Dark Future   Leave a comment

To celebrate getting all of my books out of boxes (for the third time since moving into our house 14 years ago), I’ve been reading some old favorites and last week’s discussion about the science fiction I read as a teenager got me over in that area of the shelves, reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

If you’re unfamiliar –.

Hari Seldon knows with certainty that the galactic Empire will soon fall apart, ushering in a thousand generations of chaos. Hari also has a plan to keep the chaos to a mere 1,000 years, assuming things go right. He’s gathered a large group of scientists, and sets them up on a backwater planet called Terminus, where they will create the most extensive and comprehensive encyclopedia in human history.

Of course, this being science fiction and Asimov not being a utopian, Hari Seldon has not told them everything.

This book actually consists of five novellas, each seperated by several years of events. The first is about Seldon’s work and plan for The Foundation. The second and third share a common protagonist, Salvor Hardin, though they take place about 30 years apart. The fourth and fifth are about traders and merchants.

When I read Foundation so many years ago, I was engrossed in the science fiction of it all and didn’t really notice that the “good guys” were really pretty evil. Such is the maturity of age and wisdom of experience. There are two types of characters in this collection – hyper-competent good guys and extremely foolish bad guys. Present the good guys with a problem and they will MacGuiver their way out of any crisis. The bad guys aren’t really villainous, but they are portrayed as greedy, violent and lacking in vision. Normal folks are largely portrayed as wallpaper that follows the leader and women might as well not exist.

My anarchist senses began ticking over as I read. What were the real differences between the good guys and the bad guys? Both were determined to conquer and control people and maintain their power base. The Foundation used different (perhaps kinder and gentler) methods, but tyranny by another name still strangles.

Asimov was an atheist, so religion plays a very cynical role in The Foundation.

Terminus is the last remaining beacon of nuclear power as neighboring societies degrade. They set up a religion around nuclear power, complete with a deity called The Galactic Spirit. Terminus is advertised as a holy land where a priesthood is trained in maintaining nuclear power plants without really being taught much of anything. Religion becomes simply a means by which The Foundation expands its power and influence — a “conquest by missionary.”

In the third story, the Kingdom of Anacreon wants to attack Terminus, so Hardin uses this priesthood and the beliefs they have instilled in the people as a weapon. Hardin doesn’t believe in the Galactic Spirit and the Foundation leaders of the religion do not believe any of the religious aspects they teach. but they are quite happy to make use of it to manipulate the gullible people for their own ends.

When other planets’ kingdoms send people to Terminus to learn about nuclear power, the knowledge is dressed up in the trappings of a fake religion that The Foundation created. Hardin explains it, “I started that way at first because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery, and it was easiest to get them to accept it on that basis” (page 92).

He puts a more plainly a few paragraphs later:

“The best men on the planets of the kingdoms are sent here to the Foundation each year and educated into the priesthood. And the best of these remain here as research students. If you think that those who are left, with practically no knowledge of the elements of science, or worse still, with the distorted knowledge the priests receive, can penetrate at a bound to nuclear power, to electronics, to the theory of the hyperwarp— you have a very romantic and very foolish idea of science. It takes lifetimes of training and an excellent brain to get that far.” (page 92)

In Asimov’s world, religion is merely a weapon. If a weapon ceases to give the desired results, it is to be discarded, as it begins to be in the last story, when the Kingdom of Corell wants nothing to do with missionaries and the religion of the Foundation. The protagonist in that story, the trader Hober Mallow, says this to the ruler of Korell, “…I’m a Master Trader. Money is my religion. All this mysticism and hocus-pocus of the missionaries annoy me, and I’m glad you refuse to countenance it. It makes you more my type of man” (page 190).

Some aphorisms caught my attention, in part because they had stuck with me in a vague way for three decades. One is “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” (page 90). They define “violence” very narrowly. To me, “conquest by missionary” is as much an act of violence as conquest by an invading army. Being robbed by identity theft (or taxation) is just as much an act of theft as being robbed at gunpoint. Intellectuals like Hardin may not want to use violence in the most literal sense, but he’s quite happy to make use of the threat of violence in the events that concluded the third story.

Hardin is quoted as saying, “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!” (p. 143). What a great summation of relativism! It assumes we can determine right and wrong without morality and suggests that what is right might possibly be immoral.

The Foundation series continues from where I ended reading the other night, but I don’t have those books on my shelves. A lot of my paperbacks were picked up from used book marts, so I would guess I never ran across the others before my interest moved onto other genres. I read all of Isimov’s original Foundation stories by checking out books from the library. So I won’t speak on those.

Maybe the Foundation stories get better in later books, but I was surprised to find this first book filled with shallow and undeveloped characters and buffoonish bad guys being outsmarted by clever good guys. Hari Seldon has an almost God-like presence as the man who predicted almost everything. The Seldon Plan has a messianic feel to it. The characters will keep it going whether they understand it or not. If lies and manipulations are needed to keep the plan on track, HOO-HA.

If mankind’s only hope is a group of elites leading it to some made-up promised land, then I’d like to get off the bus now, because that version of the promised land will only be another disaster. Asimov may have discarded God, but what he uses to replaces Him is not something thinking people could realistically worship.

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