Isaac Asimov: Foundation

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times on the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. […]
There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.

Science fiction often shines a light on the present by giving us a view of the future. The Foundation series is no exception. But it also – like many of Isaac Asimov’s other early works – unintentionally turns a searing floodlight on the past, as well.

Reading Foundation today is more an exercise in seeing how far we’ve come since the book was published in 1951, than a voyage into the distant future. It simultaneously tells the story of the crumbling Galactic Empire and one scientist’s master plan to save civilisation; the universal truths of the present day; and the American 1940s and its obsessions with atomic energy, automated kitchen appliances, and the intersecting masculine worlds of science and politics.

The future: time of The Foundation

When provincial lad Gaal Dornick arrives on Trantor on the opening page of the book, both he and we are about to be thrust into a historic moment. The year is about 12,000 G.E. (Galactic Era), later revealed to be approximately 50,000 A.D., and the mighty Galactic Empire is in decline.

Dornick is about to meet the only scientist who understands the full significance of this point in (future) history. He is Hari Seldon, a mathematician who has invented the field of ‘psychohistory’, a science which can model and forecast human societies. Razor-sharp Seldon has foreseen that the galaxy is about to descend into a thirty-millenium-long Dark Ages, and has a plan which, if executed carefully, could reduce this to a mere thousand years. Will he have the skill to pull it off? And will the various crises over the coming centuries bring civilisation’s progress in line with, or further from, Seldon’s plan?

There are two audacious ideas here. One: psychohistory. This always struck me as a bit flakey, but now there are hints it might already be becoming a reality. Either way, it’s an original concept of Asimov’s (as far as I can tell) that makes the Foundation stories unique. And two: the decision to set the stories in the deeeep future. While most of the ‘golden era’ sci-fi stories seem to be set in nearly unimaginably distant year of (gasp) 2001 or thereabouts, Foundation is set in the 500th Century, for goodness sake. This is taking scientific prediction to a new order of magnitude. For me, the most evocative detail is that history has forgotten whether humanity even began on a single planet. But will Asimov be able to present a wholly convincing scenario? Short answer: no. Long answer: let’s look at that in more detail shortly.

The present: time of reading

In any case, this book isn’t a grand fantasy about alien civilisations or strange new technologies. It’s a purely human story. It’s the rise and fall of the Roman (or British, or American) Empire, scaled up to the breadth of the galaxy, populated with workers, autocrats, heroes and visionaries, and set in motion.

This is where the Universal Truths come in. The people in Foundation play the same games as we do today: the battle between What Science Says Is True and What People Prefer To Believe; the exertion of power via religion, trade or technology; cycles of innovation and complacency; and so on. This will always make the story resonate with the reader, no matter where (or when) they’re reading.

The problem is that the vehicle for all this is Asimov’s view of the future, and its details are hopelessly unbelievable.

The past: time of writing

Within the first two pages we’re hit over the head with the golden-era-of-sci-fi stick. Those super-futuristic hyphen-o-matic neologisms are everywhere: the hyper-video, the tremendous three-dimensional newscasts, and of course the Jump through hyper-space. At least Asimov shows some restraint and calls the taxi a taxi and not a hover-taxi, even though it (yes) hovers. Every use of ‘visor jolts me out of the narrative stream (surely over fifty thousand years the apostrophe would have been dropped from this abbreviation for televisor), as does tridimensional star-map (not ‘3D star map’ – or even just ‘map’, with its three-dimensionality demonstrated through action instead?). I could go on.

Then there’s the view of technological development. Asimov is a poster child for what I call the ‘zeppelin extrapolation’. The zeppelin extrapolation is a very easy mistake to fall into. It’s when you’re in a particular time period (say the 1920s) and you try and predict the future of something (say trans-oceanic flight) by taking the current technology (e.g. zeppelins) and simply scaling it up (“By the year 2000, ordinary people will be able to cross the Atlantic in huge fleets of hundreds of zeppelins!”) In Foundation the zeppelin extrapolation gives us:

  • a communication system where mail (in envelopes) is delivered by space ship (instead of van) and if the letter is particularly long, it might be recorded on microfilm (instead of paper)
  • an encyclopedia – central to the story’s premise – which, to cover all galactic knowledge, will have to have a staff of tens of thousands of people that publish a new volume every few years
  • atomic energy as the hallmark of technological development, leading not only to atomic generators but also (I kid you not) atomic knives and ‘Automatic Super-Kleeno Atomic Washing Machines’
  • the ‘mightiest deed of man’: a city so big it completely envelopes a whole planet.

In the current era of email, Wikipedia, fusion and renewable energy research, and a growing awareness of the value of ecosystems, it’s hard to lose yourself in this vision of the future.

Yes, I’m being very snidey here – after all, finding the faults in past predictions is the ultimate case of hindsight hypocrisy. And even though I enjoy thinking about all these flaws, I still delight in reading Foundation despite them – and sometimes because of them. Asimov is, after all, writing in an age of huge scientific development, which he viewed with a strident optimism. Every ‘atomic knife’ and old-fashioned curse (“Oh, galaxy!“; “I don’t care an electron”) conjures up a mental image of a cozy 1950s futuristic magazine-advertisement scenario where the dutiful housewife finishes the housework all fresh and energised (“Thankyou, Hose-Down Plastic Kitchenette 2000 and Atom-Power Robo-Toaster!”) and is able to greet her husband with joy when he comes home from his hard day oiling the wheels of utopia. Even though we all know that’s bullshit, the enthusiasm is infectious.

But one aspect that’s a lot harder to gloss over is the gender inequality. I don’t think Asimov was intentionally being anti-woman; I just think he was young, naive, and a product of his times. He seems to just forget entirely that women exist (let alone that they are intelligent individuals capable of rational action). The one named female character, Licia, wife of Commdor Asper, is a vain, shrewish, shallow stereotype that gives me a reaction like you get from fingernails on blackboards. In my copy of the book, she appears on pages 188-189 and 223-224 (i.e. not a large presence) and spends the entire time nagging her husband and being able to be bribed by Shiny Pretty Clothes.

And the book is filled with passages like this that are very jarring to a modern reader (my italics in the quote below, obviously):

‘The fall of Trantor,’ said Seldon, ‘cannot be stopped by any conceivable effort. […] Already they recall the lives of their grandfathers with envy. They will see that political revolutions and trade stagnations will increase. The feeling will pervade the Galaxy that only what a man can grasp for himself at that moment will be of any account. Ambitious men will not wait and unscrupulous men will not hang back.’

Should you read it?

Yes. It’s very readable – a page-turner with some great protagonists who give you a lot of delight each time they outsmart their enemies in big face-to-face battle-of-wits smackdowns. It’s a series of cliffhangers where the whole fate of the galaxy is hanging in the balance. It’s the gradual revealing of new parts of the galaxy you’ve been curious about since they were mentioned in passing early on. And it’s the gateway novel to the whole extended series of books in the Foundation Universe, a classic of science fiction.

It’s a book of its time, though, not a book for all ages. And that may be why I think it’s going to be increasingly hard for new readers to understand why the Foundation series beat Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings to win the one-off Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series.

This book was partly read in the car from Ballarat to Melbourne

Linxors

Here’s a PDF of the Foundation Trilogy. Here’s a BBC radio adaptation you can download for free. Here’s a detailed plot summary for those of you who prefer to get through English class without ever reading actual books. Here’s some knowledgeable people having a very in-depth and interesting discussion of the Foundation series. And, as a bonus, here’s a wacky theory about how Foundation may have inspired Osama bin Laden.

The cover photo for this post comes from the blog of illustrator Jeremy Thompson.

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One response to “Isaac Asimov: Foundation

  1. People should never be allowed to pass Engish classes without reading a book. It makes me sad. 😦

    I may end up reading scifi because of you, goshdarnit. Perhaps I should try listening to the BBC play while filing at work.

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