March 12, 2011


by Isaac Asimov
234 pages, Voyager

Review by Pat Black

History. Not only a Michael Jackson album released just as his life and career hit the big dipper, but a force in its own right. Isaac Asimov isn’t the first writer to tackle this concept, but he may well have been the first to introduce it to science fiction.

Asimov wrote about seven “Foundation” novels and a few interconnected short stories. They concern a point in the future where humanity has spread out into the galaxy, populated a bunch of habitable planets and set up the Galactic Empire. In the first book, the planet Earth is not even mentioned, not even a distant memory for the monarchies, religions, scientists and traders that plough the spaceways.

Into this sprawling setting appears Hari Seldon, a maverick scientist on the central planet, Trantor, who has developed a branch of mathematics called Psychohistory. It seeks to accurately predict the larger movements of culture and progress, taking the view that the bigger the mass of people, the easier it will be to plot its movements over time. Seldon not only predicts the end of the Galactic Empire, but also a “dark age” lasting, potentially, thousands of years, unless the spark of progress can light the way through at certain points.

These examples of “the Seldon Crisis” happen at several points during the story, and it’s these crises that form the main thrust of this short, but curiously epic book.

Originally comprised of a series of short stories, the novel splits into five sections – The Psychohistorians, The Encyclopaedists, The Mayors, The Traders and The Merchant Princes. It traces a few hundred years in the history of the Foundation, an educational utopia Seldon sets up on the distant planet of Terminus after he is exiled from the glittering planet of Trantor. This is a punishment for heresy, but it’s all part of the Psychohistorian’s master plan of establishing a seat of power in the galaxy based purely on knowledge, and tinkering with the order of things in very sly ways.

The first section of the novel has the richest visual imagery. Tracing a naive but brilliant student’s journey to Trantor to study alongside the great Seldon, it evokes gigantic, almost unimaginable futuristic cityscapes where the people suffer anxiety attacks if they see the sky above. I’d say this is the only part of the book that strikes me as having the tones of classic sci-fi and booming imagination. The rest of it is mostly concerned with characters in history and their conflicts with the ignorant, the greedy and the foolish. Foundation could easily have been told as a tale of knights, kings and castles, with a soothsayer or wizard taking the place of Hari Seldon. Its moments of action are few and far between – it does concern personal conflicts, but anyone looking for space battles, nasty robots and futuristic marines zapping each other will be disappointed.

Next, we focus on the encyclopaedists, the compilers of a masterwork featuring the sum of human knowledge on poor, neglected Terminus at the very edge of the galaxy. Here, we are introduced to Salvor Hardin, a man destined for greatness who takes advantage of Seldon’s predictions to branch out the power of Terminus to the surrounding Four Kingdoms. It turns out that Seldon’s encyclopaedia project was a colossal ruse, an excuse to set up the Foundation to counter the effects of the fall of Empire. “Cheers for that,” you would say, after working on “Aardvark-Anomaly” for thirty years.

We stick with Hardin for the book’s most intriguing section, where the Mayor of Terminus uses technology and guile to get a foothold of power in the Four Kingdoms. He faces off against a greedy monarchy, using the idea of a spurious religion based on the worship of science to topple them. Foundation’s most striking idea comes from its treatment of the monarchy and the religion; the notion that both concepts are not viable entities, but simple means of gaining power. Pieces on a board, in other words, to be manipulated by clever people to get what they want. It’s an unsentimental, super secular view that casts a rather ugly light on power structures on present-day Earth, and possibly the biggest allegorical moment in the novel. Religion is not only an opiate of the masses, Asimov seems to be saying, but a potent weapon of war for governments. Taking a pragmatic view, combining faith with scientific rigour is the ideal way to base your power structures on robust, testable knowledge, and get the best of both worlds.

Next up, we’ve got the Traders; capitalism in action. We are introduced to Gorov and Poynets, effectively, pirates, using their cunning to skin unsuspecting people of their assets. This short piece opens the door for The Merchant Princes and the last main character, Hober Mallow. Mallow follows in the footsteps of Salvor Hardin by playing people off against each other, manipulating spiritual schools of thought, dazzling less well advanced people with shiny trinkets and sitting back and counting the cash; avenues of trade being, in Asimov’s world and ours, a gateway to progress.

Clearly, under the terms of Psychohistory, characters like Mallow and Hardin are essential catalysts for societal evolution. But through them, I ran into a great big problem; I’m not sure I liked them very much. Salvor Hardin’s character is seemingly affable to begin with, and a fine counterpoint to the ascetic, waspish encyclopaedists. He gets into power through cunning and a sly intelligence. Later, we see Mallow doing the same, but with far more cynical ends.

I guess we are meant to see these manipulators and game-players as heroic, fighting hard against the corrupt incumbents of power, using wit and guile to defeat enemies. Fair enough, but I just couldn’t warm to them. It’s a bit like working with someone who combines ambition with deviousness; you’re never quite comfortable in their presence, and probably with good reason. I think there’s a fine but distinct line between intelligence and cunning, and these characters straddle it, often contemptuously kicking aside anyone who gets in their path. They gaze at the fallen with sardonic amusement as their carefully-constructed game pieces all fall into place, leaving their opponents to froth, rage and – in one case – blow their own heads off in frustration. Hardin and Mallow’s activities are strictly Machiavellian, and as such I couldn’t quite get behind them. Sure, their opponents are dickheads, but at least they have a drop or two of blood running through them. Maybe they just reminded me of people I know, and tweaked my own prejudices. But, for me, character is one area where Foundation falls down.

One other thing to mention is that a lot of Asimov’s universe reminded me a little bit of George Lucas’ Star Wars galaxy. The ray gun weapons are named blasters; I’m sure the planet Korellia, which appears here, was the home of Han Solo. In the super-cityscape of Trantor in the first story, I pictured Lucas’ central world of Coruscant. And in the political manoeuvring and game-playing we see perhaps the worst elements of the “prequel” trilogy from more recent years.

So, Foundation’s well worth your time. Not sticking to one narrative strand gives the book a disjointed feel, but then I guess the course of history has never quite run along straight lines.

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