Hari Seldon has ended the useful portion of his life. He has just finished the Time Vault recordings for the Foundation and is finding that now time lays heavily on his hands with nothing left to do except to wait to die.
He does have some minor diversions, at least. R. Daneel Olivaw has provided him with an ancient encyclopedia dating from before the Galactic Empire, and one problem from psychohistory still vexes him: the periodic outbreaks of “chaos,” where entire planets are suddenly engulfed in periods of remarkable creativity followed by an inevitable violent collapse.
By chance, Seldon runs into one Horis Antic, a bureaucrat who has written a paper analyzing the types of soil found on planets scattered throughout the Galaxy. Seldon sees an astonishing correlation between Antic’s work and his chaos problem and arranges with Antic an expedition to investigate. They leave Trantor space on a ship piloted by an eccentric aristocrat named Biron Maserd with Linge Chen’s security police in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile, Seldon’s wife, Dors Venabili, has been contacted by R. Lodovic Trema, a renegade robot who has been infected with a copy of the Voltaire sim and lost the Laws of Robotics (and his loyalty to R. Daneel Olivaw) as a result. Dors agrees to meet him but the results are so disturbing that she defies Daneel’s orders and races to meet Seldon.
Nor is she the only one in pursuit. Various robot factions are also homing in on Seldon as a human with sufficient prestige that he could settle their differences or topple their enemies. Humans from one of the chaos worlds hope that Seldon’s quest to understand the causes of chaos may help them reach new heights of human consciousness. And Seldon’s granddaughter Wanda is tracking him down to take him safely home.
In the end, Seldon is kidnapped by one faction of robots and taken to the city of Chica on Earth, and there given an opportunity: Move forward in time five hundred years to the point where Daneel reveals his real plan for the future of mankind, and sit in judgement on him.
Brin, like Bear and Benford, is among the best “hard sf” writers to emerge in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and Brin is one of my personal favorites. While I have books by all three, I have more by Brin. The advertising copy on the flap of Foundation’s Triumph heavily emphasizes The Postman only because it managed to get turned into celluloid as what was universally denounced as a bad movie–but Brin is best known as the author of the “Uplift” books which I would heartily recommend to anybody.
Here he’s written a book which is very good, although not the best he’s ever done. Still, I will love this book forever for one thing, at least: He works out a way for Gaia not to be the future of mankind. In essence, he undoes much of Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth.
I really do consider this to be a step forward. Bear in mind that Gaia is not so much representative of Asimov’s thinking as it is a way to move the story of the Foundation forward. And this will involve a slight side trip.
In both Asimov’s robot stories and the Foundation novels, the Good Doctor starts off by introducing early a compelling idea–the Three Laws and psychohistory–and works out its ramifications as he goes along; and, unfortunately, one of the ramifications of psychohistory is that it gets in the way of good story-telling. You always know the Foundation will win.
Asimov had introduced the Mule as a way to wreck the Plan (at John Campbell’s insistence), then fleshed out the Second Foundation as a way to deal with the Mule and restore it. But that just brought back the status quo and once again removed any dramatic tension. Hence Gaia.
(Note, by the way, that at each point Asimov introduced a new compelling idea. The Mule was a mutant with a superhuman ability to make people like him, something which simultaneously appeals to John Campbell and, frankly, to a sizeable percentage of the social misfits who make up a large fraction of the sf reading population. Certainly I have more than once yearned to be able to make people like me without having to go through the old-fashioned method of cultivating relationships.
(And then Asimov creates a cabal of supermen, the Second Foundation, to overcome his mutant. Again, this fits nicely with Campbell but also with sf fandom which tends to see itself as superior to the Philistine masses surrounding it.)
Gaia provides something with sufficient mental power to overcome either the First or Second Foundation–and hence reintroduces dramatic tension for a time–and stands itself as a compelling idea of a universal mind. There is an irony, of course, that “Green Patches“ contains a similar concept but that Asimov portrays it as repellant there and desireable in Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth.
Gaia, however, has proven largely unpopular with fans. The desire to submerge one’s individuality into a common mass is not highly regarded in Western thought, and sf fans are bright and capable and individualistic.
In the end, Gaia also reduces dramatic tension once again by introducing an even bigger, unstoppable, undefeatable entity. Here at least Asimov left at least a partial loophole open: Galaxia as the only way to stop some non-human entity or race from destroying mankind. But how to write a story about a conflict between Galaxia and something else? And what should that something else be? Asimov never resolved those problems.
Benford, Bear, and Brin have solved them, and they’ve simultaneously solved another weakness in Asimov’s fictional universe: the surprisingly slight technical advances of twenty thousand years. Oh, yes, the Foundation and the Galactic Empire have lots of cool devices. I’d go for a personal interstellar spaceship myself, or maybe a personal shield. Asimov’s thinking was right in line with the more spectacular ideas coming out of the 1940’s; but it seems dated now, especially in its underestimation of the possibilities of humanity reinventing itself physically and mentally.
The “Killer B’s” have explained this lack of technological progress by introducing the idea of a virus or virus-like infectious agent which infests humanity and limits its ability to make spectacular technical progress (they missed the chance to allude to Asimov’s story “Hostess“ here). And Brin uses this as the basis for explaining what could out-do Gaia: mankind. Humanity itself. People as individuals. If the chaos virus can be overcome sufficiently, people can “break through” to a higher or more advanced state as individuals and human society could then absorb Gaia just as Gaia sought to absorb them.
This is a very Asimovian idea right here. Not only are we able to overcome the compelling idea of Gaia with another one, but it restores the focus to the talented, capable, technically creative person and is based firmly on a strong faith in the perfectability of humanity. Both of these are characteristic of Asimov and his writing.
Brin gets major kudos for this. Yes, the repeated casual allusions to Asimov’s work are wonderful. The ability to fit things in with Asimov’s world is wonderful. But most wonderful of all is that Brin has managed to write a story which develops the Foundation in a direction consistent with the way Asimov worked himself when he wrote and overcome some of the problems that the Good Doctor’s later Foundation books introduced.
And like any good writer, Brin has left the door open for sequels. In particular, what will happen after the end of Foundation and Earth, when Daneel finds himself suddenly confronted with people from his own past? And there’s the story of how Gaia fails to develop yet to write.
I should point out that Brin even integrates Asimov’s other fiction in a fashion consistent with the way the Good Doctor did it: old stories, even legends, handed down and possibly distorted over the age but stumbled across (or cherished) by our heroes.
Now the down side.
There are some problems. Yes, the plot is a little too convoluted. It got really hard to keep straight the various robotic factions. (I cannot help but compare it to the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian which lists the various, largely indistinguishable, anti-Roman Judean revolutionary parties.) And everybody (except Seldon) seems to already know everybody else and the past history of mankind pretty darn well before the action starts.
Seldon himself is an interesting character and I enjoyed watching him in action. Maserd and some of the other new characters are just as good. Even Daneel is shown off to advantage. Far more disappointing are some of Asimov’s other characters, notably Dors and Wanda. Brin’s ultimate fate for Dors is hard to swallow in light of her origins and development, even within Brin’s book. I think the weakness here is largely due to the fact that much of Seldon’s interaction with Dors and Wanda is based on Asimov’s intense love for his wife Janet and daughter Robyn, and Brin doesn’t have that template to use. (At least I hope Brin doesn’t have the same kind of intense love for Janet Asimov that the Good Doctor did.)
And I have a hard time swallowing the idea that emotional control devices have been orbiting all twenty-five million inhabited worlds for tens of millennia without anybody noticing them. (I did like the terraformers, though.)
But I don’t mind. What Brin deserves credit for is writing a novel which is an interesting read in its own right, is consistent with Asimov’s universe on a literary level, and which is consistent with Asimov’s writing on a philosophical level. For that, Foundation’s Triumph deserves standing as a worthy addition to Asimov’s corpus.