In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Hari Seldon has seen the future, and it’s ugly.
The galaxy-spanning Empire will fall apart in the near future, and what will follow will be a thousand generations of chaos. But Hari Seldon also has a plan, one that will keep the chaos to a mere 1,000 years, if it all goes right. He’s gathers a large group of scientists, and has them set up to live on a middle-of-nowhere planet called Terminus, where they will create the most extensive and comprehensive encyclopedia in human history.
But there’s more going on then any of them know, because Hari Seldon has not told them everything.
This book is actually a collection of 5 short stories or novellas, and the events in each of the stories happen many years after the previous story. The first is about Seldon and how the plan for The Foundation gets set in motion. The second and third share a common protagonist, Salvor Hardin, though they take place about 30 years apart. The fourth and fifth are about traders and merchants.
Maybe the short story aspect of this book explains why the characters come off as very shallow, though I’ve read short stories before that had decent character development in them. Maybe it’s just simply that, when it came right down to it, I did not like any of the characters, especially the good guys.
There are essentially two types of characters in these stories, the hyper-competent good guys and the hyper-incompetent bad guys. The first type is able to find some kind of clever and unusual way out of any problem and crisis. The second type may not necessarily be villainous but they are portrayed as short-sighted, greedy, and violent. Little is made of the normal folk, expect that they are little more then sheeple.
But the thing I mostly noticed was that there was no great difference between the good guys and bad guys. The good guys of The Foundation are just as determined to conquer and control and maintain their own power as the bad guys are. The Foundation may use different methods, but I’m not prepared to say that different methods mean they are any better.
One thing I really noticed in these five stories was that women may as well have been almost non-existent. The only woman that made any like a serious contribution to the story was in the fifth story, and about all she does is get into a couple of nasty verbal exchanges with her husband, the ruler of a planet called Corell. That may change in Asimov’s later stories.
I suppose it’s well-known that Asimov was an atheist. There is a place in The Foundation for religion, but it is a very cynical place.
As things fall apart all around Terminus and the neighboring societies degrade, Terminus is the last remaining beacon of nuclear power. They set up a religion around nuclear power, complete with a deity called The Galactic Spirit, a holy land called Terminus, and a priesthood who are trained in taking care of nuclear power plants without really being taught much of anything. Religion becomes simply a means by which The Foundation expands its power and influence, or as some characters put in the later stories, “conquest by missionary.”
And conquest it is. In the third story, when the Kingdom of Anacreon wants to attack Terminus, Hardin uses this priesthood and the beliefs they have instilled in the people as a weapon of his own. Hardin has no belief in a Galactic Spirit and the Foundation leaders of the religion do not believe any of the religious aspects of what they teach. but they are quite happy to make use of it, as well as the gullible nature of the people, for their own ends.
So let’s understand what they are and are not doing. When other planets and kingdoms send people to Terminus to learn about nuclear power, that knowledge is dressed up in the trappings of a fake religion that The Foundation made for it, or as Hardin put it at one point, “I started that way at first because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery, and it was easiest to get them to accept it on that basis” (page 92).
He puts a more plainly a few paragraphs later:
“The best men on the planets of the kingdoms are sent here to the Foundation each year and educated into the priesthood. And the best of these remain here as research students. If you think that those who are left, with practically no knowledge of the elements of science, or worse still, with the distorted knowledge the priests receive, can penetrate at a bound to nuclear power, to electronics, to the theory of the hyperwarp— you have a very romantic and very foolish idea of science. It takes lifetimes of training and an excellent brain to get that far.” (page 92)
In fact, in that same story a few chapter’s later, a priest who seems to be a true believer sums up the religious views in this way: “In the name of the Galactic Spirit and of his prophet, Hari Seldon, and of his interpreters, the holy men of the Foundation …” (pages 130-131).
But religion is merely a weapon, and when that weapon ceases to give the desired results, then it is discarded, as it begins to be in the last story, when the Kingdom of Corell wants nothing to do with missionaries and the religion of the Foundation. The protagonist in that story, the trader Hober Mallow, says this the ruler of Korell, “…I’m a Master Trader. Money is my religion. All this mysticism and hocus-pocus of the missionaries annoy me, and I’m glad you refuse to countenance it. It makes you more my type of man” (page 190).
A couple of sayings are repeated a few times, which I thought were of more then passing interest. One is “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” (page 90). My problems with this saying are several, but one of the main would be in how narrowly they treat the idea of “violence.”
To my mind, “conquest by missionary” is as much an act of violence as conquest by invading army. It is much the same thing as saying that being robbed by identity theft is just as much an act of theft as being robbed at gunpoint. Interestingly, someone like Hardin may not want to use violence in the most literal sense, he’s quite happy to make use of the threat of violence in the events that concluded the third story.
The other saying is one attributed to Hardin, “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!” (p. 143). That might be the most pithy summation of relativism that I’ve come across. As if one can determine right and wrong without morality, or that what is right might possibly be immoral.
Maybe the Foundation stories get better in later books, but taking simply this first book in the series by itself, I’m rather disappointed. It’s filled with shallow and undeveloped characters and buffoonish bad guys being outsmarted by clever good guys. Over it all is the almost god-like presence of Hari Seldon, the man who seems to have predicted almost everything, and the messianic idea of The Seldon Plan, which has to be kept going no matter what though no one really understands it or how to go about keeping it going. And if lies and manipulations are needed to keep the plan on track, so be it.
If mankind’s only hope is some kind of group of elites leading it to the promised land, then I’d like to get off the train, please, because that version of the promised land will only be another disaster. Asimov may have discarded God, but what he uses to replaces Him is hardly anything I want to be a part of.