Foundation by Isaac Asimov | Review
Publication: Gnome Press in 1951
Genre: Science Fiction
Okay, so this book. What a read! I admit, I trudged through the audiobook version on this one recently, and I’m ready to tackle its analog rendition so as to better linger over the prophetic phrases and conjectures that litter its pages. Some favorite nuggets that stuck out from under the somewhat rough terrain of Asimov’s monologue-driven storytelling seemed to deal exclusively with economics, politics, and religion. Those of you who are already well familiarized with this classic might be thinking, “Well, you’ve about summed up the entire book, friend.” The LEAVE A REPLY function is wide open at the bottom of the page. In any case, the following quotes keep ringing in my mind in the aftermath of this book experience: “The full depth of our religious customs, in the ritualistic rather than the ethical sense, is for the masses.”–versus–“Conquest by missionary.”–versus–“Trade without priests. Trade alone. It is strong enough.”
On hearing the first two quotes listed above, my mind whirled back to my conservative college classes about the “History of Christianity” and countless hours studying the development of the medieval political stage. For example, just how did Charlemagne accomplish such a successful reign of his ridiculously expansive empire? He stopped feeding the Christians to the lions and instead let their dogma take the masses by emotive storm. If you can’t beat ‘em and all that jazz. Charlemagne then enacted the second of Asimov’s above-listed quotes by forcefully Christianizing the Saxon cultures under his ever-consuming conquests. “Conquest by missionary” is really a statement exemplifying the persuasion of emotive spiritual exploitation. My mother still works as the head project coordinator for a well-known Christian evangelist organization, so I’ve become all too familiar with how religion can impact a community, often with what seems to be very convincing positive effects.
In the wake of an ever-liberalizing culture, why is such as Charlemagne still set on his ivory pedestal of curiosity? Because it’s a story old as time, my friend. At the core of humanity, as I’ve mentioned before, we fight for meaning. And more recently, we’ve seen the writing on the wall, or in the Twitter diatribes, as they more often present today. We’re drawn to power, especially emotive power that exudes unwavering sympathy for the masses who feel all too downtrodden. Sadly, as the history books will continue to show, in our search for freedom, our flailing only proves to tighten the noose. This is the self-defeating struggle that Asimov’s book faces head-on. As much as we might like to say his themes hold no relevance for our overly modernized world, the American voting records tell a different story.
But I’d like to pause for a moment and reflect again on the first of the above-noted quotes. If you haven’t caught this already from earlier posts, I grew up in the heart of an ultra-conservative household, where the bible was the literal word of god, the theory of evolution was created by the devil to shake a person’s faith in seven-day creationism, and anything other than heterosexuality was an abomination (even though incest can be forgiven without a second thought) in the eyes of an all-seeing god who loved you and hated your sin. If the sarcasm isn’t dripping thick enough, please know that I managed, by some miracle in and of itself, to escape. And I don’t use that word lightly. Escaping from mass-think is no easy feat. Separating oneself from communal values takes a particular re-wallpapering of the mind. Herein Asimov gives room to the other side of the argument for spirituality in the quote pasted above. Because individuals, usually, want to be ethical. As our dearly beloved and much missed former president mentioned in his generous interview with Marc Maron, redirecting a whole ship takes small adjustments with the full outcome only visible over much time and with great patience. The ship he was referencing, I believe, represents the collective masses Asimov is criticizing within this book. But humans, as Julia Sweeney reminds us, are “terribly complex social animals.” We crave community and a sense of belonging. It’s so hardwired into us that it carries us on the ridiculous waves of ecstasy until we find ourselves dancing on the graves of thousands we’ve helped murder sometimes (thinking back to the massacres in Rwanda, the Holocaust, or, controversially, the countless massacres the god of the Old Testament ordered the Israelites to conduct on behalf of cultural advancement and ritualistic ethnic cleansing). And if you think the latter of the two are a terrifying couple of examples to hold up next to each other (the latter is hopefully just what Karen Armstrong expresses when she reports that the bible is more psychologically true instead of being literally true…but whose psychology is based on such standards of genocide, may we ask?), try reading the books of Joshua or Judges from the Old Testament and then picking up The Diaries of Anne Frank. Absolutely heartbreaking ludicrousy. But if you got them alone, away from the mob, and asked any one person involved in such homicidal experiences, they would hopefully immediately see the horror inherent within the series of events they had been asked to orchestrate. (Or maybe I’m giving humanity as a whole too much credit.)
These are big big questions; not to be taken as without great pause as our consumer culture more often encourages us to do.
So humanity as a mass organism isn’t that savvy. Granted. But what next? Economy-first thinking? And here we have the third Foundation quote and ultimately the crux of Asimov’s ponderings within this novel. The entire book is a turning of the screw to see how tightly our species has wound itself around concepts of both religion and economic advantages within society. Can capitalistic economic systems survive without the passions of religion? Asimov seems to be arguing that they in practice are interdependent entities holding up each end of society, for where capitalism fails, the people will begin again to pray for rain to grow the crops so that they may once again enter into profitable trade. One feeds the other, like the serpent eating its own tail.
But maybe I’ve given too much away. In any case, I’d recommend reading this one as opposed to checking out the audio version because I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface.