Thursday, August 03, 2006

In the (re)beginning...

Title: Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov

A few months ago, a long-time friend gave me four Asimov books for my birthday. The Naked Sun, one of the Robot series, was the first I read. Then I took some time off from Asimov. The other three were Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. There are more books in the Foundation series, but as Dave put it, "these are the ones you have to read." I think Dave started reading Asimov when he was about 13, so I figured he was as close to an authority as I could get, and finally got around to reading Foundation this weekend.

The gist of it is that sometime in a future so distant that Earth is believed to be a legendary rather than factual place (Like Eden is now, except Earth exists), a psychohistorian named Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire, followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism. The fall cannot be prevented or stopped (by that time, it has already begun), but Seldon believes that the intervening period of barbarism can at least be shortened to a paltry millenium. To this end, he cons the Emperor into setting Seldon's people up with a planet where they can ostensibly go about collecting the knowledge of the galaxy into the Encyclopedia Galactica, a compendium of all there is to know about everything. Naturally, this is expected to take a while.

It's not until 50 years later (the book covers two centuries, so don't get too attached to any particular character; most of them only exist for a few chapters) that a recording of Seldon tells his people their true purpose: not to compile an encyclopedia, but to serve as a bastion of civilization, intelligence, and progress through the dark ages ahead. Their efforts will hasten the rise of the Second Empire, but along the way they will have to deal with several crises, which he has conveniently predicted with psychohistory.

Yeah. Psychohistory. A branch of statistical mathematics that allows one to predict the actions of billions of people over hundreds of year, though not the actions of any individual. Asimov actually made up a whole new branch of science to serve as the basis for this series, then killed it off again as soon as he'd begun; none of Seldon's collected scientists are psychologists (thus none are psychohistorians), to prevent any of them from making their own predictions. It goes back to the axiom that if the subject knows that it's being studied, it will interfere with the study.

The Foundation survives three "Seldon crises" in the first book, by employing a non-mutual stalemate, religious domination, and economic control (facilitated by superior technology due to inferior resources). Each time, Seldon has managed to steer them so that only one option is available, and somebody alwasy seems to figure it out. Usually this someone is one of the characters who lasts the longest, like the mayor of the planet who fires off epigrams like "It pays to be obvious, especially if you have a reputation for subtlety," and my personal favorite, "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!" These are the characters that even the book remembers, quoting and referencing them through other characters long after they have dissolved into the past.

Yet for all the crises, impending wars, and galaxy-scale conflicts, this is not a book of action. When plans are made and steps are taken, they are not charging head-on steps, but tiptoeing behind with a big stick steps. Weapons that win the Foundation's fights are politics, blackmail, strongarming, deception, and technological leverage. All the stuff that usually bores me to tears. I have no interest in politics whatsoever, having had enough of it in high school. But I couldn't help poring through this book, trying to figure out what ace they'd pull out of their sleeve to solve the next Big Problem.

When you get right down to it, though, most sci-fi is like that. As I read the book, I started getting irritated, and thinking about how most science fiction writers really don't know much about science, and so most science fiction ends up being about politics. Star Trek is famous for being more about social change and examining ourselves than sticking too closely to the laws of physics. Star Wars makes a big deal of replacing empires with republics. Sci-fi starts with politics, but gets the credit for the science. Even the word "robot" originated in a sci-fi story about social change. Now everybody uses the word without really knowing where it came from.

All of the Foundation's technological advances revolve around "nucleics" and atomic energy. These guys put nuclear generators in everything from ships to toaster ovens and butcher knives. The science Asimov does use is bad, and then he makes up new sciences (psychohistory? the name doesn't even make sense, but I'm sure there are people trying to develop something similar, and in a grand scale, I think it would work. But not with Seldon's accuracy) to fill in the gaps.

Asimov takes an historical view of the future, and that's what leads to a lot of his errors in the science. Rather than looking ahead to what we might develop and how society might change, he looked around him at the emerging sciences and imagined how they would impact society, never positing what would come next. Everything is nuclear powered because that was the next big deal when he was writing. The future itself is more like the past; everyone smokes, even in confined spaces like ships, and even though the back cover talks about "the men and women" of the foundation, women exist in this book only as wives, daughters, and consorts of the men. Even the scientists, who are barely mentioned for the most part, are entirely male. Looking back, I can remember only three specific females: the wife of a neighboring ruler, one of her ladies-in-waiting, and a mistress of a Master Trader. The first appears in two scenes, is a complete shrew, and is important only because she is also the daughter of an Imperial officer, something which is only hinted upon. The second has no lines besides gasping and appears solely for the purpose of displaying nuclear powered jewelry (that's right. Go ahead, read it again--I'll wait right here), and the last is only mentioned in passing, more as a joke. She may not exist at all.

The vast majority of contributors to this blog would take high offense at the slight role women play in Asimov's version of our future, but when he wrote this (early forties), he had no reason to believe any such drastic changes would take place. Forgetting where Earth was? Nuclear powered bread knives? The rise and fall of a galactic empire? Sure, no problem. Women in science? How's he supposed to have seen that coming?

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posted by reyn at 6:59 AM


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