[If science fiction is viewed as history in reverse (or as alternate history), what does it reveal about the way history is written and understood?]
The first female character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation appears in the final third of the book. Licia, wife of the Korellian republic’s leader, is a young woman whose “face was pale and coldly formed” and whose “voice was tart”. She taunts and threatens her husband, invoking her father’s power: “My father would pulverize your toy nation to meteoric dust.” She makes another brief, and similarly insignificant, appearance thirty or so pages later, which marks the end of female presence in this novel that spans a hundred and fifty “Foundation years.”
Rereading a classic can be revealing. I remembered little from my first reading twenty years ago, and on this occasion reading Foundation was like entering a video-game world of men with their politics and guns and trading ships. The sense of place, a vital element for imagining a world vastly different from our own, was all but missing, and the only cultural references included a “vegan” cigar, a two-century old wine, and a game of solitaire. Technology, too, seemed old-fashioned for a world fifty-thousand years in the future: calculators, elevators, public “visiphones” to make calls, “spy beams” to snoop on conversations, “air tubes” between ships, alchemical “transmuters” to convert iron into gold, atomic weapons, identification through a photo-bearing passport, and an encyclopedia containing all human knowledge. The novel was first published in 1953, and the last six decades have turned this view of a future world into an anachronistic vision. A sobering thought, it suggests that predicting the arc of technological progress is harder than we think it is. With our imaginations influenced by extant or emerging technologies, can we conjure up anything that wouldn’t pale half a century later?