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Friday, October 01, 2004  

Reading: Asimov's Foundation cycle ends weakly

Isaac Asimov's Foundation cycle is a six-part series about the future of humanity after it has taken to the stars. The first empire established by humans, which encompasses millions of planets and billions of people, has disintegrated. To prevent an extended period of barbarity, psychohistorian Harry Seldon has initiated the Seldon Plan. It will save knowledge of human achievement and enable progress in technology and 'benign' mind control. However, since the Seldon Plan challenges all other forms of power, it must be hidden from those who would feel threatened by it. A First Foundation, in charge of technological progress, has been established on the distant planet of Terminus. A Second Foundation, in charge of progress in mind control, is at home on the old empire world of Trantor. Under the plan, ultimately, the Second Foundation will control civilization, including the First Foundation, to make sure that technological success is not squandered on wars. The two Foundations are in conflict from the time the First discovers the existence of the Second. Eventually, the First Foundation believes it has prevailed over what it sees as usurpers of its power.

One of my complaints about Asimov is the nature of his heroes -- egotistical men, who seldom share credit for achievements. In Foundation's Edge, there are several know-it-all heroes. In a stretch for him, Asimov has made one of them, the mayor of Terminus, and therefore the leader of the First Foundation, a woman. Mayor Harla Branno is typical of a Asimov hero, in that she believes herself to be an authority on everything that matters and is motivated by ambition. Her fellow heroes represent the Second Foundation and a new power introduced in this book. Each hero is a copy of the other.

Foundation's Edge finds the two foundations in conflict, again. Five hundred years have passed since the founding of the First Foundation. The original empire is in decline. The Firsts have made inroads into worlds abandoned by or never included in the empire. They now hope to consolidate their power. But, the leader of the First Foundation suspects its efforts to destroy the Second Foundation more than a century ago failed. Mayor Branno is correct. The supposed elimination of the Second Foundation was stage managed by . . . the Second Foundation. Its leaders, the Speakers, sacrificed some members to make it appear the entire organization had been wiped out. That allowed the Seconds to continue to implement the Seldon Plan without interfence from the Firsts. Though the current Second Foundation is worried about the now suspicious Firsts, it has a greater concern. A third entity, capable of mind control like it, has emerged. It appears to be more of a threat to the Second Foundation than its old nemesis on Terminus. Though the Seconds will continue to try to hide their headquarters on Trantor from the Firsts, their next act of aggression is planned against the interlopers.

What is the new entity? Gaia is a conscious planet. Everything, from blades of grass, to food animals, to humans, is part of a collective consciousness and plays a role in determining the course of the planet's civilization. Though it predates both Foundations, Gaia has enveloped itself in secrecy until now. The Gaians have decided a decision has to be made. Whither galactic civilization? They believe their choice -- a conscious galaxy based on their planet, called Galatea -- is the best plan for the future. However, the Seldon Plan is in the way.

From Asimov's perspective, there are three options:

~ The First Foundation, which is very advanced in technology, and catching up in regard to mind control, can declare a new empire. The declaration would be 500 hundred years ahead of the Seldon Plan's intentions, but the new empire would probably be as sustainable as the previous empire.

~The Second Foundation can continue its stewardship of the Seldon Plan. A new empire will emerge in 500 years, as planned. It will be dominated by the Speakers, leaders of the Seconds. The benefit is that the violence of previous human societies will be avoidable. The expert mind control of the Second Foundation will guarantee a peaceful future.

~ All the galaxy can accept Gaia as a model. Eventually, all life will be an integrated whole. Issues of conflict and violence will be resolved as humans evolve beyond such behavior under Gaia's influence.

It is probably a measure of my distance from Asimov's thinking that my response to the three options was 'none of the above.' It seems to me that he is again imposing his views as if they are the only ones available. All three of his options rely on a domineering elite controlling not just countries, but planets, even the galaxy. My inclination is to favor a diversity of solutions to the problems of human nature, including war. Perhaps some planets would form an alliance before the end of the Seldon Plan. Maybe the Second Foundation would control some planets, but not others. It seems entirely possible that societies with pacifist inclinations would be amenable to knowingly joining Gaia.

A plan for the future of the galaxy is chosen through typical Asimovian sleight-of-hand. It is as if having actions occur openly is taboo to him. There must be subterfuge. Though I have described the possibilities above, I've decided against an actual spoiler. Read Foundation's Edge to learn what the outcome is.

Reasonably related

The first three books in the Foundation cycle were written decades before the last three. I reviewed them previously. There also an addendum to the cycle, Foundation and Earth.

9:30 PM