Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Asimov Vs. Gingrich -OR- Foundation, Empire, Robots, and Gaia

Isaac Asimov, Genius, Epic Author, Thinker, Visionary, Good Guy.


Last week, my friend and co-worker D. wrote to me the following take on Newt Gingrich, whose ascent is absolutely panicking and terrifying the GOP Establishment but the fundie base is simply too enraged and crazy to care.

Newt Gingrich, nutty, hateful megalomaniac.


For starters, D. is that rare combination of a "green" (eco-minded) Republican of genuine Christian faith and keen intellect with a very expansive breadth of knowledge (rivaling any smart, young Brit or European), and an understanding of and respect for science and learning. (I hate to make this comparison, since you know how reflexively pro-American I am, but he isn't your typical young American.)

Here is a (backside) picture of D. and his young son, J. (his head just poking up above the seat), in front of him on one of the two trolley cars (the Dutch one) at the National Capital Trolley Car Museum in Colesville, suburban Maryland, 2:07PM, Nov. 26, 2011.

D. is a person of genuine devout Lutheran faith and family man (in suburban Maryland) and wisdom well beyond someone in their early 30's. Most of all, he has a tremendous decency about him that shows up in how he lives his life. Oh, and of course, he is a vegetarian.

I drink too much, complain all the time, argue too much, and love Five Guys cheeseburgers.

Anyway, here is what he said:

"Newt Gingrich reminds me of some professors I've known. He's smart, but distant from the singular genius he believes himself to be. In this hubris, he is certain that his initial reaction to anything obviates the need for any further investigation. Those who don't agree with his nonsensical ideas clearly don't understand them. As his whim changes, the universe follows. Ultimately, his intellect is not a bonfire, but a candle, on the beach, his ego a tsunami."

Paul Krugman -- who D. accurately described as my Prophet these days --  actually jumped into the debate on whether or not Gingrich was so affected by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series that he actually believes in his egomania that he IS Hari Seldon.

As background, Gingrich himself has written about this in his 1996 book To Renew America. He wrote:

"While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways ... For a high school student who loved history, Asimov's most exhilarating invention was the 'psychohistorian' Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory."

This is quoted in a recent piece by Ray Smock entitled Newt Gingrich the Galactic Historian that was on the George Mason University's History News Network blog. Smock was actually the historian for the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 until 1995 when the newly-installed Speaker Gingrich fired and replaced him with his own historian, whom he apparently very quickly fired.

As was noted by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, it is Krugman himself who is in the role of Hari Seldon.

Here is an illustration of an elderly, wheelchair-bound Hari Seldon with the backdrop of the towers of the world-spanning Imperial Capital of Trantor.

This is a topic I thought about in the mid-1990s (1995 and 1996) when Gingrich was Speaker of the House and I was reading the Foundation series -- both the original 1950s trilogy and the subsequent 1980s sequels and prequels that collectively formed this Asimovian masterpiece.

Below is my overview and comments ...

The original 1950s trilogy -- consisting of Foundation (first published as a single novel in 1951 but stretching back as short stories to 1942), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953) -- is set tens of thousands years in the future* as the Galactic Empire is collapsing and "psychohistorian" and mathematician Hari Seldon devises and others later carry out the Seldon Plan.

The Plan's purpose is to shorten greatly the period of barbarism and anarchy until a Second Galactic Empire.

*Asimov himself is not consistent with how far in the future the Foundation series is set. It is put variously as 22,000 years or 50,000 years, referring to the time that humanity had hyperspatial travel ability ("the Jump"). When he merged the Robot series with the Foundation series, the figure is set at the lower end (about 20,000 years).

The Ballantine Edition cover of Foundation and Empire with the Mule's jester (Magnifico Giganticus Bobo) standing amid the wreckage of Trantor with his Visi-Sonor instrument that affected the brain. The Mule (so named because he was sterile) was a mutant of incredible mentalic powers who could bend unlimited numbers of minds to his will and was trying to disrupt the Seldon Plan.

Of note, it turns out the Mule's jester is actually the Mule himself! We also later find out in Foundation's Edge that the Mule was actually a rogue Gaian.

Another image of the Mule, Oooza Il' Magnifico, trying to use his civilization-altering mentalic powers. Just kidding.


The Seldon Plan consists of two groups of individuals organized into Foundations, including the Encyclopedists and the Pyschohistorians.

The Encyclopedists, who set up shop on isolated world of Termimus in a star system at the outer edge of the Milky Way Galaxy, perform a sort of Medieval scribe role of preserving knowledge until the bigger, better Second Galactic Empire arose.

The cover of the Ballantine Edition of Second Foundation showing the protagonist Arcadia "Arkady" Darell on the ruins of Trantor -- now overgrown and natural again, its "metal skin" having long since been removed, its population a ghost of what it once was, and called "Hame" (Home) by the locals.

The Encyclopedists believe that they are playing the key role by preserving historical knowledge, in part by publishing the Encylocpedia Galactica from Terminus through at least 116 editions, but in fact it is the much smaller Second Foundation consisting of the "Mentalic" Psychohistorians, who are guiding history with their super mental abilities in the context of the Seldon Plan.

The cover of the first of the prequels, Prelude to Foundation, which was published in 1988. The image is supposed to be a young Hari Seldon on Trantor, where he meets the Emperor Cleon I, whose reign "represented a curious interval of quiet in those troubled times" (Encyclopedia Galactica, 116th ed.).

They are actually located not on Star's End -- a purported planet at the opposite side of the Galaxy from Terminus -- but rather in the old and destroyed Imperial Seat of the Galactic Empire, Trantor, located near the center of the Galaxy.

They are basically hiding in plain site, as evidenced by the ancient saying, "All roads lead to Trantor, and that is where all stars end". Thus, "Star's End" is a kind of inside joke because the "end" of a spiral (the Galaxy) is its center. (Yes, yes, the Milky Way is actually a barred spiral, not a classic spiral, but never mind that.)

The cover of Forward the Foundation, the last Foundation novel that Asimov published (in 1993) and which I admit I never read.

The Second Foundation of the Psychohistorians is headed by the First Speaker (!), who were using the Seldon Plan to guide history to shorten the period of barbarism between the empires. The irony of this was probably not lost on Mr. Gingrich.

Anyway, all of this was a long-winded way of saying that it was the original 1950's trilogy that influenced Gingrich.

I am ASSUMING that the part he never read were the four additional books (two prequels and two sequels) that Asimov wrote between 1982 and 1993. These included first the sequels, Foundation's Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986) and then the prequels Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993).

The entire whole seven-book set also unified with the Robot series (which he also revisited to write additional works, most notably Robots and Empire).

The Ballantine edition cover of Foundation's Edge with Golan Trevize  looking at the Milky Way Galaxy shown head on -- yes, yes, in reality it is probably a barred spiral, not a pinwheel classic spiral. I think this was supposed to be on Terminus but I'm not sure.   

This is relevant to the purported influence of the Foundation series had on Gingrich because it was in the 1980s/1990s books that Asimov replaces the idea of bigger, better "Second Empire" with Gaia -- planetary conscientiousness, with its accompanying powerful ecological mindedness.**

The Bantam Spectra cover version of Foundation's Edge showing Bliss.

**To quote the exchange between the characters Bliss and Janov Pelorat in Foundation and Earth:

"A planet might deteriorate even if humans existed upon it, if the society were itself abnormal and did not understand the importance of preserving the environment."

"Surely ... such a society would quickly be destroyed. I don't think it would be possible for human beings to fail to understand the importance of retaining the very factors that are keeping them alive."

"I don't have your pleasant faith in reason, Pel. It seems to me to be quite conceivable that when a planetary society consists of only Isolates, local and even individual concerns might easily be allowed to overcome planetary concerns."

--Foundation and Earth, Part III, Aurora, section 34, p. 186 in my edition

In is in Foundation and Earth that the exiled "rugged individualist" Golan Trevize had to fulfill his destiny of selecting between the two ways, Pyschohistory or Gaia. He was compelled to do this by Gaia with its planetary emissary along, the lovely Bliss.

Bliss is first introduced in Foundation's Edge, where she never uses the pronoun "I" without the highly awkward "I/We/Gaia" construction to show her connection to Gaia with its planetary consciousness, which Trevize dislikes very much and they argue about incessantly.

Having been banished from Terminus, Trevize travels with the elderly historian Janov Pelorat in Trevize's ship Far Star trying to find the mythical lost Earth for an answer. It was Gaia that compelled him to find Original Earth, memory of which has been intentionally removed by some entity with only dim legends stating it had become lethally radioactive.

The reason for Earth's condition for which were set out in Robots and Empire, set 20,000 or so years earlier. (For reference, the Robot series are set a few thousand years from now beginning with The Caves of Steel, itself a sort of detective novel.)

In the end, they indeed find a dead Earth, but it turns out that the robot R. Daneel Olivaw (the robot protagonist from Asimov's Robot series and who would now be 20,000+ years old) was the one who had been (mentally) guiding humanity on a certain course for tens of thousands of years and who created the Pyschohistory (Foundation) versus Gaia choice. He lived deep inside the Moon. (He also is the reason that memory of Earth was lost -- so that it would stay hidden until the choice had to be made.)

The existence of a giant double planet, the Moon, made Earth unique among habitable worlds in the Galaxy (most of which were later terriformed and none of which originally had more than simple life forms). Indeed, the Moon's existence is described as being responsible for complex life arising on Earth because it kept the planet's crust thin, enhancing the surface effects of its inner radioactivity. 

Asimov was spot on in his assumption that the Moon as it exists in relation to Earth is probably a very rare thing among small, rocky planets, and that it contributed to life on Earth for a variety of reasons. Those reasons primarily involve ocean tides (and resulting mixing, in particular in the first few hundred million years after formation of the Moon when it was much closer and ocean tides therefore much higher and more powerful) and a thin crust that remained active volcanically, as well as stabilizing Earth's orbital parameters.

I'm not sure about the enhanced radioactivity itself as a primary cause for enhancing evolutionary development. 

Anyway, a reluctant Trevize chooses Gaia -- or rather, its galactic consciousness counterpart Galaxia -- over "Isolate" humanity as the species's future.

Trevize does this because other alternative types of life are developing, i.e., the hermaphroditic Fallom with its transducer lobes that Trevize, Bliss, and the elderly historian Janov Pelorat found when they went to Solaria, one of the original 50 Spacer worlds. In addition, there is a reference to other kinds of intelligence in other galaxies.

Anyway, long story short, I think Gingrich would be different if he chose Gaia / Galaxia instead of Psychohistory.

Got it?

OK, my next update may not be until Thursday.


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