Matthew Raese | content by

Matthew Raese

The Encyclopedia Galactica and the Enlightenment Roots of Asimov’s Foundation

At the beginning of Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi novel Foundation, Hari Seldon introduces his idea for a massive project to create the ultimate set of world knowledge in the Encyclopedia Galactica. Using the science of psychohistory, Seldon has predicted that the current Galactic Empire will fall and a dark age will follow. By creating a store of the collective knowledge of the world, Seldon argues that humanity will be able to reduce the length of the dark age from thirty thousand years to just one thousand years. Seldon describes saving knowledge from being scattered so that, “if we prepare a giant summary of all knowledge, it will never be lost. Coming generations will build on it, and will not have to rediscover it for themselves.” While the creation of the Encyclopedia Galactica will ultimately be revealed to be a cover for Seldon’s true purposes, the novel retains a strong encyclopedic focus, but not a futuristic one.

Rather, Seldon’s encyclopedia draws inspiration from the past, specifically an Enlightenment-era encyclopedic project with goals very similar to those that Seldon mentions. Even as the Encyclopedia Galactica loses importance and disappears from the narrative, the project behind it informs the arc of the novel and reveals the true nature of Seldon’s plan.

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The Jack London Novel that Influenced a Century of Dystopian Fiction

My first encounter with Jack London’s work was the short story “To Build a Fire,” in which the protagonist attempts to survive the elements and keep wolves at bay in the wilderness by keeping a fire going while also fighting off exhaustion. Then, after encountering the novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang, I figured that all of London’s work was populated with outdoorsy men who either befriend or fight wolves. So it was a surprise to learn that he had also written a dystopian novel: The Iron Heel.

Pessimistic in tone and ironic in structure, proposing a world that is overrun by greed and where the wealthy Oligarchy use their influence to enslave the majority of the population of Earth, the novel is a stark contrast to the tone and content of much of London’s more well-known work. Published in 1908, The Iron Heel seems to predict some of the defining difficulties of the twentieth century, such as the first World War and the Great Depression. It also prefigures some of the paradigmatic dystopian novels that would come in the following half century such as 1984, Brave New World, and We, by the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin. In writing The Iron Heel, London created a template that other dystopian novels will follow and helped to define the genre.

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