Monday, January 9, 2012

Foundation Group Read part 1

Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings is kindly hosting a groupread of Isaac Asimov's Foundation. You can still join!

Here are my spoiler-filled thoughts on the first half of Foundation (parts I, II, and III chapters 1-4). I've included Carl's groupread questions at the end of the post.

This is my second time reading Foundation. The first was when I was in the Peace Corps. I'd brought a stack of books with me that I'd heard about but never read including Lord of the Rings and Northanger Abbey. I had always thought reading Isaac Asimov was like reading Albert Einstein: esoteric and way over my head, so when I read Foundation I was glad it was neither. I had to laugh when I went in search of a copy for this read and found it shelved in the Young Adult section of the library. Ouch!

This time I listened to an audio version read by the fabulous Scott Brick and have the paper version for reference. I remember almost nothing about the book from my first read: Hari Seldon, psychohistory, and that's about it. Foundation is hard to follow on audio because there's not much to hold on to. It's more a description of psychohistory than a cohesive story. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, and we don't stay on any character long enough to build up a rapport.

I still don't understand psychohistory. It's neither psychology nor history but a type of statistics to predict the future. I thought it strange that the Emperor was so upset about Seldon's prediction. If the Empire will fall in 500 years, that means it will last for 500 years. That's long enough for this Emperor. Or just ignore Seldon. Bringing Seldon to trial just gives creditably to his predictions. The point of psychohistory seems to be that most people have no power so can be removed from the equation. There are only certain points in time when action makes a difference in the long view, and the people who will be in power at those times tend to be predictable.

I'm having a hard time engaging with Foundation because no one has any agency. Hari Seldon set up his chessboard before the book started and now the galaxy is just playing the game out. Hari's dead, so he can't affect anything. He purposefully didn't teach anyone psychohistory, so they can't affect anything. Salvor Hardin's job is to do nothing. And no one will know if Seldon was right until 1,500+ years in the future. By then no one will have any idea who he was, so who cares?

My favorite part of the book is the religion that controls science. This is such a fabulous idea and so incredibly patronizing. It keeps the copyright on science for trade to neighboring planets, and also keeps science secure during the Years of Barbarism to come. Limiting access to science is preventing new inventions, but since the neighbor planets live in medieval times, they don't have the technology to invent. It highlights one of the key issues in development work. Do you give people the most up-to-date, best technology you have or do you give them something that fits with their culture that can be sustained with local resources? Here the religion is changing and taking over the culture. Fascinating. I'm surprised the religion has caught on so quickly. It's only been two generations that it's been in existence. Didn't the planets have their own religions before this? And what about technology? All of these planets were settled and have spaceships. Why are they so afraid of nuclear power?  It is strange that one government could control so many planets. They must have a vast army or some rare material that the other planets need.

What's keeping me reading now is I've forgotten how this one ends, and I want to get to the Mule in the next book. What are your thoughts?

Group read starting questions:
- For the purpose of satisfying curiosity, is this your first time reading Foundation or have you read it before?
- For those who have read it before, how has it held up to your memory/feelings about previous reads?
- For those reading Foundation for the first time, what expectations did you have going in and has it met them or surprised you in any way?
- What are your thoughts about the structure of the novel thus far? (I am referring to the brief glimpses of different parts of the history of the Foundation with big time gaps between events in the novel)
- What are your initial thoughts on the field of psychohistory?
- What, if anything, is holding your interest thus far, what are you enjoying about Foundation?
- What, if anything, are you not enjoying about Foundation?
- You may have covered this in answering the other questions, but if not, what are your thoughts/feelings about the Galactic Empire.  Is it a practical thing to have a galaxy spanning government? Can you imagine such a thing and do  you think it would work?
- What are your thoughts on Hardin's creation of a religious system in which to house scientific ideas and technology while keeping the users of that science and technology in the dark?

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