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three Tales of Stasis and Chaos Ifirst should explain that my use of the term ‘‘chaos’’ here has little to do with the relationship between scientific chaos theory and literature that we have seen in literally dozens of papers over the past few decades, such as in the work of scholars like N. Katherine Hayles. Instead, I am using the term ‘‘chaos’’ in its related but more traditional and generic sense of disunity and disorganization —the sort of chaos we experience everyday as we confront such terrifyingly enigmatic and unpredictable systems as, for example, tax laws or airline pricing schemes. Specifically, my use of this term was suggested by Greg Bear’s 1998 novel Foundation and Chaos, the second book in a multi-author trilogy derived from Isaac Asimov’s famous ‘‘Foundation’’ stories of the 1940s (the first, by Gregory Benford, appeared in 1997 and the third, by David Brin, in 1999). Far too often, novels based on other novels—or on movies, tv programs, or computer games—become automatic-pilot exercises, what we might term ‘‘accessory fictions’’ meant to sustain and highlight some larger product of the culture industry, the literary equivalent of a soundtrack album. But Bear, Benford, and Brin were already among the field’s most eminent writers in the 1990s (known to fans as ‘‘the killer Bs’’), and their trilogy, for all its clearly market-driven origins, did make some interesting e√orts to reconsider and update some of Asimov’s most important themes—which, given the canonical status of the original, are also among the most important themes of popular science fiction. Central among these—and central to Asimov’s legacy in particular—are the oppositions of order and chaos, mind and nature, civilization and barbarism. Bear’s novel raises a question that has long fascinated me about the ‘‘Foundation ’’ stories, particularly in a passage in which he describes the values that seem implicit in Asimov’s corporatized future, values that would seem almost antithetical to commonly held views of science fiction itself: ‘‘Where once the human race had laughed and reveled in the absurd, in the products of pure Tales of Stasis and Chaos 55 imagination, they now earnestly pursued stasis.’’∞ Asimov’s original stories concern the e√orts of a brilliant mathematician, Hari Seldon, to save an enormous galactic empire from an extended Dark Age through the fictional predictive science of ‘‘psychohistory.’’ Seldon’s plan, which at times sounds much like a grant proposal gone berserk, consists mostly of compiling a universal encyclopedia , setting up elite institutes, and prerecording bits of annoyingly prescient advice to be played during historical crises long after his death. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1950, augmented and collected into a trilogy in the 1950s, and voted the best science fiction series of all time by members of the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention, these five novelettes and four novellas eventually became a platform from which Asimov launched a series of bestselling sequels and prequels in the years before his death in 1992. The Foundation series has even shown up in the news from time to time; it was reported to be among the favorite works of former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and in the mid-1990s it was cited as a principal inspiration for the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo (‘‘supreme truth’’) cult, famous for releasing deadly nerve gas into Japan’s subways in 1995. According to journalists David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, the cult viewed itself as the embodiment of Asimov’s Foundation and its guru Shoko Asahara as Hari Seldon—a much more direct connection than the more widely reported but tenuous link between Robert Heinlein and the Manson cult.≤ Clearly, The Foundation Trilogy is one of the most popular and enduring classics of science fiction, influencing at least a few of its readers in ways that Asimov never could have anticipated. But why is it so popular? It contains almost no science, little technology (Asimov’s original stories didn’t even have robots), virtually no action and adventure, and characters who probably would disappear entirely from memory had they been given names like ‘‘Ben’’ or ‘‘Tom’’ instead of ‘‘Hari Seldon’’ or ‘‘Hober Mallow.’’ And the underlying social and historical ideas, a kind of unholy alliance of Edward Gibbon and Karl Marx, have driven a few academic critics almost to intemperance.≥ Most significantly , as Bear’s quotation indicates, it depicts a society whose survival seems...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780819571045
Related ISBN
9780819569363
MARC Record
OCLC
726747951
Pages
280
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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