Foundation or Federation

Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, has been doing daily “homeroom” live streams to help students and their parents manage during the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school closures. Though I’m neither a parent nor a student (not officially anyway; I like to think I’m always a student because I always love learning), I have listened to some of the homeroom sessions because I respect Sal and appreciate the advice he dispenses. Today someone asked him about his favorite books, and the first thing Sal mentioned was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a favorite of mine too, and at least in part for the same reason Sal gave: The series paints a distant future in which an age of darkness looms. Though this new dark age is inevitable, one man, Hari Seldon, believes its length and impact can be greatly lessened if a group of scientists, inventors, etc. can come together to forge a Foundation which will serve as a warehouse of knowledge. (This is a conceit also explored in other science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Walter M. Miller’s  Canticle for Leibowitz, and others.) Asimov doesn’t gloss over the coming dark age, but his vision is optimistic nonetheless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I see Star Trek’s Federation as another optimistic picture of the future. I have also mentioned how impossible it seems, given the current tenor of discourse on nearly any topic both here in America and abroad. This is nothing new; our optimistic Mr. Asimov many years ago said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ (Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, January 21, 1980)

The fear of society’s devolution into dystopia is a mainstay of science fiction. The possibility of it actually happening feels truer today than ever, however—at least more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. Maybe that explains my obsession with ongoing learning. I may not ever zoom around the galaxy on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I can do my part to help bring about the Federation…or the Foundation.

Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut books

Since I’ve been talking about science fiction, perhaps this would be a good time to mention one of my favorite authors: Kurt Vonnegut. One of the things that most appeals to me about his writing is the meta-ness of it. His novels sometimes contain generous helpings of autobiography, as in Slaughterhouse Five, and many of them are aware that they are novels, as with Breakfast of Champions. Then there is Kilgore Trout, the failed science fiction writer who pops up in many of Vonnegut’s books. We are given many samples of Trout’s writing, and Trout himself frequently appears within the story. His reality is multi-leveled; sometimes he is the author, and sometimes he is the innocent creation.

Time travel is also a frequent Vonnegut theme, and provides the central conceit for his last novel, Timequake. It’s no wonder time travel appeals to science fiction writers; it offers possibilities and paradoxes by the score! (Incidentally, that’s the second time in this blog post that I’ve use a semi-colon, which Vonnegut would have strongly opposed.) And here I can use time travel to tie Kurt Vonnegut to another writer whose work I admire: Harlan Ellison. Trekkies regard Ellison’s time travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” one of the best in all the Star Trek canon.