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Jun 16, 2013

Forward the Foundation

In passing, I've previously blogged about Isaac Asimov's novel Forward the Foundation, the capstone novel for his million and a half word future history of robots and galactic empire. I now feel compelled to give the book a more systematic discussion.

As Asimov's last novel written for his Foundation/Robots Saga, the story is full of meaning for readers who are already familiar with Asimov's Foundation and Robot stories. However, if you don't have that background reading under your belt, then don't bother reading Forward the Foundation. Why? Because Asimov wrote Forward the Foundation so as to resolve several mysteries that were left unexplained in earlier novels in the Foundation series. My advice: read the Foundation series stories in the order that Asimov wrote them, and also read his Robot stories before you get to Foundation and Earth.

Asimov's Prelude
In Prelude to Foundation, Asimov introduced readers to the scaffold that will support the construction of the two Foundations. That scaffolding consists of:
1) Emperor Cleon, the last "great" ruler of the Galactic Empire before its fall,
2) Eto Demerzel, First Minister to the Emperor and the true power behind the thrown, and
3) Dors "Tiger Woman" Venabili, Seldon's constant companion and protector.

In Forward the Foundation, Asimov must rip down all that scaffolding. All that is left in the end is the Foundation.

Mentalics
In Rumblings of Revolution, I discussed the fact that Hari Seldon's granddaughter Wanda inherited her "mentalic" abilities from her father. By the end of Forward the Foundation, Wanda has found Stettin Palver and Bor Alurin who share her mentalic, mind-touching capabilities. Seldon sends the small but growing group of telepaths into hiding, secretly starting the Second Foundation. That is the end point of Forward the Foundation: Asimov has revealed the hidden origin of the Second Foundation. How the Second Foundation forms and how Seldon comes to recognize the existence and importance of people with "mentalic" powers is a story that unfolds in Forward the Foundation.

Daneel
Another major thread of Forward the Foundation is how R. Daneel engineers both
1) his retirement from playing the role of Eto Demerzel, First Minister and
2) the collapse of the Galactic Empire.
Along the way, Asimov must bring a significant amount of politics and social unrest into the story, which is tiresome for anyone who innocently picks up this novel without being familiar with the Foundation Fictional Universe. Jo-Jo Joranum is presented as a political threat, on the verge of upsetting all of Daneel's plans for the galaxy. Seldon and Daneel both profess to be stumped and unable to find a solution to the growing problem of Joranum's rise to power. However, Daneel has been using his telepathic powers to manipulate the course of galactic history for the past 20,000 years, so why should we take his words at face value?

Of course, these two major threads, mentalics and Daneel's plans for the galaxy, are linked. The Galactic Empire has been designed with a centralized government, so the fate of the entire galaxy depends on the politics of the Capitol world, Trantor. Bizarrely, in an age when 25,000,000 inhabited planets of the galaxy are linked by vast fleets of spaceships, Trantor's economic and political stability depends on "heat sinkers", a despised yet-indispensable minority in Dahl Sector. Seldon's adopted son is, of course, born of this despised minority, making him the logical spy for Seldon to send into Dahl Sector where the political demagogue Joranum has won his political victories.

Why does Seldon send Raych to spy on Joranum? Seldon is consciously aware of the fact that Raych has a knack for getting people to like him. Also, Seldon has deduced that Joranum is an outcast from Mycogen Sector, the part of Trantor where descendants of Daneel's home world (Aurora) hold on to their superstitious beliefs about robots. The existence of humanoid robots is otherwise an almost forgotten legend from Humanity's distant pre-Galactic Empire past.

Of course, Daneel knows a whole lot more about what is going on than Seldon does. Through all of Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, Seldon is little more than a puppet for Daneel, a convenient channel or conduit (or front man) for introducing to humans (specifically, those special humans with telepathic powers who will form the Second Foundation) the psychohistorical equations that describe how to establish the Foundation among the crashing ruins of the Galactic Empire.

Daneel has been patiently using his own mentalic abilities for 20,000 years and crafting Gaia, a world of genetically engineered humans with mentalic abilities, a world designed to generate a single group mind...what is essentially the single-planet "trial version" of what Asimov described as Galaxia in Foundation and Earth.

On Trantor, Daneel has carefully brought together all of the required components for establishing the Foundations, including Seldon and the needed humans with mentalic abilities. The time has come for First Minister Demerzel to depart the stage of galactic politics, but someone harmless must be jockeyed into position to fill the void that his sudden departure will create.

Daneel has been studying psychohistory for 20,000 years and has been running the Empire as Eto Demerzel, First Minister of the Empire, for several decades. Daneel knows that it is time for him to bow out and let the Galactic Empire collapse...setting the stage for the Foundation Era. Can we doubt that Daneel engineers the dramatic exit of Demerzel from the stage? Yes, we can, because Daneel must arrange for Seldon to think that the Galactic Empire is inevitably dying of old age and nothing can be done about it.

So, we set off with Raych to dark, dirty Billibotton, the slum of Raych's birth. Yes, Trantor, the Capitol world of a galaxy-spanning Empire of 25,000,000 inhabited planets has slums and slave-like workers sweating in their deep pits. Get over it. Daneel has kept Humanity frozen in scientific stasis for 20,000 years. All he wanted was to spread humanity like pond scum across the galaxy...providing the basis for Galaxia...a single galaxy-wide group mind that Daneel can understand and equate with the "Humanity" that the Zeroth law demands that he defend.

Golden boy Raych, with the infallible mentalic ability to make other people like him, immediately gets into a knife fight upon reaching Dahl. Of course, that brawl is just the ticket to attract Joranum's goons.

Meanwhile, Daneel arranges for the Emperor to refresh his acquaintance with Seldon. They become tennis playing buddies. The Emperor expects results from Seldon's half-baked scheme of sending Raych to Dahl.

Raych tells Joranum that First Minister Demerzel is a robot and Joranum presses the attack, publicly spreading the rumor. Daneel/Demerzel goes on T.V. and laughs, undermining public belief that he might be a robot. This part of Forward the Foundation recapitulates events from one of Asimov's original robot stories in which a another robot politician (Byerly) must convince voters that "he" is human. In the short story Evidence, Byerly had to contend with x-rays that might reveal his internal structure.

By the time of Demerzel, the existence of positronic brains has been effectively erased from human memory. Nobody within the galactic empire would even imagine testing Demerzel for positronic circuits. Demerzel, the master manipulator of emotions, simply makes the people of Trantor laugh at the idea of him possibly being a machine. Suddenly, the previously unstoppable political ascendancy of Joranum is halted.

Seldon gets the Mycogenians to denounce Joranum as a breakaway religious fanatic and the affair is over. The Emperor is pleased at how Seldon quickly and efficiently eliminated the political threat from Joranum and he makes Seldon First Minister, neatly replacing Demerzel with someone who is sure to continue to generate Imperial support for Seldon's psychohistory research project, which has suddenly become the nexus for a rare glimmer of scientific research and discovery within the Galctic Era.

In Part II of Forward the Foundation, Seldon loses his tennis chum, the Emperor...it is time to hasten the descent of the galaxy towards barbarism.

The Tiger Woman
Forward the Foundation also has a romantic thread. Dors Venabili, Seldon's wife and protector, is some kind of bio-mechanically engineered humnoid, possibly similar with respect to mentalic abilities and similarly programmed with the Laws of Robotics as were the inhabitants of Gaia. In Part III of Forward the Foundation, Seldon loses the love of his life, Dors. By this point in time, Wanda is a young girl and her growing mentalic ability indirectly leads to the death of Dors. Here, Asimov revives from Second Foundation the idea that it is fairly easy to construct devices that will interfere with with either human mentalics or the function of positronic brains. Is this the risk that Daneel must take in creating the Foundations? Is one final burst of human freedom and scientific ingenuity needed to bring Galaxia to completion? Does Daneel know what he risks? That humans, set free to think and experiment, will likely invent tools that can destroy his own positronic brain?

Seldon resigns as First Minister and the Empire continues its decline under the control of the military. Dors dies while saving Seldon from another plot on his life, her unusual brain function targeted for disruption by a newly invented device that is a byproduct of psychohistory research. Without the benefit of any continuing Imperial support, Seldon's once booming psychohistory project crumbles. But, magically, the mathematical equations that describe the future now all safely reside in the Prime Radiant. All that remains is to assemble a core group of humans with mentalic powers who can form the Second Foundation. Magically, these hidden humans with mentalic abilities suddenly come out of the woodwork. Gathering around Wanda, they use their mentalic influence to establish the First Foundation at the rim of the galaxy, ostensibly as an encyclopedia project designed to preserve the knowledge of the crumbling Empire. The Second Foundationers take the Prime Radiant and disappear into their secret hiding place at Star's End.

In Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation Asimov did a masterful job of positioning Daneel as a sly and scheming mastermind at the heart of the Galactic Empire in the Foundation series. Did this put a nice bow on the Foundation saga? Not really: Asimov never wrote the next novel in the Foundation series, the story that must come after Foundation and Earth.

That lack of a sequel to Foundation and Earth is what motivated The Foundations of Eternity. By Daneel's unstoppable logic, Humanity must be engineered into a galaxy-spanning group mind. Trevize, the never wrong, frets, "...what if, in some galaxy, one species gains domination over the rest and then has time to consider the possibility of penetrating other galaxies"?

I like to imagine that, had Asimov not been taken from us prematurely, he would have found an ingenious way to extend his future history beyond the end of Foundation and Earth. However, in the absence of Asimov's version of the story, his fans are free to imagine what should come next.

At the end of Foundation and Earth we see Asimov struggling mightily with the consequences of the "all human galaxy" that he was forced to envision because of John Campbell's biases. Why didn't technologically advanced beings from another galaxy reach Earth long ago? If we imagine that Daneel has been manipulating Trevize through all of Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth, then we must ask: at the end of Foundation and Earth is Daneel inviting/allowing/forcing Trevize to begin to think about the existence of aliens from another galaxy? Is Daneel well aware that such aliens exist? With Galaxia almost formed, need Daneel no longer keep the truth about aliens hidden from humanity?

Related Reading: my favorite novel by Asimov - The End of Eternity

2 comments:

  1. John,

    Since I first read the original trilogy, in my adolescence, I have always loved Asimov's Foundation series -- now a 'heptalogy' -- for its vision of, and commitment to, human technological and political [democratic] progress, as well as for its countervailing realism about the politics of tyranny and domination, a realism that does not sacrifice Asimov's values-commitment to technological and political progress.

    Your review of "Forward The Foundation" does a good job of describing Asimov's political realism as applied to his portrayal of the politics of the late Empire.

    I have also loved Asimov's Foundation series for its allegorical implications for PRESENT, Terran-only, humanity -- the clearly intended and, perhaps, also, the possibly UNintended.

    And, like many others, I have longed to see something like the Seldon saga actualized with regard to the present, collapsing "Empire", and the impending "New Dark Age", of present-day humanity, on present-day Earth.

    Recently, I detected at least an element of that actualization on the internet, in the work of Foundation Encyclopedia Dialectica, co-founded by "Karl Seldon", and by "Sophya Dors St. Germaine", and www.dialectics.org.

    Their seven "psychohistorical-dialectical equations", and their "Prime Radiant", are outlined at the following URL --

    http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Aoristoss_Blog/Entries/2012/5/19_The_F.E.D._Psychohistorical_Equations.html


    This Foundation seems to be operating a kind of "meta-fiction" mythopoeia, in which fictional, mythic elements are integrated, to synthesize a non-fictional actualization.


    Regards,

    Miguel

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    Replies
    1. Miguel- The "Foundation Encyclopedia Dialectica" sounds like a fun project for people who actually enjoy politics. I have a personal problem: I find fictional politics to be intolerable.

      >human technological progress

      When I look at the grand sweep of Asimov's Foundation stories I feel the pressure of some mysterious off-stage artificial technological restraint. Daneel is impelled to defend Humanity, but to do so he must shape humanity into an artificial construct (Galaxia).

      In my mythopoeia, psychohistory is a tool wielded by Daneel, a tool that can be used to distract the Foundationers. In order to complete the Galaxia meta-mind, Daneel needed to allow a carefully regulated amount of human initiative and scientific research. With one or two such exceptions, the story of human technological progress is, on the whole, quite dismal during the Age of Positronics.

      >allegorical implications for the present

      The concept that science fiction can be -and should be- a way of exploring contemporary social, economic or political reality repulses me. I have no personal interest in the idea that some fans might view Asimov as a kind of political realist, maybe even a kind that is worthy of admiration or emulation.

      I view politics and economics as fundamentally evil social constructs that are mere artifacts of this current age of human cultural development. In my fantasy play I prefer to imagine times and places where, to quote the managing editor of Cosmopolis, it is possible to steer away from "the grim facts of reality". -John

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