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Chaos Theory, Asimov's Foundations and Robots, and Herbert's Dune: The Fractal Aesthetic of Epic Science Fiction

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Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert remain two of the most popular and influential science fiction writers of the 20th century. Each is a master structuralist whose works succeed in large part through the careful mirroring of concepts at every narrative level. While the fiction of Herbert and Asimov has attracted scholarly attention, science itself is a crucial element that is Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert remain two of the most popular and influential science fiction writers of the 20th century. Each is a master structuralist whose works succeed in large part through the careful mirroring of concepts at every narrative level. While the fiction of Herbert and Asimov has attracted scholarly attention, science itself is a crucial element that is almost completely ignored in critical assessments of science fiction as literature. Because the works of Asimov and Herbert are grounded in scientific premises, an appreciation of their literary structure depends on an understanding of the scientific concepts informing them. This book examines Herbert's Dune series and Asimov's Foundation trilogy and robot stories from the perspective of chaos theory to elucidate the structure of their works. Chaos theory is the study of orderly patterns in turbulent, dynamic, or erratic systems. The order of these systems stems from the interdependence of numerous interlocking events or components. These may take the form of fractal structures, in which similar but not necessarily identical structures are replicated across the same scale and increasingly smaller scales. This book argues that in drawing upon apparently chaotic natural and scientific systems, Herbert and Asimov created fractal narrative structures in their works.


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Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert remain two of the most popular and influential science fiction writers of the 20th century. Each is a master structuralist whose works succeed in large part through the careful mirroring of concepts at every narrative level. While the fiction of Herbert and Asimov has attracted scholarly attention, science itself is a crucial element that is Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert remain two of the most popular and influential science fiction writers of the 20th century. Each is a master structuralist whose works succeed in large part through the careful mirroring of concepts at every narrative level. While the fiction of Herbert and Asimov has attracted scholarly attention, science itself is a crucial element that is almost completely ignored in critical assessments of science fiction as literature. Because the works of Asimov and Herbert are grounded in scientific premises, an appreciation of their literary structure depends on an understanding of the scientific concepts informing them. This book examines Herbert's Dune series and Asimov's Foundation trilogy and robot stories from the perspective of chaos theory to elucidate the structure of their works. Chaos theory is the study of orderly patterns in turbulent, dynamic, or erratic systems. The order of these systems stems from the interdependence of numerous interlocking events or components. These may take the form of fractal structures, in which similar but not necessarily identical structures are replicated across the same scale and increasingly smaller scales. This book argues that in drawing upon apparently chaotic natural and scientific systems, Herbert and Asimov created fractal narrative structures in their works.

20 review for Chaos Theory, Asimov's Foundations and Robots, and Herbert's Dune: The Fractal Aesthetic of Epic Science Fiction

  1. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    Probably the best close reading of these two titanic series you could ask for, Palumbo's thesis here is that in addition to being entertaining reads, one of the reasons that the Foundation and Dune series have endured for so long is due to their fractal nature: the structures of the novels recapitulate their main plots, which are themselves illustrations of their main themes. The nuances of psychohistory in Foundation and ecology in Dune are demonstrated not just by the characters talking about Probably the best close reading of these two titanic series you could ask for, Palumbo's thesis here is that in addition to being entertaining reads, one of the reasons that the Foundation and Dune series have endured for so long is due to their fractal nature: the structures of the novels recapitulate their main plots, which are themselves illustrations of their main themes. The nuances of psychohistory in Foundation and ecology in Dune are demonstrated not just by the characters talking about them, and not just by the actions they take, but also how the books in the series relate to each other, since each novel is a mostly self-contained story but each series builds and expands on the main themes in subtly brilliant fractal patterns. Even better, Palumbo made my own vague notions of how the two series' overlapping but distinct and even opposed ways of viewing the universe relate to each other much more clear - can the future be known, planned for, and managed, or will there always be elements of chance, volition, and surprise? Asimov's careful unification of short stories, novellas, novels, and entire trilogies into the Foundation "metaseries" (i.e. the initially separate Robot, Empire, and Foundation series) is itself an example of the psychohistorical vision of finding order in chaos, whereas Herbert's more shambling efforts in the Dune novels to set up and then knock down successively grander iterations of monomythical hero archetypes are themselves demonstrations of inescapable disorder in a seemingly perfectly ordered society and natural world. Debates over whether genre fiction can be as good as "real literature" are invariably as tedious as they are pointless, and as this literary analysis of two of the greatest science fiction series of all time shows, utterly wrongheaded. Like a lot of other sci-fi nerds, both of these series made a huge impression on me as an adolescent. I read the Foundation novels in middle school, then the Empire novels, then the Robot novels and short stories, and then the Dune books afterwards. At the time, and even upon rereading, my appreciation was mainly for the ideas, since Herbert and especially Asimov have never been renowned as prose stylists (I continue to believe that this was not a weakness, and that Asimov's decision to listen to his critics and sex up his later works was a mistake that dilutes their impact). As economists like Paul Krugman have noted, Foundation is perhaps the best novel ever written about macroeconomics, and Dune is still one of the all-time great deconstructions of the hero myth. But where the two series separate themselves from other more typical epic sci-fi or fantasy, and rise head and shoulders above their own ancillary literature - the disjointed Benford/Bear/Brin "Second Foundation trilogy", and the fanfiction-y Dune prequels cobbled together by Herbert's son - to enter the realm of more purely literary novel cycles like Balzac's La Com├ędie humaine or especially Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart series is in how Asimov and Herbert's grand themes are echoed in each level of their work (I was also reminded of Richard Powers' similar attempt in his Poe/Bach tribute novel The Gold Bug Variations). Palumbo's goal is to explain how each series repeats certain plot devices or character actions as a way of illustrating the main theme within each installment and also between them, so that the search quests and preservation of knowledge in Foundation build up to humanity's ultimate survival and unification, while the steady accumulations and dispersals of power in Dune eventually lead to the guarantee that humanity will eternally evolve, never again prisoner to a single narrative. The first section recounts how the Foundation series was constructed and then expanded on over the half-century in between the 1942 publication of "The Encyclopedists", the short story seed of the first Foundation novel, and Forward the Foundation in 1993, and how, despite the very different motivations Asimov had for writing each series and even each book, eventually the series' architecture came to reflect the concepts of psychohistory at multiple levels. As readers of the series know, psychohistory is the idea that history can be made understandable and predictable by treating the billions of disparate individuals as an aggregated mass within a sufficiently sophisticated nonlinear mathematical framework. Asimov was a chemist in real life, and found the idea of a social scientific equivalent of the ideal gas law quite compelling, especially given the seeming slide backwards into barbarism that World War 2 represented. He didn't decide to unify his magnum opus until many years later, but he had left himself plenty of material to work with even before the discovery and popularization of fractal mathematics, because with the partial exception of the mostly standalone Empire novels, the Foundation and Robot series show a profound understanding of the way that dynamic systems operate, even on unpredictable human beings. Within the Foundation universe, Seldon's theoretical science of psychohistory requires a complex feedback setup of a visible First Foundation and invisible Second Foundation in order to actually apply its insights to prevent tens of millennia of chaotic barbarism. Eventually it's discovered that this "visible actor with shadow motivator" extends even beyond the Foundations to Earth and Gaia, and has been present in-universe since the era of the Robot stories (I have always felt that the treatment of the invisible global stewardship of the economic control computers in "The Evitable Conflict" remains profoundly under-appreciated as a piece of prognostication, especially with so much fearmongering about "runaway AI"). I wish Palumbo had discussed how the "individual action supports inevitable destiny" idea behind psychohistory relates to the Marxist-Leninist theory that an inevitable class conflict somehow requires a determined revolutionary vanguard party to take conscious action, but it's easy to get lost in the swamps of dialectical materialism. The repeated crises that the First Foundation suffers within each of the individual Foundation series novellas can only be resolved by the use of cunning to bring the system back on track, and even when the Seldon Plan is temporarily disrupted, such as with the appearance of the Mule in Foundation and Empire, Asimov uses the "fractal motifs" of backup plans, guardianship, and disguise to reveal how the individual character actions, for example the Tazenda gambit against the Mule in Second Foundation, fit into the larger plan. There's a great example of these fractal motifs in one scene in Prelude to Foundation where two robots are trying to shepherd Seldon to safety: "Daneel, however, is the guardian who at one point in Prelude assumes the most intricate disguise-within-a-disguise-within-a-disguise-within-a-disguise in the entire metaseries. Soon after arriving in Trantor's Mycogen Sector - where they come under the protection of Sunmaster 14, yet another guardian - Dors and Seldon don skullcaps and robes to pass as hairless, appropriately attired Mycogenians. Dors then insists on further disguising herself as a Mycogenian male, through a change of robes, so that she can accompany and continue to protect Seldon during his thoroughly unsuccessful attempt to infiltrate the Mycogenian Sacratorium, which only male Mycogenians can enter. Yet her three levels of disguise - a robot posing as a human female masquerading as a Mycogenian female disguised as a Mycogenian male - are exceeded by the four levels of disguise that Daneel must then assume in order to rescue both Dors and Seldon. As he, too, must pose as a Mycogenian to follow them into the Sacratorium yet must rescue them as Hummin, Daneel is in this instance a robot pretending to be human assuming the persona of Demerzel disguising himself as Hummin masquerading as a Mycogenian." The second section discusses further evidence of this multi-level plotting in the Robot series, as well as how they additionally incorporate Asimov's ethical concerns. Asimov's plotting can get quite complex, which is why readers forgive him his often weak characterization, merely functional dialogue, and aversion to action scenes. The Robot novels are essentially detective stories, which gave Asimov plenty of opportunities to construct the whodunits that he loved so much, but they also served as deep meditations on moral philosophy; since cooperation, intelligence, and tolerance are required to solve each murder mystery, the resolutions of which gradually help Earth get its act together and escape its terrestrial trap. The prejudice of Earthmen against robots and Spacers against Earthmen, are the backdrop that the main characters have to solve their crimes against, but with each successful resolution, Earth gets closer to breaking the negative equilibrium of its colonial shackles, and the eventual colonization of the galaxy becomes inevitable, which after the series unification can be seen as a profound statement of what it would take to get humans to stop fighting each other. I had always thought that the Three Laws were a great theoretical framework to discuss ethical conundrums as trolley problems, but the way Asimov unified early stories of individual robots trying not to lie to individual people in I, Robot with the robots' ultimate solution in Foundation and Earth to eliminate human cruelty and bigotry by simply amalgamating all living matter into a galactic superorganism is staggering when looked at in its entirety. The third section is devoted to a similar analysis of Dune, both comparing it to Foundation and as its own entity. Dune is actually more amenable to this kind of fractal analysis, because Herbert explicitly told the reader that that's what he was doing: "Like a fractal image, Herbert's "patterns within patterns" metaphor is reiterated through numerous variations to describe the complex schemes, frequently working at cross-purposes, of the Harkonnens, the Atreides, the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, Princess Irulan, the Tleilaxu, the Spacing Guild, the Fremen, and, finally, the Honored Matres. Pardot Kynes defines ecology as a system of "relationships within relationships within relationships" (Dune, 493), and Herbert's many variations on this metaphor also include the "blue within blue within blue" of Fremen eyes and Feyd's "tricks within tricks within tricks" and "treachery within treachery within treachery" (Dune, 125, 485, 486); "vision-within-vision" and "meanings within meanings" (Messiah, 39, 136); "trickery within trickery" (Children, 207); "wheels within wheels" (Children, 209, Emperor, 245); "hidden shells within hidden shells" (Emperor, 375); "a cage within a cage," "a box within their box," and "contingencies on contingencies" (Chapterhouse, 94, 197, 349); and numerous repetitions of the ubiquitous "feint within a feint within a feint" (Dune, 43, 332, 372; Children, 140, 322). Each variation, like the motif of schemes nested within schemes that most signify, underscores the series' fractal plot structure as this echoes its ecological theme. Leto tells Paul, early in Dune, that politics "is like single combat... only on a larger scale - a feint within a feint within a feint... seemingly without end" (43), a variation that is also a perfectly apt description of the archetypal fractal image's levels of scale descending infinitely." But even if Dune has a more openly complex plotting than Foundation, I think many readers develop a stronger emotional attachment to Dune because of its bildungsroman/coming-of-age skeleton, particularly in the first novel. Herbert then goes on to criticize essentially every element of that myth, but that's what's so great about a well-done deconstruction - it can be perfectly enjoyable on its own even as it shows why the thing it's critiquing is ultimately unsatisfactory (see also Norman Spinrad's essay "The Emperor of Everything" which also comments on the kind of adolescent wish-fulfillment that Dune is responding to). Palumbo spends a lot of time discussing Dune's use of the "monomyth", as in Joseph Campbell's work. I thought I had had my fill of Campbell due to reading one too many essays on the hero's journey in Star Wars, but Palumbo makes it all seem fresh. Dune's more openly religious/mystical/spiritual aspects make it easily as fruitful as subject for this type of analysis, especially because Herbert sets up a succession of monomyths (Paul's journey in the first novel, his journey continued in the next two novels, Leto's journey in the fourth novel, etc) that interact with each other in a really satisfying way. Alongside his incredibly interesting analysis of the monomyth itself as a fractal pattern is a discussion of the monomyth in extant world religions; Herbert had a lot of fun mashing up religions in the Dune series (the Orange Catholic Bible, Zensunni mysticism, the Bene Gesserit's Panoplia Propheticus, etc), and this kind of syncretic analysis gives a lot of context on why that strikes us as so plausible. One area I did wish for was a bit more discussion of relevant details from Herbert's other non-Dune works like the anti-AI stuff in Destination: Void, human evolution in Hellstrom's Hive, or social structure in the ConSentiency novels. One reason why I like the (unjustly) maligned God-Emperor of Dune so much is that even though it's essentially one long monologue, it collects just about every neat little idea Herbert ever had in one or another of Leto II's proclamations, but I think it would have been helpful to have some more background on Herbert's mindset because some of his artistic decisions, particularly in the later books, make more sense once you know where he's coming from. He infamously wrote Dune as a partial commentary on the idea of "war as a collective orgasm" after having read Norman Walter's 1950 book The Sexual Cycle of Human Warfare, hence seemingly odd ideas like the Honored Matres' sex magic tucked into the later two novels. Likewise, one of Asimov's main predecessors for Foundation was L. Sprague De Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, where a time-traveling archaeologist attempts to prevent the Dark Ages by reducing the physical and social damage done by the Byzantine invasion of Italy during the Gothic Wars; this conceit recalls the main character's time-travel in Pebble In the Sky, the only time in the Foundation metaseries where that contrivance appears. Palumbo has a great line that "Like the Foundation series, the Dune series is like a time-travel story without any time travel in that its protagonists also attempt to use knowledge of possible futures (gained through prescience, rather than psychohistory) to alter the future."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    Number 100 in the Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy series; studies which are a product of papers read at the Annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Looking at all of Isaac Asimov's Robot stories, and all the books in his Foundation series, Palumbo argues that the entire body of work is a meta-series that not only uses the principals and concepts of Chaos Theory but is itself an example of the different principals and concepts of Chaos Theory. Palum Number 100 in the Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy series; studies which are a product of papers read at the Annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Looking at all of Isaac Asimov's Robot stories, and all the books in his Foundation series, Palumbo argues that the entire body of work is a meta-series that not only uses the principals and concepts of Chaos Theory but is itself an example of the different principals and concepts of Chaos Theory. Palumbo also brings forth the fact that Asimov's creation of the plot concept of Hari Seldon's Psychohistory - similar to Chaos Theory - predates the science community's discovery of the theory by 20 years. Asimov is well known for predicting communication satellites and the principle that makes them work long before they were actually invented; here's another prediction to place in his creative cap. Enlightening reading for those who've read any or all of the meta-series as well as for those who have not. Unfortunately, I did not get to the second half of the book (about Herbert's Dune series) before the Inter-Library Loan due date forced me to return the book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Donald B.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Stephen H.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Pete

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tamara

  7. 5 out of 5

    Gwern

  8. 4 out of 5

    Homoionym

  9. 4 out of 5

    Steph

  10. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Amican

  11. 4 out of 5

    Secret Name

  12. 5 out of 5

    BookDB

  13. 5 out of 5

    Perlin

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  15. 4 out of 5

    Roxana Ropotin

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mark

  17. 4 out of 5

    Chef

  18. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

  19. 4 out of 5

    Marica Davis

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ben Stanislav

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