Saturday, June 22, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Asimov on Hyperspace, Pt. 1

Last week I wrote about the weird combination of ideas in the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game around interstellar travel. Coincidentally, I was recently re-reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and I couldn't help but pick up on a lot of rather obvious links between those works. So what I thought might be fun for the next few Saturdays is to go on a bit of a detour and carefully read the Foundation stories for some of the DNA that's built into traditional sci-fi concepts of interstellar travel (which particular focus, of course, of those parts that made it into the Knight Hawks game).

Now, obviously Foundation is just one of a great body of pulp and sci-fi literature which all contributed to a lot of our "core" expectations in sci-fi adventure. But it's one of the earliest sci-fi works to actually use the word "hyperspace" (granted that word is scrupulously avoided in the SFKH game), and in many other ways is a very canonical work of literature. One slightly earlier example would be E.E. Smith's Lensman series, which was runner-up to Foundation for the Best All-Time Series Hugo Award in 1966 -- but which I haven't personally read. For this purpose I'll only be looking at the original Foundation trilogy (short stories written in the 1940's), and not any later works (even though Asimov expanded his descriptions as the series went on, particularly in 1982's Foundation's Edge and the like). What I want here is the earliest stuff that sowed its genetic material far and wide. I can't express that any better than Mark Rosenfelder in his essay on the fiction of psychohistory:
This essay is based entirely on the first Foundation trilogy. The later books modify our picture of both psychohistory and certain key events in galactic history. But the original trilogy stood on its own for more than thirty years, and it is entirely fair to judge the concept of psychohistory presented in it, unmodified by Asimov's afterthoughts, exactly as it confronted readers for decades. (Link)

Now, the earliest Foundation stories leave the details of interstellar travel sketchy and pretty much entirely off-screen (whereas later on, Asimov became more and more willing to fill in those details as the series evolved).  In the stories that constitute Book One, Foundation (the subject of today's post), there's only one single reference that I could find on the subject of interstellar travel -- and this in the somewhat later-written introductory piece from when the short stories were first published in book form (1949; page numbers as per Del Ray/Ballantine printings of 1987):
He has steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars... Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.

Gaal had waited for the first of those jumps with a little dread curled gently in his stomach, and it ended in nothing more than a trifling jar, a little internal kick which ceased an instant before he could be sure he had felt it. That was all. [Book One, p. 4-5]

So I think it's pretty telling here that the very first word used regarding starship travel is "Jump" (later it loses the capitalization), which is exactly the verb used in Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks (as well as other science fiction works that we'll consider in later posts). The description of altered space and time is very similar (SFKH Campaign Book p. 3: "Time is very distorted in the Void, and space does not seem to exist at all."). And the time spent in hyperspace is also similar (very short, on the order of seconds).

That's it for the topic of hyperspace in Book One. But the other thing I'll point out is actually the common thematic thread that runs through this and all the other books: the primacy of nuclear power technology. Here is the first time it's mentioned in the initial story:
And then Hardin said ingenuously: "Could Anacreon supply us with adequate quantities of plutonium for our nuclear-power plant? We've only a few years' supply left."

There was a gasp from Pirenne and then a dead silence for minutes. When Haut Rodric spoke it was in a voice quite different from what it had been till then:

"You have nuclear power?"

"Certainly. What's unusual in that? I imagine nuclear power is fifty thousand years old now. Why shouldn't we have it? Except that it's a little difficult to get plutonium."

"Yes... yes." The envoy paused and added uncomfortably: "Well, gentlemen, we'll pursue the subject tomorrow. You'll excuse me --" [Book One, p. 60-61]

Famously, Asimov ended this first short story with a cliffhanger to rope the publisher into ordering another piece of writing from him. Wishing to use this nuclear power revelation against its enemies, the kingdom of Anacreon invades the defenseless Foundation -- so we are left with a mystery, but one where nuclear power is clearly the centerpiece, ending with these words:
In fact, as Hari Seldon had said, and as Salvor Hardin had guessed since the day that Anselm haut Rodric had first revealed to him Anacreon's lack of nuclear power -- the solution to this first crisis was obvious.

Obvious as all hell! [Book One, p. 93]

If you haven't read the Foundation books to know exactly what that "obvious" (not really: wink, wink) solution was, then I'm going to spoil it for you right now. In Hardin's own words, as he recounts the situation in the follow-up story (some 30 years later in-setting):
"What I did, instead, was to visit the three other kingdoms, one by one; point out to each that to allow the secret of nuclear power to fall into the hands of Anacreon was the quickest way of cutting their own throats; and suggest gently that they do the obvious thing. That was all. One month after the Anacreonian force had landed on Terminus, their king received a joint ultimatum from his three neighbors. In seven days, the last Anacreonian was off Terminus...

The Four Kingdoms were more our enemies than ever, for each wanted nuclear power -- and each was kept off our throats only for fear of the other three. We are balanced on the point of a very sharp sword...

I played them one against the other. I helped each in turn. I offered them science, trade, education, scientific medicine. I made Terminus of more value to them as a flourishing world than as a military prize. It worked for thirty years." [Book One, p. 104-105]

And so it continues, in some form or another, for centuries of time throughout all the Foundation books. Initially nuclear power is the political bargaining chip used to hold off enemies, as seen here. Then it becomes the centerpiece of a faux religion, complete with masses awed by atomic-generated glowing halos (and the ability of the Foundation to shut off the power of insurgent forces). Then it is the fundamental currency of an expanding merchant/trade system, using it to entice more worlds to join the Foundation (including atomic-powered knives, washing machines, weapons, and invulnerable personal force-screens). At the end, it is the major leverage with which the First Foundation might hold its own against the Second.

Fundamentally, the story of Foundation from beginning to end is a story of the apparently irresistible power of atomic technology. Now, while this might seem perhaps a bit parochial to us today (in the wake of computing and communications revolutions, a sputtering nuclear industry, the hope for natural and renewable energy sources, etc.), it's easy to see how a writer in the 1940's could perceive nuclear power as the greatest achievement of humankind, the crown jewel of technological advancement per se, and perhaps the main driver of all future history.

And so (to bring it back to our game) we see a direct projection of this sensibility into Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks, where the pinnacle engine design is the "atomic engine". Only atomic engines can be used to propel military vessels in the combat game, and they are the only way to speedily pass through the Void on interstellar trips (in fact -- they are so powerful that they do so accidentally, without any further technology breakthrough for the purpose). As much as nuclear power is the driver of all the plots in the Foundation series, so too is it literally the drive used in all the ships of the Knight Hawks space combat game. Perhaps it is in this shared near-fetish for atomic power that we see the closest linkage between Asimov's classic sci-fi literature and Doug Niles' campaign game setting.


  1. Fools All!

    Protoculture is the supreme power source in the Universe.

  2. It's been a few decades since I read The Foundation series, so pardon me if I'm a bit confused. In the books, atomic power is the Bomb (excuse the pun) of cool-ass technology, yet you state that "Wishing to use this nuclear power revelation against its enemies, the kingdom of Anacreon invades the defenseless Foundation."

    The Anacreoniacs, lacking atomic power, chose to invade the defenseless Foundation who had atomic power? I don't get it. Do I have to reread these suckers to make sense of this?

    1. Good question. The short answer is: it's currently unweaponized. In the initial story, the lead-up to the quote on p. 60-61 is a scene with the head of the Foundation talking about their dedication to academic research, and the ambassador from Anacreon talking about recent space conquests (and the Foundation's strategic location), to each others' mutual frustration. Then the insurgent Hardin (who later takes over the Foundation and changes their approach) steps in and reveals the nuclear power as a strategem. A bit later he explains:

      "Now, get this. We've had two months' grace so far, mainly because we've given Anacreon the idea that we've got nuclear weapons. Well, we all know that that's a little white lie. We've got nuclear power, but only for commercial uses, and darn little at that. They're going to find that out soon, and if you think they're going to enjoy being jollied along, you're mistaken." [Book One, p. 65]

      This is said by Hardin to the Board of Trustees, who at the time firmly reject his proposal to militarize the Foundation ("[it] would mean withdrawing mean -- valuable men -- from the Encyclopedia. That cannot be done..."), after which they get invaded.

    2. [Adding Foundation to my summer reading list]