets. This isn’t quite Lagash, but it’s a planet that possesses an apparently stable orbit in a very complicated environment. Planetary systems are clearly more complicated than we thought. Maybe a planet like Lagash isn’t impossible after all.