Sunday, December 6, 2009

293. Foundation - Isaac Asimov

History: This is the first book in the Foundation series. Actually, it is a collection of stories, originally published between 1942 and 1944, plus an introductory section written for the book in 1949. The early stories were inspired by Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Asimov said he did "a little bit of cribbin' from the works of Edward Gibbon" when describing the influence of that work on the Trilogy.) More accurately, the plot of the series focuses on the growth and reach of the Foundation, against a backdrop of the "decline and fall of the Galactic Empire".
Plot: Foundation tells the story of a group of scientists who seek to preserve knowledge as the civilizations around them begin to regress.
The first story is set on Trantor, the capital planet of the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire. Whilst the empire gives the appearance of stability, beneath this facade it is suffering a slow decay. The main character, Hari Seldon, a mathematician, has developed psychohistory which equates all possibilities in large societies to mathematics, allowing predictable long term outcomes.
Seldon discovers a horrifying truth to the Empire's decay, but his results are considered treasonable and attract attention from the Commission of Public Safety — the effective rulers of the Empire. This leads to his arrest. A young mathematician Gaal Dornick, who has just arrived on Trantor, is also arrested. On trial, Hari shares the discoveries made through psychohistory, such as the collapse of the Empire within 500 years, followed by a 30,000-year period of barbarism.
Hari proposes an alternative to this future; one that would not avert the collapse but shorten the interregnum period to a mere 1000 years. But this plan would require a large group of people to develop a compendium of all human knowledge, titled the Encyclopedia Galactica.
A still skeptical commission, worried of making Seldon a martyr, offer him the choice of execution for treason or acceptance of exile with his group of Encyclopedists' to a remote planet Terminus. There, they will carry out the Plan under an imperial decree, while Hari would remain, barred from returning to Trantor.
The second story; "The Encyclopedists", takes place 50 years after the events of "The Psychohistorians". Terminus faces the first of many "Seldon Crises". With no mineral wealth of their own, the people of the Foundation become cut off from the rest of the Empire, as a result of the breakdown of law and order in the outer regions of the Galaxy and their neighboring planets' declaration of independence.
Terminus is caught in a feud between four planetary systems which have degenerated to a barbaric state and find Terminus's location a strategic advantage. The Board of Trustees of the 'Encyclopedia Galactica Foundation', composed of scientists with no political or military training, find themselves incompetent to handle the situation as they are distracted by their work on the Encyclopedia. But the Mayor of Terminus City Salvor Hardin perceives the threat and quickly finds a solution; to play the four kingdoms off each other.
Hardin's plan is a success and then the image of Seldon appears in the "Time Vault", where he acknowledges that the "Seldon Crisis" was averted. Seldon makes it clear that the choice made was the intended one and that the Encyclopedia was just a distraction to further the overall plan.
Hardin uses this revelation to engineer a bloodless coup, taking power from the Board of Trustees and placing it in his own hands.
The third story; "The Mayors", occurs three decades after "The Encyclopedists", The Foundation's scientific understanding has given it unusual leverage over nearby planetary systems, and its control is exercised through an artificial religion referred to as Scientism. This concept allows the Foundation to share the benefits of its advanced technology, while keeping its scientific secrets. Maintenance technicians known as priests are trained on Terminus and given basic operational understanding of the technology, while being kept ignorant of the underlying scientific knowledge. Thus, the Foundation is able to quell the anti-scientific rebellions and delocalisation of knowledge which have reduced the rest of the galactic periphery to barbarism.
Mayor Salvor Hardin, as Mayor of Terminus, is the effective ruler of the Foundation. Prince Regent Wienis of Anacreon plans to overthrow the Foundation's power, and his plans are encouraged when he obtains an abandoned Imperial cruiser that he demands the Foundation repair.
Hardin foresees Wienis's plans and arranges for the ship to be repaired his own way, incorporating some modifications. Hardin then broadcasts Wienis's attempt to the people of Anacreon under the ruse of blasphemy, leading to a revolt which results in direct control over the Four Kingdoms.
Hari Seldon again confirms the actions by appearing in the "Time Vault", while also warning them that Scientism, while adequate to defend the Foundation from the immediate threat, will not be sufficient to expand its influence beyond its barbarous near-neighbors.
The fourth story; "The Traders" follows 55 years after "The Mayors". The story describes the events of Limmar Ponyets, a Trader, who is sent to retrieve Eskel Gorov from the planet Askone. Askone has refused commerce with the Foundation in fear of control through Scientism. Eskel Gorov is awaiting execution for violation of a trade law by attempting to set up trade with Foundation technology.
The leaders of Askone are adamant in not accepting any Foundation technology, but when offered gold in exchange for the prisoner, they gladly accept. During Ponyets' presentation of the offered gold, he convinces Pherl—an aspiring leader in Askone's government—to accept technology that can transmute iron into gold. Unknown to Pherl, his transaction with Foundation technology was recorded and later used as blackmail, allowing Ponyet to exchange his cargo of Foundation technology for tin, a resource needed by the Foundation.
Pherl is now forced into accepting Foundation technology, and so will strive to make it acceptable among Askone's people.
The fifth story; "The Merchant Princes" occurs only twenty years after "The Traders".
The Foundation has expanded through the use of Scientism and economics. Three Foundation vessels have vanished near the Republic of Korell, a nation suspected of technological development. Trader Hober Mallow is sent to uncover information on their technology and hopefully find the missing ships. While at Korell, Mallow convinces Korell's leader Commdor Asper Argo to purchase Foundation technology. Mallow also discovers that Korell still maintains some relics of the Empire such as atomic hand guns. But he also notes the Republic's decrepit condition and lack of modern technology.
On return to Terminus, he is considered a traitor for not spreading Scientism to Korell, although an unlikely development clears Mallow allowing him to win an election for Mayor.
When Korell goes to war against The Foundation, Mallow does not act against the Korellians and waits until dissent from the shortage of goods supplied by the Foundation allows the Foundation to virtually win.
Review: The book is split into five parts, which are five somewhat independent stories about the genesis of the Foundation and then how it developed over time. The characters are a bit unbelievable and are hard to relate to. However character development isn’t really the story, so I won’t put too much weight on that. I think I was a bit put off by the different parts being loosely connected.
Opening Line: "His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before."
Closing Line: "And so after three years of a war which was certainly the most unfought war on record, the Republic of Korell surrendered unconditionally, and Hober Mallow took his place next to Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin in the hearts of the people of the Foundation."
Quotes: "A civilization falling. Nuclear power forgotten. Science fading to mythology - until the Foundation had stepped in."
Rating: Never again.

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