RR: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Terminus, home of the Foundation, is a planet whose sole purpose is to ride out the dark ages that rise in the wake of the collapse of the once-mighty Galactic Empire. Populated by scientists and their families, this tiny beacon of rationality and progress at the edge of the known galaxy is surrounded by four planets whose attitudes towards Terminus vacillate between disdain, suspicion, and outright hostility. The political leaders of Terminus, however, do their best to abide by the words of their founding psychologist-prophet Hari Seldon:

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

If you’re a tiny planet surrounded by hostile monarchies (space barbarians) with no military, no ore, and only a population of brainiac scientists, how do you survive? For the planet Foundation, it’s by convincing your hostile neighbors that they’re better off accepting the Religion of Science (and its  accompanying gifts and priests) than turning you into a vassal state. Of course, since your leaders are clever, all your gifts are designed to make the giftees dependent on you, so that when your barbarian neighbors inevitably begin to act like shitheads, you can simply turn off your gift’s nuclear power and leave them without lights that burn, ovens that cook, and knives that cut.

The story of The Mayors (Part III) illustrates nicely Foundation’s approach to diplomacy.

The Mayor of Terminus has a problem: he’s facing growing hostility from his strongest neighbor, Anacreon, and the political opposition at home says that he should stop trying to appease them with gifts and start building up Terminus’ military. Being a tiny planet with few resources besides brains, Hardin knows that to build a defense force would be an exercise in futility.

When a derelict “magnificent colossus” of a spaceship is found (a remnant of the Galactic Empire; think Imperial star destroyer), Hardin has it repaired and outfitted with new technology, named after the regent of Anacreon, and gifts it to very planet who threatens to dominate Terminus.

The regent of Anacreon isn’t opposed to betraying the people who have given his planet nuclear power, the source of their light, heat, and other household conveniences. Yet, his plan to attack Terminus during the coronation of his nephew with the gifted ship backfires when the palace lights fade. Hardin, who happens to be on hand for the coronation, smiles at the regent and tells him that not only have Terminus’ sympathizers shutdown power for the entire planet, but the colossus will travel no further.

The regent, being a “man of direct action”, commits suicide and the Terminus is safe for yet another day.

At first I found the structure of this book irritating, as the already thin characters I had grown to know and, if not love, then at least appreciate, were no longer a part of the story. However, to tell the history of a future civilization, it’s necessary to have a constantly-changing cast. The one character who remains a constant throughout this book is Hari Seldon; his holographic image appears during times of great crisis to reassure the present leaders that everything is going according to his projections.

If Hari Seldon appeared in the U.S. today, I wonder what he would say.

The Foundation Trilogy is book 8 on the NPR Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy book list. 1 down, 99 to go. 


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