The Dystopia Project is Mashable's ongoing book series reflecting on what dystopian fiction has to teach us under our new political climate. This week: Asimov's Foundation trilogy.
When you think of mid-20th century dystopias, most people go right to Brave New World (1932) or Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). What you're unlikely to think of? Their rough contemporary, the Foundation Trilogy (1951-1953). Possibly because you've never actually read it.
But you should. Even though it hails from the faded age of gee-whizz atomic-powered sci-fi stories, Isaac Asimov's classic has a lot to offer 21st century America.
(Some spoilers ahead—consider yourself warned.)
Not only do these books warn of the Dark Ages that follow an Empire collapsing in on itself, and of the need to keep science and education going in those circumstances, but it also includes one of the most Trump-like menaces in all of literature—an oddly persuasive, power-mad nutcase who calls himself the Mule.
The Foundation Trilogy is a grand galactic epic. Think: science fiction's answer to Lord of the Rings. Indeed (and to Asimov's surprise), it once beat out Tolkein's trilogy, in a one-time Hugo Award contest for best speculative fiction series of all time. George Lucas was clearly inspired by Asimov's Galactic Empire. And Jonathan Nolan has plans to adapt it for HBO once he's done with Westworld.
Good luck to him. The book series has long been considered unfilmable, as it's actually a series of short stories that stretch out over 500 years; the protagonists, and the various perils they have to overcome, keep changing. But the Mule is its most constant and compelling villain—in his onw way, he's almost as terrifying as Big Brother.
The Foundation starts out as a tiny group of Wikipedia-like volunteers. They hope to preserve all the knowledge of civilization after the collapse of the Empire, as predicted by foresighted futurist Hari Seldon. We see them overcome various "Seldon crises," gaining more and more star systems—until the Empire collapses halfway through the second book, Foundation and Empire, ahead of schedule.
At this point in the story, the Foundation seems as secure as Obama-era technocracy did. It's the end of history, basically—and though a group of underground democrats grumble about its rigid political system, the rational, enlightened, science-friendly Foundation has clearly triumphed over the forces of darkness and anarchy.
At timed intervals, Seldon has been releasing a series of holographic crisis predictions from beyond the grave. So far, he's 4 for 4.
Then out of nowhere comes the Mule, a terrifying warlord who conquers the entire Foundation in the space of a year.
Seldon's fifth crisis prediction turns out to be badly wrong—as useless, say, as pre-election polling in November 2016. He didn't see the Mule coming.
Like many of us, Seldon was too focused on the big picture of society, and made the error of ignoring how much one person can arrest the course of history. Science and progress are powerless to stop a talented rabble-rouser.
In part, the Mule—the ultimate outsider—conquers so quickly because he exploits the confusion of the democrats. Some of them are glad to see him stick it to the Foundation leadership.
But he also turns out to have developed a one-in-a-trillion genetic mutation that gives him a strange power: the ability to implant the emotion of his choice in others.
So the Mule instills his followers with ecstatic, fanatical loyalty, and sticks his opponents with despair and "a miserable sense of defeat." (Sound familiar?)
Even worse, a dumbass technologist accidentally hands the Mule a device that enhances the effect of his emotion-inducing power, and he plays it like a musical instrument. (Thanks, Twitter.)
"To me, men's minds were dials," the Mule explains. "Slowly, I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the spot I wished, that I could nail it there forever. It took even longer to realize that others couldn't."
This is as good a time as any to mention a story I worked on last year about a startup: it measured levels of voice stress for call centers, and wanted to prove the tech worked on presidential candidates too. Apparently most politicians registered a level of stress in their tone, the kind our subconscious tends to pick up on, if their statements come close to fibbing.
But the startup also said Trump had eerie, preternatural levels of calm in his voice, even when he was lying his face off. In the end, the voice analysis tech wasn't transparent or peer-reviewed enough for us to publish that as news. Still, it made intuitive sense—more so now that Trump's hypnotic tone and repeated use of "believe me" carried him to the presidency.
Despite his bluster, there's a certain pathetic quality to the Mule. First of all, he chose that name to convey stubborn strength—covering up the fact that he's actually a pretty weak physical specimen.
Then, once he finds himself in charge of the entire galaxy at the beginning of the third book, churning out more and more nuclear weapons to ensure no one will ever defy him, it isn't enough:
The Mule is obsessed by those whose minds remain free. He still seeks "revenge on a humanity of which he wasn't a part," but secretly longs to "change his own grotesquerie that made him shun the day and love the night, that made him a recluse inside an empire that was unconditionally big."
Spoiler: the Mule spends much of the second book in disguise, pretending to be the Mule's court jester, escaping on a starship with a couple of Foundation democrats.
This fake news gives his forces the pretext to attack the Foundation, and to learn more about the Second Foundation set up by Seldon. The Second Foundation has been hiding itself, deliberately.
Trump knows the benefits of being disguised as a clown as well as the Mule does: People don't take you seriously until it's too late.
And once it's too late, the emotional fix is in, and we find one of the Mule's military men thinking this of his dear leader—a paragraph with strong echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Big Brother:
Plenty of Republicans who were in the #NeverTrump camp this time last year can relate.
So how do we defeat our own Mule?
In the trilogy, the Second Foundation turns out to be a group of psychologists whose mental skills—honed over centuries—are just about a match for the Mule. He has vast armies and fleets. They have the numbers, and the mental cunning to lure him into traps.
The Mule is furious that some of his top men keep getting compromised by unknown psychic agents: "Their loyalty is left intact, but initiative and ingenuity are rubbed out." Sounds like a pretty good description of Trump's cabinet of mediocrity.
And when the Mule finally finds the Second Foundation leader, the so-called First Speaker, the guy actually apologizes that he couldn't stop the Mule sooner.
"We calculated the extent to which a megalomania would take control of you and we thought we were prepared," says the Speaker. But "we allowed only for a megalomania—not for an intensely psychopathic paranoia as well. It is myself that bears the responsibility for having missed all that."
Paul Ryan, these should be your lines.
In the end, the glorious leader can't stop hunting down the wise guys that would dare oppose him, and it turns out to be his downfall. He remains in power, but his mental mutation has been subtly neutered.
"The Mule isn't a superman," says one democratic opponent early on. "If he is finally defeated, everyone will see that for himself. It's just that he's an unknown, and the legends cluster quickly."
You can draw your own conclusions, but just remember: the Mule is nowhere near as powerful or frightening as he seems. And if one individual can change the course of history, ultimately, so can you.