Foundation - A Political History of the Distant Future
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.