July 13, 2010

Foundation's Triumph review and the fate of human destiny

Being that it is summer and I was recovering from surgery, I just had to get some fresh reading material. Isaac Asimov's Foundation series may be the best known and beloved story in all of science fiction. I first encountered the original trilogy in high school, and quickly gobbled up all the subsequent sequels and associated stories thereafter.

The series centers around Hari Seldon, the inventor of a science called "psychohistory" which can predict, essentially, the future based on the actions of large numbers of humans. The original trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation), written in the 1950s, details the crumbling Galactic Empire and Seldon's efforts to shorten the chaotic interim between it and the Second Galactic Empire. He does so by creating the Foundation -- a group of dedicated scientists on a planet at the edge of the galaxy whose preservation of technology and science will be the ... foundation of the next empire.

Asimov didn't write his sequels until some thirty years later (mainly due to fan pressure). These are Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth. Being that there was a lot of difficulty of proceeding further, Asimov then penned a couple of prequels: Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. These, to me, failed to maintain any interest as after Foundation and Earth, there didn't appear to be a point.

However, Asimov wasn't through. He went on to "unify" his universe -- weaving the Foundation stories with his pre-Galactic Empire Robot tales, in particular the "Robot novels": The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire. There's also his "Empire" books, which deal with issues during the Galactic Empire.

After Asimov died in 1992, he (and later his estate) gave various authors permission to "play" in his established universe, much like another favorite scifi author of mine, Larry Niven (who's still alive, by the way). Numerous writers "played" in Isaac's Robot arena, and others with the Foundation, although both are intertwined. The "ultimate" novel, David Brin's Foundation's Triumph, serves as the complete "wrap-up" story that attempts to unify each and every Foundation and Robot novel (and short story) published. Some reviews I had read about it mentioned that someone familiar with the original trilogy and sequels could probably skip the other non-Asimov written novels which immediately precede Triumph and delve right into it. They were right.

But, I had a big problem with it. Actually, it wasn't author Brin's fault -- Asimov had started it years before his death. The main protagonist of the Foundation and Robot novels, the robot (R.) Daneel Olivaw, is revealed to be the "puppet master" of human destiny since the early years of human space travel. Humanity has been coddled for over 20,000 years -- its mind dulled, its creativity stifled, its destiny ... predetermined! And, ultimately, the great psychohistorian Hari Seldon barely raises a ripple of dissent about this.

To be fair, Brin does allow a lot of argument in the pages of Triumph about this fact of robotic human coddling. But again, that very premise (robots babying humanity) acts -- at least for me -- as a huge belly drop. I mean, there I was, in high school, enthralled with a novel about a human who has devised a way to assist his own kind through troubling times (and it by no means was a perfect method) but it's now revealed to be a ruse! It's only a "stop gap" measure for the robot Daneel Olivaw's ultimate goal for humanity!

And what is that ultimate goal? The ultimate communism! A single, unified mind dubbed "Galaxia" by which all humans galaxy-wide would be connected.

Wow. So all that I had read was actually secretly maneuvered by an immortal robotic entity who believes he has humanity's ultimate good in mind. Humans themselves played little to no role in that decision.

I immediately thought of a comicbook parallel: Marvel's super-team The Avengers. In 1999, master comic scribe Kurt Busiek penned the outstanding Avengers Forever -- but it was outstanding not for the ultimate plot, but for the encyclopedic noggin and story-telling of the author, and for the phenomenal artwork by Carlos Pacheco. Like David Brin in Foundation's Triumph, Busiek "unified" the myriad stories of Avengers history written by other authors ... ultimately by making them all the result of the machinations of Immortus, a time-traveling human and occasional Avengers nemesis. So, those Avengers tales I had read since my age was in the single digits were all the result of one man's actions -- a time-traveling occasional super-villain. Ugh.

I mean, what about free will? Freedom? People determining their own destiny? Isn't the essence of freedom and free will the freedom to fail? And, possibly, to become extinct?

I can understand the premise that Daneel Olivaw ultimately could not allow the latter based on his human-protection programming (the Three Laws of Robotics); however, even if he allowed humanity to develop naturally, it wouldn't be eliminated altogether. It would just face more periods of turmoil and chaos. (And, again, to Brin's credit and that of other authors playing in Asimov's universe, this topic is debated heatedly at times among humans and robots in later novels.)

Just imagine: How would you feel if, as many conspiratorial types rant, it was revealed that a secret cabal had been directing the United States since virtually its founding? I'd feel pretty sick to my stomach. No freedom. No free will. Predetermined (or, as predetermined as possible) destiny. Heck, I've defended the United States against the complaints by (primarily) Euros that we're "too violent," and "we have too many in prison," and "your freedom of speech allows outright hate." My reply is essentially along the lines of "So? It's called FREEDOM." Freedom allows for the fact that you can own a gun. Freedom allows you to say what you want, even if it is "hateful." And having such freedom means that, if you go overboard and infringe on the freedom of someone else, you go to prison. I do not want such basic freedoms being determined, and especially not directed, by an individual or group of individuals.

But ... does such a desire go against the Judeo-Christian premise of "pre-determination" -- that God has an ultimate destiny for each of us? I'm a fairly non-religious person, but I recall the teachings that God has a "plan" for every one of us. However, He has given us free will. He doesn't guide our every movement to that plan, and He allows this for humanity as a whole. (Else, why is there so much violence and suffering in the world, right?) Even if we had, say, a massive nuclear war, not all of mankind would be extinguished ... He would have allowed us the free will to make that disastrous decision, yet despite that, He would provide for the seeds of beginning anew.

Just as I was disappointed with how humans were directed by R. Daneel Olivaw and Immortus as noted above, so too would I be disappointed if, upon entering the Great Thereafter, I discovered that all my decisions throughout my life were guided and influenced. I am hoping that I have a copious amount of free will, and that through exercising it in a positive manner, I'll be guaranteed acceptance into that Great Thereafter.

Posted by Hube at July 13, 2010 02:50 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Surgery? Did you finally have that addadictomy you were talking about?

Posted by: Duffy at July 13, 2010 02:52 PM

LOL ... how dare you confuse me with Jason Scott!

In truth: double hernia. Three weeks in now, and much better. Still have to wait 2 weeks for full exercise rights, 'tho. :-(

Posted by: Hube at July 13, 2010 02:56 PM

I told you if you keep "exercising" you'll go blind.

Posted by: Duffy at July 13, 2010 08:33 PM

Read the first Foundation book a few years ago. It's an interesting idea, but I didn't think it had aged well. I found certain aspects of the plot, like interstellar civilizations that didn't have nuclear power, highly implausible.

Posted by: Jeff the Baptist at July 14, 2010 10:24 AM

I agree that certain aspects did not age well. (For instance, in the pre-Foundation "Robot" novels, Earth is still using nuclear fission and pumping the waste deep into the planet's crust. This -- during the era of hyperspatial travel??) However, with regards to the Foundation books, I can actually buy that some planets -- out of 25 million, mind you -- would fall into a nuclear disrepair in the interregnum between galactic empires. If there's utter anarchy and no centralized government, it is conceivable that basic services (which in that era would include nuclear power) would disintegrate.

Posted by: Hube at July 14, 2010 10:40 AM

Yes God has a plan for us, but he gives us freedom of choice as to whether we choose that path or not. I believe he had a "perfect" will/plan and a "permissive" plan. If we choose to go a different path, it doesn't mean we are doomed or that God doesn't still have his hand on us.

Posted by: Debbie Right Truth at July 14, 2010 01:56 PM

Hube, have you ever read Jack Williamson's novelette, With Folded Hands? Sounds like it lays the foundation, so to speak, for Foundation's Triumph.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at July 15, 2010 09:36 PM

No I haven't, Dave -- but thanks for the reference! Most intriguing! :-)

Posted by: Hube at July 15, 2010 09:45 PM