Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Harper Prism
Book Review by Michael Lichter
Have you read this book?
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is one of the great classics of science fiction. Spanning a period of several thousand years, it tells the tragic story on one hand of an enormous galactic empire falling inexorably into decay and barbarism, and on the other of the heroic efforts of a scientist and his successors to cushion the fall and speed the recovery of civilization. The scientist, Hari Seldon, founds a scientific discipline called “psychohistory” which predicts the empire’s collapse. Using psychohistory as his guide, Seldon creates two “foundations” for the new, future empire: the First Foundation, which keeps knowledge alive by compiling and publishing the ENCYCLOPEDIA GALACTICA, and the shadowy Second Foundation, which uses psychohistory and special powers to influence the galaxy’s recovery.
In his later years, Asimov wrote a series of novels which tied together his near-future robot novels with his novels of the more distant future, including the Foundation books. The link is personified, so to speak, in the character of R. Daneel Olivaw, the robotic protagonist of Asimov’s first robot novels. Not only does Olivaw survive for tens of thousands of years, the last link between the modern galactic empire and the days of old Earth, now all but forgotten, but Olivaw also plays an important role as a benign and (mostly) behind-the-scenes manipulator of human progress. He is deus et machina as opposed to merely deus ex machina. Asimov’s final novel, Forward the Foundation, completes the bridge across time by returning to Hari Seldon’s early years, including his initial efforts towards developing “psychohistory.”
The first part of a planned “Second Foundation Trilogy,” Gregory Benford’s Foundation’s Fear takes up more or less where Asimov’s Forward the Foundation leaves off. Hari Seldon is still grappling with the basic questions of psychohistory; in particular he is still trying to figure out what sorts of things he needs to know in order to model human societies and project their macro-level changes over time. Though Seldon would like to be left alone with his science project, Emperor Cleon has other plans: he wants Hari to be his First Minister. Nothing being simple in this universe, there are others who also want to be First Minister, and they are willing to kill in order to advance their interests. Seldon must learn to play political hardball, or die.
Benford is pretty good at writing adventure, and the sections of the book that deal with Seldon evading assassins are taut and exciting. But there is much more to the book than adventure, and most of it is extremely tedious. A major subplot involving computerized simulacra of Voltaire and Joan of Arc, for instance, features pages and pages of unoriginal musings on the meaning of Being Digital. What does this have to do with Asimov’s Foundation universe? Why is there a major thread railing against deconstruction, postmodernism and the sociology of science? Why does Benford introduce a rebellion of slave robots and the possible existence of nonhuman intelligences and then do nothing with either? Benford seems to feel compelled to include anything that strikes his fancy, whether it advances the plot or not. At one point Benford has Voltaire advise us that “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything”. Benford tells everything, and then some.
One of Benford’s goals in this book is to show the development of psychohistory, putting some flesh on Asimov’s famous fictional science. The idea of a predictive science of society which would put government on a rational basis did not originate with Asimov. Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the man who coined the term “sociology”, had a remarkably similar vision for his new science, which he hoped would foster “order and progress.” Rather than follow this strand of sociological thought, however, Benford turns to sociobiology, of which he is a big fan. As part of his search for answers, Seldon spends time watching a troop of genetically engineered post-chimpanzees (called “pans”), and subsequently makes many fascinating and original (sarcasm alert) observations about how we humans resemble our simpler cousins. If you’ve read another book by Benford, say Sailing Bright Eternity, you’ve probably already been exposed to this. In fact, some of the exposition in Foundation’s Fear looks to be lifted almost verbatim from Sailing Bright Eternity. While some of Hari’s seeking is interesting and even insightful, psychohistory as developed here becomes little more than a compendium of Benford’s personal prejudices.
Some of Seldon’s better insights are, by the way, social science commonplaces. Benford doesn’t know this because where he comes from social science isn’t real science. Sociobiology has genes and phenotypes and is practiced by people who use microscopes and get NSF or NIMH grants and gee it really sounds scientific. Very close to none of it is based on or has been applied to actual people or human societies except speculatively. Benford doesn’t seem to realize that there’s very little of interest he can do with sociobiology, that because social phenomena are emergent (as he notes) our genetic heritage is largely a non-issue. Check out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars series to see the work of an SF author who is serious about understanding people and social change.
The most disappointing thing about Foundation’s Fear is the mundanity of Benford’s vision for the far future. This isn’t entirely his own fault; the far future has progressively become much less awesome and mysterious in SF writing over the past fifty years. Nobody writes futures any more like Asimov did in Foundation or Clarke in The City and the Stars. It may be that our technological development has resulted in the channeling of imagination along very specific pathways; when less was known about what was really possible, many more options seemed open. This still doesn’t mean that Benford has to turn the Empire into a constitutional monarchy with a capitalist economy like Great Britain (Seldon — cringe! — extols the virtues of the free market). This concession to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History thesis that liberal democracy is at the pinnacle of human social development seems out of place here. In his original series, Asimov avoided specifics, never explaining how a blaster or a starship worked. What this book does is to take the mythic far future world of the Galactic Empire and cut it down to size by substituting straight-line extrapolations of contemporary technologies for what was left magical and mysterious in the original. He gives us contemporary-sounding networks of digital computers, contemporary slang, contemporary cliches, contemporary stale jokes, contemporary academic politics and funding dilemmas, and more or less contemporary understandings of physics. Benford puts Clarke’s Law (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) in the mouth of the Emperor, but he obviously doesn’t know what to do with it; he makes 30,000 years in the future look depressingly like tomorrow.
Finally, there’s Hari Seldon. When I first read the Foundation Trilogy, I pictured Seldon as an alternate Albert Einstein, a gentle but brilliant scholar, a man of principle who cared deeply about people and about humanity. He was also a man of action, having set up his two foundations, but not somebody who cared for arbitrary power over others. The Seldon of Foundation’s Fear is a cranky senior professor who wants to develop psychohistory because he’s a control freak who can’t stand the thought of social instability. This is a man who, when confronted with the grievances of minorities, says “shut up, I’ve heard it already!” and when dealing with a potential Bosnia-like conflict says “put up a fence and let ’em kill each other.” This is not the Hari Seldon I remember.
In sum, this book has some good parts, but Benford’s heavy-handed preaching and his penchant for excessive and often totally irrelevant detail makes it a frustrating read. Die-hard Foundation fans will find it hard to resist buying the book, but they should be prepared to hold their noses and to skim. I have hopes that Greg Bear’s Foundation and Chaos, which is now available in hardcover, and David Brin’s forthcoming The Secret Foundation will not suffer from the same sorts of problems (although Benford did help plot them out).