Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation – A Review

foundation_coversAt long last – after a year of reading it in small snippets between reading, writing and editing – I finally completed Second Foundation. As the third novel published in the Foundation series, it effectively ended the series, though it was followed up by two sequels and several prequels that expanded on the universe further.

However, given that it would be roughly 30 years until Asimov produced another Foundation novel and pressure from the fan community (and a hefty advance from the publisher) were the only reasons for it, many fans come to see Second Foundation as the final installment in what was effectively a trilogy.

I am one such person. And now that I’ve finished Second Foundation, I feel that the series is complete. And I’m rather dying to do a review, seeing as how the books been with me so long and it’s been months since I reviewed an actual novel. On top of all that, its taken me so long to finish this series that I feel a little embarrassed. Thank God the international society of sci-fi geeks doesn’t actually exist, or they’d kick me out for sure!

Sidenote: Before I begin, note the cover art that is featured at the top there. Over the years, many different covers have been produced, and the current cover for Second Foundation is the one you see below. However, I wanted to feature these ones since they give such a wonderful representation to the original trilogy.

In the first, you see Seldon sitting in front of the Imperial City of Trantor in the days before its decline. In the second, you see the Mule playing his instrument, sitting before a Trantor that lies in ruins. In the third and final, you see Arkady Darrel standing on a Trantor that has reverted to its natural state centuries later, the aged ruins lying well off in the distance. Once you read the full trilogy, you can see just how picture-perfect these representations are.

Plot Synopsis:
second-foundationMuch like Foundation and Empire, the book is divided into two parts, with the first dealing with the Mule’s ongoing search for the Second Foundation. This part opens a few years after the Mule’s trip to Trantor, during which time, his identity was revealed and his attempts to find the answer in the Imperial library were narrowly foiled.

Now in charge of a vast empire centered on the world of Kalgan, he sets out again, sending his fleet in all directions to locate and destroy this last challenge to his power. Knowing the a confrontation is inevitable, the executive council of the Second Foundation meets and decides to allow the Mule to find them, “in a sense”.

The search begins when Bail Channis, an officer recruited by the Mule because he exhibits an “unconventional mind”. He is sent out with Han Pritcher, an officer the Mule knows to be loyal but fears has been ineffective due to his own influence over the man. Together, they travel to the remote world of Rossem where, following clues left behind by Seldon (that the Second Foundation is at “Star’s End”), Channis believes they are hiding.

foundation_muleWhen they arrive, they find a backward, agrarian world where the locals are hospitable, but very little appears to be happening. Suspecting a trap and that Channis is in fact a Second Foundation agent, the Mule travels in secret to Rossem and reveals himself, thinking he has caught Channis and the Second Foundation off guard. However, he quickly realizes it is he who has stepped into a trap when the First Speaker emerges to save Channis.

The two do battle but in the end, the First Speaker emerges victorious by altering the Mules psyche, which prompts him to return to Kalgan and live out the rest of his days as a benevolent ruler. The story ends with another interlude in which the Executive Council celebrates their victory and now plots to get the Foundation back on track.

Part II takes place sixty years later, and fifty-five years after the death of the Mule by natural causes. The members of the First Foundation, led by Dr. Darrel, are now aware that the Second Foundation is out there and secretly discuss how they are exerting influence over their world. This is demonstrated by conducting electroneurology scans, which shows that key members of government have had their minds altered.

second_foundation_warMeanwhile, the Foundation is also embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the new ruler of Kalgan, who wants to reclaim the glory of the Mule by reconquering the Foundation and subjugating it to his will. Their fleet meets with early success and managed to cordon off Foundation space, but their fortunes soon change when the Foundation fleet surrounds them in a major battle.

In the midst of the war, the Foundation decides to send an emissary – Homir Munn, a noted Mule memorabilia collector – to Kalgan to investigate what the Mule learned about the Second Foundation in his final years. Darrel’s daughter, Arkady, sneaks aboard his ship to accompany him, since she is fascinated by the subject of the Second Foundation and Seldon’s plan, and because she is tired of being kept out of the loop by her father.

secondfoundation_arkadyIn the end, Munn is taken prisoner and interrogated by the Kalganian commander, but gives up nothing beyond stating that his purpose was to find clues to the location of the Second Foundation. Arkady is forced to flee, and on the advice of the Commander’s mistress, heads for the spaceport and flies with a family back to Trantor. To her surprise, she realizes that the mistress is a member of the Second Foundation, and that they are manipulating things on Kalgan.

From Trantor, she sends her father a message and tells him the Second Foundation are on Terminus. Once again going by clues left behind by Seldon, that the Second Foundation was at “the other end of the Galaxy”, she tells him that a circle has no end. Ergo, she concludes that they must have been on Terminus all along, where they could monitor the Foundation and Seldon’s Plan up close. In the midst of this, the Foundation fleet outflanks the Kalganians and wins the war.

With the war over and the Foundation victorious. Munn then returns to Terminus and tells them the Second Foundation could not exist. Darrel rightly then reveals that he has suspected all along that Munn has been manipulated by the Second Foundation, and conducts a brain scan to prove it. He then reveals that his work has yielded a telepathic jamming device, which they then turn on.

foundation_seldonThe 50 or so Second Foundation agents that are on Terminus are thus revealed and arrested. Reasoning that they are now neutralized, and with the war over,  the Foundation is now free to expand and build the Second Empire. However, in a final twist, another interlude takes place where the First Speaker is conversing with a student, where it is revealed that everything has proceeded by their design.

After neutralizing the Mule, the Second Foundation knew that Seldon’s plan was hanging by a thread, hence they manipulated things to ensure that it would proceed on track again. This included pushes the Kalganians into war with them, and then seeing to their defeat, and letting the Foundations find some of their agents and presume to have neutralized with them. It’s also revealed that they had a hand in grooming Arkady Darrel, and that Trantor is the real home, with Star’s End being a veiled reference to the old Imperial saying “all road’s lead to Trantor”.

Summary:
I can honstly say that after many years of stalling and waiting, finishing the original trilogy was quite the relief. And for the most part, I enjoyed the third installment in the original three-act play. However, there were some weaknesses that did not go unnoticed, and some of Asimov’s little idiosyncrasies which I’ve come to expect over the years.

For example, the first story is somewhat dry. Rather than there being any real intrigue and action, the entire section consists of a sort of final, half-hearted act made up of mind games. This certainly feels like the case when during the final chapter, where both Channis and Pritchard, followed by the Mule and the First Speaker, are embroiled in a type of mind war. It’s a constant case of “I got you”, “no, I got you!” kind of thing.

foundationAnd this is how the Mule is defeated and the greatest threat to Seldon’s Plan is neutralized. After being portrayed in the second book as the one factor that Seldon did not plan for, a titanic force that was overwhelming the Foundation and its armies, his ultimate demise seemed rather undramatic. Granted, this was something that needed to be secretive and behind-the-scenes, but it felt it rushed and kind of forced.

The second story is much better, containing plenty of intrigue, action, and crisis. And the story flowed quite nicely, beginning at a time when the Foundation feels secure in itself, but a small band of specialists understand that this is not the case, and then culminating in a war and a big reveal. And here, the twists serve a better purpose, showing how the Foundation thinks they’ve neutralized the threat, never to learn that they’ve been helpfully misled.

foundation_forwardBut once again, there was a sense of things being forced and rushed. Towards the end, people are once again revealing that they knew things all along, were better prepared than they had any right to be, and could solve everything with the push of a button or a last minute decision. This time around, its the First and the Second Foundations involved in a case of strategic and mental Jiujitsu, and it feels like there’s a few too many reversals.

However, that doesn’t detract much from the ending, which feels like a good completion to the series. After establishing the Foundation in the first book and showing to the progression of Seldon’s Plan, to throwing it into disarray in book two, by this final act, it now appears that the Plan is fully restored and all the principal actors have done their part.

hari_seldonAnd as the book states by quoting the Encyclopedia Galactica, the war between Kalgan and the Foundation would be the last major conflict before the rise of the Second Empire. Ergo, it would smooth sailing from here on in. As I said already, Asimov claimed that the remainder of the series was motivated by pressure from fans and the publisher, so I tend to think of these three books as the series in its entirety. And I think the way he ended it here was effective and satisfying. No need for sequels or prequels beyond this point!

So if you haven’t read this series yet, I recommend you get on it. While it may have some flaws and apparent idiosyncrasies, it remains a classic of science fiction and one of the most brilliantly original series available. Hence why I felt I needed to read it, and why you should too. Especially if you consider yourself any kind of sci-fi fan or geek!

Arcology in Popular Culture

arcologyHello and good evening. Welcome to the third and final installment in my Arcology series, addressing the use of the concept in various popular culture sci-fi franchises. After researching the term and learning all about Paolo Soleri and the concept he created, I’ve come to see that his vision of future cities where the needs of ten of thousands of inhabitants could be met in sustainable ways helped to inspire the a great deal of speculative fiction.

Here are just a few examples that I can recall or have been able to find…

Chi-Town:
Many years ago, some friends of mine came to me with a new RPG by the name of RIFTS. A sort of sci-fi/fantasy crossover, the game was set in a post-apocalyptic world where inter-dimensional gateways, known as “Rifts” had led demons, monsters and mythical creatures into our universe, where they began wreaking havoc. After many years, several new nations emerged, the most powerful of which were the Coalition States, a dictatorship dedicated to fighting the invasion and reestablishing order.

The seat of this government is a large arcological city known as Chi-Town, which was built on the ruins of Old Chicago (hence the name). A self-contained city, the structure is somewhere between a pyramid and a rectangle in terms of shape. And of course, its hierarchical structure mirrors the social divisions at work within. The lower levels are the most densely populated, have the most indigents, and experience the most crime, while the upper levels are more spacious, opulent, and well-maintained.

In addition to being a fortress city and a safe haven for human beings in the ruins of the United States, Chi-Town is also a fitting example of an arcology. Within its walls, all things, including water, air, food and energy, are providing by internal systems and subject to recycling and treatment. Again, the issue of quality is dependent on where someone finds themselves within the structure, but the principle is still the same. In a world that has been devastated and rendered inhospitable, the response was to create a mega-structure that could both shield and provide for its many, many inhabitants.

Coruscant:
coruscantFans of the Star Wars franchise are certainly familiar with this planet-encompassing city, even before it was featured in the prequel trilogy. As the capitol of the Old Republic, Empire and New Republic, respectively, it has a very long history of habitation, and a very sizable population! As a result, its architects and engineers had to get very creative with the use of space on this planet, and several massive buildings were the result.

In truth, Coruscant was not so much a single city as thousands upon thousands of interconnected arcologies that ran across its surface. These various mega structures measured roughly a kilometer in height, dwarfing even the nearby mountain chains, and housed hundreds of thousands of residents each. In addition, the need to feed and provide for the staggering number of inhabitants required that every structure come equipped with a massive network for recycling water, waste and food.

Officially divided into megablocks and levels, every section of the city had its own means for providing food, water, and manufactured goods. This in turn required the presence of internal systems for processing air, drinking water, food waste, human waste, and industrial waste from its manufacturing warrens. In addition, in the sub-city where natural light did not reach, holograms and artificial lights were also built in to the environment to provide its inhabitants with illumination. In addition, it is also indicated in a number of sources that agricultural operations were housed in various sections and relied on recycled water and either artificial or filtered light.

Though food and waste still required a great deal of shipping and processing, which resulted in a staggering amount of transport traffic, much of the cities needs were taken care of by means of these internal measures. This ensured that the roughly three trillion inhabitants of the planet would never become wholly dependent on outside sources of food and goods, as well as ensuring that pollution and harmful waste wouldn’t accumulate to disastrous levels.

Habitats:
In the works of Peter F. Hamilton, particularly the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, much attention is given to the kinds of futuristic living spaces humanity will someday occupy. For starters, there is planet Earth in this future setting, which is so overrun by human beings that all cities have evolved to become self-contained arcologies. On top of that, there are what’s known as “Habitats”, floating megacities which exist out amongst the stars.

One of the most notable of these is Eden, the first ever habitat to be created, and in orbit around Jupiter. As the closest thing to a capitol in the Edenic culture, it was built using Bitek – aka. Biotechnology – which resulted in a living structure that was psychically linked to its inhabitant through a process known as affinity.

Here, as with other Habitats, the structures are massive, measuring several kilometers in length and width. In addition, each is entirely self-supporting, providing food, water, electricity and artificial gravity to its inhabitants. The latter is created through the rotation of the whole structure around its axis, while a central light tube which runs the length of the station provides light. Food and water are produced via biological processes and are recycled to ensure minimal waste, which in turn is also processed and converted for later use. In addition, interstellar material is frequently intercepted by the habitat and converting into any and all goods which its people require.

Ultimately, the only thing a habitat needs is a supply of external matter which it will use to grow and mature during its formative cycle, and an external power supply to maintain its functions. This is last necessity is provided by a series of external conductor cables which grow on the outer hull of the structure where they are positioned to pick up charges. Due to the rotation, these cables then cross the electromagnetic flux of the nearby gas giant and thus produce electrical energy. All is provided and nothing goes to waste. A true future city!

Urban Monads:
The setting of Robert Silverberg’s fictional study in overpopulation, The World Inside occurs almost entirely within the hyperstructure known as Urban Monad 116. As the name implies, this massive, three-kilometer high city tower is but one of many on the planet, which have become necessary now that war, disease and starvation have been eliminated, but people still continue to procreate without restriction. During the telling of the story, which takes place in 2381, the total population has reached 75 billion.

Much attention is given in the novel to how urban monads (or “Urbmons”) are arranged and meet the needs of their 800,000 respective inhabitants. For starters, groups of these skyscrapers are arranged in “constellations” so that one’s shadow does not fall upon another. Each Urbmon is divided into 25 self-contained “cities” with 40 floors each, in ascending order of status, with administrators occupying the highest level with population and production centers sequestered below.

In order to see to the needs of this rapidly expanding population, all arable land not currently occupied by Urbmons is dedicated to agriculture. However, within the Urbmon communities,  resource management still counts for a lot, with all foods and goods being held in common and the people expected to share them. Beyond that, however, sustainability is not exactly the name of the game, as the right to engage in free expressions and sex and reproduction are considered the highest forms of activity.

Hence, Silverberg’s Monads break a few of the basic rules of arcology, but the basic premise is still there. Designed to house a rapidly expanding population that threatens to overpower the Earth, Urbmons take advantage of the concepts of megastructures and 3-D planning to ensure that every living soul is housed and provided for. Now if they could just stop reproducing so much, they’d be in business!

Tyrell Corp Building:
Though not specified as an arcology in the strictest sense, I couldn’t possibly make this list without including the infamous Tyrell Corp building. I mean just look at the thing. Imposing, Gothic, and very, very big! And let’s not forget highly symbolic, as the design, size and scale of the thing was meant to evoke the feeling of awesome power that the corporation held.

Though not much is made clear of what life inside the building is like, it was clear that it was made up of many, many levels and sections, each of which fulfilled a different purpose. At ground level, the building was protected by automated systems which “fried” one of the story’s Nexus 6’s when they tried to break in. Farther up are various industrial areas that are dedicated to the production of the company’s Replicants, as well as office spaces and administrative areas. Another Replicant was detected in one of these sections, right before it shot the man who had detected it – Detective/Blade Runner Holden.

At the apex of the building is the living area for Tyrell and Rachel, the experimental Nexus unit that was modeled on his niece. This level is accessible only by elevator which runs along the outer edge of the building, and can only be accessed by authorized personnel. Here, Tyrell lives amidst opulent surroundings, vast marble floors, stone columns, and even an aviary for his pet owl. Although it is not explicitly said, it appears that Tyrell spends all of his time here, never venturing to the outside city or to another domicile. Hence, we can only assume that all of his needs are seen to here, even if everything he consumes is flown in and all the waste produced is shipped out.

Mega-City One:
judge-dredd-megacity-oneThe setting of the Judge Dredd franchise, Mega-City One is essentially a massive urban sprawl which stretches from the Quebec-Windsor City corridor to the peninsula of Florida in the south, growing out of the Northeast Megalopolis to occupy Southern Ontario the entire Eastern Seaboard. And in addition to stretching so very far and wide, this city is also made up of arcologies in order to see to the needs of its roughly 800 million inhabitants.

These arcologies come in the form of huge apartment blocks which house roughly 50,000 people each. Within each block, citizens are attended to by automated systems which recycle everything, waste, water, and even food. As for manufactured products and consumer goods, these too are largely created in industrial warrens that housed within specific blocks.

This system of every need being handled by automated systems and machines was designed to ensure that the survivors of the nuclear holocaust (aka. The Apocalypse War) would be tended to. However, it had the unwanted side-effect of also leading to rampant unemployment and listlessness amongst the population. This is one of the main reasons why Mega-City One is awash in petty criminals and organized crime syndicates. This, in turn, is what led to the creation of the Judicial System and its army of Street Judges.

Trantor:
Perhaps the first example of a ecumenopolis appearing in fiction, Trantor went on to become a source of inspiration for many science fiction franchises. And according to Asimov, it represented what he believed would be the end result of industrialization and human technology, which was an encapsulated population living in cities that spanned entire planets.

Consisting of buildings that reached deep into the ground and reached several kilometers above sea level, Trantor was home to roughly 45 billion people at the height of the Empire. It’s overall population density was 232 per km², and just about every human being was dedicated to the administration of the Empire or the needs of its population. Though by the time of Foundation, most of the population’s needs were met by importing food and basic necessities from every major planet in the region.

However, according to Prelude to Foundation, Trantor’s basic food needs were once fulfilled by the planet’s vast system of subterranean microorganism farms. Here, yeast and algae were produced as basic nutrients, which were then processed with artificial flavors to create palatable food sources. These farms were tended to entirely by automated robots, but their eventual destruction during an uprising forced the planet to turn to external sources

The Sprawl:
Also known as the Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan-Axis (or BAMA for short), this mega-city is the setting for the majority of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Encompassing the classic cyberpunk tales of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the concept of arcology is raised on numerous occasions in reference to the massive apartment blocks that make up the city.

On such building is Barrytown, an arcology in the projects which is the setting for much of the second novel. Throughout the novel, it is indicated that the people here generate their own food, such as the catfish farms that exist near the top of the building. Trees are also grown on specific levels to generate oxygen which is then fed into the building’s air recirculation system. And finally, mentions are made that there are air turbines on the roof of many project buildings which generate electricity for the inhabitants.

Being such a massive, futuristic city, the Sprawl features many such structures, all of which are described as giant skyscrapers that house tens of thousands of people within their tall frames. And ultimately these are all contained beneath the a series of geodesic domes which encapsulate the city and generate peculiar weather patterns consistent with micro-climates. In this way, the BAMA itself is one massive structure, containing hundreds of millions of people under a single roof.

Zion:
The last remaining free city that humanity could still call home, Zion was not a megastructure per se, but nevertheless fit the definition of an arcology to a tee. An underground habitat that was home to roughly 250,000 men, women and children, Zion was the picture perfect representation of a self-contained living space that handled all the needs of its inhabitants internally.

As Councilman Hamann intimated in Matrix Reloaded as he and Neo walked along the Life0-Support Level, all of Zion’s needs are attended to by machines. These provide power, heat, water, and are constantly recirculating and recycling them.  Meanwhile, food seems to be either grown in special hydroponic areas, or synthesized in bio facilities dedicated to that purpose.

In terms of its internal layout, Zion is ovoid in structure and consists of many levels, each with its specific purpose. At the apex rests the Dock, where Zion’s army of hovercrafts are stationed and automated defenses protect against intruders. Beneath that are the Gathering Spaces, where new arrivals who have not yet been assigned permanent quarters are temporarily housed.

The middle section is entirely dedicated to habitation, made up of family quarters, and the Council Chambers which houses Zion’s ruling council. The lower levels consist of the Meeting Hall, Life-Support Level, and Geo-Thermal Generation, where the cities power and heat are supplied from. At the very bottom lies the Temple, a large cavern where religious gatherings are held and people gather to hold celebrations and mourn the dead. This area also serves as a last defensive position in the event that the automated defenses were destroyed and the Dock overrun. This of course became the case in Matrix: Revolutions when the machines attacked Zion and nearly destroyed it.

___

What did I tell ya? Clearly, the idea has made the rounds since Soleri’s time. And in all likelihood, we are sure to see the concept popping up more and more as the problems of overpopulation and environmental impact become more acutely felt. There are some who might express disgust and even fear at the idea of living an encapsulated existence, but given the growing need for sustainability and places to put people, will we really have a choice? One can only hope!

Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

Time Travel In Sci-Fi

Hey all. Have I said yet that it’s good to be back? Well, truth be told, it feels like I’ve only really got back into the swing of things in the past few days, and after a two week hiatus to boot. I also noticed that it’s been awhile since I’ve done a conceptual post, something dedicated to classic sci-fi and the concepts that make it so freakishly and enduringly cool!

And so I thought I’d tackle a very time (pun!) honored concept in science fiction today, that being the concept of time travel. Despite what many may think, the idea of going forwards or backwards in time is not a recent idea. It did not begin only after scientists theorized that time and space were expressions of the same phenomena – aka. relativity – nor with the development of quantum theory. However, these scientific discoveries did spur the concept on by introducing the idea of temporal paradoxesand the notion that there was such a thing as a space-time continuum resulting in multiple universes.

But I’m getting sidetracked here; and frankly, all this paradox and timelines stuff has been known to give me a headache! Instead, I’d rather look at some of the most renowned and celebrated instances of time travel in science fiction. Sidenote: As usual, I’ll be starting with literature and saving pop culture for another day. And of course, I won’t be covering everything, just the few examples that I think are the best.

Earliest Examples:
As already noted, the concept of being able to see into the past and future, with the purpose of changing the course of it, predates the idea of time travel as a scientific phenomena. In truth, it was often used in novels as a device to advance plot, character development, and offer moral instruction on the importance of choices and making the right ones.

A Christmas Carol:
This was certainly the case in Charles Dickens’ classic tale of selfishness and redemption, where a miserly capitalist is shown both his past and future in order to help him mend his ways. Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol has gone through countless renditions and adaptations over the years, with names like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim becoming household names that are synonymous with greed, pathos, and generosity of spirit.

Taking place on Christmas Eve, 1843, the story opens with a general description of Scrooge’s own life and success in the accounting trade, followed by an assessment of his character. Miserly, stingy, unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, his success is due in part to the fact that his business partner, a man much like him, has been dead for seven years, leaving everything to him.

After reluctantly letting his employee, Bob Cratchit, a poor but happy family man go home for the night, he is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns him that for his life of greed, he is suffering eternal punishment, and tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts who will show him the error of his ways and teach him the true meaning of Christmas. These ghosts, which are named the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, all show Scrooge how his decisions to forsake love, family, and kinship for the sake of his money have left him lonely and heartbroken, which is the source of his cruelty. When he sees his future, which is a cold grave with no one to mourn or miss him, he realizes there is still time and vows to change his ways.

Encapsulating Dickens’ view of industrialization, class distinction, poverty and the exploitation of the English working class, Carol remains one of the best known examples of social commentary in English literature. It is also the first widely-known example where time travel was used as a plot device.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
Published in 1889 and written by the venerable humorist Mark Twain, Yankee employs a great deal of Twain’s characteristic wit in order to dispel the 19th century notion that the Middle Ages were a time of romance and chivalry, instead showing them to be a time by ignorance, superstition and brutality.

The story begins when an engineer named Hank Morgen from Hartford, Connecticut suffers a head wound and finds himself inexplicably transported back in time to the court of Camelot. After realizing that he is living in the 6th century and, for all intents and purposes, the most technically proficient man on Earth, he begins using his skills and knowledge of the future to convince the people that he is a powerful magician.

As a result, he replaces Merlin as the chief sorcerer of the court and begins growing in fame and power. He then embarks on an industrialization program for England, establishing trade schools to teach modern concepts and English, thus elevating them from the Dark Ages. At his prompting, Arthur begins to travel the land and is convinced to make several enlightened reforms, including abolishing slavery and improving the lot of the peasants.

In the end, Hank is lured to the continent by the Papal authorities who naturally fear him. While he is gone, the Church issues an Interdict on his followers and activities, and Arthur and Lancelot go to war over Guinevere. As foretold by legend, Arthur dies at the hands of Sir Mordred before Hank can save him. Upon his return to England, a Papal Army comes for Hank and his followers, who end up fortifying themselves in Merlin’s Cave behind an electric fence and minefield while employing Gatling guns.

However, disease begins to set in and Hank himself is wounded and falls prey to illness. While lying in bed, his assistant sees Merlin casting a spell over him, one which he claims will make him sleep for 1300 years (putting him back in his own time). The story ends with the narrator, a man who is writing the tale down in the present, saying that Hank is lying unconscious on the floor of his factory, leading the reader to question whether or not it was all a dream.

An endorsement of rationalization, industrialization and Americanization, Twain’s tail not only challenges the notion that the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance, brutality and persecution, but shows how attempts to remedy the past, however well-intentioned, were doomed to fail. In a way, this proved to an ironic commentary on those who were reinterpreting the Middle Ages to suit their current woes about industrial civilization. To them, Twain would insist that it’s easy to glory a past you don’t have to live in!

The Time Machine:
As already mentioned, the concept of time travel was not new by the time that H.G. Wells wrote the book on the same subject. However, Wells was the first to approach it as a scientific phenomena and inspired just about all subsequent interpretations. Written in 1895, The Time Machine was one of several stories written by Wells that involved time travel. Much like his earlier story, The Chronic Argonauts, the story revolves around an inventor who builds a time machine for his own personal use.

Told from the point of the view of a man known only as “The Time Traveller”, the story consists of his account of his journeys into the distant future and what he encounters there. In his first journey, he travels to the year 802, 701 AD, where he discovers a world divided between two races of people – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The former are a beautiful, elegant people, though they appear to have no real drive or curiosity, who live in Edenic communities. The latter are a race of brutish troglodytes who live underground and work the machinery that makes the Edenic world above possible. Every now and then, these people emerge to the surface at night to capture and eat one of the Eloi, an act of revenge against their oppressors.

After escaping from a near-death encounter with the Morlocks and retrieving his time machine, he travels ahead to roughly 30 million years from his own time. There he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, which appears to be covered by red lichens and populated only by crab-like creatures and butterflies. He jumps forward further by small increments and sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die, leaving the Earth a frozen heap where no life can live.

Clearly meant as a social commentary on class distinction in Britain of his day, The Time Machine was also a potential warning about the state of man. Taken to its extreme, the concept of industrialization and rationalization would lead to the production of two races of people – a leisure class with no discipline or survival skills and a class of brutalized, downtrodden workers who had gone backwards in terms of evolution. A fitting commentary on an age when the gap between the rich and poor was enormous, the former becoming rich of the work of the workers while they in turn lived in horrendous conditions.

The Modern Classics:
By the onset of the 20th century, time travel was becoming an increasingly popular concept for science fiction writers. Thanks to writer’s of the previous century, the purpose of using it for the sake of social commentary, allegory, or as a literary device for the sake of character development had become well established. Many of these were used effectively by authors to warn contemporary readers about the path human civilization was on. Another major development was the publication of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” in 1905 and the proposal of multiple universes (as an interpretation of Quantum Theory). These added a certain degree of scientific merit to the idea. As a result, books involving time travel also began to be used to describe such phenomena as temporal paradoxes and circular time.

By His Bootstraps:
Written in 1941 by Robert A. Heinlein, this short story was amongst the first to introduce the concept of a time circular paradox, where the past and future becoming intertwined. This idea is something which Heinlein would return to several times over the years, where time travel creates a self-fulfilling scenario that the character must repeat, either in the past or in the future.

The story begins when a man (Bob) who is working on his doctoral thesis on time-travel is met by a time-traveling interloper named “Joe”. Joe looks familiar and shows him the small gateway that he used to travel back, and invites Bob to come with him 1000 years into the future. Suddenly, a man who looks just like Joe shows up and begins fighting with him, during which Bob is knocked through the gate.

He awakens in the future, and learns from an old man named Diktor that aliens were the one who built the time machine so they could fashion humanity into slaves. Joe realizes a 20th century man could become king in this world and that the man who invited him was his future self. As such, he travels back through the gate to meet himself in his apartment, this time using his own name to convince his past self to time travel. As before, another version of himself which shows up to fight him and his past self is knocked through.

This time around, his past self meets with Diktor, but this time goes  back into the past to procure all the items a 20th century man will need to be a ruler. He procures these, then goes back for the third time, but sooner so he can arrive at a time before Diktor is around. When he gets there, he sets himself up as chief and begins tampering with the time travel device so he can see its makers. Once he does, he’s shocked by their appearance and his hair turns white. After years of waiting, he meets his past self which comes through the gate to meet him. The circular paradox is now complete, with Bob realizing that he IS Diktor (the future word for “chief”) at that he must send himself back to ensure his own future.

At once complicated and containing several overlapping elements, the story introduced audiences to the very cool and timeless concepts of time loops and paradoxes. On the one hand, we see a future which seems fated to come true, but could not possibly exist without the intervention of the main character. Hence the concept of the circular time paradox. After learning the truth, the main character must conspire to ensure that everything that has happened happens again… otherwise the future which he inhabits will no longer exist.

A Sound of Thunder:
A short story which was first published by Ray Bradbury in 1952, A Sound of Thunder introduced readers to the concept of the “Butterfly Effect”. Beginning in 2055, the story opens on an era when time travel has been invented and is used for hunting safaris. The main characters are talking politics, remarking about how a fascist presidential candidate was defeated by a moderate.

The party then gets into their time machine and travels back in time several million years to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. Once they arrive, the travel guide (Travis) warns the hunters about the necessity of minimizing their effect on events, since any alterations to the distant past could snowball into catastrophic changes in the future. The hunters must also stay on a levitating path to avoid disrupting the environment and only kill animals which were going to die anyway.

When they find the T rex, one of the hunters (Eckels) loses his nerve and runs away. The two guides then kill the dinosaur seconds before a falling tree was meant to kill it, and go off in search for Eckels. After finding him and realizing that he ventured from the path, Travis orders him to remove the bullets from the T rex’s body (a necessary precaution) as penance. When they return to the present, they immediately notice subtle changes.

Words are spelt differently, people act differently, and the fascist candidate who had lost the election in their own time has been announced as the winner. Eckels removes his boot and discovers the culprit, a crushed butterfly that he stepped on while straying from the path. He begs the others to let him go back and make things right, but all that is heard in reply is the “sound of thunder” alluding to the fact the Travis shot Eckels.

In addition to being one of the most republished science fiction stories in history, this short story also introduced the concept of what would later be known as the Butterfly Effect, so named because of the butterfly featured in the story. As such, the story would go on to inspire countless similar science fiction tales over the course of the ensuing decades, serving as a cautionary tale about tampering with the laws of nature.

The End of Eternity:
Written by Isaac Asimov and released in 1955, Eternity is considered one of his best works, due to the way it dealt with the subject of time paradoxes. Striking a starkly different tone from his Robot and Foundation novels, the story is a mystery/thriller that deals with the subjects of time travel and social engineering.

It begins with the introduction of an organization known as Eternity that exists outside of time. Staffed by people from various time periods (known as Eternals), this group enters the temporal world at different points in time to make small alterations (called Reality Changes) that are designed to minimize human suffering over the course of history. They are also made up of “Technicians”, the people who execute those changes.

As the story opens, the main character, a Technician named Andrew Harlan, is tasked with going back and ensuring Eternity’s creation. His mission involves taking a young Eternal (Cooper) back in time with the “kettle”, i.e. the time machine, where he is to meet the historic inventor of Eternity (Vikkor Mallansohn) and teach him the principles of time travel so he can make it happen.

However, Harlan, embittered by Eternity politics and the fact that he is being denied contact with his lover (a non-Eternal named Noÿs), scrambles the time settings and sends Cooper to the wrong time. After his superior reasons with him and tells him of his own love affair with a non-Eternal, Harlan realizes he’s made a mistake and begins trying to find Cooper, whom he thinks he sent to the 20th century. Working on the theory that Cooper would have left an SOS behind in the past, he begins going through old artifacts. He discovers a message in a magazine from 1932 showing a Mushroom Cloud with the acrostic A-T-O-M. Since this predates the development of nuclear weapons, he determines that it must be a message.

Harlan then agrees to travel back in time to find Cooper, provided he can take his lover Noÿs with him. When they get there though, she reveals that she herself is an agent of Reality Change, from the centuries where Eternals cannot enter. She reveals that her own people prefer to watch time and not get involved, and that Eternity is denying human creativity and the development of space travel through their tampering. As such, they want to deny the creation of Eternity.

She tells him that all he need do is give up on finding Cooper and let her perform her mission, which is to help stimulate the development of nuclear science. Due to his own experiences with the Eternals, Harlan agrees that his organization may not be the best thing for humanity. He agrees to help her and the kettle disappears, indicating that Eternity no longer exists.

Slaughterhouse Five:
Written in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five is considered Kurt Vonnegut’s most influential work. Taking place during World War II, the story incorporates aspects of time travel and the larger questions of free will versus determinism. In addition, the themes of war and senseless slaughter run through the whole thing like a vein, with the setting, tone, and events aligning perfectly to convey a noire message to the reader.

The story opens with a disillusioned man named Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who is taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. He and other POW’s are taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden which has fallen into disuse since the war began. During the subsequent fire-bombing of the city, in which the entire town is destroyed, both the POW’s and German soldiers take cover in the basement.

While in the basement, Billy becomes “unstuck in time”, moving forward and backward and experiencing events out of sequences. In one time jump, he is kidnapped by aliens and placed in a zoo with a B-movie actress who is meant to be his mate. He learns from the aliens, known as the Tralfamadorians, that they can see in four dimensions and see the full progress of their lives. As such, they cannot change the course of them, but can focus on individual moments.

As he continues to travel, he witnesses different moments from his own life and relives various fantasies. He sees himself in the snow before his capture, experiences moments from his post-war life in the US as a mundane family man during the 50s and 60s, and even witnesses his own death at the hands of a petty thief named Paul Lazzaro in the late 70’s.

He learns that his death is the result of a string of events which have already begun. The man who kills him turns out to be the friend of another POW named Weary, who died of gangrene as a result of his capture. This, he blamed on Pilgrim, who he hates for his anti-war attitudes and thinks was responsible for their capture. By the 70’s, when the US has become Balkanized and Billy joins a movement dedicated to warning people about the alien threat, Lazzaro shoots him in front of an audience. In this way, Billy realizes he has become just like the Tralfamadorians, in that he too can see his fate and now must decide how to go about changing it.

In many ways, Vonnegut was on the ground floor of the post-modern trend, thanks to his use of a non-liner narrative where things happen out of sequence and time seems jumbled and confused. The book was also hailed for its multi-layered nature, combining the ideas of fate, free will, cause and effect, with a fatalistic sense of human nature and war in the same narrative. The fact that it takes place inside a slaughterhouse when outside, fire bombs are consuming a city, also demonstrated a thematic consistency that did not go unnoticed.

Recent Examples:
With time and our evolving understanding of history has come many new and exciting examples of time-travel in sci-fi. For one, writers began to incorporate ideas from the growing field of alternate history, as well as refining their ideas of what time travel would involve from a scientific standpoint. From this point onwards, time-travel novelist would either maintain a sense of paradox with their writing, showing how tampering in the past led to the future, or would use the idea of altering the past to show just how easily can diverge from what we know today.

A Rebel in Time:
Written in 1983 by Harry Harrison, the author of Make Room! Make Room! (which became the basis of the movie Soylent Green), Rebel is one of several science fiction novels that presents an alternate history of the American Civil War in which the Confederacy won. However,this novel was the first to combine this idea with the concept of time travel, where it was intervention from the future that led to the divergence.

The story opens with a racist Colonel named Wesley McCulloch who is being investigated by a special military committee for buying up large quantities of gold. Troy Hamon, the black soldier charged with looking into his activities, determines that McCulloch also murdered three people to cover his plans, which includes the theft of an antique Sten gun.

In time, he realizes that McCulloch’s plans involve the use of an experimental time machine, and that he hopes to deliver the Sten gun and the gold to Confederate forces in the past. With this easily-producible automatic weapon and plenty of gold to fund the war, the Confederacy will win. Hamon pursues McCulloch into the past and must fight his way through Civil War America, braving prejudice and the war in order to stop the plot from achieving fruition.

Because of the way it combined time travel and attempts to alter the past with alternate history, Rebel went on to inspire such renowned stories as The Guns as the South by Harry Turtledove, as well as the entire Southern Victory Series. Though not as popular as straightforward alternate histories, it was demonstrative of how easily some of history’s most pivotal events could have played out very differently.

Outlander:
Written by Diana Gabaldon and Published in 1991, this novel is the first is a series of seven that are known as the Outlander Series. In addition to winning the RITA Award for “Best romance novel” of 1992, the series is renowned for merging historical fiction and romance with the concept of time travel, though in a way that is arguably more fantasy than sci-fi.

The story takes place shortly after WWII and centers on a British Army nurse named Claire Randall and her husband Frank, an Oxford history professor who briefly worked for MI6. Reuniting after the war, they decide to take a second honeymoon in Scotland, during which time they plan to research Frank’s family tree. While there, they hear of the local standing stones of Craigh na Dun and decide to attend an evening with some of the locals.

The next day, she returns to the stones and experiences a strange sense of disorientation. Upon waking, she hears a battle nearby and goes to investigate. She sees an English army fighting with the Scots and comes across the very ancestor Frank has been researching, Captain Randall. Convinced that this is a reenactment, Claire plays along and pretends to be a robbed Englishwoman.

Before she can go with him, a Scotsman knocks out Randall and takes Claire prisoner. They claim to be fugitives from the Red-Coats and ask for her help in tending to their wounded, and her skills as a nurse earn her their trust. Afterward, they begin running again, and Claire comes to the realization that she must be in the past given the brutality of the situation and the fact that the lights of Inverness do not appear where they should. This causes her much grief, and the man she helped heal, Jamie, begins to comfort her.

Confused and disoriented, she is brought to the seat of power of the Clan McKenzie and questioned by the laird. She in unable to convince them of her story, but is allowed to stay with them on the condition that she not try to leave. Having come to terms with her situation, she tries to find a way to return to Craigh na Dun where she hopes to be able to return to the present. Around the county, Claire comes to be known as an “Sassenach”, an “Outlander”, but earns some trust through her knowledge of medicine. In addition, it is becoming clear that she and Jamie are beginning to take a shine to each other.

She learns that the McKenzie’s are Jacobites who are resisting English rule, that Captain Randall is the one oppressing them, and that he is still looking for her. The laird’s brother, Dougal, proposes that Claire marry Jamie, as a means of making her a Scotswoman and ensuring her protection. She agrees, thinking this is the only way to ensure her safety for the time being, and also because she thinks Jaime is the most suitable man there. As a gesture of trust, he reveals to her that he has been using an alias since he’s a wanted man. Not a McKenzie by birth, his real name is James Fraser.

They marry and have sex for the first time, but Claire finds herself tormented by thoughts of Frank, who she knows must be worried sick over her. After a near-disastrous escape attempt in which Captain Randall nearly rapes her, she returns to life in Castle Leoch and grows closer to Jamie. However, due to local superstitions and the jealousy of others, she and a fellow healer named Geilis Duncan are accused of witchcraft and sentenced to public whipping. Naturally, Jamie comes to their rescue and they ride out into the wilderness. Claire realizes that Geilis is also from the future when she notices a vaccination scar.

Once safely away, Claire finally tells Jamie the truth and he decides to return her to Craigh na Dun. However, she cannot bring herself to leave and decides to stay with Jamie, realizing that her love of him is greater than her love of Frank. Jamie then returns with her to Lallybroch where he secretly reclaims his role as Laird. However, things turns bad when Jamie is betrayed by one of his own to Captain Randall who sentences him to hang for his Jacobite activities. Claire and her kinsmen organize a rescue, during which Captain Randall is killed. She and Jamie escape to a monastery in France to contemplate the future, and Claire learns that she is pregnant with their first child…

The novel remains a favorite amongst fantasy and historical fiction fans alike because of its interweaving of real history with fantasy and romance. As the series goes on, Gabaldon dabbled in further examples of crossing historical fiction with romance, with Claire going back and forth through time and completing the loop her travel has initiated. In this way, her travels are shown to be a paradoxical phenomena, creating the very future she comes from and necessitating that she go into the past again.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus:
Orson Scott Card, the same writer who created the Ender’s Game series, released this complicated tale of time travel and historical tampering in 1996. As the first in the Pastwatch Series, this installment deals with the most controversial historical figure and subject in history: Christopher Columbus and European contact with the Americas in the late 15th/early 16th century.

The book contains two interwoven narratives which converge towards the end of the book. The first opens in the late 15th century where Christopher Columbus is preparing for his long voyage across the ocean, while the second takes place in the future where the planet is doomed and civilization is on the verge of collapse. Entering into this is a group of researchers who haves developed a machine called the “TruSite II” which gives them the ability to view and record events in the past.

In time, their work leads to the development of time travel and the group decides to send back agents to alter the past. Focusing on Columbus, who’s actions led to centuries of genocide and exploitation, the group concludes that if he did not arrive in the New World, history and technological development would have proceeded more slowly and evenly, leading to a better future.

However, the team soon realizes that they are not the first to tamper with history. In an alternate timeline, Columbus was never obsessed with going westward and instead led a final crusade to Constantinople. Meanwhile, the Aztec Empire fell and was replaced by an iron-wielding Tlaxcalans, who went on to establish a more modern, centralized state in central Mexico and pushed their influence far beyond the old Aztec borders.

When Portuguese traders finally did make contact with the New World, the Tlaxcalans kidnapped them and acquired the knowledge of firearms. Though exposure to smallpox did have a dire effect, the sparse amount of contact did not lead to full-scale pandemics and the Tlaxcalans were able to develop a natural immunity. By the 16th century, the Tlaxcalans used their knowledge of improved ship technology to sail to Europe and conquer it at a time when it was politically fragmented.

This timeline led to the development of its own Pastwatch, to whom the conquest of Europe by the Tlaxcalans was seen as the most dire event in history. As such, they traveled back in time and fed the ambitions of Columbus in order to act as a buffer against this conquest. However, their own tampering produced an equally dire, but opposite outcome: the conquest of the New World by Europe. With this in mind, the main characters begin to strive for a balance, a timeline in which neither hemisphere was conquered and both Europeans and Native Americans could acheive contact peacefully.

Ultimately, they succeed and Columbus’ wife, one of the agents, reveals to him near the end of his days what would have happened had they not intervened. After learning of the terrible events he would have had a hand in, Columbus weeps for days. His name and his title have thus been “redeemed”. By the end, Card gives readers a glimpse of a 20th century that resulted from this balance, a harmonious world where East and West came together for trade and mutual benefit, leading to the creation of an advanced utopia. In this future, scientist unearth the skulls and the time capsule of the three agents and hear their warnings about possible futures.

As a historian, this book appealed to me on many levels. Not only did it address one of the most contentious and controversial issues in all of recorded history, it also dealt a reality that is rarely ever addressed. For centuries, historians and social scientists have been trying to decipher why modernity turned out the way it did, with certain civilizations superseding others and colonizing the known world. Many modern scholars remain trapped in the past on this subject, with several still subscribing to outdated and even racist theories of “culture” and ideology being the cause.

However, it should be plain to anyone who looks closely enough that one pivotal event, aside from various geographical and environmental factors, was the real cause of this disparity. This was none other than the discovery” of the New World in the late 15th century by the Spanish. Thanks mainly to smallpox, Europeans managed to embark on a  program of conquest, genocide and plunder and would meet minimal resistance in the process.

And thanks to the introduction of countless tons of gold, silver, pearls, cotton, coffee, tobacco, spices, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, chocolate, vanilla, pumpkins, beans, rice, squash, and more to the European economy and diet, Europeans grew fat and rich and shot ahead of their previously more advanced neighbors (the Arabs, Indians and Chines). This fueled further expansion into Africa and Asia, and also led to the discovery of more resources that would fuel industrial growth – i.e. the Americas vast stores of coal, minerals, and oil.

By examining the what ifs of history, and positing that another outcome was possible and just as undesirable, Scott creates a narrative that is not only realistic and deals with extremely relevant subject matter, but also instructive in that it demonstrates the importance of cooperation over conquest, trade and understanding over genocide and assimilation. I often wonder what would have happened had Columbus died of a heart-attack before venturing, or his ships had been destroyed like Cortez’s. Better yet, if Cortez had been killed in battle and never made it back to Cuba. That man was a royal douche!

Timeline:
A tale of historians who travel back in time, Timeline, released in 1999, contains Michael Crichton’s usual combination of fact, action and adventure. In this case, he combines aspects of real history and questions about quantum and multiverse theory with scenes of medieval warfare, as told through the eyes of modern historians who travel back to the time which they are studying.

After a series of strange events in the Arizona desert and an archaeological site in France, the main characters –  a group of medieval historians – are summoned to the headquarters of ITC (the company that is funding their research) and learn of a startling fact. After building a quantum time machine, one of their professors used it to travel back to the 14th century. Apparently, he went to the very site they have had under excavation, but then failed to return.

The researchers  – Chris, Kate, and Marek – all agree to go back and search for him, dressing in period costume and taking a security detail with them. However, they are attacked as soon as they arrive in the past, which leads to an accident in which a grenade rolls through the space-time aperture and their time machine is destroyed on the other side. What’s more, the local lord takes Kate and Marek prisoner.

Alone and cut off from the future, Chris heads for Castelgard to confront the Lord Oliver and meets a boy along the way. Apparently, this “boy” is actually the Lady Claire in disguise, a woman who has escaped from  Lord Oliver’s custody. Once they reach the castle, Chris is taken and he and Marek are challenged to a joust, which they prove victorious in. However, this leads Lord Oliver to order their deaths, and they are forced to plan their escape.

It is also revealed that Lord Oliver is holding Johnston in his fortress at La Roque, mainly because he believes Johnston knows of a secret passage that is its only weakness. With an army led by the infamous French mercenary Arnaut de Cervole approaching, he is desperately preparing for the siege. Johnston helps Oliver develops Greek Fire, even though he knows Oliver is meant to lose the siege, while Chris, Marek, Kate and Claire use clues from the future to search for the secret passage themselves.

Chris also realizes that someone else from the future is tracking them, a knight named Robert de Ker. Eventually he is revealed to be Rob Deckard, an ITC employee and former marine driven insane from too many time trips. This is apparently a consequence of traveling to different possible universes, which can result in the displacement and mismatching of different cells in the body. In Rob’s case, it is his neurons which have become mismatched, causing him to have psychotic episodes.

In the end, they all break into La Roque and do battle with hum and Deckard, killing them both. Back home, the ITC manage to finally repair the device and try to bring the team home. However, Marek chooses to stay behind with Claire, having realized that he always wanted to live in the past. When the others return and realize that the company head, Mr. Doniger, has no regard for human life and plans to use the time travel device commercially, they send him to 1348, the year of the first Black Death outbreak. In the end, Chris and Kate get married and find the graves of Marek and Claire in France marked with a familiar epitaph.

The Time Travellers Wife:
A slight twist on the classic story of time travel, this 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger explores the idea of time-travel as a genetic disorder. Inspired by Niffenegger’s own frustration with relationships, this novel is essentially a metaphor for the trials of true love. Classified as both science fiction and romance, the story is based on the themes of love, loss, free will, and communication, it also contains some rather interesting commentaries on existence and the nature of memory and experience.

As the title suggests, the story focuses on the life a man who suffers from Chrono-Displacement, a condition which causes him to involuntarily travel through time, and his wife, who is forced to endure stretches of time without him. The man, Henry, has been time-traveling for most of his life and apparently has no control over the process, though his destinations are largely places and times related to his own history. The trips are apparently tied to stress and other stimuli, making them unpredictable and undesirable.

His own timeline naturally converges with that of his wife, Clare, but at seemingly random points in her life. In each visit, their ages are mismatched, as are their memories of the other. Whereas Clare meets him in a natural chronological order, the visits are mismatched from Henry’s perspective. On one of his early visits (from her perspective), Henry gives her a list of the dates he will appear and she writes them in a diary. During another visit, he inadvertently reveals that they will be married in the future.

Once married, Clare has trouble bringing a pregnancy to term because of the genetic anomaly Henry may presumably be passing on to the fetus. After six miscarriages, Henry wishes to save Clare further pain and has a vasectomy. However a version of Henry from the past visits Clare one night and they make love, causing her to become pregnant with their daughter Alba. She too is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement, but appears to have some control over it. Before she is born, Henry travels to the future and meets her when she is ten years old and learns that he died when she was five.

When he is 43, during what is to be his last year of life, Henry experiences a time slip which deposits him in a Chicago parking garage on a frigid winter night. Unable to find shelter and clothes (he always appears naked during a time slip) he suffers hypothermia and frostbite and has to have his feet amputated when he returns to the present. Henry and Clare both know that he will not survive many more time jumps. Then, on New Year’s Eve, 2006, Henry time travels into the middle of the Michigan woods in 1984 and is accidentally shot by Clare’s brother, a scene which was foreshadowed earlier in the novel. Henry returns to the present and dies in Clare’s arms.

Clare is devastated by Henry’s death and later finds a letter from Henry asking her to “stop waiting” for him, but which describes a moment in her future when she will see him again. The last scene in the book takes place when Clare is 82 years old and Henry is 43. She has been waiting for Henry, as she has done most of her life, and when he arrives they clasp each other for what may or may not be the last time. The story ends with it being implied that Clare dies in Henry’s arms, as he did in hers before.

Through the use of a non-linear narrative, Neffinenegger was able to effectively demonstrate the sense of yearning and loss that so often accompanies true love. In addition, her use as separate narratives was also an effective tool in that it demonstrated how different people can be in different places in a relationship at different times. Ultimately, every instance that Clare and Henry spend together is made sacred by the fact that neither of them knows how long they will have together, which illustrates beautifully the temporal nature of love itself. Or to put it another way, that story’s a sad, sad tale! Go hug the one you love right now! I’ll wait…

Summary:
And that’s all I got for now and my brain is fried from all this writing. Hence, I think I will leave the summaries and commentaries for another time (was that a pun? That sounded like a pun!) Besides, with this many examples, does anything really need to be said in the way of conclusions? Of course it does! The more examples you have, the more complex the patterns become. So expect some more on my time-travel series, coming real soon!

10 Sci-Fi Novels People Pretend to Have Read

Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.

I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:

1. Cryptonomicon:
Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.

Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!

2. Dune:
Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.

Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.

3. Gravity Rainbow:
Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.

In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!

4. Foundation:
Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!

And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.

5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.

Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.

6. 1984:
Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.

Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker:
Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…

Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.

In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.

Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.

8. The Long Tomorrow:
This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.

Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.

9. Dhalgren:
Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.

More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.

Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!

10. Infinite Jest:
This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!

The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall  we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.

Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.

Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!

The Foundation Series

When it comes to science fiction, few authors have achieved the kind of notoriety and prolific ouput of Isaac Asimov. Amongst the greats of classic sci-fi, he considered one of the “Big Three”, along with arry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke. And when it comes to his many novels, short stories, articles and thoughtful essays, two series stand out above all else. The Robot series and, more importantly, the Foundation novels.

Not only did they get the ball rolling on many major sci-fi themes that would come up again and again over the years (such as the concept of a Galactic Empire), they once again brought commercial science fiction into the limelight by showing how hard science could be merged with real history to produce genuinely thought-provoking literature. This is a trend which seems to be necessary once every generation years or so, with Frank Herbert doing it again roughly a decade later. And in his case, much of the inspiration came from Asimov himself.

So in honor of that accomplishment, and to mark the occasion that I finally finished reading the original trilogy, I thought it was high time that I start reviewing the Foundation series, beginning with the book that started it all. So without further ado, here’s Foundation!

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens many thousands of years in the future, where humanity has spread to occupy the entire Galaxy and is governed by the Galactic Empire. For over 12,000 the Empire has stood, and appears to still be stable and powerful. However, a trend of decay has set in and some suspect that it’s only a matter of time before the Empire falls

One such man is Hari Seldon, a scientist who has perfected a form of psychology and mathematics known as psychohistory. Having calculated the exact date and sequence of events which will lead to the collapse of the Empire, he has also created an organization that will be dedicated to ensuring that the dark ages that naturally follow will be as brief as possible – one thousands years instead of the alternate 30,000.

Divided into five parts – each of which was published throughout the 1940’s and together in a single volume in 1951 – the story jumps forward in time from the starting point, 0 F.E. (Foundation Era), to several hundred years in the future. Several protagonists are employed, people who find themselves at the center of events in any given period. Each period involves the emergence of a “Seldon Crisis”, a calamity that was predicted by Seldon’s psychohistory in advance, and the requisite response by the Foundation to resolve it. The first story, which sets up the subsequent stories and crises, is aptly named:

The Psychohistorians: Told from the point of view of Gaal Dornick, a young mathematician who has travelled to the capitol world of Trantor to meet Seldon, the story moves from their introduction to Seldon’s arrest by the Committee of Public Safety. Named after the Revolutionary body that send countless French citizens to their death after the 1789 Revolution, this committee is made up of Imperial aristocrats who are angered by Seldon’s philosophy and want to see him silenced. However, not wanting to martyr him, they instead tell him and his Foundation to pack up and move to Terminus, a world on the edge of the Empire.

The story then concludes with Seldon telling Dornick that he knew this was coming, and that it was actually all part of the plan. By being able to set up the Foundation at the edge of the Empire, it will be in a perfect position to begin enacting its policies once the Empire begins its inevitable slide into decline and loses control of first the periphery, and then the core systems. Thus, the most important lesson about psychohistory is presented for the first time: like a prescient science, it predicts all things and all things happen in accordance with its laws.

The Encyclopedists: Fifty years later on Terminus, the Foundation scholars have begun work on the Encyclopedia Galactica, the complete compendium of scientific knowledge for when the Empire falls. Unfortunately, the Empire is surrounded by four independent kingdoms that are in danger of threatening Terminus. The mayor of the planet, Salvor Hardin, is the protagonist of this story, and believes that the only way to keep their neighbors at bay is to pit them against each other. He perceives an opportunity when the Kingdom of Anacreon, which hopes to place military bases on Terminus, reveals that the four kingdoms no longer have nuclear technology.

Later, Hardin’s own rivalry with the Board of Trustees (the people responsible for the Encyclopedia) come to a head when Seldon’s Vault – a mysterious chamber which opens whenever a “Seldon Crisis” is imminent – opens to deliver a message. According to Seldon’s hologram, the creation of the Encyclopedia was a ruse to hide Terminus’ real importance. The true goal of the Foundation is to further science in a galaxy as it becomes consumed by interplanetary strife. Realizing that they are no longer in control, the Board hands its political power to the Terminus City mayor who graciously accepts.

The Mayors: Beginning in 80 F.E., this story revolves around the Foundation’s efforts to bring technology to the Four Kindgoms. This has the effect of creating a priesthood of sorts in these states, reminiscent of early medieval Europe where Roman priests were dispatched to western European kingdoms to establish centers of learning. Salvor Hardin has been re-elected many times over the course of the decades but faces an impending problem as an “Action Party” threatens to overthrow him. Fearing that Anacreon is slowly overtaking them, they want power so the Foundation will fight back.

On Anacreon, it is also becoming clear that the young King Lepold I faces an internal threat from his uncle, Prince Regent Wienis. Before he can come of age, Wienis plans on seizing power for himself. Central to this plan is using a battleship the Foundation restored for Anacreon to attack and conquer the planet. On the night that Lepold is to be ordained, Wienis invited Hardin into his quarters and shares his plan with him. Hardin reveals that he too has a plan, a counter stroke which will neutralize the battleship and Wienis’ power.

After decades of seeing Foundation scientists as “holy men”, the public is incensed when they learn that Wienis is planning an attack on them. What’s more, all their technology, including the attacking battleship, becomes useless as the only people who know how to run them (the Foundation scientists) begin shutting them down. Wienis loses it and tries to kill Hardin, but his weapons cease working, and he takes his own life.

Upon his return to Terminus, Hardin is vindicated when Seldon’s vault opens to reveal that his plan was right. With this crisis behind them, the Action Party defers to the mayors and their authority is once again validated. In addition, the Four Kingdoms are now free to continue the advance of “Scientism”, which will extend their influence throughout the region and ensure the fulfillment of Seldon’s plan.

The Traders: Events in this section take place 135 F.E., at a time when the Foundation has begun sending out Trade representatives to distant worlds to share their technology with all neighboring planets in the quadrant. Master Trader Eskel Gorov, also an agent of the Foundation government, has traveled to the worlds of Askone to trade in nucleics. Gorov, however, is met with resistance by Askone’s governing Elders who abide by the taboo that certain technologies are morally proscribed.

Enter the protagonist, Trader and Foundation agent Linmar Ponyets, who is sent to Askone’s central planet to negotiate the release of Gorov, who has been arrested. After learning that the Elder’s Grand Master plans to have Gorov executed, Ponyets agrees to offer them a payoff in the form of a transmuter than can turn lead into gold. At the same time, Ponyets finds a willing ally in a young protegee named Councilor Pherl. While initially wary of Ponyets, he is convinced that the transmuter could help him to attain power and eventually become Grand Master himself.

Because of this, Gorov is released and travels back to Foundation space with Ponyets. Gorov is critical of Ponyets dealings, saying that it was unethical, but Ponyets counters with a quote by Hardin, wherein he said “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!”

The Merchant Princes: This last story, which takes place in 155 F.E., occurs against the backdrop of a powerful Foundation, which has subjugated the neighboring Four Kingdoms and expanded its commercial and technological empire throughout numerous stellar systems. However, it still faces challenges, this time around from a planet named Korell where three Foundation ships have disappeared. Fearing that a “Seldon Crisis” in coming, the Foundation assigns Master Trader Hober Mallow to investigate and determine the Korellian’s level of technology.

At the same time, the people who assign Mallow, Foreign Secretary Publius Manlio and the Mayor’s secretary, Jorane Sutt, foresee an opportunity to weaken the traders by creating an embarrassing diplomatic incident. To oversee their plan, they plant an agent aboard Mallow’s ship to spy on him. When they arrive on Korell, he invites a Foundation missionary on board their ship, a move which causes a mob to surround the ship. Since Foundation agents and technology are not allowed on Korell, this arouses Mallow’s suspicions.

Mallow hands the missionary over to the mob, in spite of the agents intervention, and the missionary dies. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem too disturbed by this and even earns the chance to meet with Korell’s authoritarian ruler, Commdor Asper Argo, because of it. He appears friendly and welcomes Foundation technological gifts, though he refuses to allow Scientism on Korell. In accordance, Mallow agrees to continue trading with them but agrees to abstain from encouraging missionary work within the Republic of Korell.

Later, Mallow is also given a tour of the planet’s facilities, during which time he notices the presence of atomic technology bearing the emblem of the Empire. He concludes that the Empire is expanding into the periphery again and journeys alone to the planet Siwenna, which he believes may be the capital of an Imperial province. There he finds nothing but a desolate world and an impoverished patrician named Onum Barr, a former provincial senator who tells him how an a local rebellion led the Empire to devastate the planet and kill all but one of his sons.

Convinced there is nothing there to see, Mallow returns to Terminus where he faces trial for murder because of how he turned the missionary over to the Korellian mob. However, he is able to convince the court that the “missionary” was in fact a Korellian secret policeman who played a part in the conspiracy against the Traders manufactured by Sutt and Manlio. Acquitted, Mallow is received with delight by the population of Terminus, which will almost undoubtedly select him as Mayor in the elections scheduled to take place in the following year.

To prepare for the election, Mallow engineers the arrest of Sutt and Manlio, and eventually takes office. However, he is soon faced with tensions between the Foundation and Korell, which declares war on the Foundation, using its powerful Imperial flotilla to attack Foundation ships. Instead of counterattacking, Mallow takes no action, knowing that Korell has become accustomed to trade with the Foundation and the lack of said trade will cause deprivation and anger towards the government. In time, this will cause Korell’s war efforts to grind to a halt and the end of hostilities.

Thus ends book I of the foundation series, with the Foundation ascendent in a Galaxy that is becoming increasingly permeated by chaos and Seldon’s plan in effect on well underway.

Good Points:
As I said, this novel (if you’ll excuse the pun) really wrote the book on Galactic Empires and historically/socially relevant sci-fi. Inspired largely by Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it advances the notion that all civilizations are basically organism, subject to the same laws as all living things. And like all organisms, they enjoy a period of growth, maturation, and then decline, culminating in their death. When that happens, their absence leaves a natural power vacuum characterized by chaos, strife, and a marked decline in all things “civilized” – aka. the arts, the sciences, learning, etc.

By taking a page from history, namely the attempts to preserve classical knowledge throughout the Middle Ages (which culminated in a rebirth of learning in the Renaissance) Asimov creates a fictional repeat of history in the distant future whereby the efforts of the preservers were enhanced with the help of foresight and a coordinated plan. Had such factors existed in the wake of Rome’s fall, it is entirely possible that the Dark Ages would have lasted for a significantly shorter amount of time.

On top of that, this book was is also very accessible and readable, in spite of the fact that it throws some rather deep scientific and intellectual content at the reader. And the way the stories are succinct, concise, and tie together so effectively makes for a read which is easy on top of it all. For an accomplished reader, it can be read in one sitting. I am hardly a speed reader, but even I found it a quick study.

Bad Points:
Conversely, some of the books selling points are also potential weaknesses. For one, its accessibility can be seen as a mark of simplicity. For example, the book is all about a science that deals with the masses, of how historical events are determined by the actions of billions, trillions and even quadrillions of people. And yet, in every story, everything seems to hinge on the actions of one person, the protagonist, and a few others.This seems a little contradictory, and intentional since it provides quick resolution to the plot.

Herein lies another weakness, which is that of contrivance. Many times throughout the novel, the way the characters tend to figure things out seems awfully convenient. In every story, you see the mayors, merchants and Foundationists pulling resolutions seemingly out of nowhere, knowing everything they need to in advance or just providing a perfect solution on the spot. Granted, it seems to make sense, but how they know to do this and how it always seems to work out does not seem wholly realistic.

And of course, the explanation is always there in the background, Hari Seldon predicted it using psychohistory and these people know that science so they are therefore prepared where others are not. This sort of advances a notion that the science itself is infallible, that human minds really can be reduced to mathematical formulae which is water-tight. If anything, I would say that predicting the behavior of billions gets more unpredictable the farther afield one looks, and that no science can ever be capable of predicting it with certainty. And we all know what became of those philosophies that tried – aka. Marxism, Hegelianism, and many other isms besides!

But of course, the concept of psychohistory is entirely fictitious and was really just a tentative argument that Asimov advanced, and for the sake of a fictional story no less. In order to make the story work, he had to create a universe in which a form of prescient foresight, made possible through the application of rigorous mathematics and psychology, was possible and accurate. In short, its just food for thought, not something to be taken seriously. And of course, Asimov did show that he was willing to break from this notion with the second book in the series, Foundation and Empire, where the “Plan” began to falter due to external, unaccounted factors.

So in the end, I have to recommend Foundation as required reading, not just for science fiction fans but for all people curious as to how many trends we’ve come to associate with speculative and satirical literature (including dystopian lit) got started. Granted, there were those who came before Asimov who made use of such themes and classical inspirations, but he was the one who brought such things into the public eye like few before him. And as a result, he would go on to have an immeasurable influence on those who followed in his wake.

Up next, Foundation and Empire, part two of the original trilogy, before fans and publishers practically forced him to write many, many more books in the series. Stay tuned!

Of Galactic Empires

Galaxy1Hello again, fellow sci-fi fans! Today, I thought I’d write about something conceptual, something that is intrinsic to so much science fiction and keeps popping up in various forms. It’s something that has appeared in countless serials, novels, tv shows, movies, and RPG’s. I am referring, of course, to the concept of the Galactic Empire, a science fiction trope that has seen many incarnations, but revolves around a singular theme of a political entity that spans the known universe.

Whether it’s a loose federation of humans and aliens spanning many different star systems, or a despotism made up of millions of worlds, all populated by human beings, or something somewhere in the middle, this trope has proven to be one of the most enduring ideas of classic science fiction.

But where exactly did this idea come from? Who was the first to come up with a futuristic, galaxy-spanning polity where millions of star systems and quadrillions of sentient beings all found themselves living underneath one roof?

Asimov’s Foundation Series:

An artists rendering of Trantor

Isaac Asimov is arguably the first science fiction author to use the concept of a galaxy-spanning empire in his literature. Known simply as the Galactic Empire, this organization was the centerpiece of his Foundation series. As fans of the books know, the entire series was built around the idea of the imminent collapse of said empire and how a small band of scientists (led by Hari Seldon) were dedicated to ensuring that the collective knowledge of the universe would be preserved in its absence. The books were based heavily on Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a compendium which explored the various reasons for the collapse of Rome and the resulting Dark Ages.

The universe of the Galactic Empire centered on a planet named Trantor. Based on his descriptions, the planet was covered by a massive urban landscape, every habitable area having been built over in order to accommodate the planet’s huge population. In addition to being the capitol of the Empire, it was also its administrative head, cultural hub, and economic epicenter. Much like Rome of antiquity, it depended heavily on the surrounding territories for food and raw materials in order to sustain itself, and was terribly hit when the Empire began to decline.

However, beyond some passing descriptions of its size, centrality and the problems facing its encapsulated population, not much is said about Trantor or many other worlds of the Galactic Empire. In fact, not much is said about the Empire itself, other than the fact that it has endured for millennia and is on the verge of collapsing. Mainly, the focus in Asimov’s Foundation is on the events that precipitated its fall and the work of the Foundation once that was complete; how they went about the process of restoring civilization in the absence of a central authority. However, the subsequent Foundation novels, which included some prequels, helped to flesh out the Empire further, providing details on member worlds and the events which preceded the development of Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”.

Frank Herbert’s Dune:

Arrakis (aka. Dune), the main setting of the story

One of the greatest examples of a galactic empire in my opinion. In the first installment of the Dune series, we are made immediately aware that humanity now inhabits the entire galaxy and are ruled from a world called Kaitan by a sovereign known as the Padishah Emperor. However, it is also made clear that while the emperor is the supreme leader, power is shared in a quasi-feudal arrangement between the noble houses (the Landstraad), a corporate entity that controls all economic affairs (CHOAM), and the various guilds (of which the Spacing Guild is arguably the most powerful). In this universe, much attention is given to the breakdown of power, the history of how it came to be, and the various member worlds and houses.

For starters, there is House Corrino, the ruling dynasty of the empire that is centered on Kaitan. Their house once ruled from a planet known as Selusa Secundus, but which has since been reduced to ashes from a nuclear attack and now serves as the emperor’s prison planet (where his elite armies are trained). More important, and central to the story, is House Atreides, the family which rules from an ocean planet named Caladan, but come to inherit the desert planet Arrakis (aka. Dune). Passing attention is also given to Geidi Prime, the industrial world run by House Harkonnen, the nominal villains of the story.

Dune_MapBut by far, the most detailed and developed descriptions are that of the planet Arrakis, where most of the story takes place. Throughout the first novel, the planet’s ecology, native species, and inhabitants (the Fremen) are richly detailed. Given that it is the only world where the spice (an awareness drug the entire universe depends on) is mined, the world is understandably the focal point of the Dune universe. Clearly analogous to oil, the spice is a metaphor for human dependence on a single resource, and the consequences thereof. By taking control of the planet at story’s end and threatening to destroy the spice, Paul Atreides effectively becomes the universe’s new ruler. For as the sayings go: “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”, and “He who can destroy a thing controls that thing.”

Frank Herbert cited a number of influences for his galactic empire. Like Asimov, he relied a great deal on history, particularly that of the Middle East, the Crusades, and a number of feudal societies. At the same time, Herbert became fascinated with ecology, a result of his living in Florence, Oregon where the US Department of Agriculture was using poverty grasses to stabilize the expanding Oregon dunes. The article which he wrote about them, entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands”  was never completed and only appeared decades later in The Road to Dune. Nevertheless, it was from this combination of real history and ecology, how the living environment affects its inhabitants and shapes history, that the universe of Dune emerged.

Star Wars:

Coruscant, capitol of the Old Republic and Empire

Perhaps the best known example of a galactic empire, which in turn emerged from what Lucas called the Old Republic. When asked about his inspirations, George Lucas claimed that he wanted to create an empire that was as aesthetically and thematically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This is made abundantly clear when one looks into the back story of how the Empire emerged, how its malevolent dictator (Palpatine, a Sith Lord) rose to power and began launching campaigns to eliminate anyone who stood in his way. In addition, the use of Storm Troopers, the uniforms of the imperial officers, and the appearance of Darth Vader also add visual representation to this.

However, a great deal of antiquity works its way into the Star Wars universe as well. Much like Herbert and Asimov, there is a parallel between the past and the future. The incorporation of royalty, swordfights between Bushido-like warriors, gun-toting smugglers, cantinas, dangerous towns in the middle of the desert, and all the allusions to the “Republic” and “Galactic Senate”, fair and noble institutions which ruled the galaxy before the dark times – all of these are themes taken from ancient Greece, Rome, feudal Japan, medieval Europe, and the Wild West.

Urban sprawl on Coruscant
Urban sprawl on Coruscant

In any case, at the center of Lucas’ galactic empire lies Coruscant, a planet that was clearly inspired by Trantor. Whereas in the original series, the planet was not shown or even mentioned, it receives a great deal of attention in the Star Wars novelizations, comics, and prequel movies. Much like Trantor, it is a planet that is completely dominated by urban sprawl, literally every corner of it is covered by massive sky-scrapers and multi-leveled buildings.

According to the Star Wars Wiki (Wookiepedia), roughly a trillion humans and aliens live on its surface, which is another detail that is noteworthy about Lucas’ universe. Unlike Foundation or Dune, in Star Wars, the galactic empire includes countless sentient races, though humans do appear to be the dominant species. This racial aspect is something else that is akin to World War II and Nazi Germany.

Whereas the Rebellion is made up of humans and aliens who are struggling for freedom and tolerance, the Empire is composed entirely of humans who believe in their own racial superiority. However, in a tribute to Lucas’ more creative days, not much is said about this divide, the audience is instead left to infer it from the outward appearances and behavior of the characters on screen. However, the idea receives much development in the novelizations, particularly Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy.

Star Trek:

Star Fleet Command, in orbit above Earth

Yet another take on the concept of a galactic polity: Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Much like the Empire of Lucas’ own universe, the Federation is made up of hundreds of member worlds and any number of races. But unlike its peers in the Foundation, Dune or Star Wars universes, the Federation only encompasses a small portion of the galaxy – between ten and fifteen percent, depending on where you look in the storyline.

Beyond their range of influence lie several competing or cooperative empires – the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardasians, the Dominion, and the Borg. Each of these empires represent a threat to the Federation at one time or another in the story, largely because their ideologies are in direct conflict with the Federations policy of peace, multiculturalism and understanding.

This may sound a tad tongue-in-cheek, but it is the main vehicle for the story. In Star Trek, like many other sci-fi franchises, Gene Roddenberry uses alien races as mirrors for the human condition. Whereas in his vision of the future humanity has evolved to overcome the scourges of war, poverty, disease, intolerance and oppression, other races are either less advanced or openly embrace these things.

Negh'varThe Klingons, for example, were the enemies of the Federation because of their commitment to warrior politics. The Romulans are locked  in an ongoing cold war with them because of their belief in their own racial superiority. The Dominion seeks dominance over all “solid” life forms because, as shape shifters, they fear being controlled themselves. And the Borg are an extremely advanced cybernetic race that seeks to “perfect” organic life by merging it – by force, if necessary – with the synthetic. The metaphors are so thick, you could cut them with a knife!

Yes, subtlety was never Roddenberry’s greatest attribute, but the franchise was an open and inclusive one, borrowing freely from other franchises and sci-fi concepts, and incorporating a great deal of fan writing into the actual show itself. And whereas other franchises had firm back-stories and ongoing plots, Star Trek has always been an evolving, ad hoc thing by comparison.

Roddenberry and the producers and writers that took over after his death never did seem to plan that far ahead, and the back story was never hammered out with that much precision. This has allowed for a degree of flexibility, but also comes with the painstaking task of explaining how and why humanity became a utopian society in the first place. But for the most part, the franchise leaves that one vague, arguing that space travel, technology and contact with other sentient races allowed for all of this to happen over time.

Babylon 5:b5-eps3One of my favorite franchises of all time! And possibly one of the most detailed examples of a galactic empire, due largely to the fact that it took shape in the course of the show, instead of just being there in the background from the beginning. Here too, we see a trade off between other franchises, the most similar being Star Trek. In this universe, there is no single galactic empire, but rather a series races that exist is a web of alliances, rivalries and a loose framework of relations.

But as time goes on, many of them come together to form an alliance that is reminiscent of the Federation, though arguably more detailed and pluralistic in its composition. When the show opens, we see that humanity is merely one of many races in the cosmic arena, most of whom are more advanced and older than we are.

The Earth Alliance, as its called, controls only a few colonies, but commands a fair degree of influence thanks to the construction of an important space station in neutral territory. This station (namesake of the show) is known as Babylon 5, aptly named because it is a place of trade, commerce, and the intermixing of peoples and cultures. And much like its namesake, it can be a dangerous and chaotic place, but is nevertheless the focal point of the known universe.

B5_destroyerAccording to the back story, which is explored in depth in the prequel movie “In the Beginning”, the station began as a way of preventing wars based on cultural misunderstandings. Such a war took place between the human race and the Mimbari, a race that is central to the story, ten years prior to the show. After four abortive attempts, the station finally went online and was given the designation of five because it was the fifth incarnation of the project.

Once completed, all major races in the area sent representatives there in order to make sure their interests and concerns were being represented. Chief amongst them was Earth, the Mimbari, the Narns, the Centauri and the Vorlons, who together made up the stations executive council. Beyond them was the “League of Non-Aligned Worlds”, a group made up of fifteen sentient races who were all smaller powers, but together exercise a fair degree of influence over policy.

The Centauri, who were based on the late-period Roman Empire, are a declining power, the once proud rulers of most of the quadrant who have since regressed and are looking to reverse their fortunes. The Narns are their chief rival, a younger race that was previously occupied and brutalized by the Centauri, but who have emerged to become one of the most powerful forces in the quadrant.

B5_season2Based heavily on various revisionists powers of history, they are essentially a race that is familiar with suffering and freely conquers and subjugates others now to ensure that such a thing never happens to them again. The Mimbari, an older and somewhat reclusive race, is nominally committed to peace. But as the war demonstrated, they can easily become a force to be reckoned with given the right provocation. And then there are the Vorlons, a very old and very reclusive race that no one seems to know anything about, but who nevertheless are always there in the background, just watching and waiting…

As the show progresses, we come to see that B5 will actually serve a purpose that is far greater than anyone could have foreseen. It seems that an ancient race, known only as the Shadows, are returning to the known universe. Before they can to invade, however, they must recruit from the younger races and encourage them to make war on their rivals and neighbors. This will sow the seeds of chaos and ensure that their eventual advance will be met with less resistance.

The Vorlons and the Mimbari ambassadors (Kosh and Delenn) are aware of this threat, since their people have faced it before, and begin recruiting the station’s two human commanders (Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan) to help. This proves difficult, as the Shadows appear to have contacts on Earth as well and are backing the power play of Vice President Clarke, an ambitious man who wants to be a dictator. They are also ensuring that the Centauri and Narn go to war with each other as a way of keeping all the other member races preoccupied.

B5_shadow_warHowever, using the station as a rallying point, Sheridan, Sinclair, Delenn and Kosh eventually manage to organize the younger races into a cohesive fighting force to turn back the Shadows. Things become more complicated when they realize that the Vorlons are also the enemy, being involved in a power struggle with the Shadows that goes back eons. However, with the help of other First Ones (very old races) and a commitment to stand on their own, they manage to force both sides to leave the known universe.

In the wake of the war, a new spirit of cooperation and cohesion is formed amongst the younger races, which eventually gives rise to the Interstellar Alliance. This organization is essentially an expanded version of the League, but where members are fully aligned economically and politically and committed to defending each other. This comes in handy when the allies of the Shadows, younger races who are armed with all their old mentors’ gear, come out of hiding and begin to make trouble!

Naturally, the full story is much more complex and I’m not doing it justice, but this is the bare bones of it. Relying on historic examples and countless classic science fiction themes, J. Michael Straczynski establishes a detailed universe where multiple races and political entities eventually come together to form a government that rules the known universe and stands the test of time.

Battletech:

mechwarrior_1Here we have a franchise that had multiple inspirations, according to the creators. The focal point of the franchise is on massive war machines, known as battlemechs, which were apparently inspired by Macross and other anime. However, the creators also came to incorporate a back story that was very European in its outlook, which revolved around the concept of an ongoing war between feudal states.

One could make the case that the Shogunate period of Japan, a time of ongoing civil war, was also a source of inspiration for this story. However, upon familiarizing myself with the background of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had a predominantly Russian feel to it. In addition to the heroic characters being named Alexandr and Nicholas Kerensky, something about the constant feudal warfare and the morally ambiguous nature of humanity in the story seemed analogous to much of Russia’s troubled history.

To break it down succinctly, the story takes place in the 31st century, a time marked by incessant warfare between different clans and worlds, all of which are populated by humans.Terra (as Earth is now called) was once the center of a grand empire known as the Star League. After centuries of conflict, in what is known as the “Succession Wars”, Earth and many its immediate neighbors were rendered damaged or completely uninhabitable.

inner_sphere_wars_battletech_01As a result, the focal point of the universe resides within the Inner Sphere, a region that is 500 light years away from Earth and dominated by five Great Houses. The leader of each house claims to be the rightful successor of the Star League, and hence the houses are all known as the Successor States. Outside the Inner Sphere lies the Periphery, a large ring of independent star systems that predate the League and the Successor States, but are inferior to them in terms of technology. Though nominally independent, none of these regions have the ability to stand against the houses of the Inner Sphere, and thus avoid conflict with them whenever possible.

A key feature of the Battletech universe is the absence of sentient species outside of the human race. This serves to make the ongoing warfare more realistic, as well as establishing how the current state of war is a direct extension of earlier rivalries (some dating all the way back to the 20th century). Another interesting feature about this franchise is the fact that humanity has not evolved very far beyond its current state, in spite of the lengthy passage of time.

Again, the constant state of warfare has much to do with this, which has had a slowing and even reversing effect on the technological development of many worlds. In short, the franchise is gritty, realistic, and has a pretty dim view of humanity. In addition, there is a palatable sense that humanity’s best years are behind it, and that barring the appearance of some external threat, humanity will war itself into extinction.

Key Features:
A couple of things stand out about each of these examples of a galactic empire. And for anyone interesting in creating their own, they are considerations which have to be taken into account. All of the previous creators, from Isaac Asimov to Weisman and Babcock, either took a singular approach on these issues, or adopted a combined one. Here they are, as I see them:

Humans and Aliens: This is arguably the most important consideration when developing a sci-fi franchise, especially one where a galactic empire is concerned. The creator must decide, is this going to be a universe where humans and aliens coexist with one another, or is it going to be strictly human? Both options open up a range of possibilities; for example, are humans and aliens living together in harmony in this story, is one subjugated to another, or something else entirely? What’s more, what role will the aliens play? Are they to be the benign, enlightened aliens who teach us “flawed humans” how to be better, or will we be the the species that’s got things figured out and they be allegorical representations of our past, flawed selves? Inevitably, aliens serve as a sort of mirror for the human condition or as examples of past human societies, in any story. There’s simply no way around it, not if we want them to be familiar and relateable.

Utopian/Dystopian: Another very important decision to make when creating a universe is the hue its going to have. In short, is it going to be a bright place or a dark place? Would humanity advance as a result of technology and space exploration, or regress because improved weapons and tools merely meant we could do more harm? Both visions serve their purpose, the one eliciting hope for the future and offering potential solutions to contemporary problems, the other making the point that the human condition is permanent and certain behaviors will never be overcome. However, in my opinion, the most respectable approach is to take the middle road on this. Sci-fi franchises, like those of Straczynski and Alastair Reynolds (creator of the Revelation Space universe) did their best to present humanity as being morally ambiguous. We were neither perfect nor unsalvageable. We simply did our best and tried to make a difference, but would always have our share of flaws.

Space Travel: Almost all galactic empires are agreed on this one front. When it comes to creating a extra-solar empire, one that encompasses hundreds or even thousands of star systems, one needs to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. It might mean contravening the laws of physics (causing Einstein to roll over in his grave!) but you can’t really do it otherwise. Whether it’s by the Alcubierre drive, hyperspace, warp, jump gates, or folding space, all of the aforementioned franchises incorporated some kind of FTL. Without it, humanity would require thousands or even millions of years in order to expand to encompass the known universe, at which point, we’d probably have evolved to the point where we were no longer even human! In addition, the problems of subjective time and perspective would wreak havoc with story lines, continuity, and the like. Better and easier to just say “Here (zoom!) Now there!”

Technology: Following on the heels of FTL is the issue of how technology in general is treated within the universe in question. Will it be the source of man’s betterment and salvation, of their downfall, or something in between? Star Trek is a perfect example of the former approach, set in a future where all hunger, disease, poverty and inequality have been eliminated through the application of technology. Despite the obvious utopianism of this view, the franchise really isn’t that far off if you think about it. If we did have matter replicators, machines that could manufacture food, materials and consumer goods out of simple trace elements, then money, precious metals and other artificial means of measuring wealth would become obsolete. In addition, there’d be no more food shortages or distribution problems to speak of, not as long as everyone had access to this technology. And if fusion power and warp technology were available, then energy would be cheap and abundant and commerce would be rapid and efficient.

However, Roddenberry would often show the downside of this equation by portraying societies in which technology had been allowed to run amok. A good example is an episode in Star Trek TNG where the Enterprise comes upon a planet that is run by an advanced machine named Custodian. The people of the planet have grown entirely dependent on the machine and have long since forgotten how to run and maintain. As a result, they have become sterile due to radiation poisoning and are slowly dying off. Another perfect example is the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that are constantly expanding and assimilating anything in their path. In terms of aesthetics, they are dark, ugly and sterile, traveling around in ships that look like giant cubes that were slapped together out of toxin-spewing industrial junk. Is there a more perfect metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable march of technological progress, in all its darker aspects?

Asimov’s Foundation series also had a pretty benign view of technology. In his universe, the people of Terminus and other Foundation worlds distinguished themselves from their neighbors through their possession of superior technology and even used it to their advantage wherever possible. In the first novel, for instance, the Foundation’s scientists began to travel to neighboring worlds, places that had the use of nuclear power and began teaching them how to rebuild it. Over time, they became a sort of priestly caste who commanded reverential respect from the locals thanks to all the improvements their inventions brought to their daily lives. When in the first book a warlord from the neighboring planet of Anacreon tries to conquer them, they then respond by cutting off all power to the planet and their forces, and use their status as religious leaders to foment rebellion against him.

However, other franchises have a different take on technology and where it will take us. For example, Battletech tends to look at technology in a darker perspective. In this future, the focus of technological development is overwhelmingly on battlemechs and weapons of war. In addition, the ongoing war in the series has had a negative effect on the development of other forms of technology, particularly the kinds that are beneficial to society as a whole. In short, technology has not corrected for mankind’s flaws because it has failed to remove the greatest cause of war and suffering – i.e. ambition!

Frank Herbert, on the other hand, took what could be construed as a mixed view. Whereas in his universe, instantaneous space travel is possible, energy shields, laser guns and nuclear power are all in existence, the overall effect on humanity has not been progressive. In the first Dune novel, we learn that humanity fought a holy war against thinking machines and automation over ten thousands years prior to the main story (the Butlerian Jihad). The target of the jihad was apparently a machine mentality as much as the machines themselves, and the result was a sort of compact whereby future generations promised never to develop a machine that could take the place of a human being. That, in addition to the invention of energy shields, led to the development of a feudal society where nobles and merchant princes were once again responsible for controlling planetary resources, and where armies went to war using swords and daggers in addition to lasers, slug throwers and missiles.

In subsequent novels, this was developed even further to present a sort of twofold perspective on technology. On the one hand, it is shown as being potentially harmful, where a machine mentality and a society built on unrestricted production of material goods can lead to social chaos and anarchy. Not necessarily because it can be harmful in and of itself, but because it can lead to a situation where humans feel so alienated from themselves and each other that they are willing to regress to something simpler and less free. On the other hand, advanced technology is also shown to have a potentially retrogressive effect as well, forcing people to look backwards for solutions instead of forwards. One can see genuine parallels with history, like how industrial civilization, in spite of all its benefits, led to the rise of fascism and communism because of its atomizing and alienating effects on society. Or how the Japanese of the post-Shogunate period deliberately regressed by destroying their stores of muskets and cannons because they feared that the “coward weapons” were detrimental to the Bushido.

Personally, I thought Herbert’s perspective on things was by far the most brilliant and speculative, packed full of social commentary and irony. It was therefore a source of great disappointment that his successors (Brian Herbert and KJA) chose to present things in a far more myopic light. In the prequels to Dune, particularly the Legends of Dune series, the jihad is shown to be a struggle between advanced machines that have enslaved the human race and the few free human worlds that are locked in a life and death struggle to defeat them. However, in twist that is more contradiction than irony, they find the solution to their problem by using nukes to level every machine planet. The fact that the “free worlds” relied on slave labor to compensate for the loss of automation was somewhat interesting, but would have been far more effective if the enemy machines were not portrayed as purely evil and the protagonists as selfless heroes.

Final Thoughts:
The concept of a galactic empire is something that has a long history and many, many incarnations. But as always, the purpose of it seems to be to expand the focus of the commentary so that as many possible aspects of the human condition can be explored. By placing human beings on hundreds or thousands of planets, authors generally seek to show how different places can give rise to different cultures. This is as true of different parts on the globe as it is for different planets in the universe. In addition, the incorporation of aliens also gives us a chance to explore some of the deeper sociological questions, things that arise out of how we interact with different cultures around the world today. For in the end, all science fiction is really about history and the period in which it is conceived, regardless of it being set in the future. Like all other genres, the real aim is to serve as a vehicle for speculation and investigation, answering questions about who we are and what makes us us.

Whew! I think I got a little tongue and cheek there myself! In any case, I enjoy delving into this conceptual stuff, so I think I’m going to do it more often here. Next time, something a bit lighter and more specific. I was thinking about something along the lines of PLANETKILLERS! Stay tuned!