Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

The second of what my edition still somewhat quaintly refers to as “the foundation trilogy,” Foundation and Empire picks up the centuries-long epic from where the first book left off. Since I didn’t do an actual review of Foundation, I should recap. In the waning days of the Galactic Empire, the great psycho-historian Hari Seldon foresaw that he needed to found two foundations on the outer reaches of the galaxy, each preserving science and culture. These two settlements would be governed not by the fickleness of self-interested actors, but by the principles of psycho-history, namely that there are underlying forces in societies that may be manipulated to ensure prosperity. Through careful guidance, Seldon’s vision steers the first Foundation through a series of crises. In due time the Foundation exploits its advanced technology and privileged position to wield an economic hegemony on the outer reaches of the galaxy while the empire from whence it sprang crumbles.

Foundation and Empire tells two periods in Foundation’s history, both times when the leaders turn away from Seldon, despite an expected crisis. The first is a showdown with the Galactic Empire, in which the Empire is hopelessly outmatched by the superior technology. The second is a more dire threat because it combines two dangers, the inevitable (sic) crisis between a government that is becoming hereditary and independent-minded traders who value personal freedom, along with an unforeseen crisis in the form of a mutant warlord called The Mule. The powers of The Mule are a threat to the future foreseen by Seldon, but neither is he omnipotent, and while the first Foundation falls, the race to find Second Foundation is on.

I continue to be intrigued by the Foundation series. As a historian, it is an interesting idea for a science-fiction epic and Asimov does a good job at changing how the characters manifest as the society changes. At the same time, I found Foundation and Empire to be wildly uneven, speeding through some developments and dragging past others. I also found some of the reveals about The Mule rather predictable, and, while there were some interesting observations about unforeseen variables and the role of the individual, the novel came to a close without actually resolving much of anything. I enjoyed the read and will read Second Foundation, but I found the lack of resolution frustrating.

Next up, I still have to review John Scalzi’s entertaining The Human Division and I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

July 2015 Reading Recap

I read a lot again in July, quickly falling back into old habits of spending muggy evenings just reading and, for most of the month, felt pretty well-balanced as a result. Part of the reason I was able to read so much was that, for the first time in a while, I read a significant amount of science fiction and fantasy and fewer literary fiction novels. In many ways the situation gave me flashbacks to years gone by.

Literary Fiction
Romance of the Three Kingdoms v.1, Luo Guanzhong
Reading this, the first of two volumes of the medieval Chinese epic that retold the dissolution of the Han Dynasty around 200 CE. The translation I used is quite dated and the romance is particularly stilted at times, with action usually being said to happen rather than narrated. Nevertheless, the story itself is engaging, as the it narrates the intrigues between the decadent house of Wu in the south, the wily and ruthless Cao Cao of Wei, and the noble and righteous Liu Bei of Shu. I had fond memories of the video game Dynasty Warriors as I was reading, but this is not a book I would necessarily recommend for anyone who is not already invested in the endeavor.

The Fortune of War, Patrick O’Brian
The continuing adventures of Aubrey and Maturin take them to Boston at the outset of The War of 1812 and includes the naval duel between the H.M.S. Shannon and U.S.S. Chesapeake. The bulk of this story takes place with the two men scheming to escape captivity after their capture. The writing of this book is on the upper end of O’Brian’s novels thus far, but it still tends to bog down when he is not writing about sailing. I didn’t find this arc nearly as tedious as the ones involving life back home in England, but it was still not my favorite. Still, I appreciate O’Brian’s dedication to particular types of historical accuracy.

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth
This novel continues the story of the Trotta family in Austria that was begun by The Radetsky March, though the protagonists of the two share little beyond their name. This story uses World War One as a fulcrum and tells of the the declining fortune of the Trottas after the war as all their ventures fail. However, the story suffers from many of the moralistic problems of the the former novel without the charm. In particular, Roth goes out of his way to emphasize the averageness of the the Trotta family in the first, showing them to be swept along by forces entirely beyond their control even while they make decisions. In this one there are many of the issues, but without the same setup. The result is that within this particular narrative the characters, none of whom are particularly nice or endearing, simply try ineffectually and fail. Perhaps this particular feature of the Trotta family is meant to carry over from one story to the next, but one would expect there to be some reminder if that was the case. The result is a dreary, dull read and not a particularly good story, though the crushing weight of the environmental factors remain constant in both.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Fool Moon, Jim Butcher
The second book of the Dresden Files novels continues the adventures of the Wizard/Private Eye Harry Dresden. As one may guess by the campy title, this on involves were-wolves. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the series. The novels are pulpy and campy, but addictive. The first two also have the feel of an author playing around, honing a craft, and not yet with a larger story arc in mind. I will read at least one more, but, after that, who knows.

The Rebirths of Tao, Wesley Chu
Speaking of addictive, this The Rebirths of Tao concludes this trilogy that began with the Lives of Tao. True to form, each installment adds layers, both to the narrative and the global conflict that threatens the existence of the human race. Chu’s writing remains snappy, clever, fast-paced, and, above all, fun, but just wasn’t as tight as in the previous two novels. Nevertheless, Rebirths is a fitting conclusion to the series.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov
I am somewhat ashamed how long it took me to read Foundation, a classic text in the genre. This is the story of the decline and fall of a galactic empire, which has stood for millennia. A scholar named Hari Seldon has perfected “Psychological History,” which is the history of the future as dictated by economic and sociological principles. Despite the imperial court being convinced of its invincibility, Seldon has become convinced of that the empire will collapse and be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism–but the time can be reduced to one thousand, if he is allowed to create a galactic encyclopedia on a distant world. The encyclopedia itself is a feint, but Seldon has predicted that the world will restore civilization, so long as they do not come to rely on individual heroism. There is a general lack of strong narrative arc or dynamic characters, but the ideas in this book are provocative and worth thinking about, even though the specific technology (nuclear) is a product of its own age.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams
Another book that I meant to have read some time ago, started once, and just never got back to. Adams had some wonderful backs and forths and observations, but his style of witty, clever nonsense that sometimes defies any sort of narrative sense just isn’t really my thing, at least not anymore. I may read the second book in the series for completion’s sake, but I didn’t like DGHDA as much as a lot of more recent books or Hitchhiker’s Guide. The preoccupation with antiquated computers also seemed stilted.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
Reviewed here, Liu’s first novel in his epic fantasy trilogy is a soaring epic modeled on Chinese epic rather than western quest stories. I loved this book and it was pretty easily my favorite read of the month.

Palmyra and its Empire Richard Stoneman
A somewhat dated book that I suspect I read once many years ago, I picked this one up again because of the disappointing news coming out of Palmyra. As a BMCR reviewer put it, this book combines relatively popular history narratives about Zenobia with much denser narrative and argumentation about Palmyra and its role in the Roman frontier. The feeling that I had read the book before took some of the wind out of my sails and I don’t find myself quite as intrigued by Roman history as I once did, but this is still a worthwhile read.

The Bagel Maria Balinska
Reviewed here, Balinska traces the history of the bagel from the fork that divided the bread from its Christian counterpart in medieval Poland, through its immigration to America as a ethnic Jewish food, its role in the labor movement around the turn of the century, and finally through its conquest of America as a ubiquitous breakfast food. There is a larger story than the narrow one Balinska tells in the second half of the book, but the simplistic story works well enough and should I ever find myself teaching US History for my supper, this is a book that I will use in my teaching.

Foundation and Alexander

My single favorite observation about Alexander the Great and his empire is attributed to Joseph Stalin, in a series of articles published in Pravda in 1950 called “Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.” In this, he answers a series of questions about language, its relationship to marxism (e.g. “is language a superstructure?”), whether language is inherently “class language” whether this changes if a society possesses multiple languages. Along the way, Stalin notes that empires of the “slave and midiaeval” eras, including Alexander’s was a “transient and unstable military and administrative association” that was unable to create a solid economic foundation of their own. Stalin expands this observation to apply to all ancient empires, but it particularly suits Alexander’s kingdom, which is sometimes credited with aspiring to form a more unified kingdom through intermarriage, at least among the ruling class, and that quickly disintegrated.

I was reminded of this today as I finished reading Asimov’s Foundation. In this novel, a scientist named Hari Seldon perfects “Psychological History,” which is a way to mathematically predict the history of the future based economics, sociology, and group behavior. The process works best for large groups and when most independent variables can be eliminated. At the outset, Seldon predicts the fall of the millennia-old galactic empire and claims that his method has shown there will be thirty-five thousand years of barbarism, but that this dark age can be reduced to a thousand years if he is allowed to establish an outpost of science and knowledge on the periphery of the galaxy–The Foundation.

The basic narrative is based on the fall of the Roman Empire, sometimes in clever ways, sometimes in somewhat clumsy ones, but Asimov spins out an engaging story over a long extent of time and space, but one passage in particular jumped out:

“Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.”

One of the issues I have with the basic accounts of Alexander’s conquest is that they rely extensively “brilliant heroics.” The sources make this largely unavoidable, and Alexander’s cult of personality is particularly potent. Asimov’s “Psycho-History” doesn’t offer a solution, but I am struck by the juxtaposition and that the exceptional (Alexander) seem to defy the broad trends. Of course there were economic and social currents that made Alexander’s conquest possible, including Philip’s reformation of the Macedonian Kingdom, but the actual conquest will forever be considered at least largely the product of Alexander’s implacable drive.