If future interplanetary human colonists, living beyond Earth, need some reading material, Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster could turn out to be a message-in-a-bottle style library. In addition to the spacesuited dummy driver “Starman,” SpaceX revealed the space-bound Roadster also includes a copy of three of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, commonly called “The Foundation Trilogy.” What was the significance of putting these specific science fiction novels into space? And did SpaceX really choose the best Asimov books?
In collaboration with the Arch Mission Foundation, the payload also included what SpaceX calls “5D quartz laser storage device…a high tech, high data storage unit that can survive the harsh environment of space.” Think of it as the black box on an airplane combined with the Golden Record NASA put on the Voyager probes in the Seventies.
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Arch is storing a copy of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which SpaceX says was “the original inspiration for the Arch mission.” But what does that mean? And why put this book series into space?
The primary focus of Asimov’s Foundation stories and novels is the concept of “psychohistory”; the idea that because human beings have amassed enough information to beat the Uncertainty Principle, they can predict and plan for the future. In the stories, a galactic Empire tries to control its own destiny through the implementation of psychohistory, created by the fictional genius Hari Seldon.
So, SpaceX storing a copy of the Foundation trilogy — the novels Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — makes sense as a metaphor. The books are about how information can help change, and predict the future, and the storing of the books with the Arch technology mirrors that goal.
But are the books themselves as awesome as many say they are? Did SpaceX choose the best possible Asimov books to put out into space for thousands of years? Conceptually, this was clearly a choice that made sense. But will our hypothetical future readers enjoy them?
Philosophically, the Foundation books are fascinating, but as is true of so much of Asimov fiction, these stories lack something in the character department. Some of the people come across as mouthpieces for the ideas, rather than people. Plus, he started writing the short stories upon which the novels were later based in 1941, meaning there’s a lot about these books that will feel outdated. And, there’s also a problem of the fact that the internal continuity of these books sometimes doesn’t match-up completely. By Asimov’s own admission, writing in his retrospective 1969 book Opus 100, “There are disadvantages to a series of stories. There is, for one thing, the bugaboo of self-consistency.”
Ironically, the Foundation Trilogy does not include the excellent prequel novel, written by Asimov much later (1988), called Prelude to Foundation, which features a young Hari Seldon. This book is actually a little breezier and exciting than the more famous trilogy and connects the Foundation series to Asimov’s equally famous robot stories and novels.
Should SpaceX have selected different Asimov books? Maybe. Much of Asimov’s non-fiction is excellent, particularly his essays found in books like or Quasar, Quasar Buring Bright, contain vibrant assertions that are more direct, and far less allegorical than Foundation. For example, in the essay collection, The Planet that Wasn’t There there’s the excellent piece called “Thinking About Thinking,” where Asimov argues (in 1975!) that IQ tests actually just perpetuate institutionalized racism.
Asimov’s science fiction novel The Gods Themselves would have been a good choice, too. It deals with the concept of energy exchange between alternate universes, and other dimensions where gender is totally different. And with that in mind, if you’re going to put a 5D nearly indestructible e-book onto a car flying through space, maybe there could have been a kind of survey of classic science fiction, instead of just Asimov. Perhaps The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin? The Exogenesis books by Octavia Butler?
The bumper sticker in the Tesla that reads “Don’t Panic” is already a reference to Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so why not include those books too? After all, Elon Musk loves Douglas Adams. He’s going to name the first spacecraft headed to Mars “The Heart of Gold,” in honor of the zany spaceship from the first Hitchhiker’s Guide novel.
It’s pretty awesome that SpaceX and the Arch Foundation put Asimov into space. But perhaps, next time, a science fiction novel or story published after the Fifties could find its way into the future, too.