Foundation, Asimov, and Power

(The author goes on at some length about how Asimov’s Foundation book is about lies, manipulation, and anti-democratic coups, and that women in the book are little more than domestic servants with shrewish tendencies who can be placated by pretty crap or small appliances. Word count: ±1,250.)

I finished Foundation last night, and boy-howdy was it pretty much what I expected. This is neither a flaw of the book nor a self-congratulatory comment. After all, the book is structured in a way that–by the time you get through the second section–you have a pretty clear idea how each section is going to end. At the end of the second section, you’ve seen Hari Seldon, that big fat liar, tell you that there are going to be a series of crises, and the end of the third section, if you can’t see that each crisis is going to precipitate a fundamental change in the form of the Foundation… well… good heavens, where’s your historical perspective?

Psychohistory: framing device for a series of short stories. Psychohistory: Hari Seldon’s flog to keep people in line. Now, from inside the story, psychohistory is a valid science, and Hari Seldon is less a big fat liar than this guy who’s cranked human history through a highly accurate algorithm and Seen the Future. He’s not that much different than any accurate seer. Then he ran the algorithm again, changing some factors, and Saw a Future which was less bleak. So far, so good. So he did some politicking and set the less bleak scenario in motion. OK. But here’s my discomfort… the changed factors were things he personally was invested in.

He created a dynasty.

Now, it’s fair to note that the dynasty he created wasn’t an inherited dynasty, and it changed form (in this first book, anyway) every generation or so through bloodless coups. But that’s sort of the point. And to refine the point, Hari Seldon kept showing up to give advice and tell people how they’re doing. Though pre-recorded infomercials in the Vault. From Beyond the Grave. What a control freak.

Now, Seldon’s goal–his stated goal, anyway–is to limit the Galactic Dark Ages to a mere 1,000 years. This is saying something. If 1,000 years sounds like a long time, bear in mind that the initial projections are for 30,000 years of dark ages once the Galactic Empire collapses. This is a particularly long time, since the Galactic Empire reckons it’s 12,000 years old at the time Foundation begins. (It’s unclear at this point in the story how far into the future we are, though we are certainly far into the future. Not only is the Galactic Empire 12,000 years old–whatever a year might be–but the subjects of the Empire don’t even know on what planet humanity originated. I mean not even the specialists, those who are interested in that sort of thing, which most people don’t seem to be.)

The other goal is to, if you will, lay the foundation for the Second Galactic Empire. To that end, Seldon did all the crap I mentioned earlier, plus–plus!–he says he created a second Foundation on the other end of the Galaxy. He says this. The narrator of the book approves of Seldon, so we have every reason to take him at his word. But why would he do this? Knowledge of a second foundation is bound to influence to some degree the decisions of the one we’ve been following. And the Foundation, apparently, works best when it’s not thinking very hard about what it’s doing. I presume we’ll find out more about the second foundation in the next three volumes of the Foundation series.

But what about Asimov? It’s a mistake to identify the omniscient narrator of a novel’s story with the author of the book. There may be a lot of overlap, but they aren’t necessarily the same. Of course, without going back to Asimov’s other writings, letters and such, there’s no way to know for sure what he though of Seldon and the Foundation scheme. The political structure of the galaxy as presented in the novel is imperial, royal, and generally feudal. The Foundation’s political structure appears to be a republic of some sort, but at the moments of so-called Seldon crisis presented in the story a strong man (man, mind you) takes charge of the situation, places himself in charge (within the electoral system if possible, but that’s not a necessary condition to gaining power), changes the center of power and the nature of the society, and carries on as if there hadn’t been any change in the Foundation. Since the goal remains the same: the preservation of human achievement (science, mainly, but also art, and–broadly understood–Civilization, but not in any particular sense), as expressed in high principles of the Galactic Empire just before the fall, through a period of chaos limited by the actions of the Foundation itself, in order to bring about the Second Galactic Empire, the claim that the Foundation hasn’t really changed is nominally accurate.

And, since Seldon foresaw all of this by cranking variables through his psychohistory algorithm, which is concerned with large-scale social developments and macroeconomic forces and the like, rather than with the particular actions of individuals, the strong men who take over the Foundation each generation are in the clear. From the narrator’s point of view. After all, the nature of a Seldon crisis is that when it comes, only one course of action is open, so when it’s taken, it’s OK, since there were no other options.

A pre-recorded dead man telling them they’re on the right course? I haven’t mentioned before that there are no practitioners of psychohistory in the Foundation–nobody can double check Seldon’s computations (maybe all those people went to the other planet on the far end of the galaxy). The fact that all these strong men appear to be like Lensmen from Doc Smith’s books, pure of heart, men of action and all that? (They’d make poor Lensmen by that standard, actually, but by the standard of being highly competent company men, they’re good Lensmen.) The bloodlessness of the coups? There have been only 3 coups so far, about one each generation or so, but each one establishes a ruling class more like those of the surrounding systems. The ruling class is even called princes in the final coup. Sure, it’s metaphorical, but that sort of metaphor has a way of becoming reality.

And speaking of princes, where are the princesses? Actually, there is one in Foundation, but she’s not a Foundation princess. She’s a political bargaining chip married off in an alliance of convenience between a pretender to the the decaying Empire and a rim system not under the thumb of the Foundation (I haven’t even gotten around to discussing just exactly how the Foundation is laying the groundwork for the Second Empire, but so far it seems to be by pulling the strings in other systems on the galactic rim, outside the sphere of the decaying Empire). She’s narrow-minded, petulant, greedy, and whiny. Of course, she’s from a privileged family with pretensions to Empire, and is now stuck on a ninth-rate backwater of a planet run by a family of dictators in the Soviet mold. So I have sympathy for her, despite the fact that she’s presented as a shrew easily distracted from her poorly-worded but completely legitimate complaints by a chain of sparkly nonsense and some high-tech gems.

And she is, by herself, fully half of the women in the entire book. The other half is her servant, who gets to try on the jewelery first, and who is just as impressed. Apparently Asimov cannot write a woman character who’s not a factory showroom mannequin. That’s probably not accurate, as I recall the only woman of note in Pebble in the Sky was reasonably competent, given the story she was stuck in. We’ll see if Asimov does better in End of Eternity, or in the later Foundation books.

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