Foundation June 22-28

on June 28, 2013 in Books, Journal


On a vacation with my father and brother to Sanibel Island when I was thirteen we rented this little cabin wherein resided this free love era television that seemed to only get one channel, and it was on that channel on that television in that beach-side cabin that I was first introduced to the wonders of science fiction in the form of the incomparable Star Trek(TOS). I was hooked at once and immediately became an entrenched fan and have let my imagine go boldly ever since. Because of this it came as no surprise to me that I would quickly become enamored of the many pillars of science fiction literature and I am always delighted when my reading cycles thereward leads, and this week it has done just that.
In preparation for diving into the mysteries of the universe of science in the form of Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace I thought I’d couple it with the often prophetic world of fiction, more specifically Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. For fear of having this editorial become as extended a work as my Gone with the Wind piece I think I will take each book as it comes rather than publish them all at once.
Foundation seems to be unique even amongst the giants of the genre in that, rather than focusing on a single character through a set of trials to a conclusion, this novel shrinks the characters beneath the scale of a galactic timeline where the influence of a single life can so easily be lost like so many billions of stars in the far flung cosmos. Because of this I have had to take a different mindset into the world of the foundation and its founder Hari Seldon. If one were to look at this novel with some of the classical tools of criticism this work could suffer mightily. Mr. Asimov’s characters are often as two dimensional as they are temporary. The three main protagonists, Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin, and Hober Mallow, have little distinguishing characteristics other than the fact that each, in his own time, is the smartest man in the room. Mr. Asimov’s keeps his descriptions to a minimum and leaves the reader to design his own vast galactic empire with the sparse pieces he provides. However, what effort is spared in character and setting is spent tenfold in the math, science, politics, religion, and humanity that shape the vast scope of the overarching narrative.
On its surface this work asks the reader to suspend a good deal of disbelief to be sure, but I feel that hyperbole as example, of which I am no stranger as anyone who has argued with me to an extent where I refer to my society of four people model can attest, is one of science fictions most effective tools. The first challenge comes in the future math of psychohistory. This combination of history, sociology, and statistics predicts, with perfect accuracy through the first novel at least, every action of vast societies containing trillions of people. That being said however, the collapse and aftermath of Mr. Asimov’s galactic empire is not dissimilar to our own historical empires. The second challenge is perhaps a personal one. I am of the belief that the human race, which this work hints at being the foundation for the galactic empire, would necessarily have to evolve out of many of the base traits that seem to have lingered even to the empire at its height. That is perhaps a Roddenberry-esque view of things, but if we are even going to progress to the point of becoming a global society, much less a stellar or galactic one, we will have to make significant strides as a species so much so that it is hard for me to reconcile that feeling with the sixteenth century kings and nobles Mr. Asimov has reigning in the remnants of the fall of the empire.
Beyond these obstacles are challenges of an entirely different stripe and the kind that truly show the great worth of Foundation and of science fiction in general of which this novel and its successors are by many thought chief. These challenges are the best that literature has to offer and that is to openly challenge what and how the reader thinks. Mr. Asimov pulls no punches as he sets his sights on technology, economy, humanity, and religion each in turn and each with staggering effect. When Hari Seldon convinces the last generations of the galactic empire to allow him and thousands of other scientists to seed a colony, aptly called the foundation, they are hoping to preserve, with the aid of the galactic encyclopedia, the sum knowledge of human discovery and innovation. Having this knowledge cannot prevent the fall of the empire but in theory it can prevent much of Seldon’s apocalyptic view of thirty thousand years of death and barbarity before the rise of a second empire. Having done this the foundation comes into contact with the first of what Hari called crises. This initial crisis is the loss of technology and the effect that it would have on the civilization at large. It is chilling to imagine what would happen to today’s population should it suddenly and irrevocably be stripped of its technology. In this instance it is not even taken so much as it was forfeited by the atrophy of mind that Mr. Asimov intimates is the cause for the collapse. The people of the empire’s twilight days have lost the curiosity to understand how things work and thus, after the fall, are unable to maintain all of the technology that sustained them. Because of this progressive ignorance, that is evident even today, the foundation is able to barter safety from its degenerating neighbors by dealing in science and maintaining a balance of power in its immediate vicinity.
From this bartered form of technology rises a religion by which the foundation begins to extend control over the hostile parties nearest it. In order to maintain its independence and a measure of control the foundation turns to mysticism. As coined by Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and it is on this tenet that the foundation gambles its survival until the next great crisis. The foundation withholds the inner workings of their scientific knowledge, an act I have some moral objection in my distaste for the opinion that scientific discovery actually belongs to anyone though it is hard to see the desperateness of the situation as anything but mitigating, and uses their monopoly on medicine, travel, chemistry, physics, and even luxuries to subjugate the four kingdoms on the outskirts of the old empire. This religion which keeps truth as power is spiritual successor to many of the errors of theological religion and falls victim to the rationalization of the ends justifying the means.
The last major crisis of this first of three parts is when the farce of the religion myth begins to break down as the people nearer the galactic core, in this case the remnants of the old empire and possessors yet of some of the property if not authority thereof, begin to realize that the foundation is using religion to dominate the faithful and begin banning the religious institutions in their domains. During this crisis the foundation must evolve one more time. Realizing the restrictions of the religion myth which they had surrounded their technology with the foundation, which by this point had assimilated non-scientific elements, had to adapt to become mercantile in nature. Freeing the foundation from the oppressive stigma of religion it turned to economic warfare to secure its survival.
I did not go into these crises in detail, nor did I mention the internal struggles that brought the foundation thrice to the tipping points that Hari Seldon predicted, and I refrained from doing so that I might conclude with what I believe is the most striking point of the entire work to this point. Hari Seldon and his disciples, for better or for worse, establish the most staggering monument to hubris that I can possibly imagine. Inflicting ignorance on people for the sake of a mathematical theorem, regardless of your certainty of prognostications, is a dangerous road. This image challenged me throughout the work and had me asking myself again and again what I would do. Is thirty thousand years of death and destruction worth the free will and enlightenment of billions upon billions of people? Where is right and wrong in such a far flung and chaotic scenario? It is these and other questions that have me diving directly into the next volume eager to debate myself yet again and praising Isaac Asimov’s incredible work.

3 Responses to “Favorite Music Pieces”

  1. Sarah VB says:

    I think I remember watching something on VH-1 (Behind the Music, probably) that said that Bat Out of Hell was originally intended as a rock opera for an updated Peter Pan storyline. Sometimes I wonder how that would have played out onstage.

    • Bowdoin says:

      I vaguely remember seeing that as well. I don’t think there is enough narrative in the Bat out of Hell trilogy to actually stage anything directly from the songs, but if there is some grand epic plot line that ties them all together I’d be the first in line to see that fireworks display.

  2. Fan #24601 says:

    “Bowdoin has a gift for choosing and arranging his words in an iambic pentameter-y way so that there’s a mellifluous flow to the words” – Devon Jackson. He’s not wrong there! However I don’t agree with this bit: “What was less effective was the music, which is a bit flat.” I thought that the music was lovely, and really enjoyed the it. In fact, on more than one occasion I have wished to myself for there to be instrumental versions of the song. Being 100% honest, it’s partially because I love the music, and partially because I want to do karaoke with the songs… 😀

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