Sunday, November 26, 2017
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Q. (a small voice in the middle of a vast silence) Forever?
A. Psychohistory, which can predict the fall, can make statements concerning the succeeding dark ages. The Empire, gentlemen, as has just been said, has stood twelve thousand years. The dark ages to come will endure not twelve, but thirty thousand years. A Second Empire will rise, but between it and our civilization will be one thousand generations of suffering humanity. We must fight that.
It's not a stretch to say I owe a lot of my love for literature to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. It was a recommendation my Dad made, after I had picked up some of his old sci-fi magazines. I loved it: the epic sweep of the storyline affected me in the way that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have affected other kids, in other times, and I was hooked. I read the whole series all the way through. I don't read much science fiction anymore. A lot of what I treasured about it--the inventiveness, the feat of imagination, the gripping plot--could be found, I discovered, in other books as well, and in ways that often ran more deep.
Re-reading Foundation for the first time in decades confirmed a lot of what I remembered loving about the series. Asimov, like Stephen King, is a writer damned with the faint praise of being the best of the genre writers, and with Asimov, that's probably a fair description: though the prose is often utilitarian and sparse, he knows how to propel a story in ways that other, even more "literary" science fiction authors, struggle with. Foundation is breezy, but it hurtles forward with great urgency for a book that takes place over a couple centuries. And every now and then an inspired detail emerges, like the young prince on the planet Anacreon who hunts giant Nyakbirds in his jet-cruiser, or the descriptions of the crowded urban planet Trantor, home of 40 billion people.
Re-reading it also revealed some of its flaws. The Foundation series, in a nutshell, is the story of a thousand years in future history. At the height of the Galactic Empire, which stretches throughout the known universe, a mathematician named Hari Seldon predicts a coming "fall" which will plummet the universe into barbarism, and sever communication between planets. He sets up the Foundation, a society on the far-flung planet of Terminus, which will preserve culture, science, and math in hopes of reestablishing the Empire after a millennium-long Dark Age--as well as a second Foundation, secreted away somewhere on the other side of the universe. His mathematics allows him to predict the course of history, and over that thousand years a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon on Terminus advises the people of the Foundation on how to approach the problems of spatial geopolitics.
Like all fiction that claims to give a vision of the future, Foundation is most jarring when it betrays a lack of vision beyond its own time period. At one point, Seldon, on trial before the Empire, balks at their suggestion that he has 100,000 followers at his disposal--they fear an uprising--because they are counting "women and children." It's striking that even an avowed liberal like Asimov would fail to predict just how antiquated that would sound, even as he was in the midst of the twentieth century's push for women's equality. Foundation tries to predict thousands of years of history, but it seems passe just seventy years later.
That's a small example that speaks to a larger problem that strikes other science fiction writers: the tendency to extrapolate from contemporary or historical circumstances, which detracts from the sense of prediction or imagination. Asimov modeled the series after Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and at times it seems like a recapitulation of history than a vision of the future. In its first century the Foundation moves through a series of recognizable epochs--first, it's a society of scientists, working on an encyclopedia, then, a political entity which cements its power in its region of space by providing atomic power in the guise of a Galactic religion. From there it moves to a trade-based society whose power is largely economic. The heroes of the story are always those who see the path of history, and are willing to embrace the new political circumstances rather than clinging to the old ways.
But the truth is that this structure is shallow, like a textbook looking for digestible patterns, and fails to recognize the interplay between science, religion and trade, in the Roman Empire or the Galactic one. It professes a view of human history that is teleological, and privileges the historical moment in which the book was written--note how the religious society is placed at the beginning of the Foundation's history, at a point which is meant to be the most primeval. No doubt you can see the movement of history back towards empire, personified not as the Roman Empire but the Atomic Age--it's the use of atomic power that separates the civilized from the barbaric in Foundation, which is strange today, when the technological advances we think of as being most important are largely informational and communicative.
This teleological vision of humanity works for Asimov because he shares Seldon's confidence that large groups of people can be successfully modeled statistically. That's probably true, to an extent. But there's little respect for the engines of chance, or chaos, or sheer human individuality. (Future books, I know, trouble this assumption much more.) Without taking away from Asimov, whose work has always meant a lot to me, I think it's those who appreciate the strangeness of human beings, their impulsivity and unpredictability, who often do the best job of imagining the future.