Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foundation's Edge

Having now also read Asimov's Foundation's Edge, I must once more wonder about the way this author described, and thus presumably must have seen, women. It is really striking how they are introduced:
The clothes they had given her fit surprisingly well and there was no question that she did not look at all ridiculous. Had they pinched in her waist? Lifted her breasts? Or had that just been not particularly noticable in her farmwoman clothing?
Her buttocks were prominent, but not displeasingly so. Her face, of course, remained plain, but when the tan of outdoor life faded and she learned how to care for her complexion, it would not look downright ugly.
Feel dirty already? And this is from one of his late novels, not the 1950ies, and the person whose thoughts we are sharing here is a high ranking scholar of a supposedly equal opportunity organisation whose most capable members specialise in reading each others minds! Another woman is introduced later as follows:
She was small-breasted and narrow-waisted, with hips rounded and full. Her thighs, which were seen in shadow, were generous, but her legs narrowed to graceful ankles. Her hair was dark and shoulder-length, her eyes brown and large, her lips full and slightly asymmetric.
Later she puts herself down a bit with the observation that her buttocks are too fat. Of course, male characters are also described and their level of attractiveness is judged, but the language is considerably less voyeuristic, less focused on details, and thus much less creepy.

The other issue is the philosophy behind the story, and here I should now say:


The whole book is about a decision that has to be made about the future of humanity. There are three options:
  1. The (First) Foundation Federation rules over a third of the galaxy and continues to expand. It is supreme in the natural sciences and engineering and it is democratically governed, but it brings with it the age-old human foibles of expansionism, militarism, corruption and envy, so that there is reason to suspect that it will ultimately repeat the same mistakes that destroyed the galactic empire that ruled before it.
  2. The Second Foundation is a secret society of powerful telepaths and their supporters who have made it their task to clandestinely manipulate the thoughts and emotions of political and military leaders across the galaxy to steer it towards a more stable, more peaceful future than the Federation would normally achieve. True to this paternalistic approach, they are anything but democratic: because nobody knows they exist, one can only become a member by being recruited by one of their agents, and the overlord of the whole organisation selects their (usually his) successor by fiat.
  3. Finally, there is a planet that has developed a hive mind. They are basically the Borg without metal parts and with a healthier complexion. Yes, they claim that they also maintain their individuality in addition to living in total harmony with each other and with nature, but how does that individuality work in practice if you cannot do anything that the rest of the planet doesn't want you to do, down to career choice or food intake? Anyway, their idea is to spread the hive mind across the entire galaxy.
So here we have the three possible futures: either the Federation blasts the other two and builds a new technological civilisation of free but irrational and short-sighted humans, or the telepaths secretly rule and manipulate humanity for the greater good, or all of humanity gets assimilated by the Borg.

And the thing is: we are very clearly supposed to root for the Borg.

That seems like a rather big pill to swallow, and somehow I suspect that I would be on the side of the Federation, even if their current ruler is quite obviously modelled after Margaret Thatcher. At least humans are still allowed to be humans and to make their own choices!

It is also quite interesting how Asimov has the various factions summarise their offers. “Free will”, says the leader of the Federation. “Guidance and peace”, says one of the top telepaths. “Life”, says the hive mind. Now semantic hair splitting about various definitions of Free Will aside, the Federation has, in my eyes, said just the right thing, because self-determination is what it is about. The telepath was probably supposed to stress that they only guide, not rule, but really this comes across as if he was the only one to also mention the downside of choosing them; he should just have said “peace”. Finally, the hive mind is really disingenuous. How are the other two not also life? What is more life about submitting to a hive than about being an individual?

Sorry, but Asimov did not convince me that this book had a happy end.

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