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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Foundation series and why it is quite simply the greatest epic trilogy ever written

And though the title of this post is long, I'm not joking even one bit. It may not have the extravaganza of The Lord of the Rings but there are few things it doesn't do as well. If not better.

Right, in all probability you aren't familiar with the Foundation series, so I should, as a good commentator,  give a brief heads-up about it. So here goes.

The Foundation series was the triumphant climax of Isaac Asimov's career as a writer. It was a career that saw the rise to glory of one the greatest science fiction authors of all time. The sort of glory that dwarfs that of Douglas Adams and possibly even Carl Sagan. And while Asimov's stories revolved around "how science fiction" rather than "what science fiction", they played a crucial role, not only in the way the genre developed, but also in how science has evolved today.

What set Asimov's stories apart? Simply put, everything. His science fiction isn't the sort of science fiction that one is generally accustomed to. There are no aliens invading our planet and starting a war against humanity. There are no inter-galactic battles in huge starships with laser guns. In fact, such science fiction isn't really science fiction. These are just usual thrillers in a hypothetical setting - like say, the year 3540 AD. There isn't really anything scientific that takes center stage in these stories. Consider Star Wars. I have infinite respect for that movie franchise. But the real crux of the story lies in revelations of the characters' past lives. The whole story could have been set on Earth in the present day for all that the essence of the story mattered. The story does not revolve around any scientific idea. Which is what true science fiction, the hard science fiction of Asimov or Arthur Clarke does.

Asimov's philosophy of science fiction was quite simple. He created some new environments and most of his stories (he wrote over 500) were set in these environments. And these environments were radically different from the usual environment that we live in, because unlike other science fiction, they had certain physical laws which we don't have in reality. This is what his stories were based on: These laws, how they affected the environment and how the characters in the story adjusted (or failed to adjust) to the environment.

His robot stories for example, are based on The Three Laws of Robotics. Not only did he add this new word (robotics) to the English dictionary, he laid down three simple, and seemingly unassuming laws that the robots in his story always stick to. Because they are programmed that way. I'll highlight one such instance to drive home the point better. The first law of robotics states that 'a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.' The second law states that 'a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.'  and the third law 'a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.'  If you observe carefully, the laws are extremely well worded and unambiguous, and they follow a hierarchical precedence. The first law rules supreme, the second is next, and the third is the last in order of rational precedence. One fantastic story, the name to which eludes me at this moment was written around the fact, that the far reaching effects of these laws diminish following an inverse-square rule. As a result, a robot ended up moving around a point in circles of fixed radius because at that exact distance from the point, the effect of his adhering to the second law which came from the center point exactly nullified the effect from of his adhering to the first law which came from somewhere else.


I don't recollect the exact technicalities at the moment, because I had read it nearly a year back, but it did make a lot of sense when I had read it, and I hope you get the idea of what I'm trying to convey.

Similarly, the Foundation saga is based on a fictitious science called psychohistory. The science has no real roots. It's quite literally, a figment of Asimov's imagination. But it is powerful and potent enough to actually find application in today's world. Psychohistory is, to put it in layman's terms, the mathematics that governs how gigantic masses of intelligent beings evolve. In modern perspective, and in not so layman-esque terms, it is much like an intricate mixture of swarm-intelliegence, data mining and machine learning. Given that it was written in the 40s, when swarm intelligence was as unheard of as Keira Knightley's bushy mustache is today, it does speak volumes of the clairvoyance and genius that Asimov possessed.

The Foundation story begins with a psychohistorian called Hari Seldon, predicting the fall of the Galactic Empire using laws of psychohistory. Other people ridicule his idea because as it seemed then, the Empire was flourishing as ever and there seemed to be absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, he manages to reach a compromise with the officials who allow him to continue a certain monumental task which will save the Empire when it collapses, provided he left the planet and went to work with his group of followers on the remote planet of Terminus. Seldon, therefore instructed his small band of followers to leave, and on Terminus they begin this project of galactic proportions. The project is to document all of humanity's knowledge in an encyclopedia called Encyclopedia Galactica. Much like a Wikipedia in modern parlance (there's the clairvoyance again) The Encyclopedists, as they are called, believe that when the Empire falls, the sum of documented human knowledge will help reduce the period of the Dark Ages which are to follow, and will help humanity make quick progress in reaching modernity again.

However, Seldon being the asbolute master of psychohistory knew that all predictions based on the laws of psychohistory hold only if they are kept secret. Because, pscyhohistory was based on the actions of quadrillions of people who have no idea of their future and are guided by no apparently predetermined laws. If they do get to know what these laws are, then the whole of psychohistory is rendered void. Thus Seldon's task of making the encyclopedia was merely an eyewash for the greater project that he had in mind. And this was establishing two Foundations at two opposite ends of the galaxy.

The first foundation was established on Terminus, in the full daylight of publicity and the Foundationers (as the story progresses) are shown to be the descendants of the Encyclopedists who take over the galaxy when the Empire falls. The second Foundation is a secretive affair, and no one knows exactly where Seldon established it. All that is known is that the Second Foundation guards the laws of psychohistory which are valid as long as they are kept secret. Hence, throughout the saga, the Second Foundationers are the people who have full idea of what is about to happen and are striving to protect their own secrecy.

The swashbuckling story unfolds in three parts. The first book, Foundation, is the story of how the Encyclopedists build the First Foundation and take over the galaxy when the Empire falls. The second book in the series, Foundation and Empire, takes the story forward  by several thousand years when the First Foundation is a thriving center of culture and commerce. However, with the appearance of a mutant called the Mule, the future of the Foundation is challenged. The Mule possesses incredible psychological powers and is someone whose actions Seldon had not been able to predict using his laws of psychohistory. The second book is thus, the story of the battle between the First Foundation and the Mule. Complete with a brilliant twist in the end, which results in the downfall of the First Foundation. The third book called Second Foundation, addresses the issue of the elusive Second Foundation wherein the Mule will stop at nothing to reveal it in order to complete his domination of the entire galaxy.

The whole of the third book is a tour-de-force through a series of mind-benders and shockers. Worry not, I haven't given away any spoilers thus far, and I won't. The epic saga that began with the Foundation and continued into the Foundation and Empire reaches a blistering climax in the Second Foundation. Page after page, Asimov's sheer intellect is revealed in stunning proportions. Your brain gets boggled, your mind goes into orbit and your eyes pop. But all of this is just a precursor to the final climax which quite simply blows away the next best climax in all of literature / cinema into a million smithereens. And the fact that the final climax is based on a subtle scientific truth is what makes Asimov so special. So unique.

Yes, the story is that good and I'll cross my heart with that. Not surprisingly, when the three books were published, public acclaim went through the roof and Asimov was forced to write more books around the story. In Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, Asimov chronicled the life of Hari Seldon to the point where Foundation begins. These two prequels, and two more sequels (Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth) brought the saga to a definitive end. However, the core trilogy, the original three books which he wrote at first, are the ones that the series is best known for.

On a very related and interesting note, the whole saga draws heavy parallels from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not surprising, because Asimov himself stated that the premise of Foundation was based on several ideas in Gibbon's work.

Asimov wrote a lot of other books, including non-fiction, science encyclopedias etc. He also wrote a collection of extraordinary and out of the box mystery stories (not science fiction) which I had written about quite some time back in this post.

Indeed, his career as a writer was outlandish. Every single one of his works was a reflection of his genius. Every single idea that spawned each of his stories was laden with a sound perspective of a certain scientific concept, and incredible foresight in equal measure. And the administration of putting the idea down in pen and paper was done all too masterfully.

I have always considered PG Wodehouse to be my favourite writer of all time, but that is true only if you choose to ignore the content of the writing, and focus completely on the style. Because, when it comes to writing style, Wodehouse is unbeatable. However, if you're looking for someone who writes supremely well, yet can change the way your brain functions with what he writes, look no further. This is the person.

In all true honesty Isaac Asimov sir, I doff my hat to thee.


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