The Fall Of A Galactic Byzantium

If “Prelude to Foundation,” the first book in Isaac Asimov’s seven-volume “Foundation” series gave us a tour of its capital—the world-city of Trantor—and was an exploration of its myriad cultural mores, the second, “Forward the Foundation,”  delves into its political intrigues and administrative wrangles.

Far more intense and engrossing than the the previous novel, it covers a wider ground, spanning some 50 years in the life of the Galactic Empire.

Equal parts Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization,” a blend of “future history,” science-fiction, and drama, it’s an encyclopedia of the twilight years of the imperium, a patchwork of 25,000,000 planet-provinces, scattered along the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy.

Beginning eight years after the events of “Prelude to Foundation,” the narrative progresses chronologically linearly, across four, novella-length chapters, each with a stand-alone story arc, dedicated to Eto Demerzel, Cleon I, Dors Venabili, and Wanda Seldon.

The cover illustration depicts Hari Seldon holding the Prime Radiant.

But Hari Seldon is the central axis around which the plot speedily revolves. In the course of the novel, we see him don many hats: a genius mathematician, a crafty politician, a prophet of doom, an offender, a steadfast scholar, an affectionate husband, a doting grandfather, a wistful old man.

This is a work of Asimov’s waning years. This was his last book and was published posthumously, in 1993. The opinions expressed by Seldon, it’s believed, closely reflect those of his own.

The names of characters are the anagrams of the people close to him in his own life. The first two names of the magistrate, Tejan Popjens Lih,  “one of the few judges left who upheld the civil code without wavering” are an anagram of Janet Jeppson, who was Asimov’s wife, a psychoanalyst.

As the empire wobbles and begins its downward slide, psychohistory makes enormous strides and is nearly perfected as a predictive science. And its forecast for the civilization is the socio-economic equivalent of an eternal peasouper: grim and dark.

The latent decay and despair that pervades Trantor casts a shadow in Seldon’s private life as well. As he rises to fame and prominence, those dear to him fade away.

The mood is hence, melancholic, overlaid with departures, disappearances, and disturbances.

Rumblings of an imminent rebellion are heard in the rabble-rousing speeches of the upstart demagogue, Laskin Joranum, who plots to overthrow Eto Demerzel, first minister under Cleon I. The insurrection is quietly quelled by the ivory-tower academic through a maneuver that’d have made a Renaissance strategist smile.

Seldon dispatches his son, Raych, to Joranum, with the message that Demerzel is a robot, confident that the conspirator would hurl this egregious allegation against Demerzel. But often, when a truth is so much stranger than what a person’s mind can invent, it’s dismissed as hokum. Joranum’s attack boomerangs on him.

That sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the outbreak of riots in peripheral worlds, breakdown of civil order on Trantor, the loss of the imperial power—and the sowing of the seeds of two separate and isolated “foundations.”

As he preps his granddaughter, Wanda, to take up the baton, he tells her:

It came to me that there should not only be two foundations but that they should be distinct in nature, as well. One would be made up of physical scientists—the Encyclopedists will be their pioneer group on Terminus. The second would be made up of true psychohistorians; mentalists—you.

He lays the groundwork for a new generation of humanity of mind-readers and emotion-shapers to build a new society.

Was the fall of the empire truly foretold by psychohistory, Seldon’s tool, or was it brought down solely by Seldon, the person?

Agis XIV tells Seldon, flat on his face that he’s an evil omen.

Come, come. The record is clear. Eto Demerzel, Cleon’s old First Minister, was impressed by your work and look what happened—he was forced out of his position and into exile. The Emperor Cleon was himself was impressed with your work and look what happened—he was assassinated. The military junta was impressed with your work and look what happened—they were swept away. Even the Joranumites, it is said, were impressed with your work, and behold, they were destroyed.

If anything, Seldon is an ace diplomat, an astute courtier, a gifted persuader. Put simply, he wields the power of the intellect.

When Cleon I had met the idealistic professor for the very first time, he’d asked him to predict a bright and stable future. The present, he’d reasoned, would mold itself suitably to make that outcome happen: “Many a prophecy, by the mere force of its believed, is transmuted to fact. These are ‘self-fulfilling prophecies.’”

Might it be that Seldon secretly heeded that advice and used it to orchestrate the empire’s demise, singlehandedly, in several masterful strokes?

For, if he hadn’t, in an oblique way, nudged the public policy-illiterate military junta to levy a poll tax, the empire may have still limped along. Were he not eager to elevate the claustrophobic, nature-loving gardener, Mandell Gruber, to a post that’d confine him to a plush office under a metal dome, the eccentric man may not have aimed his blaster at the sovereign.

But come to think of it, Seldon isn’t the original naysayer. It was Demerzel, who’d clandestinely spread the bad word, as it were.

Given the mind-boggling size of the empire, how can all the clocks, on all the worlds, thousands of parsecs apart, be set to one time, the Trantor Standard Time? A “galactograph,” a device that spins out a real-time 3D map of the galaxy, is more plausible a piece of technology.

Psychohistory does anticipate the future, but it isn’t like ordinary fortune-telling. It’s a theory that anticipates trends in multitudes of people, but doesn’t yield results involving a single individual or action.

Aptly, its device isn’t a crystal ball, but its stark opposite: an opaque, black cube called the Prime Radiant, which doesn’t require its users to gaze into it, but to press a button, upon which it issues streams of elegant equations into thin air.

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