Asimov’s Foundation (2008)


This short feature was originally published in Death Ray issue 14, in our “Time Trap” slot. There’s an excellent article by Tom Holland that covers, among other things, just how much Asimov did his “Cribbin’ from Gibbon” at The Guardian.

Isaac Asimov’s collected Foundation stories were published in 1951 (okay, so they were actually written somewhat before this, but it still counts), the first book in what would become a massive, galaxy spanning epic.

There can be fewer grander SF concepts than the mathematical ability to predict the sweep of the future. This is the big idea in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. A millennia-spanning epic, Foundation was Asimov’s attempt to pen an SF version of the fall of Rome, inspired by Edward Gibbon’s history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (as the author joked “I did some cribbin’ from Gibbon”).

The Foundation series details the collapse of the senescent Empire, which has ruled the stars for 12,000 years. This momentous event is foreseen by the mathemetician Hari Seldon, who has devised ‘psychohistory’, a science capable of plotting the mass actions of humanity. He predicts that the Empire will collapse within 300 years, and that the galaxy will be plunged into a bloody 30,000 year period of anarchy. Seldon hatches a plan to shorten this period to 1000 years, the Empire being too far gone to save. His results are deemed treasonable by the Empire’s de facto rulers, the Commission of Public Safety, and he and another mathematician are put on trial. In the end, the Commission strikes a deal with Seldon, exiling his organisation, the Foundation, to the distant planet of Terminus.

Thus a grand plan is set in motion. Foundation leaps forward in fits and starts in a series of short stories and novellas, taking the reader to various crucial points in future history. Often these are ‘Seldon Crises’, predicted by Seldon, and Seldon himself is on hand to either dispense advice via holographic recording in the ‘Time Vault’, or alternatively neatly cap the story as the crisis passes (a bit like the Dungeon Master popping up at the end of each episode of the 1980s cartoon,  Dungeons & Dragons). Though it must be very annoying for the characters involved, the trouble with psychohistory is that to reveal too much to those in the future has the effect of disrupting the plan; a forward-looking temporal paradox.

These themes of predetermination and freedom are the human side to the trilogy. Psychohistory’s mathematical modelling predicts the actions of all humanity, yet the plan often only succeeds – or is, conversely, nearly undone – because of the actions of individuals. There’s even an anti-Seldon in the shape of the Mule, a telepathic mutant who, by dint of his prodigious mental powers, manipulates those around him in a far more direct manner than Seldon ever could. The events in Foundation and Empire detail the Mule’s near-successful attempts to bring down the Foundation, now a large conglomeration of worlds. A trifle blase about the whole affair, the leaders of the Foundation head off to the Time Vault as another post-mortem visit from Seldon is due. They expect to be told how to deal with the problem, and are shocked when Seldon’s hologram tells them nothing of the Mule, but of a civil war. It is revealed that this would have happened were it not  for the advent of the mutant. They realise Seldon failed to predict the Mule, and the Foundation is thrown into disarray.

But actually, he didn’t really fail to predict the Mule. The existence of a Second Foundation had been revealed in Foundation, but its location and purpose kept secret. A collection of “mentalics”, or telepathic humans, its job is to introduce the “mental” sciences to mankind, and correct unforeseen events, like The Mule. Although in actual fact its true, true purpose is to ultimately become the ruling body of Seldon’s predicted Second Empire.

As this contingency plan demonstrates, events in the Foundation universe are not inevitable, but they are necessary, and are only manipulable to a certain degree. We have no choice but to accept our fate, but we should go down fighting; indeed, if we don’t, our fate will be different. The heroes spend their time trying very hard to make what will be, be.      This struggle between the pre-ordained and freedom of action is Foundation‘s answer to the Robot series’ Three Laws. In the Robot stories Asimov and spent his time imagining lawyerly ways around these supposedly inviolable rules. In Foundation, Asimov keeps the rules – the already mapped future – hidden from his protagonists and from his readers, but they are there nonetheless. This goes so far as once the clever hero has figured out the best course of action, the conclusion is revealed to be the right one, produced like a rabbit from a hat by the holographic spirit of Seldon. To my mind, this unliving Columbo of the far future is is a manifestation of a desire for a somewhat paternalistic, ordered universe.

Despite its theme of determinism, Foundation is not one of the great dialectics of SF. Asimov cooked the idea up in 1941 on his way to visit John W Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Like with many of his authors, Campbell had a close professional relationship with Asimov, and it is probably his “no super intelligent aliens” rule in Astounding that prompted Asimov to keep the universe of the Foundation entirely human.

Asimov wrote throughout the war, being lucky enough to be stationed at a naval research centre in the US, where his colleagues included Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague De Camp. Foundation was printed as a series of short stories between 1942-1944 in Astounding Science Fiction, and collected together in 1951. Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation followed this pattern of serialised release, with subsequent collections. Three novels set at various points in history before the collapse of the Empire followed, being printed 1950-52.

During the 60s and 70s Asimov wrote very little fiction, but in the 1980′s he returned to it full-time. Somewhat controversially, he decided to attempt  to marry the Foundation series with his Robot books. This was not an uncomplicated proposition. There is no mention of robots at all in the original Foundation series, and his robot stories, though seminal, were beginning to look quaint as  computing took off. Never prolific before, Asimov produced a flurry of novels in less than a decade. Foundation’s Edge, The Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire, Foundation and Earth and Prelude to Foundation were published between 1982 and 1988. Foundation’s Edge won him a Hugo. This later series revealed that Seldon’s work was the plot of the now godlike-robots to protect mankind. They’d taken increasingly complex views of the Three Laws of Robotics, adding a ‘zeroth’ law of their own that supserseded all others: That a robot shall not allow humanity to come to harm. With this as their governing creed, the robots had taken it upon themselves to ensure that man flourished in the stars. In the end, the master puppeteer Hari Seldon, turns out to be nothing other than a tool of the robots, who are in turn enslaved by their programmed laws, which were programmed by humans.

Despite failing health, Asimov continued to write, but eventually the AIDS he had contracted through a blood transfusion in 1983 finally overtook him. By this point, the saga had only reached halfway through the millennium of chaos that Seldon had predicted, though he’d sketched out another book, Forward the Foundation, before he died in 1992. His widow Janet Asimov approached Gregory Benford to write this, and he suggested expanding it into a trilogy, with the other books written by Greg Bear and David Brin. This duly came to pass, and Foundation and Chaos and Foundation’s Triumph filled in back story and tied up loose ends.

This second Foundation trilogy has been followed by numerous other Foundation and Robot stories authorised by the Asimov estate. The last came out in 2004, when the whole thing looked dangerously close to becoming a franchise.

Massive, sprawling, inconsistent, the Foundation series has all the faults you would think to find in a series written as short stories and novels over 60 years (not least technology – witness, for example, the “hi-tech” communications device employed in short story ‘The Big and the Little’, effectively a  pneumatic tube), amalgamated with the previously unconnected Robot tales.

Nevertheless, it is a classic of the genre. Foundation has some remarkable imagery to it. One particular passage that has stayed with me for many years (it was twenty years ago that I first read Foundation) is that of the world-city of Trantor, post-Imperial collapse, where the inhabitants have peeled back the world’s metal skin to get at the fertile land beneath. It will forever remain one of the great measures of SF, having influenced pretty much every space empire you could care to name: Frank Herbert’s Dune and Star Wars (Trantor is an obvious parent for Coruscant) among them. Foundation is the foundation of modern space SF.

Asimov’s Other

Although Asimov wrote prodigiously, once he had joined his two series together there was proportionately little of his fiction that was not somehow connected with Foundation.

His most famous story, however, is one such standalone tale. ‘Nightfall’ is to Asimov as ‘Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick-tock Man’ is to Ellison. It was inspired, like so many stories in the Golden age of SF, by Astounding Science Fiction editor John W Campbell. He suggested that this famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!” was precisely the opposite of what would really happen.

Published in ASF in 1941, ‘Nightfall’ is set on the world of Lagash, whose solar system possesses no less than six suns. Night is unknown on the world. However, scholars have noted that, once every 2000 years, civilisation undergoes collapse. As this recurring event approaches once again, scientists discover another body in the system. The cyclical nature of Lagash’s society can be explained, as once every 2000 years, this second world causes an eclipse on the one day in the week when only one sun is visible in the sky, plunging the world into darkness. But it is not the dark which tips the people of the world into insanity, instead it is the appearance of thousands of stars in the night sky.

‘Nightfall’ has been included in nearly 50 anthologies, adapted into two films (1988 and 2000) and was the inspiration for the excellent 2000 SF horror Pitch Black. It was voted the best ever SF tale by The Science Fiction Writers of America in 1968. Asimov later expanded the tale into a novel with Robert Silverberg in 1990. This changes some details, and extends the story past the night. This fatally undermines the charged ending of the original, so if you want the best in SF, check out the short before reading the novel.

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