Isaac Asimov: Great Uncle of Themed Entertainment? Part 2

21 Aug

In Part 1 of this post, I made a provocative assertion about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy being related to Themed Entertainment and then did absolutely nothing to back that up. I guess I’ve got some catching up to do.


This post will continue to categorically ruin any initial joy and surprise that you may derive from reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy for the first time. If you didn’t heed my warning last time, then be aware that I’m really giving up the goods this time.


Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Presumably, you have exhausted some wild orgy of violent fantasies about what terrific power would allow an individual to single-handedly, and against all odds, execute a conquest of unfathomable scope. As it turns out, The Mule’s extraordinary success hinges on his capability to adjust the emotional balance of human beings. As one of his recent converts quips, “It sounds like a little trick, but it’s quite unbeatable.” The Mule himself elaborates further, “Men’s minds are dials, with pointers that indicate the prevailing emotions. … I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the point I wished.” As the story progresses, we witness the dramatic military effects of what happens when The Mule can cause unwavering loyalty in his generals, or more interestingly, overwhelming despair in a targeted population. You may be thinking that this power which I have hyped is a hyperbolic literary hack, a shadowy deus ex machina which seems to have exerted its fearsome will on the voters of the Hugo Awards. However, Asimov imbues this absolute power with some caveats wherein which lie some clever and telling nuances.

It's good to be The Mule

It’s good to be The Mule

First, when the aforementioned convert is accused of having lost all power of objective thought, he replies, “Only my emotions are fixed. My reason is at it always was. It may be influenced in a certain direction by my conditioned emotions, but it is not forced. And there are some things I can see more clearly now that I am freed of my earlier emotional trend.” The admission of this duality of emotion and reason is an irresistible concept for me, because it suggests that The Mule’s power does not require total subjugation of an individual’s mental function. It is only necessary to affect or redirect the underlying emotions, and allow the individual to reason and function in an otherwise normal fashion. Put another way, our personal emotional truths are an inextricable part of the set of assumptions that we apply to everyday reasoning and function. While certain environments, such as school or the workplace, might suggest that we ought to conduct ourselves in a precise and logical fashion, The Mule understands that ultimately our actions are influenced, and in some cases dictated by our feelings.

The second nuance of The Mule’s power is the idea that the experience of a hunch, insight, or intuition, which we tend to experience as a flash of greater power, can be treated as an emotion, and thus be induced or controlled by The Mule. The implication is that those breakthrough moments where everything seems to come together and make sense don’t necessarily need to percolate from some deep, inner place, but can actually be triggered from outside oneself. I think the rest of the book concerns itself with some minor plot point concerning the evolving likelihood of millennia of dark ages, but by this time, I had set the book down, lost in my own reverie of insight.

It occurred to me that The Mule’s power is both what we strive for as storytellers, and what we seek every time we open a book, enter a theatre, or otherwise immerse ourselves in someone else’s creation. When we open ourselves to a story, it’s because we crave that tweak or that twinge, that insight and indignation, a shock or just a hush of reflection. And we’re voracious about it, because it makes us feel, and feeling is what reminds us that we haven’t quite had the life choked out of us by the doldrums of the everyday, quite yet. We are changed on the other end of it, and we might be changed in different ways each time it’s told to us. And we take that change with us back to our lives and the people in them.

Pink Floyd Busts Out The Visi-Sonor . . . Again!

Pink Floyd jamming on the Visi-Sonor

The craft of storytelling implies a sense of neutrality wherein no medium can be considered superior to any other in an absolute sense, although the choice of medium and related artistic decisions should always support the spirit of the story. Personally, I have a strong interest in themed entertainment, and I feel that immersive experiences provide a number of new tools and modes for creative narrative expression. While The Mule could exercise his emotional control more or less at will without any external implements, he sometimes chose to focus his efforts through the use an instrument called a Visi-Sonor, which emits musical tones, but also stimulates the optic center of the brain directly, causing vivid hallucinations. I think it’s significant that Asimov chose to augment The Mule’s inherent gift of incredible power by suggesting that it could actually be enhanced when employed in conjunction with an immersive aesthetic sensibility. A strong story told with honesty and passion affects our emotions which affects our actions which affects our lives. That is power. And Asimov, a storyteller in his own right, wanted us to understand that. Buried in a plot-point in the second half of the second book of a trilogy, he tells us that one person CAN change the world, or the galaxy, or whatever term we choose to apply to those regions occupied by thinking, feeling beings. The beautiful truth though is that each of us can claim that power, and I consider it a great privilege to exercise it thoughtfully.


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