Spoiler Alert: This post might give away crucial details of the book. Read at your own risk.
Foundation’s Edge is the sixth book of the foundation saga by the genius Isaac Asimov. The foundation universe, which merged with the robots universe of the same author later in his life, happens in an unknown time in the future. The human expanded across our galaxy in a Galactic Empire, and only our galaxy. No aliens exist in the Milky Way (the reason for this is actually a funny story), and humans don’t seem to have conquered other galaxies.
When the foundation series begins, the Empire is on the brink of collapse. A mathematician genius, Hari Seldon, is the only one that can foresee this thanks to his science child, pyschohistory. He has a plan to reduce the dark ages that will follow the Empire from 30,000 years to a mere thousand of years.
Fast forward 500 years. The Plan laid by Seldon five centuries ago, based on psychohistorical principles, is still on target. Or is it? Trevize, a former officer of the Navy and now member of the council of the powerful Foundation is sent to investigate the survival of the Second Foundation, a secret organisation set up by Seldon to ensure that the galaxy continues to follow the Plan.
During his investigation, Trevize will encounter a very powerful being that could turn Seldon’s dream upside down…. Gaia…
As the renowned SciFi author and futurist David Brin explained, the story being the Foundation series writing is quite interesting:
First he wrought the Foundation, treating a quadrillion humans as ‘gas molecules’ whose destiny could be calculated through Hari Seldon’s wondrous new science of psychohistory. And that satisfied the young nerd in biochemistry… for a while. Only…dAVID bRIN, https://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-robots-and-foundation-universe.html
Later, Isaac realized that perturbations would interfere with statistical predictability, even in such a marvelous new science. (Today we call it the Butterfly Effect.)
So he introduced a secret cabal of psychic-mathematicians (the Second Foundation) who would be dedicated to guiding the Seldon Plan back in line, should the emerging New Empire drift down a wrong path.
That seemed to satisfy, for a while.
But a decade or so afterwards, Isaac realized the moral flaw of the Second Foundation… that it left humanity led forever by a secret, inherited aristocracy! A mutant branch of the race, locked into permanent, psychic dominance over all the rest.
This was offensive to Isaac’s liberal-democratic sensibilities. Hence, he searched and found a solution to this, by bringing both halves of his life-work together… by inserting robots into the Foundation Universe!
Daneel Olivaw and his scrupulously honest positronic followers would act behind the scenes, manipulating even the Second Foundation, all for our own best interests and welfare, of course, and preventing dominance by a lordly human caste. Picture dedicated court eunuchs, who cannot conspire to become lords themselves, because they will have no offspring. (And hence my observation that Asimov’s fabled Empire was less Roman than actually rather Chinese!)
Loyal robot eunuchs, standing beind the Second Foundation, manipulating it to only do good. They can be trusted… right?
Or can they? A little while later, Isaac realized something… free will had been reversed!
The mechanical servants had memory and volition. They were rare, precious and powerful! While humans were as numerous and powerless as insects. The “masters” had amnesia about their past and no control over their future, utterly and secretly controlled by all-powerful “servants.” Now that didn’t sound like such a great destiny either!
What a life Isaac had! Holding this decadal conversation and argument with himself. Finding an answer to a problem, then having the honesty to admit that it caused a new problem! And answering that one… only then honestly coming to realize…
== Iterating Destiny ==
He sought a way out of the powerful-servants dilemma of the 1980s… and came up with Gaia! The ultimate robotic plan for humanity — for us to transcend together as a race, leapfrogging beyond our loyal-but-manipulative servants into a a new level of being, transforming all of humanity into a single, all-powerful mind!
Okay, you’ve seen this concept positively portrayed by a third of the greats… by Arthur C. Clarke* in CHILDHOOD’S END and in 2001: A Space Odyssey… and it goes back to Teilhard de Chardin and others. But never explored with Asimovian attention to detail. You’ve also seen this notion — of monolithic group transcendence — portrayed negatively in Star Trek’s infamous Borg! (Indeed, I tried to give it a subtle twist-and-spin in EARTH.)
The Gaia/Galaxia resolution that Isaac put forward in FOUNDATION’S EDGE seemed to solve his problems. It would eventually deify humanity, restoring our memory and authority over robots again, in a fashion that Daneel Olivaw would find acceptable, because it would eliminate the fractious individualism that was always messing things up with violence and confusion and chaos. Such a coalescence into mega wisdom would make humanity mature, allowing Daneel at last to put down his ancient burden and step aside for a long deserved rest.
So Foundation’s Edge is about a future for humanity, a future where humans aren’t quite only human anymore, but something more. I found this to be a stark contrast with the previous foundation novels written decades earlier by a much younger Asimov; these earlier novels were actually very conservative in their depiction of the future (one could say unimaginative, but that would unfair to someone living in the 1950s, when computers were barely out of the theoretical.
So those novels were describing a society which were quite like the ones we live in. In fact, I think Asimov said he was inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire for his first foundation novel. So we hare emperor, general of wars, politics and human bickering, the set is just the Milky Way rather than just Earth. Don’t get me wrong, it was still amazingly written, full of clever insights, a pleasure to read and re-read. Asimov also started to “innovate” by introducing telepathy in the second foundation book. But the context still was that of a “conventional” human society, one which we all recognize quite well. There was some women and men that had the super power of telepathy, but that was about it.
Only in Foundation’s Edge, Asimov started to describe us a different kind of society. A society in which it is not easy for us to imagine ourselves living in. Not as in a dystopia, but as in living with characteristics hard to relate to: telepathy, the sharing of thoughts and emotions and ideas, but everything, not only humans, but animals, plants, minerals,… And Asimov followed the logical conclusions of these telepathic properties: such a planet would ressemble nothing like Earth: from the complete communication between sentient beings and more matters would emerge something more, more than just the sum of its components: a “super-organism”, conscious in its one right, whose “neurons” are each individual minds and components of the matter.
What would it be like to live and be part of such of planet? What would it mean for us as an individual? What would it mean for the ecosystems? For society? Asimov explores some of these questions, like privacy, in this book and the following (Foundation and Earth).
This book had a profound impact on me. I have been reading the whole robots/foundation series for almost a year, this was inspiring, exciting, thrilling for the scifi geek that I am. But this was the first time I encountered the notion of group transcendence in depth like this (my reading culture is not so deep actually). And it is when I realized: “this is it”. “This is what the future of humanity and life should be”. This is what I want future techs to converge to, this is what I want life to evolve into. This is something I would like to help make happen. More than robots, more than immortality or mind upload or space travel: making every sentient being part of a greater, “universal” consciousness.
If you ask me: would you do it today should it be possible? I am not sure I would. I would share that kind of link with my wife. With everyone on earth? I don’t know (strangely enough, I have no problem sharing my minds with other species. There is something about self consciousnesses here…). I don’t think anyone born and grown as an individual could ever be confortable with being part of a greater whole, at least not without a long adaptation.
Why do I think this is a worthy whole? I am not sure. I think it resonates with the stoic philosophy I recently discovered, according to which we should keep in mind our place a just a tiny part of a whole, of the human race, of the universe. Maybe (probably) some other more hidden reasons. Who knows.
Would it be a good idea? I like to think so. I like to think it would help eliminate suffering, it would be more inclusive, it would quell the existential crisis we human so often share. At the price of a certain idea of individuality. An idea that I think is wrong anyway (not morally, just factually).
Will it happen? A better question could be “Could it happen?”. I read in a further book the argument that spoken language like we humans evolved is but a step toward telepathy. I think this is right. I think telepathy is just a better, much better, much faster and with much more “bandwidth”, language. Language allowed us to evolve superbe and powerful collective structures. It didn’t prevent us a certain privacy. Is it possible that telepathy would be but a step up: less misunderstanding, more inclusion, and the emergence of a global “super mind”?
If this view of telepathy as a language is correct, then it may very well happen. Now, will it? It depends on so many factors. That’s what’s so exciting about the future!