|A Dave Langford column for Fortean Times.|
You can trust science fiction fans to have a reliably weird angle on world events. Could there be a secret meaning in the name of this century's most famous terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda? China Miéville and Jack Womack, SF writers with Arabic-speaking friends, independently reported the possible connection with an SF saga by the late Isaac Asimov.
Asimov's best-known novel sequence, half a century old, features the fall of a great but now decadent Galactic Empire. One man, Hari Seldon, has the vision to predict the decline of the West (as you might call it). So he creates an organization on a remote and poverty-stricken world which will eventually take over and run the galaxy properly -- once the Empire has finished its inevitable fall.
Seldon is so confident of his thousand-year Plan that he prepares videotapes to be shown at key points in the future, bragging about his correct forecasts and the scheme's ongoing success. The dying Empire itself is annoyed by all this, and with its remaining military might attacks the power-base set up by Seldon ... but owing to historical inevitability, even the Great Satan itself can't upset the orderly progress of the Plan and the prophetic vision of Hari Seldon.
The small but alarming coincidence is that this is Asimov's "Foundation" series (Seldon's outfit is called the Foundation), allegedly popular among Arabic-speaking SF readers under its translated name Al Qaeda. Usually rendered into English as The Base, this also means The Foundation.
So, was Osama bin Laden inspired by Asimov's fiction to establish his Al-Qaeda in an impoverished country, there to await and assist the fall of the West, issuing portentous videotapes the while?
Perhaps the strongest supporting evidence was supplied by Malcolm Edwards of Orion Books, who practises the mystic divinatory art of Anagramancy. As he remarks, "Osama bin Laden" is a rearrangement of "I a Seldon BA, man", suggesting that his very name is based on the sacred Asimov texts. I forgot to mention that Asimov was a thoroughgoing atheist.
Womack suggested that the Foundation series may contain clues about bin Laden's ultimate goals, "much in the same way a study of Mein Kampf would have benefited Adolf Hitler's counterparts a great deal if they bothered to read the book and paid attention to what it said."
The most interesting Foundation clue is that Seldon also creates a backup organization, the Second Foundation, whose precise location and purpose are a mystery that's central to volume three of Asimov's trilogy. Eventually (spoiler warning!) it turns out that the Second Foundation has been concealed all along on the capital planet of the Empire itself -- specifically, in the Imperial library. Boring from within.
Therefore, converting from Asimov's metaphor to the real world, we deduce that bin Laden's backup organization, and perhaps indeed the man himself, can be found in the Library of Congress. Let's hope the USA doesn't impetuously bomb it.
(By coincidence another major SF author, Ursula Le Guin, wrote about the prolonged bombing and total destruction of the Library of Congress by religious fanatics in her 2000 novel The Telling. But that's another story.)
Whenever two SF fans debate a topic like this, there will be at least three opinions. My own SF newsletter's mention of the possible Foundation/al-Qaeda link rapidly produced a rival theory to the effect that Osama bin Laden was more likely to have picked up ideas from another novel full of Arab and Islamic influences, Frank Herbert's Dune.
Dune's young hero Paul, you'll remember, is destined to more or less single-handedly topple a different and even more decadent Galactic Empire, which some readers find reminiscent of the House of Saud. Paul begins by getting adopted into a tribe of desert folk who are keen for a spot of jihad, and they give him a secret tribal name: "Usul, the base of the pillar." The base. Al-Qaeda.
(Best not to think about the kamikaze coup in Dune, when a desert fanatic flies his aircraft into an Imperial troop carrier. "A reasonable exchange ... There must've been three hundred men in that carrier." No, let's not go there.)
Sadly, students of Arabic poured cold water on the idea of a bin Laden/Foundation connection -- although, oddly enough, it was revealed in The Cult at the End of the World by David E.Kaplan & Andrew Marshall (1996) that the Aum Shinrikyo cult, those Japanese nerve gas merchants, did use Asimov's Foundation series as "the blueprint for the cult's long-term plans". Gosh!
Speaking of Japan ... one of those Arabic students suggested tongue in cheek that the "base" in al-Qaeda or al-Qa'ida really refers to the scrap of awful Japlish computer-game dialogue that became an Internet catchphrase. In Arabic: Kulu qa'idatikum namlikuha. All Your Base Are Belong To Us.
|First published in Fortean
Times 158, May 2002.|
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