Saturday, September 15, 2007

Isaac Asimov: Foundation

In the 1940's, a writer starting writing science fiction stories about a empire far in the future (and when we mean far, we mean so far in the future that no one remembers Earth). This is a mega-empire, controlling vast sections of the galaxy in a peaceful existence, enforced by the power of massive spaceships and the power of atomics (weapons as well as other equipment controlled by the power of atomic energy). And then imagine this entire galaxy wide power to be in a slow decline such that no one realizes that it is decaying but no one knows that, except for one man who has invented a new science/maths that is so complicated that very few people can figure it out. (This maths works at predicting the behaviour of people in a crowd, with the bigger the crowd, the more easy the prediction is to make. Conversely, it is impossible to predict what one person can do.) Using this maths, the person has calculated that this mega-empire that has held the peace for thousands of years will die out, and there will come a horrible period of anarchy, war and horror that will last for tens of thousands of years unless some steps are taken to reduce this time period. Asimov took a series of short stories he had written using this theory as a base, and made an epic novel out of this, itself the precursor to a series that won the Hugo Award in 1965. Asimov may have died in 1987, but his name lives on in this mighty series that he wrote.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation

I have always been a fan of Asimov, so I might be a bit biased, but I have always considered this book to be an incredible book. Part of the beauty of this book is that it does not go into details of what the future will look like in terms of development of machines or other such science, but concentrates on what the society of that time will be like. In many ways, it seems like a continuation of things you can see even now (or could see if you studied the rise and falls of the great empires); using the decay caused by flattery, by too much bureaucracy, and by the presence of weak people in the position of power. You can read about how politics plays a part in everything, and how the power of mass appeal can be used to seduce the masses. In fact, if you look further, you can even relate the use of organized religion (and the terms takes on a new meaning in the book) to be used to control an entire planet (seems similar to what you can see in terms of the influence of religion in large sections of the world ?)
The book starts from the perspective of Hari Seldon, a newly arrived mathematician to the city of Trantor, the heavily settled capital of the Galactic Empire that has been in operation now for 12,000 years. Trantor is a world that has been totally built over now (although modern climatologists will argue that such a doing would totally destroy the climate of the world) and is dependent on a large amount of resources from all over for its survival. He is already getting famous as the inventor of psychohistory, which can be used to predict the future (or more accurately, as he keeps on describing, is a tool that be used to calculate the future of large masses of people). The Emperor calls him, and is not satisfied, and ultimately he is hauled up in front of the court for predicting sedition.
He manages to turn the battle by defining some of the timeframes, and proposes that he can save the future by getting an Encyclopedia Galactica built using his team, and they are moved to a small mineral-less planet called Terminus on the edge of the galaxy. Their true mission is to eventually establish a Foundation that is the core of Seldon's plan to bring order within a 1000 years. And so starts the story of the Foundation, growing out of this small set.
The story continues 50 years later with the planet being governed by the body writing the encyclopedia, not caring about what else happens. They get a visit from the neighboring provinces, one of the 4 neighboring provinces that have rebelled against the empire and become independent, but are low in technology, with no knowledge of atomics. Terminus is asked to pay tribute for protection (extortion on a planetary scale), and in lieu of minerals, to accept parceling out sections of the planet to the province and accept it as a feudal lord. A visitor from the empire is of no help. It is at the this time that Salvor Hardin, the largely powerless Mayor of Terminus shows his true skills, convincing the other provinces that the move by Anacreon is against them and winning this round. And to cement his triumph, Hari Seldon emerges in a 50 year hologram from the Time Vault and describes that the events were exactly as he expected, and that the concept of an Encyclopedia Galactica was a sham, with the true purpose being to setup the Foundation as the nucleus of a new power center.
3 decades later, the Foundation, using its vastly superior technology and knowledge of atomics, has taken over pseudo-control over the neighboring provinces through a system of science and technology transfer under the guise of a religion called Scienticism. People all over have accepted it as a valid religion, controlled by priests who are educated on Terminus and are capable of controlling the mobs on the various planets. But Terminus by itself does not have any military power of its own, instead depending on the religion to keep things under control. One person, Wiennis, the regent of Anacreon has seen through this and wants to defeat the Foundation militarily and get overall control. Towards this end, he even captures a derelict old massive Empire battleship and gets the Foundation to repair it, something that Salvator Hardin agrees to do. Hardin is under tremendous pressure from a section of his political opposition that does not like this appeasement, and they are enraged at this generosity of the Foundation. However, when Wiennis orders the attack, he finds out the true power of the religion that he endorsed. His ship, and every temple of the land is put under interdict, with the priests telling the population that Wiennis is committing blasphemy and his rebellion is defeated. However, at the end, in another emergence of Hari Seldon in the time vault, he comments about how the religion is enough for defense, but not for expansion.
These were the 2 most interesting chapters of the book, and the remaining chapters of the book talk about how the Foundation now spreads through the power of its technology and through the Merchant Princers, traders who spread the influence of the Foundation through the neighborhood, beating attempts to control this influence from spreading through means of hook or crook. The last section has an interesting story about how, when a society is hooked onto convenient and useful machines in every section of life, a war can be controlled by just denial of such machines to households in the planet.
For true science fiction adherents, this is such a book worth keeping that even buying a hardbound edition will be useful.



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