Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.

2007-8-18_DuneAxlotlTank

Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.

foundation

The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

Summary:
These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

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!

Foundation and Empire

FYI: this is my 400th post, people! Woohoo! I hope Asimov is flattered… Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

Welcome back to my ongoing review of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Picking up where I left off last time, here we have book II in the series, known as Foundation and Empire. Much like Foundation, this book was originally published as separate novellas in 1952, and did not appear as a single volume until 1955.

As the second installment in the original trilogy, this book is where things invariably get dark. Though it begins with a sort of conclusion to the previous novel, showing the path of Seldon’s Plan and the decline of the Empire, things invariably go south with the introduction of a new and unforeseen threat. After detailing the nature of this new enemy and placing the existence of the Foundation in peril, things end with the mention of a Second Foundation, which sets the scene for the final installment in the series.

Plot Synopsis:
The book consists of two sections, the first of which picks up where the first book left off and acts as a sort of conclusion to everything contained within. Centuries after its establishment on Terminus, the Foundation seems well on its way to fulfilling its purpose, as foreseen by Seldon’s psychohistory. However, the Empire has not yet collapsed and the growing might of the Foundation is seen as a threat. Hence, a showdown between the two is in the works!

The second story is starkly different, throwing a curve ball into the storyline with the introduction of a new force that was unforeseen in Seldon’s Plan. This force, known as “The Mule” threatens to destroy the Foundation simply by being an aberration in the science known as “psychohistory”.

The General:
The first book, titled “The General” opens Bel Riose, a skilled and dedicated General of the Galactic Empire meeting with the old Siwennan noble, Ducem Barr, son of the man Hober Mallow visited in “The Merchant Princes from the first book.The reason for this meeting is that Barr is the closest thing the Empire has to a source on the Foundation, and his knowledge of their technology, assets and the science of psychohistory is sought.

In the course of their discussions, Barr warns that Riose that his plans are merely a symptom of the Empire’s impending collapse. Naturally, Riose rejects this and claims that the Empire is still healthy. He shares Emperor Cleon II’s feelings that the Foundation constitutes a threat which must be neutralized, though at the same time he to seize all traces of their knowledge and technology and incorporate it back into the Empire.

The focus then shifts Lathan Devers, an independent trader and agent of the Foundation who is sent to Riose’s armada to figure out how the Foundation can save itself. This, according to Ducem Barr, is a wholly unnecessary step, because the Seldon Plan has already foreseen this and everything will work out on its own. Nevertheless, he still feels something must be done and travels to Trantor in the hopes of convincing the Emperor that Riose has his own agenda. He fails, but still manages to escape and find his way back to Foundation space.

Once there, he discovers that things have worked out on their own. Apparently, Emperor Cleon II really was beginning to fear that Riose had his own agenda, and the closer he came to conquering the Foundation, the more fearful he became. Hence, Riose was recalled from service and arrested, thus saving the Foundation. As Bel Riose himself says in the story, it’s a dead hand versus a living will, and it turns out the living well never stood a chance.

The Mule:
The second story takes place roughly one hundred years later. The Empire has now fallen, Trantor has been sacked, and the Foundation has become the dominant power in the Galaxy. Meanwhile, the Foundation is experiencing decay and corruption, with several of its outer planets are planning a war of cessation.

In addition, a new threat has emerged which refers to itself as “The Mule”, an apparent mutant who possesses strange psychic powers. Already he has taken control of many star systems that border the Foundation and appears hell-bent on conquering it as well. Naturally, the Foundation leadership is not concerned, for they believe that this is just another “Seldon Crisis”, and that the Vault will open and tell them how to resolve it.

To their horror, during the scheduled speech by Seldon’s hologram, no mention is made of the Mule, which indicates that this threat is completely unforeseen. What’s worse, the Mule’s fleet shows up in orbit and begins attacking the planet. The main characters, Toran and Bayta Darell, flee to the border planets along with psychologist Ebling Mis and refugee clown named “Magnifico Giganticus”. There, they find temporary solace until the Mule’s forces show up again and conquer the sector with ease.

Faced with the fall of the Foundation, the group sets out to find the fables Second Foundation which they feel is their only hope at this point. In time, this journey takes them to Trantor, where the unearth the Great Library and begin searching for clues as to where the Second Foundation might be.Along the way, they are taken prisoner by agents of the Mule, but Magnifico manages to kill them using a trick involving his psychoactive music.

After days of tireless research on Trantor, which startles Toran and Bayta, Mis claims to have uncovered the location. However, Bayta has a revelation and kills Mis before he can tell them. She reveals this revelation to her husband: they’ve been in the presence of the Mule all along! She has noticed that wherever they’ve gone, people have been behaving mysteriously. The sense of defeat that was taking over the border worlds, the way their captor’s were killed, Ebling Mis’s extreme mental clarity… it was all for the sake of finding the Second Foundation! And the only person who was in their presence the entire time that they couldn’t account for was Magnifico .

When they confront him, he reveals that she is right. All along, he’s been infiltrating enemy worlds and using his psychic powers to bend people to his will. Initially, this served the purpose of making sure his forces met with minimal resistance, but when they began searching for the Second Foundation, his plans changed. He knows that this contingency group, which Seldon apparently kept a secret, still constitutes a threat to him. He declares that he will find it in time, and let’s them go as they are no threat to him or his plans.

Summary:
In many respects, this book built upon the strengths of the original. In the first story, it reestablished its roots in Gibbons seminal study The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In keeping with the series’ Romanesque theme, he also adapted the tale of Emperor Justinian I and General Belisarius through the characters of Cleon II and Riose. In addition, it extended it’s commitment to the concept of psychohistory, how all things were essentially foreseen by Seldon and prepared for. The way Devers runs about hoping to fulfill said plan, only to find that it unfolded naturally, was quite apt at demonstrating this. Much like Frank Herbert’s portrayal of the prescient trap, the pre-deterministic nature of the story is interesting, even if it is at a times a little convenient and contrived.

And the story provides a pretty fitting diversion with the introduction of the Mule. After a book and a half of being told that the Foundation is pretty much sacrosanct and unassailable, Asimov throws a wrench into the works that demonstrates that the vaunted science of psychohistory is not in fact perfect. The explanation given for this is also quite interesting, in that it  that it circumvents whatever pretense Asimov made earlier about the infallibility of psychohistory.

Essentially, Seldon’s psychohistory was based in part on the notion that humanity’s biological nature would remain fixed for the period his Plan accounted for. What he did not plan for was any spontaneous mutations or sudden divergence in human evolution which would allow for the emergence of individuals which psychic powers. Hence, the arrival of the Mule threw his Plan into disarray by creating a second power which could very well threaten to take over the Galaxy.

But of course, there is a slimmer of hope presented with the existence of a Second Foundation. Whereas the first was something that was out in the open that would openly abide by Sheldon’s Plan, the second was something that was meant to operate behind the scenes; their purpose was to see to the maintenance of the Plan if the worst should happen and the Foundation fell.

But just to play Devil’s Advocate here, these characteristics do open the story up to accusations of inconsistency. In one book, we are basically told that the Plan accounted for everything, didn’t account for everything, but did account for everything after all. Three twists in one book is a bit much. In fact, it would have been better if the first story had been included as part of the original Foundation since it felt like the real closing chapter to Act I.

And, to venture beyond the second book for just a second, this happens yet again in book III. There, as with here, the story is broken into two parts, with the first concluding the Mule thread and the second capping off the story. In both cases, I couldn’t help but feel that the story was cut and pasted in a way which seemed unnatural. But fixing that would have required a rewrite, not a simple case of restructuring. So in the end, this book is something you have to swallow as a whole, structure, twists and all. It’s a good read, a fitting sequel to the first book, and like all of Asimov’s work, accessible and entertaining.

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!