Looking Back on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series book covers, as purloined from ye olde Wikipedia.Nerd that I am, I recently reread Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, including the sequels and prequels. Actually that’s a bit of a misnomer; I had read the Foundation series — the original three — years ago, back in my college days, but had never actually read the sequels and prequels written some 30 years later.

This isn’t going to be so much literary criticism as it is merely personal reflection, observation and pondering. After all, a serious critical treatment of the entire series would be the stuff of graduate school theses, and I don’t have the time on my hands that I once had when I started Barking Book Reviews.

Of course, the original Foundation trilogy is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it won a one-time Hugo Award for Best All Time Series, ahead of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Remember, this was way back in 1966, long before Hollywood ever got a hold of either Tolkien or Asimov. Nevertheless this was perhaps at the height of Tolkien’s popularity here in the United States (as distinct from that of LoTR as modern media phenomenon) — this was the era of “Frodo Lives,” after all.

At the risk of beating a dead critical horse, in many ways, the original trilogy is stereotypical of when it was written: the 1950s. Women characters are virtually nonexistent. Colonization of space is seen as inevitable — sort of a Galactic Manifest Destiny, as it were, although conveniently there isn’t the nuisance of any indigenous species to subjugate and/or slaughter. Asimov, incidentally, actually finds a reason for this empty galaxy — this struck me as odd the first time I read the novels — which he elucidates near the end of the sequels.

But Asimov can’t be dismissed as so many ’50s-era science fiction writers can, those who imagined a bright, shiny future where men were men, women were women and Science — with a capital S — made everything better. While science is the hope of human civilization in the Foundation series, it is mathematics, psychology, sociology and history — all of them together comprising Hari Seldon’s psychohistory — not nuclear rocket ships and and square-jawed, crew-cut manly men.

Indeed, Asimov said that he originally conceived of the series as a science fiction version of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This isn’t the the pulp or even pop sci-fi of Buck Rodgers movie serials; this is the thinking person’s science fiction. The ideas here are not only the central plot conceit but also essentially the main characters, and it’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer that he pulls this off with aplomb.

It’s also to his credit that Foundation stands the test of time. It’s true that certain aspects of it seem dated, but nevertheless its central themes and ideas — the individual vs. society, cultural evolution, fate and predestination (and the moral ambivalence they engender), the inevitability of entropy and decay (and humanity’s inevitable balking at same) — seem as relevant today as they surely must have back then. Bear in mind that at that time the first Foundation novel appeared in book form (it was first serialized in Astounding Magazine in the 1940s) World War II had concluded only a few years before, the Cold War was getting into full swing and nuclear war was consequently a real possibility – not science fiction but terribly disturbing fact.

They Have Sex in the Future, Don’t They?

But then as has been widely observed, science fiction isn’t really about the future; it’s about the current time — the Future is just a literary conceit. This becomes readily apparent when we look at the sequels to the original trilogy. While the third book in the trilogy, Second Foundation appeared in 1952, the first of the sequels, Foundation’s Edge, appeared in 1982, followed by Foundation and Earth in 1986.

While Asimov remains true to the original trilogy and its ideas in these two books (yes, there are contradictions, but that’s the nature of the literary beast), two things are evident: 1) Asimov has matured as a writer; and 2) there are signs of the times, so to speak. With regard to the former, the characters here are considerably more developed, replete with moral flaws and all. The female characters (and male characters’ attitudes to them), while not perhaps paragons of feminism or even egalitarianism, are nevertheless a far cry from the female characters found (few and far in between) in his earlier work — the character of Dr. Susan Calvin perhaps being a notable exception that proves the rule.

This brings us to the latter: in these latter-day Foundation sequels there is … gasp! … sex! In Asimov’s early works, there might be the occasional nod to the fact that men and women bump uglies from time to time, but it was always an oblique reference at best – someone mentions spending the night, or someone (always a man, of course) who has been up the gravity well for a long time and is looking forward to getting back planet-side, because it’s been a long time since he’s seen a dame.

But flash forward 30 some years, and not only do we have characters having sex, but we have female characters initiating it. Sometimes the characters even talk about sex. Of course, by today’s popular fiction standards, the brief and occasional sexual interludes among Asimov’s characters seems almost quaint (not to mention a little awkward).

Still, “the idea’s the thing,” if I may paraphrase the Bard.

Isaac Asimov in a (deservedly so) kingly pose, in all his mutton-chopped glory (art by Rowena Morrill).The ending also struck me as one that Asimov would not have written in the 1950s – and indeed, didn’t – even if his muse had instructed him to write the sequels back then. I have to admit – and this isn’t a bad thing – I didn’t see it coming. The fact that the character himself is caught by surprise by his own decision that determines the future of humanity is perhaps a sly acknowledgment of this on Asimov’s part (but I’m purely speculating here).

I hesitate to engage in specifics, and thus spoilers, so I shall remain vague. Looking back on the previous books, it wasn’t a complete surprise – I’m referring to the ultimate fate of humankind, or rather the course of its development as determined at the end of Foundation’s Edge – and I think it caught me by surprise since I tend to always compartmentalize Asimov as a writer from the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. As such, again, had he written Foundations Edge in, say, 1955, I somehow don’t think he would have brought the series to the same conclusion as he did in 1982, on the other end of the 1960s and ’70s.

Incidentally, I would add that one of my first thoughts upon finishing Edge was that the conclusion was more reminiscent of Asimov’s colleague Arthur C. Clarke than of Asimov himself. One wonders if Asimov was perhaps influenced by some of Clarke’s more idea-driven works, but then one is indulging in speculation once again. Asimov was a big fan of Clarke, however – so much so that he declared Clarke the best science fiction author of their time, while he, Asimov, was self-declared (albeit with a bit of tongue in furry cheek) the best science (as in nonfiction) writer.

I should back up a moment here; if you haven’t read the books and you’re a bit confused, I don’t blame you. I keep talking about “the end,” but Foundation’s Edge isn’t the last book. Without getting too spoilerish here, as mentioned above, the course of the future development of humans is set at the end of this next-to-last book. But of course there is still one more sequel, and you may be thinking, “Yikes! How do you write a sequel when the course of Life, the Universe and Everything has been decided?”

Well, Douglas Adams gets away with it, and Asimov does too. In Foundation and Earth, we follow along as the character who is tasked with determining the course of humanity’s development in the previous book seeks to confirm that he made the right decision. Along the way he finds the mythical origins of humanity, working his way across the galaxy – it’s worth reading Foundation and Earth just to come along for this ride — and Asimov ties in his earlier robot books and empire books here as well.

It’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer and a man of ideas that he pulls this off: writing a tolerably good sequel after the fourth book in the series determines the eventual fate not just of the Galactic Empire and Hari Seldon’s Foundation, but of all humanity to the end of its evolutionary track. Most authors of popular fiction, when faced with such a task, seemingly phone it in to milk the resulting cash cow. Oh the names I could name …

Foundation Prequels: More Substance than Milk

Isaac Asimov's Prelude to FoundationOne might think that said milking might be the case in the prequels that were written after the two sequels (and the original trilogy), but this is not the case. Rather than looking literally at the big picture once more (and sticking to a successful formula), in these two books Asimov drills down to examine the life of Hari Seldon. Up to this point we the readers have known little of Seldon, the mythical founder of the Foundation, who looms large over the original trilogy despite being, in terms of the plot, a minor (albeit very important) character who never appears again – in the flesh, at least – beyond the first part of the first novel, Foundation.

I have to say in retrospect, I found these two chronological prequels – the last two, in terms of the order in which Asimov wrote – to be perhaps the most fulfilling. Here we get the most well-developed characters of the Foundation series, and certainly some of the most interesting. While one can argue that character development and plotting were not among Asimov’s strengths as a writer, I think it is fair to say that in these later novels – this is true of the later robot novels as well – we see Asimov at his best as a writer. While he lamented a lack of ideas late in his life, he seems to nevertheless have perfected his art.

Here we see Asimov deftly weave his robot novels together with the Foundation novels as well. This tie-in first occurs at the end of Foundation and Earth, and while placed in a context that makes sense, it still comes across in terms of plotting as rather tacked on or last-minutish – as in, “I want to tie in these two different series of novels, so I’m just gonna throw this chapter on here at the end and do it.”

But in the two prequels he goes back and expands and firmly establishes this tie-in, giving it roots by elaborating in detail historical events mentioned in brief before. In fact, if one were to read the books in the proper chronological order – prequels, original trilogy, two sequels – the ending of Foundation and Earth would not appear tacked on at all. In fact a clever reader will see it coming; Asimov clearly had the ideas for the prequels in mind even as he was writing the sequels.

One more note about the prequels. I think it’s fair to say – as many others have observed – that we can draw parallels between the aging Hari Seldon and an aging Asimov. He did acknowledge that he thought of Seldon as his literary alter ego, after all. Either way, there is a ring of truth about the aging Seldon – both in his middle age and in his elderly years – as depicted by Asimov.

Perhaps having suffered a heart attack in 1977 and bypass surgery in 1983, and consequently having faced the spectre of his own death, he subsequently experienced a rather expansive spate of creativity – nothing like pain, misery and death to awaken one’s muse. In any event, the Foundation sequels and prequels, while perhaps not eclipsing the original trilogy in terms of ideas and scope, do manage to surpass them – and much of Asimov’s earlier work – in terms of artistry.

Isaac Asimov by Rowena MorrillAgain, its a credit to Isaac Asimov as an author – an incredibly prolific one in both fiction and nonfiction – that he wrote some of his best work not at the beginning of his life or even in the middle, but at the end. Perhaps his widow, Janet sums it up best with the title of the posthumous collection of her husband’s diaries and personal letters: It’s Been a Good Life.

P.S. So I set out to jot down a few thoughts on the Foundation series, and ended up with 2,100 words. D’oh!. But then I’ve  been doing that since college.

P.P.S. That rad portrait of Asimov sitting on the bas-relief throne? That’s by Rowena Morrill. You’ve likely seen her work sitting on a bookshelf. Be prepared to spend some time perusing her excellent artwork, if you follow that link. And just for the heck of it, here’s another one of Asimov by Rowena.

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