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August 26, 2002

Then there was Abu Nidal’s time in the NFFF, but we never talk about that The Guardian catches up with the science-fiction world’s idle speculation about whether the name “Al-Qaeda”—which can be translated as “the base” or “the foundation”—came from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a far-future epic about a small, secret group who manipulate history to save the civilized galaxy.

I first heard this last November in Montreal, from the redoutable China Mieville, citing one of his instructors at the London School of Economics as the source. The Guardian piece cites Mieville and the instructor (one Fred Halliday, author of a book called Two Hours that Shook the World). Others quoted include Minneapolis SF bibliographer Denny Lien and, of course, Ansible, “one of the most popular science-fiction websites.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a Guardian article without a silly and easily-avoided goof—in this case, the assertion that Asimov was “once the world’s most prolific sci-fi novelist.” (Asimov was a prolific writer of nonfiction; his SF represented only a fraction of his lifetime output.) But it’s an interesting summary of the discussion and speculation thus far. [07:21 PM]

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Comments on Then there was Abu Nidal's time in the NFFF, but we never talk about that:

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2002, 08:52 PM:

Interesting article. But the author provides no evidence that bin Laden ever actually read the Foundation Trilogy, or that any of his advisors did.

The article also includes one error of fact, repetition of an urban legend: there's no evidence that Charles Manson ever read "Stranger in a Strange Land." It's not mentioned in "Helter Skelter," and Manson himself is semi-literate.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2002, 09:01 PM:

"Interesting article. But the author provides no evidence that bin Laden ever actually read the Foundation Trilogy, or that any of his advisors did. "

Well, the article I read made no such claim. It reported on, and summarized, various people's speculations to that effect.

I'm all for nailing newspapers' errors of fact (and you're right about Heinlein/Manson; I missed that), but let's not go after the Grauniad for claims it doesn't make. In fact, the thrust of the piece is "interesting speculations, not proven."

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 04:48 AM:

"The world's most prolific sci-fi novelist" would be...? R.L Fanthorpe, perhaps?
True, there is no proof that Charlie himself has read Heinlein, but it's a sure bet that at least some of the people who lived at or passed through the Spahn Ranch and other Family sites did, and passed on the plot and ideas through long conversations.

michael weholt ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 09:12 AM:

Why is it a 'sure bet that at least some of the people who lived at or passed through the Spahn Ranch and other Family sites' read Heinlein?

I'm just curious, is all.

I'd more likely say a 'sure bet' would be something like, oh, I dunno', "Abraham Lincoln read the Bible". Something like that.

It's these little details in the Online Life that grip my mind. Call me an intellectual ant.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 10:25 AM:

Bernadette just finished writing an article on Manson for a Scribner encyclopedia of the 1960s, and here's what she has to say about Charlie and Heinlein:

Doubtless, Manson controlled those he attracted, but he also learned from them. For instance, writer Ed Sanders mentions [in The Family] Manson's fondness for Stranger in a Strange Land, a satirical science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Actually, Manson barely read at the seventh-grade level--though certainly he incorporated many ideas when he heard them.

Space did not permit her to elaborate, but the communal polymorphous sexuality seems a clear influence. She also notes conversationally that one of Manson's children was known as "Michael Valentine", among other names, so it's clear that Stranger memes were part of the roil of ideas in the Family.

michael weholt ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 10:46 AM:

Ah. Interesting. Thank you, Kevin. Thank you, Bernadette. Glad I asked.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 12:03 PM:

It seems, then, that to say "there's no evidence that Manson read Stranger" and leave it at that, without further elaboration, is almost as misleading as to say that it was "said to be" his favorite book and leave it at that, without further elaboration (as the Guardian did).

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 12:07 PM:

(I do not mean to say that either Mitch Wagner or the Guardian was deliberately misleading. They could easily both have been misinformed, or just ignorant. And the fault is greater coming from a major newspaper than from some guy just posting in a weblog. Still, when correcting someone else's errors, it is wise to get them right. And that is what the collective entity here has done. Thank you: I for one am now better-informed than I was before.)

Prentiss Riddle ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 12:36 PM:

For what it's worth, Arabic speaking weblogger Colin Brayton says the story is completely bogus. Previously he explained the meaning of Al-Qa'ida. Yes, it means "Foundation", but to associate it with Asimov is like doing the same for the National Science Foundation or Joe's Foundation Repair.

Oliver Morton ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 08:02 AM:

Isn't Usul the Fremen word for Al-Qa'ida?

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 11:46 AM:

This seems strangely familiar. :-) Twelve hours before your entry, monkey boy. :-)

Even the comments seem familiar. C'ept more people are playing at your house instead of mine. Oh, woe. Woe.

Curiously, Prentiss Riddle doesn't note that his comment here is cut and pasted from his comment to my entry. And his assertion is, um, difficult to support from his cite, as I noted.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 11:48 AM:

Whoops. Made the URL go missing: here.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 12:50 PM:

With all due respect, while the first assertion from Prentis Riddle is an overstatement (Colin Brayton does not assert that the story is completely bogus) his main conclusion (that there are many more plausible explanations for an Islamic fundamentalist foundation being called "Foundation" in Latinized Arabic in the Western press than a fannish fondness for Asimov) is supported from Brayton's comments.

Using Occam's Razor for a guide, one would reasonably conclude that the assertion of an sf connection for the name of a terorrist group is bogus. The etymology Brayton presents is plausible and sufficient, and as noted by the Guardian article there is essentially no evidence to support the notion that the name of an Islamic terrorist organization was inspired by Asimov.

Thus, even though Colin Brayton never uses the world "bogus," it is reasonable for a person informed on the arguments to say that Brayton's explanation shows the Asimov-inspiration argument to be bogus. One could make a better case for the "Walt Disney Company Foundation" being inspired by Asimov, with Walt's cryopreservation and messages from his crypt being much closer parallels to Hari Seldon than bin Laden's (common for the century) distributing his sermons on videotape.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 03:51 PM:

Usama bin Laden's father is, I think, one of the great construction engineers of the 20th century. There may just be a source closer to home...

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2002, 10:50 AM:

Of course, it's also well known that the word "fundamentalist" was originally coined to describe those fans of Asimov's work who had first encountered it in the Latin translation -- Trilogium Fundamentalis.

chris nakashima-brown ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2002, 05:32 PM:

Don't know about Al Qaeda, but Aum Shinrikyo (the Japanese cult responsible for the Tokyo subway Sarin gas attacks) founder Shoko Asahara used Foundation as a blueprint for the millennium and beyond, modeling himself on Hari Seldon. Like Asimov's scientists, Asahara preached that the only way to survive was to create a secret order of beings armed with superior intellect, state-of-the-art technology, and knowledge of the future. This from the fellow whose goal, when he graduated from high school, was to become the supreme leader of a robot kingdom. (Source: 1999 Congressional Research Service, reprinted as mass market paperback entitled "Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why.")

Further evidence of SF's infiltration into the narrative of consensus reality.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2002, 12:42 PM:

*sigh* If only Asahara had stuck with his youthful aspirations...