Saturday, February 27, 2021
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Friday, February 19, 2021
Thursday, February 18, 2021
The second installment in the Foundation series is based on two previously published novellas. The first, inspired by General Belisarius and the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian, features a similar general named Bel Riose. Bel Riose sees the looming threat of the Foundation to the still-strong Galactic Empire, and nearly succeeds in reconquering it before Emperor Cleon recalls him on the verge of final victory. Inspired by Justinian's Wars and reconquest of lost Roman territories in the 6th century, Bel Riose had to be recalled and stopped to prevent a possible rival claimant to the throne.
Thus, the social laws and predictions of Hari Seldon correctly foresaw an invasion of the Empire as being thwarted by a strong emperor of a declining state wishing to retain as much control as possible. Unfortunately for us, Bel Riose is less of a compelling character than Procopius's Belisarius of the Secret History. Procopius provides us with several details of the whoring wife of Belisarius and the juicy and exaggerated personal flaws of the Byzantine general and his wife Antonina. Bel Riose, on the other hand, is just a brilliant general loyal to the idea of the Empire. Nor do we receive any detailed battle accounts of Bel Riose's ships against those of the Foundation, which is now a powerful trading state in the Periphery.
The second and longer part of the text consists of the novella on the rise of the Mule, the great crisis not predicted by Hari Seldon. Since Seldon's theory of psychohistory did not account for a mutant individual capable of having such an outsized influence on others, the Mule disrupts Seldon's prediction of the Foundation's civil war against the oligarchic traders. The Mule, a mutant being who can manipulate the emotions of others around him, succeeds in conquering the Foundation and becoming the most powerful man in the empire.
Here, much intrigue, some ruin porn (the remnants of the imperial capital are now inhabited by small communities of farmers) and plot twists make for more exciting reading. The revelation of the Mule's identity was well-handled and suspenseful, and the first crisis to actually constitute a real challenge to the prognostications of Seldon is a welcome change in the series. Intriguingly, the second novella also introduces a strong female character in Bayta, who not only cracks the riddle of the Mule's identity, but saves the Second Foundation from the Mule's discovery.
Saturday, February 13, 2021
Finally read Peter Brown's The World of Late Anqituity, a far more accessible essay on the period than the lectures The Making of Late Antiquity. Here, Brown's classic essay provides a great overview of the period, challenging the Gibbonesque paradigm of decline and fall. Instead, changes in the social, economic, religious, and spiritual conditions in the Roman Empire and its environs beginning in the 3rd century gradually brought about the features now known as "Late Antique," which created a different type of Roman Empire and new orientation to spirituality that favored Christianity's expansion. While there was undoubtedly a collapse of the western empire's political administration, when looking at the entirety of the region during the period, it is not really a tale of decline and fall brought about by Christianity. The book's definite strength lies in its analysis of religious and spiritual changes in the eastern Mediterranean and the western empire. The chapters on Sassanian Persia and early Islam may have been necessary to provide a complete overview of the "Near East" that led to the "end" of a united Mediterranean world centered on a single empire, but they are clearly not the author's area of specialization. The figure of the holy man, the growing importance of bishops and monastic communities in the eastern Mediterranean and the increasing importance of the Roman Catholic Church in the west as the inheritor of the aristocratic senatorial classes are all fascinating processes.
Thursday, February 11, 2021
After hearing so many great things about the Foundation series for several years, and missing old-school space-opera for the last couple of months, I finally read Asimov's first Foundation. It is basically interconnected short stories set in the same fading Galactic Empire, heavily inspired by Gibbon and Rome. Who would have thought the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire would be so much more exciting than the Roman Empire? Diplomacy, intrigue, imperial political, social, cultural, and technological decline, power feuds between various factions on Terminus, and the all-knowing legacy of Hari Seldon make for entertaining space-opera.
Unfortunately, due to the theory of psychohistory and Seldon's so far successful attempts to limit knowledge of psychology, none of the descendants of the Encyclopedists and the foundation of the second Empire really know the full trajectory charted for them by Seldon. However, Seldon's theory, based on the assumption that the people of Terminus will not know enough to disrupt social forces. This leaves the central characters at each "Seldon crisis" with the choice to either act in what they think is best or "safe" versus those who are willing to take a risk and do nothing or little. It becomes somewhat anticlimactic when the ultimately correct thing to do becomes akin to "do nothing."
Of course, the subsequent books in the series will develop in more interesting directions so at some point this blog will endeavor to include short reviews of the rest of the series. It might be interesting to see the full outline of Asimov's attempt at the rise and fall of an Empire and the various social-economic forces that will drive the eventual return of the Galactic Empire. Who knows, maybe they'll one day locate our lost homeland of Earth...
Saturday, February 6, 2021
Roger Zelazny has always struck me as a strange author. I did not think much of his co-authored novel with Philip K. Dick a few years ago, but that project is not a fair one to judge his work. So, after receiving a copy of This Immortal, I can appreciate his unique style and fast-moving prose and dialogue more. Set in an underpopulated and post-apocalyptic world, featuring aliens with an interest in the past of humanity, it actually brings Samuel R. Delany's Einstein Intersection to mind.
Both novels share a similar post-apocalyptic setting with various mutants and alien life-forms, deeply immersed in Greek mythology and 20th century cultural references. Intriguingly, Zelazny's novel features Haitian Vodou, Port-au-Prince, and Egypt as additional settings and cultural allusions, with the main characters actually taking an alien visitor to a Vodou ceremony near the harbor of the Haitian capital. This could be a reflection of the legacy of Haitian tourism in the 1950s and 1960s, and makes one wonder if already in 1965 Zelazny was aware of the exploitative aspect of tourism in Haiti, Egypt, and Greece.
While the book's representation of Haiti seems to owe more to Seabrook and primitivist foreign conceptions of Vodou, the novel offers a mix of Haitian and Greek mythological material as collective remnants of human civilization. Indeed, one of the main characters, an Arab named Hasan, appears to be possessed by a loa named Angelsou, while Conrad either is or isn't Pan. The Zelazny protagonist, however, is the only compelling character whose quest to discover the truth behind the alien tourist's visit maintains suspense. Overall, an interesting read.