Hari Seldon is a big fat liar

I’m about halfway through Foundation and I don’t think I’m going to have an awful lot to say about it. Asimov seems to have a house style, not in itself a bad thing, and the style is to set up a premise and then set two people to talking about it. The characterizations are a little thin, and much of the action of the plot is told to we readers either in the conversation of the characters or by the narrator in a series of “and then this happened” types of things. Which, as I say, is fine, if you like that sort of thing.

But what I’m really thinking about this book is that Hari Seldon is a big fat liar. So it’s not clear to me why anyone listens to him.

Actually, of course, we do trust Hari because he’s the center of the story, and Asimov isn’t the sort of writer who’s interested in keeping the reader off kilter with authorial tricks like an unreliable narrator or worse. And from a practical standpoint, within the story, the characters we’ve seen so far might just as well trust him as not, since what they’ve done has been essentially what they should have done whether Hari was there to tell them so or not.

(And, of course, strictly speaking, for all but the opening couple of chapters, he’s not actually there. He is a ghost in the machine. Every few decades the Vault opens up and a recording plays telling, in cryptic fashion, those who are there to listen what they’ve just been through, how it’s all Part of the Plan, and that they’re doing just fine.)

But, looking at it not from the point of view of how the author wants the reader to see it, and not from the point of view of Hari, nor even from the point of view of the characters for whom behaving in enlightened self interest (where ‘enlightened’ means ‘trusting that Hari was right’) is functionally no different than ‘acting the way Hari advised’ (more on that difference in a bit), but rather from the point of view of someone who has seen Hari’s public performances, we have to decide that Hari is, at best, a puppet master of a benevolent dictator from beyond the grave or, at worst, a manipulative scoundrel who so feared the oblivion of death that he dedicated an entire planet (possibly two–or more) to preserving his memory.

(The difference between ‘trusting that Hari was right’ and ‘acting the way Hari advised’ is subtle, and yields no functional difference in outcome. Of course, as readers, we have the knowledge that Hari was right, and there is not any actual difference between ‘trusting’ and ‘acting’ since both courses of action result in [a] floating along, as it were, until a moment of crisis arrives and then doing the only thing possible and [b] performing actions which result in outcomes Hari predicted, which skirts along the edge of ‘there is no free will’.)

Hari lied to that poor kid to get him to the Galactic capital specifically for the purpose of having the kid arrested in order to precipitate the crisis leading to the establishment of the exile Foundation planet. He lied to 100,000 people (a small fraction, almost infinitesimal, of the galactic population, but still, 100,000 people, about the purpose of the Foundation (it’s not to write an Encyclopedia). These are monstrous lies. Now, it’s true that the kid wanted to work for Hari, and did work for him. But these are all people who thought they were giving informed consent, and were most certainly not. It might have been ‘for their own good’ but still. That’s not, in itself, a very powerful argument for the power Hari is exercising over not only the people he took to Terminus, the Foundation’s new home world, but also all the people for the next 1,000 years (if his plan works) or 30,000 years (if it doesn’t).

And, more than once Hari mentioned the other Foundation world at the other end of the galaxy. Seems I, as a reader, came across something in Wikipedia which indicated that there was actually such a place in the Foundation novels. Which is all well and good, but at this point, if I didn’t know it because of outside reading, I would have grave doubts about it existing. I don’t think Hari tells the truth, except to the degree that it’s convenient to his Grand Plan. And I think he’d be perfectly happy making the truth look like a lie if he though it would improve the odds, as he calculates them, to ensure the galactic dark age would be minimized.

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