Stilted Legal Challenges in Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge

Isaac Asimov did just about everything else in his long and varied career, so I suppose it was just a matter of time before I stumbled across a legal issue in his SF works. I had read his Hugo Award winning novel Foundation’s Edge years before; probably just after it came out in the early nineteen eighties. But back then I was more interested in things like the gravity drive and what Bliss looked like naked than I ever cared about the legal or social issues. I recently reread this book to write a review of it for my book review blog, and was surprised to find some legal content in it. Starting about 1/3 of the way through the book one of the main characters, Gendibal of the Second Foundation on Trantor, is impeached for sedition; specifically he publicly announced his doubts of the merits of the Seldon Plan and questioned the Second Foundation’s supremacy in the science of mentalics (the power to read and control the minds of others). For those of you who are unaware, Asimov’s Foundation series made an enormous splash in the forties. In fact Asimov and Campbell pretty much started the Golden Age of science fiction with these stories, which were about an interstellar space empire styled on the Roman Empire. In the stories Hari Seldon, a mathematician who had invented a predictive science to chart the future of galactic civilization learned that within three hundred years of his era the galaxy wide Empire would fail, and 30,000 years of dark-age style misery would follow. To solve this problem Seldon started a program called the Foundation. On a planet in the far reaches of the galaxy he established the First Foundation, which under a pretext was set up to compile an encyclopedia of human knowledge, the purpose being to shorten the interregnum period by providing a central location for the forgotten knowledge of the empire. The real purpose was to consolidate power and begin building a new empire that would again control the galaxy within a mere 1,000 years. Seldon also set up a Second Foundation on planet Trantor, the then current Empire’s capitol planet. Where the First Foundation was dedicated to amassing knowledge and power, the Second Foundation was to master psychohistory (Seldon’s predictive science) and mentalics. The true purpose (and existence) of the Second Foundation, which was to remain secret from everyone, was to step in and “fix” things when the First Foundation wandered from the predetermined Seldon Plan. During early Foundation stories the existence of the Second Foundation was revealed, but thanks to some quick thinking and mental manipulation everyone was convinced that it was destroyed, leaving the First Foundation to control the future of the galaxy alone. Of course, the Second Foundation actually survived.

The First Speaker said, “Speaker Stor Gendibal, you have been impeached for behaving in a manner unbecoming a Speaker. You have, before us all, accused the Table – vaguely and without evidence – of treason and attempted murder. You have implied that all Second Foundationers – including the Speakers and the First Speaker – require a thorough mental analysis to ascertain who among them are no longer to be trusted. Such behavior breaks the bonds of community, without which the Second Foundation cannot control and intricate and potentially hostile Galaxy and without which they cannot build, with surety, a viable Second Empire.

Foundation’s Edge is set almost 500 years into the interregnum period. On Terminus, home of the First Foundation, a legislator named Golan Trevize has begun to openly question the story that the Second Foundation was no more. Things were just going too smoothly, so he spoke openly and publicly about the real Seldon Plan; the one that the First Foundation was not told about, and in which they were all pawns. For his trouble he was openly accused of sedition and ejected from the Foundation, but secretly sent on a mission to explore whether the Second Foundation actually did survive. Meanwhile on Trantor one of the select few Twelve Speakers (leaders) of the Second Foundation had also begun to suspect the viability of the Seldon Plan. Gendibal, the Speaker, also thought that things were going too smoothly. You see, Psychohistory is incapable of predicting the movements of individual people; it can only predict likely trends in the movements of mass populations. With a population as big as that of a galaxy wide-empire there had never been a problem with getting statistically significant results, so the Plan had largely worked, except for one big giant hiccup (the Mule, as depicted in earlier stories) that seemed to have completely resolved by the era that this story was set in. And that was Gendibal’s problem. He thought that the only way those things could have worked out as well as they did after that big problem would require that psychohistory be able to predict individual movements, so he thought that some other entity that has gone far past the Second Foundation’s mastery of mentalics was influencing society. Gendibal proposed this idea to the First Speaker, who passed it on to the other ten Speakers, who promptly accused Gendibal of heresy, but convened a meeting to hear him out. On the way to the meeting Gendibal was attacked by a pack of Hamish; the native Trantorians. Those people lived in fear of the Second Foundation and never would have attacked a “scholar’ without the mentalic influence of a Speaker. Gendibal was saved by another local, but he accused one of the Speakers of setting the Hamish on him before the meeting. Shocked that he could accuse them of muddling with the Hamish (it was taboo; they needed the Hamish to remain untouched because it became impossible of detecting another’s influence upon a mind they had already manipulated) they denounced him and impeached him. At first, their response appeared to be hubris; “how dare you impeach (ha!) The Seldon Plan!” It was soon revealed that the real reason for the impeachment was a power grab. Delarmi, another powerful Speaker, wanted Gendibal out of the way so that she could take the First Speaker position next, when the current First Speaker retired.

“Impeach” is a legal term of art (with a common usage as well) that has two possible meaning, neither of them good. Impeachment can be the process by which the credibility or testimony of a witness is called into question, and in that regard is part of the law of evidence. In criminal law Impeachment is the process by which a legal body, in our system of justice the legislature, brings charges against an elected or appointed government official. It is the legislature’s equivalent of the indictment, sometimes called also an “information” in the judicial system. In our system of jurisprudence impeachment is generally a process that is provided for in the sovereign’s constitution. Strictly speaking impeachment is only for crimes; “treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors” in the U.S. Constitution, and traditionally that is all that it has been used for. Other countries, primarily those that developed as a result of the British common law system use it in the same way, though the concept is in no way limited to common law countries. Many European countries allow impeachments, including those several countries which provide for near complete immunity for certain officials from criminal prosecution.

Apparently the Second Foundation had a similar provision in its constitution, though Asimov was not really clear on what the authority was. The treatment in the book was slightly atypical because there really was only one governing body in the Second Foundation. The Twelve Speakers constituted the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the Second Foundation’s government, so they collectively handled all aspects of the impeachment. I thought that the entire impeachment subplot was at first a little bit ham-handed. The “crimes” that Gendibal was accused of were essentially “behaving in a manner not in accord with one’s high position.” In my mind this does not even amount to a “no-confidence” type of hearing, as it has nothing to do with an actual crime, or even job performance. It is obvious that the Second Foundation was a tightly run and small organization. There may have been hundreds or even thousands of people manning the Second Foundation, but there were only twelve Speakers. Not only were they the only ones to impeach, but they were the impeaching body and the judge and jury. Given that the rest of the Speakers probably knew the workings of the rest of the organization and what each of the other Speakers was up to, I found it a little hard to believe when most of the Speakers behaved like sheep and pretty much went along with whatever those who held power told them to do. In this case those who held power were the First Speaker and Delarmi; Delarmi wanted control and the First Speaker was growing too weary to hold her off. To be sure: Each of the other Speakers was empaneled as a juror in the case against Gendibal, and a juror’s duty is to remain impartial and judge based on the evidence, not on personal prejudices. But the trial of the matter was open, and free from the restrictions of any code of procedure. The parties, including the Speaker/jurors, were free to interject, ask questions, probe responses and the like, but they never did. What they did do was allow Gendibal to frighten them into finding for him. Which I believe was an acceptable result, since the case really was about public policy and not about some trumped-up charge against Gendibal.

Still, the result that Asimov achieved here was quite kangaroo-courtish, but Gendibal put up a pretty good fight, and the “trial” setting gave Asimov great latitude to expound his theory of risk to the Second Foundation by the enemy, (the planet Gaia), the citizens of which were very advanced in their development of psi-powers. The problem is that the group was so small that they all should have known that this was bullshit, so the only way it could have worked is if everyone was in on the joke. At the very least it would have behooved the process and the government to inquire as to true motives.

As it turned out, it was all just a debate over issues relevant to the survival of the Second Foundation, and the claim and counter-claim were nothing more than an abuse of process, designed for vendetta and power consolidation. I suppose that a counter argument could be made that this is what you get when you infuse a political body with judicial powers, which is something that should be avoided, lest moronic decisions like Bush v. Gore result. Still even if that was the intention her, Asimov was using the plot to push the trial, when he would have probably gotten a better result by having the trial push the plot. I cannot say his efforts were successful for that reason.

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