Was Asimov Totally Dense?

The politics and policy issues that the esteemed Atlantic blogger Matt Yglesias normally tackles are outside the (admittedly) haphazard ken of my own bloggish enterprise here. (The exact scope of my mandate is still being worked out, which is part of the reason my “About” page sucks, but if I had to give a quick gloss I’d call it 1) speculative and other “genre” narratives; 2) non-fiction futurism, broadly speaking; 3) music and videos that I like; 4) oh yeah, videogames; 5) also dilettante-ish historical subject matter. Jeez, I need to work on this.)

AsimovPoint being, while politics qua politics is out, Matt’s very interesting nerdish musings on population density in Isaac Asimov’s Robot novels are in. Most sf readers can claim the veil of childhood ignorance in explaining just how they managed to overlook the extremely ill-considered population density figures used to justify the dystopian communalism in The Caves of Steel. Not me. I read this book just a few years ago, as an allegedly knowledgeable adult, and I never thought to blanche at Asimov’s population math.

As Matt explains:

The setting for the novel is a future version of earth in which the existence of advanced technology has failed to stem a decline in living standards (on the planet Earth, that is, the Spacers are better off than we are). The trouble is that the proposed population of Earth — 8 billion — is way to low to produce the effects Asimov is concerned with.

Humanity, in this vision of the future, lives in giant, mostly underground mega-cities the better to leave the surface of the planet available for the exploitation of natural resources. As Wikipedia explains:

The eponymous “caves of steel” are vast city complexes covered by huge metal domes, capable of supporting tens of millions each. The New York City of that era, for example, encompasses present-day New York State, as well as large tracts of New Jersey.

But here’s the thing. Present-day New York State encompasses 54,520 square miles and present-day New York City contains 27,000 people per square mile, so you’d be talking about 1.47 billion people in New York alone. And that’s ignoring the “large tracts of New Jersey.” What’s more, that’s Asimov’s NYC has the same population density as present-day NYC. If instead you assume it contains Manhattan’s 66,940 people per square mile, you could fit 3.652 billion people in New York State (again, we’re ignoring the New Jersey Sectors).

There’s more at the link, and also a follow-up post that gets into the density of Trantor, the entire-planet-as-a-single-city depicted in the Foundation series. Before you call Matt out for picking nits, remember that Asimov was an academic scientist as well as a sf author — so he really should have known better. Plus, Asimov’s dialogue, characters and pacing don’t hold up well at all, so it’s really either the strength of his speculative ideas or nothing.

Well done. This sort of unabashed wonkiness, ladies and gentlefolk, is how you get a full-time blogging gig at the Atlantic.

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One response to “Was Asimov Totally Dense?

  1. You used one of my very favorite words of all time! Ken! like alec baldwin said of the patriot act in the departed: i love it i love it i love it.

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