Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sensor Scan: Foundation

It is a maxim among some writers that all science fiction, no matter how varied and diverse it may be, can ultimately trace its lineage back to the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction literature. Despite this being far too reductive a statement for my personal taste, there is some genuine erudition to be gained by examining it as the era's signature works are indeed fundamental inspirations for a particular approach to writing science fiction that defines early Star Trek (or at least they way Star Trek is perceived) and the intellectual tradition it's a part of.

Some background: The Golden Age of Science Fiction, as it has come to be known, is a period (roughly spanning the years between 1938 and 1953) during which marked interest in futurism and the potential of scientific and technological breakthroughs influenced authors to craft stories set far into the future featuring, and often explicitly about, technology written to feel plausibly extrapolated from that of the time of writing. This approach, and the intellectual tradition that comes out of it, is often referred to as “Hard” sci-fi in an attempt to stress its focus on scientific realism and to distinguish it from (and in more than one instance tacitly imply a superiority over) other “pulp” or “fantasy” inspired science fiction. Indeed a great many sci-fi writers claim that this is the defining feature of science fiction: That it portrays a future that can reasonably be expected to derive from real-life science and technology. This is a very pervasive attitude and one that will crop up on more than one occasion on our journey, so it's best we take a look at it here.

In many ways then Foundation is the text best representative of the Golden Age style, at least as it pertains to Star Trek: A sprawling attempt at a space epic spanning multiple generations that chronicles the decline, collapse and rebirth of humanity's galactic empire written by Isaac Asimov, already famous as one of the leading lights of the period for his Robot short stories. The Foundation and Star Trek series are not directly connected, but there are enough superficial similarities between the two and Asimov's influence on later science fiction is ubiquitous enough it merits a discussion.

Perhaps the biggest point of comparison between Foundation and Star Trek is that both franchises started out as one self-contained work that very quickly snowballed into a series of sequels, prequels, retcons and continuity-laden spin-off works handled by first, second and third generation fans. In the case of Foundation, the, er, “foundational” work in question is a series of short stories Asimov wrote for Astounding Magazine in the 1940s and then edited and re-published as a trilogy of standalone novels in the early 1950s under the titles Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. While Asimov himself went on to write four additional novels in the series during the 1980s and 1990s (two sequels and two prequels) for the sake of brevity, scope and chronological relevance I'm only going to be looking at the original trilogy here.

The central premise of the trilogy, as explained in the original Foundation, is that a mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon has invented a new science called “psychohistory” that blends math, sociology and psychology in such a way so as to allow him to accurately predict human behaviour on an individual and societal level millennia out into the future. This methodology has led Seldon to predict that the Galactic Empire, at the time over 12,000 years old and seemingly stable and prosperous, is actually on the verge of a systemic collapse that will plunge the galaxy into 30,000 years of darkness and regression. Seldon believes the only alternative to this is to set up a Foundation to collect the entirety of human knowledge into an Encyclopedia Galactica-This will, according to Seldon, help to prevent the loss of the accumulated progress humanity has made and shorten the duration of the Dark Age by 20,000 years. This angers the Empire's decadent aristocracy who sentence him for treason, but, unwilling to turn him into a martyr by executing him, Seldon is exiled to the planet Terminus with those loyal to him to form the Encyclopedia Foundation.

The rest of the first novel follows the development of the Foundation on Terminus over the next century as it faces threats from four rival kingdoms who have split from the Empire, in particular the life of the heroic Terminus City mayor Salvor Hardin, a charismatic maverick leader concerned that his hands are being tied by the Foundation's managing Board of Trustees who don't take the dangerous political situation seriously. At crucial moments of crisis, pre-recorded holographic messages left by Seldon appear to Hardin and the other protagonists assuring them that everything is going according to plan and, miraculously, the most recent disaster was predicted and accounted for in the Master Plan and that Seldon knows that the Foundation (revealed as a front for Terminus to become the seat of the Second Galactic Empire) will make the correct choices to ensure its survival. Eventually the Foundation spreads beyond Terminus and becomes a collective built on a network of traders who exchange advanced technology for alliances with neighbouring kingdoms, and by the end of the novel it becomes a powerful Empire in its own right that even boasts a state religion called Scientism, based on worship of and complete devotion to Foundation technology and scientific progress.

At the end of the first novel the most egregious and worrying flaws in Foundation, and indeed all of Asimov's brand of Golden Age science fiction, should be apparent. From a contemporary perspective (or at least mine) it's an almost appallingly crass and paternalistic work that utterly revels in technological determinism and the virtues of a specific Western, and if we're being honest United States, brand of neoliberal imperialism. Hardin is the classic American individualist, heroically fighting the corruption and inefficiency of bureaucracy and the ever-present threat of The Other and the protagonists of the last two sections are both rugged frontier traders.

Then there is, of course, the Church of Science and Scientism, an idea so stupefyingly and self-evidently wrong its name has been rightly re-appropriated by modern thinkers looking to criticise any manner of western scientific arrogance and authoritarianism. Asimov pays us lip service near the end of the first novel by having Seldon say something about how The Church is a means to an end and will eventually outlive its usefulness, but this is nowhere near satisfying and is actually worse: Asimov is essentially admitting here that something like Scientism has to exist in some form at some point to keep those of lesser intellects in line. It's for their own good to join the Foundation, see, and The Church is there to make it easier for them to accept its natural authority. Somehow this doesn't make me feel any better.

Foundation and Empire

But for me the most distasteful aspect of Foundation is Seldon himself: The whole concept of psychohistory is a horrifyingly dehumanizing one, positing as it does that all of human culture and behaviour can be reduced down to equations, models and proofs. Asimov seems to recognise at least some of the negative implications of this and tries to work around them in Foundation and Empire with the character of The Mule, an aspiring despot disguised as a circus clown who, thanks to a freak genetic mutation, has the ability to control thoughts and emotions. Seldon didn't account for The Mule in his plan, forcing the Foundation of his time to improvise lest the entire nascent empire fall before him. But this doesn't work either, because, far from showing how flawed something as distant and overreaching like psychohistory is by neglecting the inherent, well, humanity of humans, The Mule is instead the personification of the outlier: A data point that doesn't doesn't match the existing theory but can be safely disregarded. And despite his enormous power and the threat he poses, The Mule can ultimately be rejected because the Foundation finds a way to counteract his abilities and safely lock him away on an insignificant planet. It's not entirely clear how this result is any different than it would have been if Seldon *had* predicted The Mule: Seldon has always seemed to bank on people improvising in times of crisis before, so why is this time so unique? The theory just needs to be tweaked a little, it doesn't need to be tossed out entirely.

Another reason The Mule fails to in any way engage with the series' fundamentally flawed premise is that, once again, he's one outstanding individual with special gifts. He's not the face of some populist revolution to out the new boss, who really, really is just the same as the old boss, he's one outstanding man who is dangerous because he doesn't conform. Furthermore, he's dangerous because he can forcibly turn people against the Foundation: In other words, the biggest threat the Foundation will ever face is not that people might collectively decide they don't want to live under a Scientistic theocracy, but because one man might poison their thoughts and blind them to the Foundation's true righteousness. This is Red Scare tactics 101.
Second Foundation

Asimov also halfheartedly tries to problematize the series with the concept of the Second Foundation, a mythical counterpart to the Foundation “at the other end of the galaxy” that provides the impetus for the plot of the second half of the second book and the entirety of the third. The idea, as I understand it (though I never found it especially clear in any of the books), is that this Foundation is designed to nurture the growth of telepathy and other “mental sciences” (interestingly not anthropology, philosophy or the humanities, though) to counteract the original Foundation's emphasis on physical sciences. Asimov attempts to justify this by retroactively making Seldon a social scientist, which doesn't fly at all as he is perfectly clearly a mathematician in the original book. The Second Foundation is also dedicated towards refining psychohistory to predict even the most unlikely of occurrences, such as The Mule. In other words it's basically just a a metaphor for the notion of scientific replication and the refining of the experimental method in subsequent trials, so it's done nothing to redeem the series or address its glaring issues.

It's hard to imagine how Asimov, born to a Russian Jewish family in 1919 (i.e. Old enough to witness the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War) could have penned something so clearly in favour of empire building, but that's precisely what Foundation is: The goal of the Encyclopedia (itself a top-down concept based on archiving and reiterating a historical master narrative rather than the generative sharing of knowledge and ideas) is expressly to serve as the first step in building a new, better Empire, just one built on science and technology instead of brute military force, hence the dual meaning in the name. While we're still a little ways off from the most overt links between science fiction and US neo-imperialism, the seeds of that partnership are sewn here.

Ultimately though Foundation is a work of Golden Age science fiction, and these sorts of prejudices are things inexorably bound up in the entire genre: The fact of the matter is the “Golden Age” happened concurrently with the end of World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. There was a prevailing sense that scientists would build the future for us and if society could be reoriented around science and rationality we'd all be a happier, healthier and more prosperous people (just witness any of the “House of Tomorrow”-style pop futurism that also characterized the era). We can't really fault Foundation for being so firmly of its time and genre. It's a defining work in Golden Age science fiction, so of course it's going to act like Golden Age science fiction. However, historicizing these themes doesn't make them any more palatable to a modern reader, nor does it excuse their reiteration in future works far removed from this specific context. Unfortunately though, for a very long time afterwards this is going to be the defining model for how “proper” science fiction “should” work and the consequences of this are going to be far from ideal.


  1. This critique is right on. I only read the first Foundation book, but it seemed to me a hopelessly naive paean to the natural authority that science should hold in society. It doesn't regard Imperialism as a bad thing, just Empires not run by scientists.

    It sure doesn't help that I found it to be just a terrible book on fundamental levels as well. The writing is dull, the characters are all dreadfully boring old stodgy white males, and all conflict and tension is undercut by the fact that Harry Seldon is invariably right and Foundation's success is pretty much preordained. Asimov has definitely written better (as with most Sci-Fi, I prefer the short stories).

    Small note, unless I'm mistaken Pyschohistory does not work on an individual level. In fact it requires so many people in order to work that it should only work on a galactic civilizations scale, and can only make generalized predictions. Like I said I only read the first book and could be wrong.

    Anyways, this post was a great read!

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Yes, aside from being ethically irritating Foundation isn't a terribly fun read anyway. I love your analysis of the characters and the (lack of) central conflict. In this regard Arkady Darrel in Second Foundation is a breath of fresh air, but she's not written *terribly* differently from the other protagonists and as fun as she can be to root for the series is a bit too far gone at that point for this to make an enormous difference.

  2. There's an interesting equivalence here, which I'm sure you'll eventually develop, between the material oppressive practices of empire and the broader notion of scientific teleology. Foundation strikes me as a utopian version of Blake's nightmare of "single vision and Newton's sleep." That this is inexorable from empire is interesting, but non-obvious - it seems more intuitively likely that both should be different versions of hegemony. But you seem to be suggesting they're actually equivalent. Which is fascinating. Go on, good sir. :)

    1. Well I think Asimov certainly thinks it is, except for the fact he also thinks this is a Good Thing, hence why his vision of a utopian future is a grand, sprawling empire run by a Church of Science Priests. This is central to how Foundation works: "Good" empires are run by scientists, "Bad" empires are run by soldiers and bureaucrats.

      But furthermore I think this is a very Golden Age idea: If you posit a utopian future society that descends in some way from the western technoscientific structures of the present, this is sort of where you're going to end up.

      And of course, this is a concept Star Trek will endlessly struggle with...

  3. Very interesting and insightful, but I'd expect nothing less.

    One issue... You use the word "neoliberal" to refer to the brand of imperialism lauded/practiced by the Foundation. This term, of course, is a very loaded one in present-day political talk. Generally, these days, it refers to a broad political/economic praxis to do with what privatization (might be called the 'semi-primitive re-accumulation of socialised capital'), the ostensible retreat of the state and the marketization of services, deregulation, etc., etc. Thing is, this 'capitalist perestroika' started in the early 70s, considerably later than Foundation was published. Of course, the term 'neoliberal' had existed from the 30s, when the... ahem... foundational academic work was done. The Chicago School et al followed in the post-WWII era.

    Now, I'm interested in the conflict between post-WWII 'optimism' (i.e. techno-utopianism, social liberalism, consumerism... all of which have their fingerprints all over Star Trek) and the then minority view that mixed-economies (the basis of the post-war boom, alongside military keynesianism) were actually a bad thing, and that extreme marketization (i.e. neoliberalism) was required. Where does 'Foundation' fit into this?

    The actual economics of the Foundation seem, if I recall correctly, quite fitted to their time (i.e. the early 50s). Trade is vital, but it is channelled by a strong state, with traders also Foundation agents, with trade aimed at expanding the power and reach of the Foundation itself. They come into contact with protectionist elders on other worlds and negotiate their way round them, etc.

    Of course, 'actually existing neoliberalism' couldn't exist without a strong state and heavy state investment, but it still marks a retreat from the highpoint of mixed economies. It seems that Foundation fits more with the older post-war model than with the neoliberal ideas that were only germinal when it was written.

    1. Very good analysis, Jack, and you're right: My use of the term "neoliberal" here was probably inappropriate. Foundation's economics are certainly closer to the early post-war model than what we think of as neoliberalism today.

      As for your point about utopian techno futurism and social liberalism...I'd love to talk more about that in relation to Star Trek and Foundation but as I write this there really isn't anything to talk about yet. Trek under Roddenberry doesn't go anywhere near this: It's still some square-jawed, militaristic, crassly didactic set of phoned-in morality plays. Any utopianism comes across by association as a result of the diverse cast; it's not something that's really a major theme yet. The show will start to dip its toes in those waters shortly and the consequences of that will be interesting, but it's not quite there yet.

    2. It's fascinating and surprising to me that you say that the diverse cast were a network stipulation. I suppose I naively assumed the opposite. (Prejudice on MY part?)

      I get what you say about the show so far (as of The Enemy Within) showing so signs of liberalism or utopianism except as a byproduct of that casting decision... and yet, that decision comes from *somewhere*, doesn't it. It'd be depressing to think that it comes in solely via the cynical/pragmatic motives of a network!

      Great stuff.

    3. You're right, Star Trek does deservedly have a reputation for utopianism and it *does* come from somewhere: I just haven't started talking about the person who that primarily stems from because he hasn't shown up yet-Check back in a week or so though :-)

      And even already we've had the occasional sign of progress: Whatever his faults, William Shatner is a far, far better actor than anyone gives him credit for being and his camping up of the show is not to be taken lightly. And the presence of Nichelle Nichols, Grace Lee Whitney and George Takei count for a lot.

      Also, like I said in "The Cage" and have tried to argue elsewhere, Gene Roddenberry is not a completely retrograde cretin: Star Trek's support of women and attempts to be anti-racist do seem to at least in part stem from him (or maybe Majel Barrett). Roddenberry's big problem is that he's actually a really terrible writer and showrunner and his reach far surpasses his grasp. On the one hand I think he does want to craft an environment where women are equal to men, but on the other hand he's an insufferably laddish frat boy who only knows the hyper-masculine environments of the (1940s and 1950s) LAPD and US Air Force and that colours the way he sees things.

    4. I'm looking forward to reading about the newcomer who will reshape the show's liberalism! With the 'it must come from somewhere' comment, I was actually thinking of the changes in the wider culture which would lead a TV network to stipulate a diverse cast. I wonder if this was to do with advertising reach or something like that. Will you be covering the business model of the companies that made and/or bought the show?

      Re: Shatner. Yeah, he's very entertaining to watch. He's actually more like one of those RSC hams of yesteryear who overact wonderfully (no names). Even today, there are some hugely acclaimed actors who are actually just hams with posh voices (again, no names). As I think you said elsewhere, there's a contrast between Shatner's arch, theatrical style and the more 'naturalistic' (whatever that means this week) style of other American TV/film actors. The one time he completely fails, in my view, is his breakdown at Spock's funeral in Wrath of Khan. That just makes me want to craw my eardrums out.

    5. In regards to the diverse cast, I have a feeling it was mostly a response to the changes in the wider culture and something Desilu and NBC actively pursued to increase their demographic reach. They weren't stupid: Youth culture was still very much in vogue in the US in 1964-6, so it would make sense television networks would want to cater to it. And don't forget this *was* Desilu, a studio that was already known for taking more than a few risks (like having a sitcom starring an interracial couple).

      Also, there were several people involved in the creation of Star Trek who did in fact have a vested interest in leftist utopianism (yes, even probably Roddenberry at heart). Herb Solow is the guy who comes to mind right away as one of the more important creative figures very early on who pursued this thread, as his recollections in Inside Star Trek clearly reveal him to be. Once again, we'll meet the primary architect of the most obvious bits of Star Trek's utopianism next week, and Majel Barrett shouldn't be disregarded either.

      I've tried to look into advertisers, but there's actually pretty scant information on them, at least that I can dig up. If I were to hazard a guess, it was probably most likely, as I said above, a reaction to youth culture being fashionable and marketable in the mid-1960s. The counterculture doesn't collapse in on itself here until 1968, and Star Trek dutifully follows a year later (only to extend its rabid cult following in the 1970s, of course).

    6. Massive government intervention on behalf of big business is not my idea of "marketization."

    7. No indeed, but then that double standard is inherent to neoliberalism as praxis. It's the public sphere - services, welfare, etc - which is always being privatised, marketised, reappropriated as capital. Big business gets the largesse and latitude of the big state... as indeed do the imperatives of imperialism. Neoliberal ideology is just that: an ideology, linked to a political project. It's under no obligation to be internally coherent or to correspond to practice. Indeed, its hegemony makes such things as coherence and facticity largely superfluous... much as they were superfluous to 'Marxism-Leninism' in Stalin's Russia.

  4. "On the one hand I think he does want to craft an environment where women are equal to men, but on the other hand he's an insufferably laddish frat boy who only knows the hyper-masculine environments of the (1940s and 1950s) LAPD and US Air Force and that colours the way he sees things."

    I don't think we can attribute Roddenberry's attitude entirely to his experience in hyper-masculine '40s & '50s military & police environments. The rise of 2nd wave feminism was partially due to young women of the '60s experiencing the same attitude & abuse from young men who'd never spent a day in such environments. Roddenberry was just a man of his time & culture, well-meaning, but lacking the traits necessary to see beyond his cultural views...& self-interest.