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.

“Hi, I’m Isaac Asimov, and I write things like this…”

“If there was a flaw in Eternity, it involved women.”

That’s from The End of Eternity. I started it, briefly, as a break from Foundation, from which I needed a bit of a break, after deciding that Hari Seldon is a big fat liar. I didn’t get very far; that quote about women is from the end of the first chapter.

I’ve read just about nothing by Asimov, of course. Just Pebble in the Sky, half of Foundation, and one chapter of The End of Eternity. But I’ll go out on a limb here, and say that Asimov doesn’t bother much with women characters. There’s one implied in The End of Eternity. So far there have been zero in Foundation, and there’s really just one to speak of in Pebble in the Sky. Anyway, I’ll reserve judgement, but I’ll tell you right now, Mr. Asimov, I’ve got my eye on you. I’ve got my eye on you.

I’m still not through Foundation, moving on to a topic which probably deserves its own post. I touched on it in the post about Hari Seldon being a big fat liar, but I’ll make it explicit. It’s looking to me like The Foundation is a bit more sinister than being merely autocratic and know-it-all-it’s-for-your-own-goody-goody.

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.

Donna Noble got Ripped Off

The Doctor has had plenty of companions. A boat load of them, if you count all the people who were more helpful than not, even if they weren’t traveling companions, and even if they were really just there because they were, if you will, the heart of the problem. Anyway. There have been a lot of people hanging around with the Doctor over the years. And, on the whole, they’ve done at least as much good for the Doctor as he’s done for them. On a narrative-what’s-this-character-doing level, we viewers need the companions because they give us a way to see the Doctor, and they give the writers a way to put the Doctor in relief against the world he inhabits. Without companions, who are by-and-large just people like you and me, we can’t get even a tiny bit of scale about why the Doctor is as amazing as he is.

And most companions show up, ride around for a while, and then leave. Some go home, others go on to additional adventures of their own in a larger realm. For instance, Sarah Jane Smith essentially goes home (for a long time, anyway–she gets her own adventures back on Earth eventually). On the other hand, there’s Leela, who goes from galactic backwater savagery to living on Gallifrey, for crying out loud. Then there’s Rose Tyler.

Ah, Rose… not only do you go from shop-girl to channeling the most awesome blue-pencil in the entire universe (the power source in the TARDIS, allowing you to rewrite history, including placing the clues that got you to that moment of transcendent power), but you survived it. And, in the bargain, you and the Doctor fell in love, and the only thing that kept him from actually telling you was the cruelty of the writers who made the supernova powering the Doctor’s last message to you fail just two—seconds—too—soon… O! The Heartbreak.

Then, a couple of years later, along comes Donna Noble. Donna’s an almost-mature grown-up, not a plucky teenager. Donna’s been in a string of dead-end jobs, and her mom’s not really helpful. It’s not that her advice is exactly bad so much as it’s constantly negative, and it’s constantly constant. That woman just doesn’t stop talking–ever–about how Donna is messing up her life, and not making much of herself, and just doing whatever she’d rather Donna isn’t doing just to snag a man. Of course, it’s true that Donna starts out pretty shallow. And she never really stops thinking of herself as ‘just a temp.’ But she grows–as a fer-instance, aliens stop being ‘it’ and become ‘him’ or ‘her.’ The skills she does have, and the things she does notice, are important ones, and truly helpful to the Doctor. Even more importantly (for the Doctor, but of secondary importance to Donna), is that she seems really to rekindle the Doctor’s empathy.

Look, the Doctor hates killing. This has never really been in doubt. But in the post-Rose episodes, he was perfunctory about the no killing, no genocide rule. He let Rose destroy the Daleks at the end of the Bad Wolf story line. He and Rose sucked the Daleks into the void at the end of that story a year later. He’s constantly giving the bad guys “one chance” and they never take it, and he destroys them. In the blood family (“Father of mine”) story line, he hides himself as a human for years in order to avoid a fight with the bad guys so he doesn’t have to destroy them. Then they find him and he destroys them in mythic fashion. In the first story with Donna, he destroys the bad guys in fire and flood, and is filmed as a vengeful god. But at the end of the time Donna spends with him, he has (it seems) overcome much of the misery from the Last Great Time War (or at least the part that comes from his part in destroying the Daleks that time). We’ll see how he reacts when the Daleks (inevitably!) come back.

But, for as much great character development and growth that Donna gets, and as much good as she does the Doctor, she still gets Ripped Off. Here’s the first part why: her story is, essentially, a rehash of Rose’s. It starts with her accidentally working with the Doctor at Christmastime, and fighting off automaton baddies, then they spend a bunch time running all over the galaxy saving the day, they cope with the fact that her family (parts of it, anyway) don’t like/trust the Doctor while missing several clues along the way that Donna is “Important to the Doctor,” and end up defeating the Daleks by channeling the power of the TARDIS through Donna while the Doctor is sidelined. Now, I don’t want to make too much of this. Part of it is the structure of serial TV–there has to be a high-stakes conclusion to the story line. Part of it is the nature of Doctor Who as a TV show in particular. But part of it is the writers running along a well-worn track with something that works, rather than trying something different. That said, the over-all story line was well-done, and done differently enough from the Rose story to be passable, and done in a way that keeps moving character development things forward. For the Doctor, anyway.

Which leads to the other part why Donna got Ripped Off: she winds up exactly where she started. As a side effect of channeling that energy (not, I know, strictly speaking, TARDIS energy, but, rather, some sort of Time Lord life energy thing that gave her Time Lord thinkiness, and Doctor thinkiness specifically), Donna’s brain was going to explode. Or something equally bad. Now, when Rose channeled all the Timey-wimey energy of the TARDIS as the Bad Wolf, she couldn’t survive that, so says the Doctor, who ought to know. So he absorbed the energy, expelled it back into the TARDIS, saved Rose, and triggered a regeneration. Reasonable, and he and Rose got to run around together for another whole year or so.

Donna, by comparison, is merely suffering from some sort of thinkiness disease. Something the Doctor can take care of with a brief mind meld. But the outcome of the mind meld is, essentially, a weak amnesia. He takes her home, and warns her family to let her never, ever know anything that she’s been through, or her brain will explode–so all that she experienced is still in there somewhere; a weak amnesia. She survives the brush with holding the mind of a Time Lord in her human brain, but at the cost of losing all the personal growth she had as the Doctor’s companion. When the Doctor stops in to say goodbye, she barely notices. This is OK, she’s got amnesia, after all, and he’s nobody special to her. Got to keep that Time Lord mind bottled away or her brain will explode. I’m fine with that. But she barely notices his departure, in part, because she’s on the phone having some inane conversation with one of her office friends about who-cares-what, a petty bit of pub gossip.

It didn’t have to be that way; she could have been more mature, and still not have her brain explode. Maybe she noticed that she wasn’t interested in all that stuff-n-nonsense, or not as much, after all, stuff-n-nonsense can be pretty fun. Rose survived being possessed by an insane amount of quasi-conscious energy. Martha got run through a wringer, survived, actually became a physician, and remembers things that didn’t happen. Donna? Donna grew up, saved the world, averted a universal Dalek apocalypse, and was rewarded with a room in her mom’s flat, a shared phone line, and adolescent priorities. Maybe the writers did that with an eye toward bringing her back for a future story. A lot of characters have come back in the post-2005 era. Even ones for whom it’s supposed to be physically impossible to come back. And maybe there’s a way for Donna to get all that growth back without her brain exploding. I’d like to think so. But right now, what we’ve seen (or what I’ve seen anyway, my wife and I aren’t fully caught up yet), is that the writers let Donna Noble get Ripped Off.

The Doctor, not Generations

I haven’t gotten around to re-watching Generations yet, since we’ve been watching all the post-Eccleston episodes of Doctor Who. Thank Wii streaming for the fact that it’s easier to watch something like 40 hours of recent TV than 2 hours of VHS. I’ll probably end up watching Insurrection, too. Which might mean I’ll just have to watch (or re-watch) all the Star Trek movies between the whales and last year’s offering from Abrams. I don’t think I’ve seen all of them, though it seems like I’ve seen Nemesis about 800 times.

Anyway. Since I’ve been watching Doctor Who, I might just as well make some comments on it, right? RIGHT? First, and just to get it out of the way, since I don’t think it’ll have much bearing on the actual comments. Tom Baker will probably always be my doctor, though I quite liked Peter Davison as well.

What is there to say, really about the new offerings from the team who brings you the Doctor? We’ve just started, what is it… Season 4? Eccelston is one, Tennant with Piper is two, Tennant with Agyeman is three, so yes. Season 4. Just finished giving the Ood their brains back. It’s good to have a companion who isn’t all gooey for the Doctor.

I’m glad the TARDIS is still a police box, but I’m not sure I’m such a fan of the especially large control room. Given how little time is spent in it, it seems like kind of a big ole set. The joke (such as it is) each new companion gets, “bigger on the inside,” is as well served by any set that’s bigger than a call box. I understand that the post-Tennant control room set is even larger. It’s not really a complaint so much as a matter of taste.

This next comment about the TARDIS is more of a complaint. The TARDIS seems more active in the new shows than I remember. I was always comfortable with the idea that the TARDIS is more than just a conveyance, that it has its own motives, and is capable of independent action. All that is OK, there just seems to be kind of a lot of plot keyed to the TARDIS itself. The end of season 1 relied on previously-unseen abilities of the TARDIS, for instance. In the the later parts of Season 3 and early in Season 4 the TARDIS gets, if you will, kidnapped rather a lot. I like the idea that the TARDIS (well, the Doctor’s anyway) isn’t capable of fine-tuned movements through space and time, except for the purposes of a joke (such as when the Doctor does that tie thing with Martha Jones). Also, I liked the fact that the TARDIS, once it landed, was locked in place, and couldn’t be moved except by an operator. I don’t especially like that someone can come along with a furniture dolly and take it someplace else. It makes for an exciting moment, sure, “YEIKS! Where’s the TARDIS‽” But given what it is, and what it seems able to do on its own, why can someone in ancient Pompeii just pick it up and take it somewhere? Though, of course, in that case it might be argued that the Doctor and Donna wouldn’t have resolved the problem (that Vesuvius wasn’t going to explode like it was supposed to) if the TARDIS hadn’t gotten sold off and moved. Maybe the TARDIS was acting in the Doctor’s interests by allowing itself to be moved. Yeah. Maybe.

This is threatening to turn into a list of mostly complaints. Dagnabbit, that’s not what I want to do. So let me just step in here and say that I’m really enjoying the show. The characters and the interrelationships are great. This is true of the main cast, the recurring cast, and the supporting cast for the various story lines. As for the fact that the Doctor and Rose were all gooey, and then Martha was all gooey, too? Well, I’d have preferred it if they didn’t do that. But they did, and they handled it well. They didn’t merely rehash that material, and they didn’t make Martha a hanger-on or damsel-in-distress type. She knows her own mind, even when she’s all gooey, and is still able to make good decisions both for herself and in the crisises she and the Doctor encountered.

But, and this is a minor complaint, but… I feel quite often as I’m watching these new episodes that I’ve seen a lot of them before. There’s enough variation and vim that I don’t feel like I’m merely seeing retreads, but there is enough similarity that I find myself thinking, “with all of time and space to work with, why is the villain another family chasing the Doctor? Why is there another story whose climax is about fifteen quintillion of something flying around London killing people?” And so on.

Anyway, my wife says I should watch the two-parter where Martha works for UNIT, and Donna gets a salute, so I probably will. And I’m sure I’ll be glad I did.

Reconsidering Kirk’s role in Star Trek: Generations

There’s been some reconsideration of Generations over at TrekWeb recently. I made a comment which received some approval, so I plan to revisit the movie, and see if I can expand on the comment. Here’s what I wrote, pending a more complete consideration.

RE: Looking back at Generations
By: SM (Odo’s file, contact) @ 06:06:33 on Aug 13, 2010

Kirk may have been the greatest captain of all time, but in the events leading up to his death he was:

  • recently removed from a bucolic dream, motivated, sure, and in good physical shape all things considered, but not in shape for adventuring
  • decades out of his own time-frame, and facing a villain, who–if Soran had ever even heard of Kirk–didn’t care who he was beyond being an obstacle to overcome (compare with Khan, who was so obsessed with Kirk’s Kirkiness that he was blinded by hate and made bad decisions, despite which Kirk would still have lost without Spock’s actions)
  • and, probably most importantly, he was removed from his team (his Enterprise), his crew (all of them), and his heart and soul (McCoy and Spock).

My point is that, no matter how well regarded Kirk was as an historical figure, when Picard brought Kirk into the final conflict with Soran, Kirk was stripped of the context in which his justified reputation was built. Kirk without his ship, crew, and most trusted advisers is (over) confident and apt to let his personal frustrations (overly) influence his actions. He still has all his Kirk qualities, but they aren’t channeled by his Kirk responsibilities, and he becomes an anachronism, not able to overcome the challenges he faces.


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