Friday, November 15, 2002

Glenn Reynolds is again mentioning the peculiar possible connection between Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Al Qaeda. This one is largely circumstantial. What is not circumstantial is the connection between Asimov's foundation and the Aum Shinkrikyo cult: the people who released nerve gas on the Tokyo underground. These people essentially used the Foundation Books as a handbook. The case that Al Qaeda have used it is much more circumstantial. The Guardian suggests that even if it is true, bin Laden might keep quiet about it because Dr Asimov was Jewish).

It's easy to see why these particular books are popular with apocalyptic cults. They are about a single man (Hari Seldon) who sees scientifically that civilization is about to fall. According to his mathematics, the only way to preserve civilization is to create a society on the edge of the galaxy which will slowly grow into the new galactic government. This process is to be supervised by another even smaller (and secret) elite, whose job is to ensure that the new civilization successfully takes route. The established order disbelieves Seldon's predictions and is hostile to his project's formation. The books provide great justification if you think that the modern world is sick and collapsing and that you and a small band of followers with non-mainstream views believe that you are the only people who can save it from catastrophe.

Dr Asimov of course would have been horrified by this use of his work. He was a lifelong Democrat and humanist, although a certain favouritism for elites did come through in his work from time to time. (He was a little too pessimistic for my liking on things like environmental issues, too. He had a little too much willingness to accept the Paul Erlich "Most of us are doomed and so we should decide who must be saved" view. I considerably prefer Arthur C Clarke's ideology. ). Also, Asimov's editor when he wrote Foundation and its first few sequels in the 1940s was long time Astounding Science Fiction editor John Campbell, who did prefer stories in which a certain sort of scientific elite won the day, so some of this ideology may have come from Campbell. (Campbell's enthusiasms could overflow into pseudoscience from time to time, too. Campbell was the editor who first gave editorial space to the new "science" of Dianetics, invented by L Ron Hubbard, so in a sense he deserves some of the blame for Scientology, too. Eventually Campbell woke up to this and had a falling out with Hubbard, but this took perhaps a little too long).

The other recent politician with a liking for Asimov's work is Newt Gingrich, who was a big fan. He too liked Foundation, fitting it in with his enthusiasm for history. It does seem to appeal to those who are intensely ideological rather than pragmatic. (Of course, the difference is that Gingrich's ideology was not especially extreme, and was within the rules of a democracy). I read recently in the New York Review of Science Fiction describing Gingrich visiting Asimov in his apartment in New York when Gingrich was a freshman congressman. Gingrich was apparently rather star-struck, and was just delighted to meet the writer.

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