Review of the Foundation series

Recently I have read David Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph, a science fiction novel set in the foundation universe created by Isaac Asimov. As a science fiction novel Foundation’s Triumph is absolutely a good read,  with great plot lines. Nevertheless I have some issues with the underlining concepts of the Foundation Universe, which are in no way limited to Brin’s excellent novel.

Originally Asimov’s Robot series and Foundation and Empire series formed two or three separate universes. It was only in the early 1980s that Asimov merged these series into one universe. Personally, I think this was a mistake, not because his subsequent novels were bad, but because I believe there is a fundamental inconsistency between the Robot and the Empire/Foundation series.

The most obvious distinction between these two universes, is of course the absence of robots in the (original) Empire/Foundation universe. Thus when Asimov merged these distinct universes, he had to explain the apparent disappearance of robots.  His solution is quite remarkable in its ingenuity: the Spacer worlds with their robot-dependent live-style were supposed a dead-end, while the robot-phobic settler worlds would flourish and eventually the settlers would go on the colonize the entire Milky way galaxy.

So far so good. But then the elegance of Asimov’s solution breaks down as a result of one character: R. Daneel Olivaw. I will explain why in a moment.

The core plot of the Foundation series is what is known as the Seldon-plan. Mathematician Hari Seldon develops a new science, called psychohistory, which involves the use of statistical methods to predict the general future of humanity. Though the actions of individual humans cannot be predicted accurately, it’s possible to predict the behaviour of large groups of people, because the individual actions of persons are neutralized by the actions of others in most cases.

While developing this new science of psychohistory, Seldon discovers that the Galactic Empire is on the edge of collapse, and his models predict that it will take 30,000 years before a new Galactic Empire will emerge, and this intermediate period will be dominated by barbarism. Unless something is done, and therefore Seldon develops a plan to reduce the predicted Dark Age from 30,000 to just 1,000 years.

The first three Robot series novels are whodunits, and have one overarching theme: solving Earth’s overpopulation by obtaining permission from the Spacer worlds to colonize new planets by Earth. The fourth robot novel is not a whodunit, but is more of a political thriller. It is from this novel onwards that R. Daneel Olivaw starts to meddle with the future of humanity. However, this involves a problem with the three laws of robotics. Since Daneel’s interference with human affairs might conflict with any of the three laws, in particular the first and second law. In order to circumvent these restrictions R. Olivaw invents the “Zeroth” law of robotics.

The original three laws are worded in terms of “a robot” and “a human being”, the zeroth law however states that the well-being of the entire humanity should prevail above the particular interests of an individual human being. The zeroth law allows a robot to harm a human being, and even to kill, as long as this is done for the sake of humanity. From this law R. Daneel Olivaw also derives his mission to create and guard the Galactic Empire.

In the original Foundation trilogy, Hari Seldon’s personal ambitions seemed to be the prime motive for the entire plot. However, in the revised series, we learn that Seldon has been “convinced” by R. Daneel Olivaw to design the Seldon plan. Olivaw beliefs that the continued existence of the Empire is in humanity’s interest, so if the First Empire has to collapse, it’s important to ensure the fast emerge of the Second Empire.

However, it is not entirely clear why the existence of a Galactic Empire is beneficial for humanity. one argument could be that within a universal empire there will be no international wars, but there’s still the treat of violent separatist movements. It is also questionable whether an empire of this scale, containing more than 25 million inhabitant planets, is actually possible.

A more fundamental question is: for whose benefit does the Galactic Empire actually exists? Olivaw’s schemes have a time span of several centuries and even millennia, therefore the time his plans are actually finished, if they do at all, most people who have existed during this period have died, and hence they cannot benefit from Olivaw’s plans. In order to maintain the Empire, Olivaw has imposed a rigid and quite oppressing social structure upon the citizens of the galaxy.

It seems therefore that only one person actually benefits from the existence of the Galactic Empire: R. Daneel Olivaw. By creating and maintaining the Empire, Olivaw is able to satisfy his desire to serve the interests of humanity. If as result of some freak accident the human species would become extinct, than the further existence of R. Daneel Olivaw would become pointless. Therefore Olivaw is keen to ensure that the human species will continue to exist.

Though there are different theories regarding the ultimate fate of the universe, all of those suggest that at some point in the future the universe will become unsuitable for (human) life. Some scientists believe that the universe may continue to expand for some time, but that thereafter the universe will collapse into a big crunch. Other scientists suggest that the universe will expand forever, and eventually all subatomic particles will be destroyed, this scenario is called the big rip. And even if the universe may reach a point after which it will neither expand or contract, the second law of thermodynamics suggest that energy will ultimately be distributed homogeneously throughout the universe.

The question is therefore not if but when the human species will die out. Since human extinction is inevitable, R. Daneel Olivaw has to consider this issue. If he allows humanity to increase its numbers until the very moment that life become impossible, a literally astronomical number of people will die a painful death. On the other hand Olivaw could prohibit the current generation from reproduction, while allowing them to live out their natural lives.

Most anti-natalist programs suffer from the dilemma caused by a decreasing but ageing population. When people become older, the become increasingly dependent of other, but is no young people are born, there will be no others able to help them. But this problem is circumvented in case of R. Daneel Olivaw, since he can construct a large number of robots to care for the last humans.

Despite all these issues, I still enjoy to read novel from the Foundation universe, because they are well written and are triggering my imagination.

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