Thursday, 26 September 2013

Foundation - A Political History of the Distant Future

I heard the word science fiction sometime when I was in school. It sounded cool and jazzy. But kind of scary too! I had already read Jeffrey Archer and Agatha Christie while I was still at primary school. So I was not new to adult books. But I felt science fiction would be too tough for me and was reluctant to go anywhere near it. I did try one of the books from Rama series by Arthur C Clarke. But somehow I could not connect with that story and did not proceed far with it. I am sure there are many an avid reader out there who have had similar experiences with this genre.

I was in college when I finally took the plunge. Science fiction was supposed to be the cool thing that the intellectual elites at college used to read. I of course did not belong with them but I was attracted to the things they did and spoke of. One day, when I was sitting in the hostel common room, pretending to read the newspaper, but actually eavesdropping on a conversation between two of these intellectual elites, I heard the mention of this science fiction series called 'Foundation'. Somehow I liked the sound of the series and immediately rushed to the hostel library to look for it. ‘The Second Foundation’ was the only book from that series available. So I picked it up.

The book started with a conversation between someone called by the strange name of 'The Mule' and one Bill Channis. Things were happening right from the word go and  initially it did seem slightly disorienting. But the narrative was gripping - I just could not put the book down.I sat through the night and completed it. At the end of it, I was a convert. There was no looking back from there. I went on read all books by Asimov I could lay my hands on and then moved on to other science fiction authors as well. One book by this Master was all it took to pull me lock, stock and barrel into the fascinating world of science fiction. That was the power of his writing.

Coming back to the book ‘Second Foundation’, it has a highly engaging story line. The book actually has two stories. The first story tells us of how a secret group called ‘Second Foundation’ defeats the mutant who rules the universe through his manipulation of people’s emotions. The second story takes us through 'Second Foundation'’s face off with its sister group ‘The First Foundation’. I was curious to learn more about these 'Foundations'. So I picked up the two earlier books in the series – ‘First Foundation’ and ‘Foundation and Empire’. The first tells us how the first Foundation manages to establish itself and survive in a hostile environment in the fringes of the universe. The second tells the story of the Foundation's defeat of the Galactic empire and establishment of its rule over the universe only to be itself overthrown by Mule, the mutant. Then I moved on to the fourth book ‘Foundation’s Edge’ where the two foundations once again take on each other in a triangular standoff with a new mysterious all powerful entity emerging as the third leg of the conflict. Then I picked up the books ‘Prelude to Foundation’ and ‘Forward the Foundation’ that give us the backstory of how Hari Seldon formulated the science of psycho-history. The last book of the series - ‘Foundation and Earth’, which I happened to pick up many years later, establishes a link between the world of 'Foundation' and a series set in a much earlier time in galactic history. It is a fascinating book for an ardent fan of Asimov as it is a key link in his attempt to connect all his series and establish a continuous future history starting from our current times all the way up to the distant future where 'Foundation' series is set. But the story line in the book as such is weak and at times the linkages he tries to establish seems contrived.

The thing that really made an impact on me in this series was the concept of psycho-history. It is quite a novel idea and seemed logically plausible too. It talks of applying concepts of physics to human society. Physics at a very broad level, as we know, tries to fit a mathematical model to data available regarding various physical phenomena such as movement of bodies and physical properties such as temperature, pressure, color etc. Through this model, it establishes a cause effect relationship using which we can start predicting the future based on the present. It could be as simple as how far a foot ball will travel based on the power a player packs into his kick. Or as complex as computing whether an asteroid or comet will collide with earth or not. Now let us take this whole concept and apply it to social phenomena. History in some ways can be considered data on social phenomena similar to the that which we collect through measurement for physical phenomena. Psychology and sociology are fields that establish some kind of theoretical cause effect relationship between how a person or society behaves in response to certain individual or social stimuli. For example if there is continued unemployment, the population will rebel. If there is poverty, crime rate will be high. At an individual level if you hit someone, they will hit you back. Now if we are able to map all information we have from history into a mathematical model based on these cause effect relationships and fine tune it, then theoretically we should be able to predict the future of the world with reasonable accuracy. Now one may say every individual is different. How can we predict the behavior of every one of them? The thing is we don't have to. We are predicting the behavior of huge masses of people - whole nations, worlds and galaxies. At such scales, individual eccentricities get averaged out.  That is  the basic idea of psycho-history,

Most of the books I had read earlier spanned over periods not exceeding a few years. The longest one I had read till I started on 'The Second Foundation' was Robinson Crusoe that ran over several decades. But all that changed once I get into science fiction - we were no longer talking of years and decades anymore but centuries and millennia. The Foundation series is written  like a history of the future running over centuries. When a story runs over many lifetimes, individuals begins to fade into insignificance. The interest shifts towards the future of humanity as a whole and the development of big ideas. It is like the experience of being taken up a tall tower and shown the world from there for the first time. Doesn't that change one's perspective completely? Now imagine doing the same thing in the dimension of time. That is the feel one gets by reading such stories. For a first time reader of science fiction this can be a really humbling experience.

This book does not go too much into technology as one would expect science fiction to. Nor do we have the usual elements that come to one's mind when a novice thinks science fiction - robots ,aliens and time travel for instance. Space travel and blasters are there of course but they are just there as a matter of routine as trains and guns are in a contemporary crime thriller. Nowhere are we told how any of these work. The real focus of the story are the sociological and political aspects.

Purely as a story, it is quite a page turner. There are few good fights, chases, mental games and political intrigues. While the focus is not on individuals, every now and then one of those real big legendary characters who tend to leave an indelible mark on history pops up - the Mule, Salvor Hardin, Hober Mallow, Arkady Darell, Bayta Darell and the great Hari Seldon himself to name a few. Unlike characters in mainstream fiction with who the readers can relate at a personal level, the ones here are more worthy of hero worship and adulation than empathy.

Unlike many of the other works of science fiction, this is not a very difficult book for a science fiction neophyte to get into. Works like Dune can intimidate the reader by the sheer complexity of the world building while a reader without passion for science and technology may find the technological details too dense in Arthur C Clarke's works. The Foundation series has neither of these characteristics and is quite an easy read. However to really appreciate the series, one must have interest in conceptual aspects of subjects such as history, politics and social science. Purely as a story, it might interest the more analytical types who have fondness for puzzles, strategy games and such. 

12 comments:

  1. That was an apt summation and review of this marvelous series. In my time Science Fiction began and ended with Asimov for most. I was the odd guy only because I read other authors as well :) And, yes, I was hooked to SF too by Asimov's Foundation series though I worked my way from the first book on. Since I started at School there was not much competition :)

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    1. Thanks Suresh. Somehow everyone starts with Asimov but unfortunately end with Asimov. Many just wax eloquent about Asimov without probably even reading him.

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  2. Karthik Sir,

    Would you also include works by Jules Verne - for he laid the foundation for most of the wondrous things that have since been created!

    Cheers,
    Mahesh

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion Mahesh. Jules Verne won't be covered in this series. This one is on the regular SF that come in a series of books. Later I may do a series on classics with SF concepts - There I will deal with Jules Verne, H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. (Yes. He has written SF too)

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  3. to be honest and I think I am being repetitive again I was never a SF Fan, notice the word was but recently I have gathered all my wits and bought Issac Asimov, lets see how it goes.
    P.S. I bought it after You started this blog. :)

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    1. Good to know Asteria. Which book have you bought?

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  4. There was a time when I was totally gripped by Issac Asimov's fiction. I believe he managed to wipe out at least 12 months of my life, so engrossed was I in his books! The Foundation series, to which he added sequels and prequels, fit in the larger scheme of his Robot and Empire series. I didn't quite like the conclusion, however.You would also like 'Caves of Steel' etc.

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    1. Yeah, Mr. Umashankar. I too spent years dreaming of becoming a psychohistorian. I have read Caves of Steel and one more in that series. I think one I have not read. After I read that, I might review the robot series as well. Even I did not like the conclusion much.

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  5. The first sci-fi I ever read was Prelude to Foundation. Though I did happen to deduce the apparent "twists", I royally enjoyed the book. It was four years ago. I read Foundation about a month ago (it is also prescribed in our seniors' course and the teacher were kind enough to let a first year attend second year's classes). I enjoyed this one even more. I am looking forward to read the remaining books soon (including other authors as well). Thanks for sharing your views on the series :D

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    1. Yeah - Prelude is not a good book to start. If you have read the main 3, Seldon is like a God and it is interesting to see him more human in prelude.

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  6. Quite an engaging read, Karthik; especially so if you are an SF fan. Clarke was never a favorite but I did like his 2000 Space Odyssey series. Rama though was a disappointment, a major one at that. I started my SF journey with the incomparable 'Doc' Smith, the pioneer of space opera and who I guess was the inspiration behind the Star Wars series, so it was an easier 'launch' for me. Asimov's Foundation series is a perennial favorite--A circle has no end, the characters Bliss, Pelorat, Trevize, the concept of Gaia--all these made this Hugo winning series one I particularly had a great time reading. I must say I didn't find the prequels all that interesting though.

    All in all, a great post, thank you!

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    1. Thanks Ramesh. Yeah - Odyseey is better. Doc Smith I have read few but yet to complete Lensman series. But plan to complete Lensman series and post a review. Circle has no end was an amazing puzzle, no? Often prequels and sequels fail to create magic of original series - their main purpose I think is to milk the nostalgia of the fans for the characters and settings.

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