In what has become an unofficial theme for my reading selections this year, I’ve chosen yet another classic or important piece of science fiction1; Asimov himself is considered, if not the father of science fiction (that title is usually reserved for Verne), then at least one of its major players during the genre’s ascension in the middle half of last century (along with Heinlein and Clarke). Foundation is the first book in the eponymous trilogy (and later an even longer series), and arguably his most popular and important book. Though parts of it have aged poorly, it’s easy to see how the book propelled its genre into orbit.
The main character of Foundation (and, I’m assuming, the entire series) appears alive only in the first chapter. His name is Hari Seldon, and he is a “psychohistorian” living on the central city of the Empire, a vast galactic empire sometime in the distant future. On a side note, this imperial city—known as Trantor—formed the basis for George Lucas’ Coruscant, since it’s a planet whose entire surface, give or take, has been turned into a single contiguous city.
Psychohistory, perhaps more than Seldon himself, forms the impetus for the plot of Foundation. Though it’s purely Asimov’s invention, it is more or less a melange of statistical probability, sociology, and anthropology: in effect, by understand human behavior, and the statistical likelihood of people and civilizations following expected patterns, one can accurately predict the long-term future of large cultural bodies (such as empires). When we join the story, Seldon is in the middle of predicting the Empire’s ultimate collapse—and with it, the downfall of humanity. To the Emperor, at the head of a seemingly thriving imperial organism, this seems crazy and seditious, but naturally Seldon is proven right and the empire shortly (in psychohistorical terms) collapses. Seldon arranges for his followers to be moved to a far-flung planet called Terminus, where they will ostensibly work non-stop on a giant Encyclopedia, in order to document and codify human knowledge before the 30,000-year galactic dark age sets in.
The rest of the book is a chronicle of Terminus and its surrounding planets on the edge of the galaxy, far from the (collapsed/dying) imperial center. I need hardly tell you that Seldon, though long dead, is right in every prediction, and the events of the book follow his plan—which aims to reduce the interregnum period from 30’000 years to a mere 1’000—with an almost mechanical precision. Generally, this takes the form of some actor having to wait until there is simply no other alternative, and then executing the remaining action. As you may imagine, this makes for something of an impoverished story, and you would be right in the sense that this political vignettes, separated by generations and each starring different descendants of Seldon’s original Encyclopedists, are not individually particularly compelling bits of statecraft or war. Their cumulative effect, however, says a great deal about someone’s idea of human progression (Seldon’s? Asimov’s?).
It is, in some ways, a rather cynical outlook, if a common one: humans, by way of their nature, build themselves and civilizations in cycles or waves. The empire, like each individual in it, will crest and then trough. That this nature should be so predictable and ineluctable that Seldon could predict it with mere statistical calculation (albeit it complex), is not a glowing endorsement for the intelligence or resilience of collective humanity. One must remember, too, that Asimov published Foundation in 1951, after the cataclysmic and literally explosive end of World War II and the foreboding start of the Cold War: the storied and continual squabbling and sabre-rattling of superpowers must have seemed as wearisome then as it does now. To Asimov’s credit, his galactic recreation of the fall of Rome and the ensuing dark ages contains more than simply war: rather, it is a “what-if” analysis of the possibility of concerted effort to retain scientific knowledge in the face of moral and informational vacuum—barbarism, in other words. Everything from religion to commerce is used a vehicle for achieving an end (perpetuating the scientific knowledge of the previous empire, including that of atomic power), an idea which is once again somewhat cynical, but also novel.
During one period, the Foundation turn their knowledge into a religion called Scientism (since many planets, having regressed to a relative Iron Age, could not distinguish between science and magic), and I can’t help but think of Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which must have taken some inspiration from Asimov. Both books were serial novels, compiled from separate short stories; both deal with institutions which seek to preserve knowledge during dark ages; both comment upon the cyclical (and let’s face it: destructive) nature of human existence; both, too, comment upon the nature of the institutions doing the safeguarding. But while Miller’s story illustrated his conflicting views on the Catholic Church, Asimov’s Foundation contains very little ambivalence upon its eponymous institution, perhaps in part because Asimov himself had no allegiances to religious institutions (he was a Humanist), and while Foundation‘s view of human nature may have been somewhat cynical, it was paradoxically complimentary, a tribute to the ability of enlightened individuals to preserve societal good from self-destruction.