Friday, 11 November 2011

Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Asimov's foundation trilogy is universally hailed as a classic of science fiction so it is easy to forget that the original stories were written in the 1940's approximately equidistant between the times of Jules Verne and the present day.

The basic setting is a far future period in the wake of the collapse of a pan galactic empire. A farseeing psychologist predicts that humanity will descend into a 30 millennium dark age unless something is done so he establishes a foundation(or two) in a far flung star system in order to ensure that civilisation is restored in just one millennium.

Unsurprisingly the science in this trilogy seems amusingly quaint to a modern reader with space faring societies still relying on coal and oil while the mysterious "atomic power" represents the elusive pinnacle of scientific achievement. The pinnacle of physical science that is because psychology has transformed from the crude understandings we know today into a precise quantitative science capable of precisely predicting the behaviour of large groups of humans thousands of years into the future.

Regardless of the comical science the good news is that the stories are well written and still held my attention to the end. I found myself eagerly following the exploits of Asimov's characters although I will admit that I found the smugness of the psychologists annoying by the end of the sequence.

This trilogy only covers half of the Foundation's millennium and Asimov didn't get to write a follow up until the 1980s. It will be interesting to see how he integrated the discoveries of the intervening 30 years.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell has a knack of finding interesting periods of military history as a setting for his novels and Azincourt (Agincourt to you and me) is another winner. Its the middle of the long struggle between the Plantagenets and the Valois for the throne of France that came to be known as the hundred years war. This fascinating period marks the end of the age of chivalry. New tactics and new weapons meant that heavily armoured nobility on horseback were no longer invincible gods of the battlefield. At the time of Agincourt the Plantagenets of England seem to grasp the new realities more quickly than their Valois adversaries and in a number of critical battles the nobility of France were decimated by foolhardy charges against disciplined armies of massed archers.

As well as the battle of Agincourt itself Cornwell also describes the   siege of Harcourt which proceeded it.The tale of how a few hundred determined defenders held off King Henry's thousands is fascinating in itself.

There is a story tying it all together of course involving a young English archer who joins the army to get away from a death sentence at home. Needless to say his trouble follows him and he must contend with mortal enemies form home while trying to fight off the French.