Books

Our Galaxy, In The Far Future

Before Palpatine founded the Galactic Empire in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” in the “Star Wars” film, that is, there was a similar galaxy-spanning regime of the same name, in print.

It existed in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, a seven-volume science-fiction epic, released between 1942 and 1993.

“Prelude to Foundation” is the first book of the series, galactically, but terrestrially, followed the original trilogy, (comprising “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” and “Second Foundation.”)

Nearly nowhere as cacophonous, with the babble of myriad alien life-forms, as George Lucas’ space opera, Asimov’s is populated by a single species.

Sedate and slack, its vigor somewhat blunted by its slow breakup, under the weight of its size, it’s antipodal to the rebellion-prone domain where battled Sith Lords and Jedi knights. It’s far less turbulent, charged, and polar a polity.

The plot is a simple one, though not a flimsy one. Nor is it spidery. It rests on one grand idea: can we anticipate the future and adjust it to our liking?

Hari Seldon is a “scientific prophet,” a brilliant, young mathematician from Helicon, who’s delivered a paper on psychohistory—a field of science that can foretell the future, mathematically. Cleon I, the ruler, summons him.

To tighten his loosening grip and to ensure his dynastic rule, the emperor wishes know the path his reign will take. With that foreknowledge, he could then take measures designed to bring about an alternate, better destiny.

Seldon’s discipline, which takes a quantitative approach to social behavior, although perfected in theory, isn’t workable. It’s easy to see why.

The Galactic Empire, which encloses within its borders, a smorgasbord of some 25,000,000 planets, is a Cyclopean imperium, where its Suns never set, at least, not all at the same time.

Trantor, its capital, is a multi-domed, artificially-lit, “world-city,” supporting a population roughly, six times that of Earth’s—40, 000,000,000—which, from space, might look like a cluster of inverted contact lenses of varying sizes, covered with soil.

An illustration of Trantor by Tim White.

Its gargantuan scale is matched by the complexity of its ever-humming administrative machinery and its cultural eclecticism.

For Seldon to be able to make accurate predictions, he’d have analyze, one supposes, yottabytes (one, followed by 24 zeroes) or more of historical data, collected from each and every one of the worlds, overlaid with the sum of all their interactions—a task clearly beyond the capacity of the human brain, howsoever, genius.

The trouble is that “the universe as a whole, in its full complexity, cannot be represented by any simulation smaller than itself.”

But a silver-tongued reporter named Chetter Hummin persuades him into not giving up and arranges for him to abscond and fine tune his tool.

Psychohistory, with all its computational promise, is, by itself, a lame duck. In order for it to come into full bloom, it needs to join forces with the liberal arts.

Seldon “wondered if anyone could be a truly great mathematician if mathematics was all he knew.” He underscores the harm that overspecialization can do to knowledge. He finds a partner in Dors Venabili, a loyal friend, a bold historian, and a crackerjack knifer.

His research into the civilization’s past yields scant materials. “There is too much history and there is too little of it told.”

Records don’t last forever. They either get destroyed or defaced as a result of conflict. They deteriorate with time. Or, they simply, fade into oblivion because they’re not looked up.

Besides, the farther back he goes, the more distorted and unreliable the information gets, as the boundaries between history, myth, and folklore get blurry. It gets progressively difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Legend has it that, in the primordial times, humanity lived on one world, a utopia, from where it migrated elsewhere in the galaxy. Some call that place “Earth.” Others know of it as “Aurora.”

For psychohistory to be feasible, Seldon realizes, he must narrow down the number of variables.

He has an epiphany: “I was searching for a single world on which to establish a practical science of psychohistory and I was searching for it in the far past, when all the time the single world I wanted was under my feet now.”

Trantor is, in essence, a supersized Earth, a patchwork of 800 “sectors,” where no two are alike in their cultural mores or mainstay.

Mycogen is a well-off, agrarian theocracy that prohibits cephalic hair on both sexes. Dahl, a poor, industrial district, where a male, minus a mustache, is frowned upon, represents the other extreme.

Countless years of technological advancement haven’t erased social stratification. Billibotton is a ghetto, a den of poverty, crime, idlers, urchins, drifters.

In an end that zaps the mind, we discover who’s really running the show. It’s not the sovereign.

In the Galactic Empire, robots don’t do jobs that people either can’t do because they’re too difficult or don’t want to do because they’re sinecure or too mindless.

Asimov assigns to them a far loftier role: that of able protectors, entrusted with nurturing a safe, stable, and secure society.

R. Daneel Olivaw (where “R” stands for robot) is a high-minded robot, bound by the Zeroth Law of Robotics, which states: “A robot may not injure humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm.”

He goes on:

The trouble is, Hari, a human being is easy to identify. I can point to one. It is easy to see what will harm a human being and what won’t—relatively easy, at least. But what is humanity?

To what can we point when we speak of humanity? And how can we define harm to humanity? When will a course of action do more good than harm to humanity as a whole and how can one tell?

I realized at once that in psychohistory was a tool that might make it possible to identify what was good and bad for humanity.

In form, Olivaw and others of his kind aren’t robot-like, even humanoid, but are indistinguishable from the Everyman. Perhaps, they’re already among us.

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