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John McAfee is a Heinlein hero

“A small group of mathematicians”

Jenny Davidson points to this article by Krugman on Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Given the silliness of the topic, Krugman’s piece is disappointingly serious (“Maybe the first thing to say about Foundation is that it’s not exactly science fiction – not really. Yes, it’s set in the future, there’s interstellar travel, people shoot each other with blasters instead of pistols and so on. But these are superficial details . . . the story can sound arid and didactic. . . . you’ll also be disappointed if you’re looking for shoot-em-up action scenes, in which Han Solo and Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star in the nick of time. . . .”). What really jumped out at me from Krugman’s piece, though, was this line:

In Foundation, we learn that a small group of mathematicians have developed “psychohistory”, the aforementioned rigorous science of society.

Like Davidson (and Krugman), I read the Foundation books as a child. I remember the “psychohistory” part, of course, but not that it was invented by mathematicians. That seems so retro! Back in the day, there were only a few sorts of technical academic fields, and one of these was mathematics. Thus you had Mandelbrot inventing fractals, Turing inventing computer science, and Ulam inventing the H-bomb.

Nowadays, I think of mathematicians as a sort of eccentric band of specialists, working for decades on problems that only they care about, while earning money teaching intro calc and training graduate students to work for Steven A. Cohen. I’m not saying that’s a fair impression—it would be just as correct for a mathematician to describe statisticians as an eccentric band of mathematical plodders who make a virtue of their mediocrity and call it practicality—but it’s the impression I get. If I were writing a novel about an exciting new science, I might have it be invented by a biologist or a computer scientist or even a rogue economist, but I probably wouldn’t think that something so applied would come out of the minds of a band of mathematicians.

A modern Heinlein hero

Perhaps Krugman will next write something on Robert Heinlein, whose writings, like Asimov’s, provide endless retro amusement (for those of us who are amused by such things), with the characteristic Heinlein hero being someone like a garage mechanic who develops a faster-than-light space drive in his basement workshop. Updating that to the present day, we’d end up with someone like John McAfee, that internet zillionaire who turned up in Guatemala the other day. Actually, McAfee sounds like a perfect Heinlein hero: a super-rich retired businessman with a fascination with airplanes, guns, and drugs, and a 20-year-old girlfriend.

Of course, if we were really living in a Heinlein story, McAfee would actually have a time machine in his backyard, and that girlfriend would be a reincarnation of McAfee’s cat.

P.S. At the very end of the Krugman article:

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, introduced by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, is published by The Folio Society priced £75.00.

I know the British economy hasn’t been doing so well lately, but £75 is still a good chunka change, no? What I wonder is, how many people who buy this book will really want to read it all the way through. Reading about the Foundation trilogy can be fun, but I can’t imagine the book itself can be very easy or pleasant to read at this point. I just feel that at this point I’ve read so many smooth works of fiction and journalism over the years, that it might be difficult to read something that wooden in style. (Heinlein would be much more readable, I’d think.)

25 thoughts on “John McAfee is a Heinlein hero

  1. I’ve never read Heinline, but from what I hear, his time in the Navy gave him a deep appreciation for the Marine Corps which supposedly permeated some of his books. If that’s true then a true Heinline hero would something like a Marine who’s also a physicist/mathematician/statistician. But that’s ridiculous because no one like that could really exist.

  2. Actually I just started reading my father’s old dusty Foundation editions. I’m through part 1 and 2 so far and found them quite readable.

      • Indeed. The fact is, I read the first two parts during a trip around Europe and back then to Brazil I wasn’t able to find an edition in Portuguese. It was a time when there was no kindle available (at least not to me) and whenever I bought at Amazon it took at least two months to delivery my books (ARM took quite more, if I’m not misremebering). But now I have a tablet and it’s time to read it. I’ll buy the third edition and starting reading it as soon as I finish Felix Gilman’s Half-made world.

  3. Maybe Steven Levitt can write a biography of McAfee.

    I think you underestimate Asimov’s enduring appeal. He was still very popular among my friends growing up in the 00s.

  4. The Folio Society is a UK book publisher who specialises in special editions of Classics, often with especially commissioned illustrations and high quality binding, which explains the price.

    Other hardback and paperback versions are available in the UK for about a 10th of the price, though without an introduction by Paul Krugman.

    I’m tempted to get out my much cheaper battered paperback copies and giving it a read again.

  5. I hadn’t even heard of the Foundation series until Asimov’s death. When he died, there were articles on his writing everywhere and I figured I’d have to at least read some of his major works for myself. I have to say I liked the Foundation Series and think it would make an interesting trilogy. (I’ve heard rumor someone’s working on a script, but I’m not holding my breath that it’ll be Lord-of-the-Rings-good.)

    If I were to suggest who might’ve invented psychohistory, I’d say it’d be a prodigy who made a great physics discovery at a young age, got burned out as prodigies often do, and retreated to the world of collecting can openers and studying sociology. If memory serves me, Asimov used an analogy that the behavior of a single atoms in a gas can’t be accurately predicted, but the gas as a whole can be, and similarly for people.

    About that time, I also read Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and it was one of the few fictional books that have literally amazed me with its concepts.

  6. The folio society sell leather bound luxury editions and advertise heavily. I’m not surprised their books are expensive. The UK Amazon site will sell you a one-volume foundation trilogy for 10 UK Pounds.

    I reread my copy recently (three cheap paperbacks, one with a few pages misplaced) and enjoyed it.

    Even within the context of the story “mathematician” is an incomplete description – although you don’t really find out until the third book, they are really mathematical psychologists, or even mathematical para-psychologists.

    For a complete new science I guess I’d bet on a completely new phenomenon discovered mostly by chance, so starting off on the applied side – but there is glamorous mathematics – P=NP (or not) and the associated applications of optimization applied to everything you can think of, with cryptanalysis just one. Come to think of it, one possible way to find a new phenomenon would be a statistician spotting an outlier and actually paying attention to it, instead of just discarding it to clean up the data.

  7. Psychohistory sounds like social psychology. I guess that’s what Asimov’s mathematicians would have come up with under the pressure to publish.

  8. “McAfee sounds like a perfect Heinlein hero: a super-rich retired businessman with a fascination with airplanes, guns, and drugs, and a 20-year-old girlfriend.”

    I’m glad you noticed the recreational drugs angle in Heinlein. it doesn’t get noticed as much as the nudism and some other stuff, but it’s definitely there.

    • Steve:

      I thought Stranger in a Strange Land was his most famous book? But maybe not anymore. I never actually read Starship Troopers but, more generally, while Heinlein did show a lot of respect for the military in his books, I recall most of his heroes as being businessmen, engineers, or eccentrics. Perhaps he idealized the military virtues too much, so it was hard for him to make an interesting hero out of that? Kind of like how Gandalf wouldn’t have worked as the hero of Lord of the Rings.

      • The hero of Starship Troopers was a member of the mobile infantry which is directly based on the Marines (he seems to have been a junior Navy officer with serious Marine envy). I haven’t read the book but most Marines probably have (it’s almost always on the Commandant’s Reading list which is a suggested reading list for Marines broken down by rank).

        From the movie I gathered Heinlein was a Fascist, but Marines who actually read the book had a very different take. The book comes across as written by a classical liberal, with a couple of blind spots when it comes to the military. If the voting franchise was restricted to the military for instance, then veterans would very quickly vote themselves a bunch of rights/privileges at the expense of everyone else. That already happens now to some extent even with universal suffrage. Heinlein supposedly seems oblivious that likely outcome.

        I’ve heard his description of some of the Mobile Infantry training was modeled directly on Marine Officer Candidate School and the Basic School from the 30’s and it reads like a description of those same schools today. The Basic School in particular is a unique institution; there’s nothing like it in the US military or anybody else’s for that matter. All Marine Officers including pilots or non-combat arms people like supply have to first spend 6 months after bootcamp training to be Rifle Platoon Commanders. The enlisted Marines have a similar ordeal called the “School of Infantry” tucked in between bootcamp and their regular training.

  9. I would love to read a series where experts talk about the relationships between their field and 20th century sci-fi! A physicist talking about the instability of Larry Niven’s ringworld, a world religion expert talking about Stranger in a Strange Land, a linguist talking about Le Guinn’s fondness for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis…

    • The problem with this concept is that only in a handful of physics and engineering disciplines has science-fiction even remotely been scientifically informed. In almost all the other sciences, physical and social, it’s been utter cranky nonsense. I say this as a lifelong SF reader. It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, when people defend SF on the basis of its scientific accuracy. That supposed accuracy is hugely overestimated.

      In more recent years, there’s been a bit of improvement as, especially on the British side of the pond, there’s been a wave of science-fiction writers who are not engineers or physicists and have some greater acquaintance with other fields. Krugman was also involved in a roundtable discussion of Charlie Stross on the academic blog Crooked Timber, and he was interested in the development economics as implied in Stross’s “Family Trade” parallel world series. (To be fair, Stross is trained as an engineer, I think, but he seems informed about things beyond just computing.) Peter Watts is a trained biologist and his books are far more informed in their biology than most.

      The heyday of SF was weighted heavily toward the “hard” science-fiction epitomized by Asimov and Heinlein and others. It was heavy on the engineering and physics, pretty much just pop speculation on everything else. Krugman’s written about Asimov’s Foundation books on numerous occasions; he’s pretty clear that this is simply dear to his heart because it sparked a childhood fascination that led to economics for him. Not that the thinks that it made any scientific sense or that it was serious literature. He reads some science-fiction as an adult, and I’d bet he’d tell you that there are scads of better books, in both scientific and literary terms, in the genre than those.

  10. “Marine who’s also a physicist/mathematician/statistician. But that’s ridiculous because no one like that could really exist.”

    Hey! I am an ex-Marine who studied lots of statistics on the way to a Ph.D. in a related field and now spends all day programming in R and reading Andrew’s books. And I exist!

    “training graduate students to work for Steven A. Cohen”

    Not a bad thing, I hope! (Speaking as a former graduate student of Gary King who used to trade for Stevie.) And, Andrew, I hope that you fondly remember your SAC provided dinner 6 years ago . . .


  11. That’s on purpose; I’m closing the website down.

    Yeah I’ve given up on the Ph.D. in Econ. I retook the GRE about a year ago in order to apply to an Econ phd program. I wasn’t sure how much all that hard living and sleep deprivation would have affected the brain-housing-group over the years. Fortunately got a math 800, verb 690, which should be good enough for most any econ program, but can’t find anyone doing any research that isn’t incredibly boring (typical example: “We do some tedious econometrics to determine whether men who win the lottery appear better looking to single females”).

    Money isn’t much of an issue anymore, so there’s no financial incentive to get a Ph.D. and my curiosity about Econ would easily be satisfied by a master’s degree. I’d really rather do physics, but it’s a dead field. Most of pure math seems to be silted up (how many more theorems in point set Topology does anyone need?). Statistics is a possibility and would be easy, but can’t find anyone who’s interests match my own.

    So I think the Ph.D. quest is coming to an end. Hope yours goes better. Really, I’d rather be in Afghanistan with Marines. You can probably relate.

    Semper Fi,

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