Bookcano 2017: March – Science and Religion Sittin’ in a Tree – Foundation by Isaac Asimov

The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity—a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.

Someday I will write a blog post after I finish all 7 novels for Asimov’s Foundation series. When I visited the Tacoma Book Center to find the original Foundation, I found instead every other book except the first one, and thus had to resort to Amazon, where I accidentally ordered an extra copy.

The only other books I’ve read by Asimov is I, Robot. Foundation is similar in structure, each part of the book is episodic, almost like short stories unto themselves.

The Empire has been running the galaxy for 12,000 years, until a psychohistorian (basically a mathematician who predicts the future via statistics) named Hari Seldon dumps on the party with the news that the Empire will be toast within 300 years. What will follow will either be 30,000 years of barbarism, or, if the Empire allows the psychohistorian to build his special project, the Encyclopedia Galactica, to preserve scientific knowledge, only 1,000 years of crap times.

Thus the Empire, its sensitive ego bruised, exiles Seldon to some BFE planet with a group of his followers to assemble the thing.

Subsequent events show that everything is not as it seems. Seldon had a few tricks up his sleeve, and as the story jumps ahead decades at a time, we watch the inexorable cycle of history play against a galactic backdrop.

The universe that Asimov builds is vast, with millions of inhabited planets (the Empirical home planet of Trantor hosts a population of 90 billion, every square inch of the planet colonized.) Earth is not even a memory in this world; no one even knows its name. There don’t appear to be any other intelligent species either, just nice habitable planets ripe for colonization.

The novel is indicative of its times; published in 1951, nuclear power is a bargaining chip, a sign of advanced civilization, and a commercial product. Why, there are personal force fields and glowing jewelry and special nuclear kitchen knives! Of course, there are also weapons, but Asimov optimistically imagines many benign uses for atomic power as well. The concept of MAD seems to keep nuclear holocaust at bay.

The most interesting element is the interplay of religion and control. The Foundation, that group of scientists dedicated to preserving scientific knowledge for a future era, creates a religion around the science to keep the “masses” under its power. The rug gets pulled out from under the reader as we realize that the supposed “good guys” are in fact  manipulating circumstances to bring about Seldon’s great purpose. Their use of an invented religion centered around “holy food” (nuclear power) is equal parts brilliant and sinister.

It then becomes a question of the end justifying the means. Is it okay to narcotize the mob with religion in the pursuit of science and civilization? There’s an element of intellectual snobbery to the whole pursuit, as though the common people couldn’t possibly mobilize under the banner of progress as opposed to fear and superstition.

Maybe Asimov is more pessimistic than I thought. I’d certainly like to believe that people are generally smart and capable of making sound decisions, but both my current immersion in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and the current political climate seem to point elsewhere. Is the default mental state of the mob stupidity?

Perhaps the question of means and ends and religion and masses is best addressed by Foundation man Jorane Sutt when he explains the necessity of religion, false as it may be, to the secular merchant Hober Mallow:

We have the science of the great Hari Seldon to prove that upon us depends the future empire of the Galaxy, and from the course that leads to that Imperium we cannot turn. The religion we have is our all-important instrument towards that end. With it we have brought the Four Kingdoms under our control, even at the moment when they would have crushed us. It is the most potent device known with which to control men and worlds.

But just as Sutt is doomed to a convention that no longer convinces, so the religion must fall to the next phase of the plan: Capitalism.

*surprise time capsules

  • For all of Asimov’s foresight in anticipating nuclear power plants, he seems incapable of imagining that thousands of years into the future we might have women in politics. The lone female character in the book is a stereotypical shrill wife who is easily assuaged by shiny things.
  • Also, people still read print newspapers.
  • Applicable Hamilton lyric: “History has its eyes on you”


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