Printed: 2018-10-15

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Isaac Asimov and Human Destiny

David Brin

Contrary Brin

January 07, 2011

Ever notice how many futuristic authors toy, now and then, with the concept of a global overmind?

Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov both did. And my reply to them, a more subtle and diversity-based version, appeared in my novel, Earth.

Now, have a look at the Living Earth Simulator, or the LES project, which aims to simulate everything taking place on planet Earth, both environmental factors and human influences - integrating real-time data feeds to model global environment, pollution, population, as well as financial and political shifts and the spread of infectious diseases.

Foundation coverAnd who dealt with the scale of human destiny better than the great Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series? Elsewhere I’ve said about him: “Asimov served wondrous meals-of-the-mind to a civilization that was starved for clear thinking about the future. To this day, his visions spice our ongoing dinner table conversation about human destiny.”

My own novel Foundation’s Triumph tied up nearly all of Isaac’s loose ends - with the enthusiastic approval of Isaac’s heirs. (Read a sample.) In the afterword, I describe how Isaac would always see the flaw in his most recent Foundation “solution” and inch along, decade by decade, to new solutions.

What were his stages?

First, writing for John W. Campbell’s Astounding in the 1940s, he came up with the lovely conceit that in large enough numbers to swamp the effects of individuals, human societies can be modeled as if individuals were like gas molecules! Appealing to Asimov the biochemist - and inspiring many of his readers to go into fields like economics. For example Paul Krugman. (In all honesty, the dream goes farther back, though Karl Marx was no Hari Seldon!)

Then Isaac got a lot of mail. People had an inkling of something like what would become Chaos Theory: that random fluctuations or exceptions would perturb events until all projections become useless. Isaac’s solution in his galactic universe? Perturbations must be corrected by an elite council or knowing meddlers, the Second Foundation. Meddlers who soon gain access to psychic powers that they can breed into their gene lines, enabling them to meddle better and keep the Plan on track. Phew! Problem solved.

Only then he realized that his Second Foundation will become an inherited human aristocracy! Agh! Loyal to the Enlightenment, he knew how awful oligarchies were, in the past (and today). So, in the next decade, Isaac replaced or subsumed the human meddlers with a deeper layer of controllers who would be like… court eunuchs. Robots who cannot breed and hence could not become a human lordly class. (Aside. His empire was always more Chinese than Roman.) Sounds good?

Only, next decade, Isaac realizes…OMG! I’ve reversed power! The “servants” are now few, all-knowing, all-powerful and the human masters are as numerous and cheap as sand. Agh. So he finds a way for the masters to become mighty again.

His solution? An overmind made up of trillions of human brains, called Gaia-Galaxia! Okay then!

Only then he realizes….

See? I had to continue his ongoing cycle of re-evaluation until… well… read Foundation’s Triumph and see how it actually all comes together in a fascinating pattern that winds up turning in… a… circle!

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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