Dreaming of a Perfected Society, A History Boy, 15/04/2015

One culture and history comes to an end, and another begins. It’s not only philosophically fascinating. How we conceive and build a new kind of society is the guiding problem of my next major non-fiction book project. 

A hard sell caption: Buy my book here.
I’ve also encountered it in the science-fiction I’ve been reading since I was a child, and the process informs a lot of the sci-fi narratives I’m slowly working on. The aliens in Under the Trees, Eaten express a kind of society that’s utterly different from ours, but their kind of morality is also a lot more harmonious than individualist humanity’s. So they’re, in their own way, guiding us to a better future. 

Thanks to some helpful recommendations from my editor Jeffrey, this aspect of the narrative is now a lot more prominent. As well, it gets into much more disturbing territory once you realize that the aliens’ guidance of their human friends toward a more harmonious morality is just as (or perhaps more) biological as it is ethical.

One of the first works of classic science-fiction literature of which I became a genuine fan was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I was maybe about nine years old when I read my first book in that series, one of the last, Foundation and Earth. I didn’t quite understand the significance of it at the time. I didn’t know that this was a late-career extension of an earlier series of novellettes and novellas, and I hadn’t read the book to which this was the immediate sequel, Foundation’s Edge. All I knew was that Isaac Asimov was supposed to be a legendary sci-fi author, and this was a book by him. I think my mother bought it for me at a pretty cheap price too.

As I investigated the whole series, both the original stories and the prequels. Prelude to Foundation I read a while after finishing all the previous five Foundation novels. By the time I did, I was actually growing tired of Asimov’s style. After reading and loving Foundation and Earth, I sought out its predecessors, the novels Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, and Foundation’s Edge

I was at first a little puzzled by the disconnected nature of the early novels, because Foundation and Earth was a long, single narrative. Then I learned that what I owned as the first three novels were originally published as seven or eight short stories and novellas, later collected into these novels. 

Once I read Asimov’s first prequel, I found his sense of humour simple and a little crude. The story did little more than unnecessarily fill gaps in the chronology of his future history, and link characters that didn’t need to be linked. I also found Prelude’s episodic action plot and dull romance narrative uninteresting. By this time, I’d discovered Douglas Adams, so could see far more of what science-fiction could do than Asimov ever managed. 

The covers of my versions of the first three Foundation books.

The Foundation series ultimately offered only different kinds of conservative visions of how to deal with the necessity of social change. The concept of the first stories, which inspired the entire following series, was that through his mathematical science that could predict the broad directions of the future, Hari Seldon understood that the collapse of the Galactic Empire was inevitable. He built the Foundations to shorten the dark ages before restoring the empire. Not work out a new form of government that might be more sustainable than the empire, but to start a new iteration of the old empire. 

A telepathic dictator named The Mule tries to build his own empire even faster than the Foundation could, but the political unity of his state depends on his unique abilities. Once he dies, his empire crumbles, and the ruined Foundation tries to rebuild. 

The Second Foundation, a secret society of specially trained telepaths and mathematical historians, helps rebuild the old order of the Foundation. But they still believe in restoring the Galactic Empire, and were founded as a series of operatives to keep the restoration plan on track. The First Foundation tries to hunt them down, the ironic result of an autocratic power trying to destroy the true autocrats.

The last two books, Edge and Earth saw a hero from the Foundation discover Gaia, a planet with a collective consciousness, not only among all its human inhabitants, but its animal, plant, and even inorganic elements. The planet as a system had a shared consciousness, operating as a holistic awareness. The planetary consciousness supervenes on its members’ individual personalities without overwriting their identities, just as our autonomic functions roil on without the interference of our self-consciousness. 

Through a technobabbly means, Edge’s protagonist Golan chooses this Gaia as the future path of our galaxy, a holistic galactic consciousness. Ecological concerns appear only quietly in the Foundation series, in the image of an Earth blasted with nuclear radiation, Asimov’s vision for the future of humanity that had progressed farthest during his own lifetime. Nonetheless, a literal ecological consciousness emerged in his work as the chief means for humanity to progress beyond its cycles of chaos and authoritarian rule. 

Still, all he could offer was the tiniest gesture in the last years of his life. I wrote a book called Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, which shows its own glimpse of what that new society could be. And I have a long time yet to explore that new world.

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