Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Review: Foundation

book cover for FoundationFor twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind's last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun—or fight them and be destroyed.

If you can look past certain technological anachronisms like paper still being a medium for the storage of information in a technologically advanced civilization with FTL travel or archaic cultural limitations on women (I didn't see a single female character that wasn't a secretary or wife, and these were throwaway roles), then this classic sci-fi novel (and later series) from the 1950s still merits reading (assuming you haven't done so already).

At this point in the series (several novels were written that take place before this one, although they were published later), the Galactic Empire has begun to decline, though there's little visible evidence for it. Hari Seldon, the leader of a group of psychohistorians, has declared that the empire will crumble, leading to a galaxy-wide dark ages that will last for thirty millennia. Seldon's scientific work leaves him without a doubt that the collapse is inevitable, but the recovery period doesn't have to be nearly as long. His plan involves the creation of a foundation that will work to preserve the empire's knowledge and minimize the damage from its fall.

The book is broken up into five sections. The first, the Psychohistorians, deals with Seldon's announcement and subsequent arrest. He's put on trial for treason and must successfully argue his case or face the death penalty. Although modeled after the Roman Empire, I found an interesting parallel to Seldon's argument about the eventual collapse of the empire in 500 years time and those individuals, most notably James Hansen, warning the American government and the world about climate change. Just as too many people have a problem envisioning how climate change is happening or that its effects will be more severely felt decades from now (or want to cover it up by discrediting the messengers), the Imperial government denies that the empire is crumbling, can't see the cracks that will take centuries to manifest, discredits Seldon's work, and seeks to silence him permanently. After all, who wants to hear that their way of life is having a deleterious effect upon the world (galaxy) around them?

From here, the remaining sections deal with pivotal moments in the Foundation's early years. These are dubbed "Seldon crises." In each one, the protagonist is a man who sees that the current political environment, if not handled correctly, will lead the Foundation down the wrong path. Sometimes the system needs to be overthrown; sometimes it needs a steady hand. Each one uses his wits rather than brute force to defeat his opponent. Like all successful chess players, he's able to see his opponents moves several steps in advance and plans accordingly.

While I wouldn't say it's an exciting work, it nonetheless makes for an entertaining read. Despite the aforementioned anachronisms, its influence is widespread and can be seen throughout sci-fi. When people as far apart on the ideological spectrum as Newt Gingrich and Paul Krugman cite it as an influential work, it bears looking into.


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