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Foundation

Recently I decided to “re-read” some classic science fiction books. Because I don’t have a lot of spare time to actually read I usually now listen to audiobooks instead because I can do this while driving, walking from place to place at work, etc. In fact the first book I listened to took up a bit more than a journey to Wanaka (about 3 hours) and back for some computer work I did there.

So what was the first book? Well why not start with one of the true classics from the golden age of science fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I listened to the first book in the trilogy a few weeks ago and just finished the second, “Foundation and Empire” yesterday. Well, that’s nice, you might say, but what’s the point? Yes, I do have one…

There were a few things that stood out about the books: first, the anachronisms which are probably inevitable in a book which is 60 years old (the first book was published in 1952), no matter how forward-thinking the author was; and second, how relevant the story is in a political, social, and economic sense.

It’s even more interesting to observe the modern political relevance when you consider the book was based on ideas from “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, a book written in the 1700s about events from years before that. Maybe the basics of human nature never change even though the technology does.

So let me get the anachronisms out of the way first. Because I am interested in technology I found these rather disconcerting although they didn’t really spoil the story and deeper message of the book.

Here’s an example: messages were sent in small metal containers and secured using a physical lock mechanism, and information was stored physically on some sort of film. We have already moved on from that!

Also, smoking was a normal part of most of the characters’ life. We have moved on from that as well.

And finally there was a vague feeling of sexism because the female characters (with one possible exception) were not treated with much respect. I’m not one to get too worried about political correctness but this was too obvious to ignore.

In fact, like many science fiction stories, the characterisation was a bit weak in places. But that isn’t necessarily as bad as it might seem because science fiction is often more primarily involved with ideas, speculation, and technology rather than characters.

So to move on to the areas where the story is still very relevant. I continually found myself comparing the political and social events in the story with what was happening in the world today, especially in relation to dominant civilisations becoming “old” and “tired”.

In the fictional world of “Foundation” the old Empire became bureaucratic, undemocratic, conservative, and un-innovative. In the real world the Romans became complacent and inwards looking and their empire fell, so did the British, and now the American (economic) empire is looking insecure. The parallels are obvious.

But in the second book, “Foundation and Empire”, the Foundation itself becomes what the Empire was. It also becomes undemocratic and authoritarian. And even if the original plan works the ultimate aim is to create a new Empire to replace the old. Why an Empire? That mode of government had already failed and would fail again. Why not explore better forms of organisation? Again the failure of imagination regretfully matches the real world.

An interesting minor theme I noticed in the second book is how incompetent leaders distrust competence in their underlings. The emperor effectively ensures his own defeat because of his paranoia about a successful general. Of course, his paranoia is in some ways justified because previous emperors had been assassinated by senior military figures! But in the real world similar events happen. Even if there is no conscious effort to stifle the innovative efforts of a leader’s subordinates it often works out that way effectively because of excessive use of authority, indecision, and bureaucracy.

In authoritarian regimes treason becomes the most serious crime possible. And in many cases treason is defined as not doing what the supreme leader wants. But in the book one character questions this view and states he serves his society, not its leader. It is like one of my favourite quotes from American essayist Edward Abbey: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government”. Again, the relevance to the real world is uncomfortably obvious.

Finally there is is the issue of faith. Religion seems to be a thing of the past in this universe. As an exclamation of surprise or frustration the characters say “Galaxy!” instead of “God!”. But there is faith, especially in Hari Seldon (the orignal scientist responsible for the plan to recover from the inevitable collapse of the empire) and that almost leads to disaster when people rely on their “saviour” instead of thinking for themselves. The relevance to the real world? Well, I think further comment is unnecessary.

I will complete the original Foundation Trilogy when I listen to the third book soon. After the original books Asimov wrote sequels and prequels and I may or may not listen to those. There are interesting comparisons which can be made between the Foundation series and the Star Wars movies. Except Star Wars doesn’t really invoke any sense of surprise in its plot twists, and while both Foundation and Star Wars can be a bit weak in their character development at least Foundation has that deeper level of political relevance. Maybe the difference between the two in itself indicates the dumbing down of our society (or empire if you wish) and heralds its inevitable demise.

But if the Empire will fail, where’s our Foundation?

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