The problem with science fiction is the science. We can only see as far as the horizon, and the art of the storyteller is to describe what is beyond, to make the unknown exciting or enticing, to warn us of the dangers, yet with access to no more knowledge than that available to any of us they are armed only with their imagination to enable them to extrapolate the present to a logical future point.
The key tenet of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), is that humans en masse are predictable, and the greater the number the more accurately those predictions can be made further into the future. This has allowed the psychohistorian Hari Seldon to not only pinpoint the imminent demise of the Galactic Empire but to devise a plan that will ensure that the resulting fall into chaos can be curtailed by establishing two outposts that will preserve the knowledge of the universe and seed the Second Galactic Empire in a fraction of the time it would take if left solely to the squabbling worlds left behind.
A future history resembling the form of Olaf Stapledon’s earlier novels Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), the trilogy is not so much dramatic as thematic, and it is a utopian vision, that the past and its knowledge are worth preserving, and when the alternative is violence and chaos the future must be planned for with the actions of the many actively directed towards the best outcome, sometimes with subtlety, sometimes more directly.
“The fall of Empire is a massive thing,” Hari Seldon explains to the court that would put him on trial for the heresy of suggesting such a thing is inevitable, and there are brief moments when the burden of the past and the weight of the future are pressed into the pages, the whole cosmos not only described but shaped by words.
The capital planet of the Empire is closer to the centre of the Milky Way than forgotten Earth, and that shifted perspective suggests a starting point that may lead in bold directions. “There was a frightening harshness about a sky which glittered unbrokenly in every direction. It was being lost in a sea of radiation. And in the centre of a cluster of ten thousand stars, whose light tore to shreds the feebly encircling darkness, there circled the huge Imperial planet, Trantor.”
Unfortunately, modern chaos theory tells us that Seldon’s psychohistorical method is fundamentally flawed: all complex systems are inherently unstable, and the greater the number of factors involved, the less predictable they become. As the basis of the narrative is undermined, the question of how enjoyable the novels remain must be judged purely on the quality of the plot and prose when looked on as representative of the golden age of science fiction.
Originally published as short stories in Astounding Magazine over eight years from 1942, Asimov’s trilogy suffers from superfluous recapping and exposition that should have been streamlined in the editing process. Other writers have crafted novels out of stories previously published in episodic form – Charles Dickens, Armistead Maupin – or collected shorts – Amy Tan, Anne McCaffrey – but those were either conceived with more consistency or revised upon collation.
With those instalments often divided by decades, no characters span more than two or three stories at most, though sometimes descendants are featured, yet all the protagonists speak with a uniform voice. If the story is to overcome that burden, then it must be sufficiently engaging to keep the audience moving forward, for any excitement is deflected by the staid and ponderous tone of the ruminations.
In the second collection, Foundation and Empire, the reclusive Mule spreads his influence through neighbouring star systems, before in Second Foundation the fear of that mysterious power threatens the new order. Although these threats should bring focus, neither is credible; the Mule is a pantomime villain, a deformed mutant who resents the universe and wishes revenge, yet his greatest sin is that he is utterly tedious in person. His final confrontation with the First Speaker of the Second Foundation amounts to little more than “I’m smarter than you are,” back and forth between the pair as Asimov attempts to show how clever he is, failing because the majority of the points both make are either already obvious or don’t withstand scrutiny.
The central mystery of the final volume, whether the concealed Second Foundation actually exists, is handicapped by the fact that scenes have already been set there. The citizens of the First Foundation are fearful of it, yet the charter under which both were created stated that they were set up independently for security but would eventually cooperate, but no character ever considers them to be anything other than a threat for no other reason than the story requires an antagonist.
Science fiction is often more representative of the time it was written than the future, sometimes as a mirror to observe what cannot be said directly, or a caustic denunciation crying for change. In the early pages of the novel, Trantor, capital planet of the Empire, was “in the hands of the aristocracy,” emblematic of decay and degeneracy, but Terminus, home planet of the First Foundation, populated with scholars dedicated to research and preservation of information and the seed of the future utopia that is to replace the old Empire, is portrayed as rife with the same political squabbling and ignorance that was endemic in the structure that it was supposed to replace.
More anachronistic is the casual misogyny, with only token references to unseen wives until midway through the second volume when the first female characters finally appear: a trader’s wife, a disobedient schoolgirl, a housekeeper and a warlord’s concubine, portrayals neither believable nor flattering. This comprehension of women only by their subservient relationships is summed up by the latter, “dandies of the Imperial court with their sparkling and libidinous ladies; …rough and raucous warlords …with their unbridled wenches; …plump and luxurious businessmen of the Foundation, with their lush and flagitious mistresses.”
Asimov’s concept of the hard sciences is no more enlightened, as while we are shown televisors, rocket ships and rayguns and are informed of space battles on the newswire as the maid clears the breakfast table, no attempt is made to explore or explain these in any depth. It may have been Asimov’s intention to make these so ingrained into the background that they are as easily accepted by reader and character alike, but the result is they are so mundane as to be ridiculous, as a trader nips down to the local spaceport to pick up his cruiser, or a married couple enjoy the luxury spaceship parking facilities of the central worlds on their honeymoon. Heinlein would have written this as satire; Asimov is dry and literal.
Similarly cumbersome are references to microfilm as a discreet way of passing information, and the concept of an explosive nuclear device small enough to be carried into an enemy stronghold concealed under the tongue of an agent; the principles of nuclear fission, already determined and put to practical demonstration before publication, require a critical mass of fissile material that would be very difficult to conceal in any bodily orifice.
More interesting is the Lens used during hyperspace travel, almost a perfect description of stellar cartography as depicted forty years later in Star Trek Generations, with the caveat that Asimov has to let the tubes to warm up before it can be used, which might explain why astrogation requires such time consuming calibration of ship’s position against known reference points before any hop can be plotted, reflected in the jump calculations aboard the Battlestar Galactica.
These are not the only influences to flow from the Foundation: out of control bureaucracy was satirised by both Douglas Adams and Harry Harrison; Frank Herbert took the entanglements and demands of an empire run on trade and created the Guild and the feuding royal houses for his more sophisticated creation, even down to the Bene Gesserit’s investment in the long game through manipulated bloodlines; George Lucas took the idea that mind tricks and disputes over taxation are the key to good science fiction.
Trantor, a whole planet engulfed in concrete, is a specific image reflected in Herbert’s Dune, in many ways the precursor of the industrialised Harkonnen homeworld Geidi Prime. Dedicated to the administrative tasks of an empire, that world is a nightmare of officialdom; entirely dependent upon a dozen tribute worlds for provisioning but everyone is rude, harassed and stressed, but it is still preferable to the harsh rule of the Harkonnens.
Yet Asimov’s background did have a grounding in science, as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, which goes some way to explaining his prevalent interest in brainwaves and the manipulation thereof that becomes a key plot point as the stories progress, but it is curious that a biologist and futurist would write of humanity as a species that in the distant future has neither evolved nor adapted in any way.
Although not directly addressed in the text, it is implicit that there have been few advances in medicine or prolonging lifespan – “None of the quadrillions living now…will be living a century from now” – but the century the characters are trapped in is not the future: physically, emotionally and socially, it is the 1950s. It cannot be argued that this short-sightedness is a symptom of the times, as it is the very function of science fiction to look forward, and the question of changes to the species was raised by other writers of the same period, Theodore Sturgeon in More Than Human and John Wyndham in The Chrysalids, to name just two examples.
Akin to many science fiction writers, Asimov does not have a high opinion of religion or mysticism, yet the Foundation are not above using belief as a weapon, setting themselves up with priests who go among the remnants of the Empire, squandering their technology and teaching the rudiments of science as gospel to manipulate the populations. As the situation matures, they use economics in the same way, controlling the space around them with traders and Merchant Princes instead of priests.
“Big idea” science fiction requires strong protagonists to comment on the shift of the planets, whose eyes can see and whose hearts can feel the changes, but the formality of Asimov’s prose makes the procession of characters distant and cold, spouting dialogue at times almost a parody of the genre, with “Great galloping galaxies!” actually spoken at one point.
More shocking is that the acceptability of the death penalty is never questioned by any of the allegedly civilised citizens; the contradiction of capital punishment is made all the more apparent by the Foundation’s stated goal of uniting the galaxy in peace, as exemplified by the quote of an early mayor – “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
It is difficult to believe that readers could have persuaded by the Seldon plan that relied on the psychology of the masses being monochromatic when, half way through a century that had witnessed two global conflicts and was apparently heading towards a third, the evidence was demonstrably otherwise, especially as the plan apparently operates by clumsy coincidences such as an accidental meeting with just the right person on a planet of several billion, or contrivances such as the trial where an enemy agent is unmasked by a tattoo visible only in ultraviolet light that just happened to flood the room at the precise moment his sleeve was pulled up.
As each subsequent Seldon Crisis arrives and passes with the resolution having been shoehorned into place, a sense of inevitability permeates the text. At the close of the trilogy, it transpires that many of these ridiculous happenstances have in fact been manipulated by Second Foundation agents, but rather than a consolidation that ties the narrative strands together, it renders them moot; why should we invest in characters when their whole lives have been stage managed from behind the scenes?
To say that the book has dated worse than other works of the period is unfair, as most literature will gather anachronisms, but here a major discontinuity would have already predated it by centuries: the conceit that all communication will be paper based, often handwritten, with the result that the creation of the Encyclopaedia Galactica will take generations. Even if that is only a cover story for the true goal of the Foundation, it was a preposterous one in an age that had printing presses and home typewriters and was on the cusp of mass electronic communication and the digital age.
Asimov was an avid and prolific writer and communicator in many fields, speaking often at science fiction conventions; the preservation of knowledge was obviously important to him, and the Foundation regarded as one of his finest achievements, but the central idea that all knowledge will be lost if not preserved by that Foundation is flawed, as it takes no account of all books and libraries in every city, town and village of our planet, nor the human ambition to succeed. He portrays the species as automatons with only a few genuine thinkers scattered through a herd whose who would lapse into barbarism without strong leadership.
While the sequence concerns the totality of the population of the galaxy, billions of individuals, Asimov is unconcerned with these masses other than to count them; they are nameless, faceless sheep of no more importance than the individual fibres of the threads of a canvas upon which he paints a portrait of humanity that is bare, devoid of detail, warmth, artistry or flourish, as indifferent as the psychohistorians who treat them only as data points in their calculations.
Unfortunately, despite his inclusion in the “big three” of the golden age, Asimov does not compare. For deft characterisation and breakneck plots, read Heinlein; for smooth prose woven with meticulous scientific detail, read Clarke. Similarly, for capturing the strength and generosity of the individual human and the blind brutality of the masses, read Wyndham; further back, for cosmos spanning discourses on the place of humanity in the universe, read Stapledon; for man’s relationship to technology and how the machines that make us stronger in power cannot alter a spirit already weak or strong, read Wells.
On the evidence of this trilogy, it is unfortunate that the only reason to read Asimov is simply to say that you have, for this foundation is no longer strong enough to build anything on.