Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is inarguably one of the seminal works of modern science fiction. It was one of the first to take its inspiration from the social sciences rather than the physical sciences (Gernsback’s formula of “better living through technology” had received a serious blow with the first use of the atomic bomb in 1945), and consequently the emphasis throughout is on those phenomena that have little to do with particles and waves and everything to do with human behavior: politics, war, and, ultimately, the relationships among the people who form our window onto this history.

History it is. The Foundation Trilogy, portions of which were first published in the late 1940s, is one of the early examples of what we now call “future history,” those works that projected humanity’s progress against the backdrop of the wider universe. One thinks of Clifford D. Simak’s contemporaneous stories collected in City (1953, although portions were published as early as 1944), James Blish’s Cities in Flight (a series that began with Earthman Come Home, 1955), and Poul Anderson’s series of the Polesotechnic League and Dominic Flandry, first published in 1958, or the later Berserker stories and novels by Fred Saberhagen, the first collection of which was published in 1967.

For those who need a refresher — or perhaps, strange as it may seem to one who grew up with these books, an introduction — the story is simply thus: Hari Seldon, the great psychologist who brought the science of psychohistory to its peak and then buried it out of sight, created two Foundations at “opposite ends of the galaxy” in the late days of the galactic Empire, which was even then on its deathbed, although only the most foresighted could see it. Foundation covers the creation of the Foundation (which is to say, the “First Foundation”) and its transformation from a scholarly endeavor to a political power, first under the Mayors, and then under the Merchant Princes. This one is a story cycle rather than a novel: we see episodes in this history of the future, centered on the strong personalities who played key roles. Foundation and Empire tells first of an attempt by an Imperial general, Bel Riose, to conquer the Foundation, an attempt thwarted by his own Emperor, who decides that Riose is preparing a coup, and has him tried and executed for treason. The second part tells of the rise of the Mule, a conqueror who begins with nothing and conquers not only the remnants of the Empire, but the Foundation as well. The Mule, as it turns out, is a mutant, unforeseeable by psychohistory or any other science, and his goal, after the conquest of the Foundation, is to find and neutralize the Second Foundation. He is checked in his search by Bayta Darell, a Foundationer who has married a Trader. The search continues in the first part of Second Foundation, until the Second Foundation itself neutralizes the Mule. After this, the resurgent First Foundation resumes the search on its own, and finally locates a group of telepaths on Terminus — in the words of Arkady Darrell, a descendant of Bayta, “a circle has no end,” and so everyone is satisfied that the Second Foundation, seen by the Foundation as a threat, has been found and neutralized. Of course, it hasn’t been.

It’s hard to describe how much this series — which, with later prequels, sequels, and with the expansion of the Foundation universe to include Asimov’s Robot stories and other novels, has practically become a franchise — influenced the way we see science fiction.

When the Foundation stories began appearing in the late 1940s, science fiction was at the very beginning of the “Golden Age,” when editors such as Horace Gold, Anthony Boucher and John W. Campbell were insisting on literary quality as a primary element of the stories they published. By the standards of the late twentieth century (since I hold to the idea that a new century doesn’t really start until about fifteen years after the calendar says so), well after writers such as Aldiss, Ballard, Zelazny, and Delany made “literary” part and parcel of the toolbox, the writing is what I would call “unsophisticated.” These are straightforward adventure stories, political thrillers that share little more than a genre name with the works of such writers as C. J. Cherryh or Robert Silverberg, and a new generation who play with genre tropes the way Asimov played with space and time. This is not to say that Asimov’s trilogy lacks merit, but merely that it lacks a dimension we have come to expect: they are tightly written psychological adventure stories, without a lot of bells and whistles. (And, lest I be accused of snobbery here, I’d like to point out that I’ve seen too many examples in which “literary” takes the place of “entertaining,” with disastrous results.)

So, why bother with them? They’re relics, right? Nope. This is science fiction as the literature of ideas in a very highly developed form. The concept of psychohistory itself marks a shift in the paradigm of science fiction, from “hard” to “soft” sciences, and a consequent predominance of human relationships in storytelling. (Yes, they were always important — no people, no story. It’s a matter of emphasis more than anything else: the problem has a human solution, not a mechanical one.) Think also for a moment about the implications of the interface between information technology and AI — itself as much a matter for psychologists as for technologists, and something that does relate to Asimov’s stories, in a conceptual sense, at least — as a reflection of how the soft sciences and hard sciences begin to come together in such novels as Elizabeth Bear’s Dust or Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End. I won’t ascribe this to Asimov — at least, not this particular series specifically — but I think there’s a strong case to be made for the conceptual basis of the Foundation books as a direct ancestor of these later manifestations, if for nothing else, that they all have as a central concern the way in which humanity, both as a mass and as individuals, fits into the equation.

And again, Asimov’s take on history as the result of large social movements is directly equivalent to the way history was presented when I studied it at university. (Aha! you say, I knew he was a historian! Well, to a certain extent, yes.) It’s a deconstructivist approach, the historiographic equivalent of the author as anonymous, although it’s instructive that Asimov still tells the story in terms of strong characters — and they are strong, vivid personalities that come to life on the pages of these books.
And that, ultimately, is what it is all about: the Foundation Trilogy is undeniably one of the great works in the literature of ideas, a set of political thrillers filled with everything that makes science fiction worth reading. I think we can be grateful to have Asimov’s classic available to a new audience.

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1 comment to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy

  • I think Asimov’s own metaphor (in the essay “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass”, reprinted in his collection Asimov on Science Fiction) describes his style well: it is a transparent prose style, as in transparent glass. We’ve been taught to distrust and maybe look down on such a style, but when it is used honestly, when the author lays his cards on the table and says “Don’t look at me, look at what I’m looking at”, it has permanent value. A marked “literary” style is, in the same metaphor, mosaic glass: it’s beautiful, but it can be hard to see anything through it: we look at it, not at what the creator of the stained glass was looking at. That is neither better nor worse, but simply something different.

    Asimov snarkily adds that mosaic glass has been around since at least Roman times, whereas transparent glass is a 17th-century invention. It’s damned hard to make glass easy to see through: the simplest and cheapest approach gives you Coke-bottle green (no accident that glass Coke bottles had that color). Similarly, the “literary” style has been around since the Epic of Gilgamesh and has done fine in all cultures, but transparent prose comes along late in a civilization’s history, and is unstable: let “high” culture be lost, and the transparent style goes down with it.

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