Saturday, 26 February 2011

ISAAC ASIMOV: The Foundation Trilogy





ISAAC ASIMOV:
‘FOUNDATIONS, AND EMPIRES’

‘Foundation’ is vast. It wasn’t always intended to be. But that’s the way it grew. A galaxy of a quintillion human beings. A twelve-thousand-year Galactic Empire stretching ‘from arm-end to arm-end of the mighty double-spiral that was the Milky Way’. There had been galactic empires before Isaac Asimov. Just as there were robots before Asimov. What he did was codify and rationalise their behaviour in such a way that it formed a paradigm shift. Neither robots, nor galactic empires could ever be the same after Asimov’s intervention. If Hari Seldon entered the field of psychohistory with it ‘little more than a set of vague axioms’, he left it ‘a profound statistical science’, then Asimov performed an identical function for his chosen genre. Donald Wolheim points out that SF ‘stories published before ‘Foundation’ belong to the old line, the stories published after belong to ‘modern’ science fiction’ (in his ‘The Universe Makers’, 1971). If, when we read ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ we think of the Talking Book from ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, or if when we read Asimov’s Galactic Emperor we see the malign emperor from the ‘Star Wars’ movies, that’s not to detract from Asimov, it is because of Asimov. He did it first. There had been Space Opera on a grand scale with EE Smith. Afterwards there was Poul Anderson’s Terran Empire of his ‘Dominic Flandry’ novels. And other future histories have been written by better, more imaginative and more accomplished writers all the way up to Stephen Baxter, but it’s Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ that defines the term.

‘Foundation’, the first volume of the core trilogy, opens with ‘country boy’ Gaal Dornick, travelling inwards across the galaxy from the remote Synnax system at the edges of the Blue Drift. So the reader is gradually introduced to world-metropolis Trantor through his naïve impressionable eyes. He’s conducted in awe and wonder through the imperial galactic hub, a megalopolis of forty-billion people, the administrative seat of government for 25-million inhabited planets. Hari Seldon is first glimpsed as a scientist from Helicon, working here during the reign of Emperor Daluben IV. And Gaal is instantly plunged into a legal trial of strength between Seldon and the authorities. This chapter constitutes Seldon’s only physical presence in the original trilogy, although his back-story would be picked up and expanded by subsequent volumes (Asimov’s own ‘Prelude To Foundation’ and ‘Forward The Foundation’, plus novel contributions by Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin). As Gaal arrives on Trantor, the Empire still maintains a Pax Imperium, ruling over a pacified galaxy. But it was Seldon, using the mass-observation science of psychohistory – ‘the quintessence of sociology’, who ‘plotted the social and economic trends of the time, sighted along the curves’, and projects the future decline of Trantor, ‘the continuing and accelerating fall of civilisation’, and the collapse of Empire into a 30,000-year Dark Age of degraded barbarism and interstellar chaos. The Commission of Public Safety feels that the probabilistic expression of such subversive concepts, even under the guise of impartial statistics, is treasonably serving to precipitate rather than predict such an event. As such, Seldon is to be silenced. Much of the ensuing story consists of dramatised exposition, question-&-answer dialogue with little embellishment. Until, as the first tale ends, Seldon accepts the exile he’s already calculated for. Purportedly compiling the ultimate Encyclopedia of everything, with his ongoing Foundation project located on barren Terminus among the worlds of the periphery. While establishing a secretive Second Foundation somewhere ‘at Star’s End’ at the other side of the galaxy. On Terminus the seeds of a galactic renaissance are to sewn, so that a Second Empire will emerge, not in 30,000 years, but within a single millennium.

Terminus is a ‘planet practically without metals’. Otherwise, the worlds Asimov creates – at least within the first volume, are uniformly what ‘Star Trek’ would term ‘M’-class planets. Perhaps the galaxy is densely populated with such worlds? Astronomy has yet to conclusively ascertain. Certainly he envisages no crushing high-gravity or low-gravity, excessively hot or cold worlds, or anything to distinguish one from the other. In fact, the scenarios he depicts could be happening in strange undiscovered countries on Earth. This can partly be explained because they are terraformed to be that way. None are ‘natural’ worlds. And if the Encyclopedia gives every impression of being a printed book rather than some form of electronic data-retrieval system (although later there’s evidence that readers use ‘book-viewers’), and Gaal’s trip to this galactopolis is merely a hayseed flying into a scaled-up clunky-retro New York – through departures, where the taxis fly and the hotel elevators use gravitic-repulsion, where he visits the Planetary Observation Tower instead of the Empire State Building, that’s because the tale originates in the far-off 1940’s when such sheer scale was itself a novelty.

To many immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants from Europe, NY was the embodiment of that future, as bewilderingly awe-inspiring in every way as Trantor is to Gaal Dornick. Isaac Asimov was born in what is now called the former-Soviet Republic of Belarus in 1920, and came to America as a three-year-old. As an early member of the ‘Futurians’ fan-group, fellow-writer Frederik Pohl recalls that when the young Asimov ‘wasn’t tending counter at his parents’ Brooklyn candy store, he was reading ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ through, volume by volume’ (in ‘The Way The Future Was’, 1979). This, to Pohl, was ‘where we grew up, and where we formed our conceptions of the universe’. In that way, despite their star-spanning domain with ‘the galaxy high in the sky, its misty lens-shape stretching lazily from horizon to horizon’, Asimov’s protagonists are essentially mid-twentieth-century men, sometimes even regressing to represent earlier eras of pomp and comic-opera swagger – and they are all male, exclusively men. Science Fiction of the 1940’s was still a masculine genre (‘When I began writing science fiction myself, I still had no dates with girls and I made very little effort to deal with women in my stories’ he admits, in ‘Before The Golden Age’). The characters read printed newspapers with a comics-page, published by Press Barons who puff fat cigars, even though they’re packed with Vegan tobacco. Others snort snuff. Computers are ‘calculating machines’. There are public visiphones, but they’re operated through a girl at the telephone exchange. Later, Arkady keeps a baseball bat under her bed! More disturbingly, as galactic civilisation stagnates, the ancient knowledge of nuclear energy – incredibly, still seems to be the motive power of choice, and the deal-breaker that puts the Foundation ahead of its more devolved Outer Dominion regional neighbours. Starships are driven by ‘the surge of nucleons shifting into a more compact arrangement’.

‘Foundation’ is vast. It wasn’t always intended to be. But that’s the way it grew. Isaac Asimov was just twenty-one years old in 1941. On 9 April of that year he submitted one of his most acclaimed and enduring short stories, “Nightfall”, to ‘Astounding SF’ editor John W Campbell. He followed it with “Foundation” on 8th September. Then “Runaround” – the first story in which his ‘Three Laws Of Robotics’ are explicitly formulated. It was submitted 20 October 1941. This is the clutch of seismic tales that elevated the young Asimov from the lowly status of a prolific but struggling SF also-ran within the whirling SF constellation, into a super-nova. He’d supposedly conjured the ‘Foundation’ idea on the subway across New York to the ‘Astounding’ office, where he talked it through with his editor. Campbell readily seized on the idea, recognised something of its potential, and urged him to run with it. Not just as a one-off, but as a themed story-series. As the mythos developed, Pohl, by then acting as his agent, watched Asimov ‘growing visibly with every story. He carefully numbered them in series, I can still see the shape of his manuscripts, the title double-spaced, the first page almost entirely blank, but with the serial number of the story up in the corner to keep his records systematic’. Yet, as Joseph F Patrouch Jr writes in his ‘The Science Fiction Of Isaac Asimov’ (Doubleday, 1974, UK Granada, 1976), ‘each story, and each cheque, was an end in itself’. As Asimov confided to him, ‘I wrote each story with no thought at all for the morrow.’

At the time Asimov was writing, and as the first chapters began to appear as short stories in the May and June 1942 issues of ‘Astounding SF’, it was a period of world-systems. Socialism and Fascism, each had their own formulas for political salvation, with psychiatry systematising and mapping the secrets of the mind. As such, psychohistory – ‘which Campbell and I thrashed out between us’, was a product of its time. Soon, L Ron Hubbard would devise his own pseudo-religion of dianetics and scientology. At least Asimov had the grace and good sense to leave psychohistory to the safe realm of fiction! And when he did so, Gaal Dornick’s arrival on Trantor was far from being the first instalment to emerge. When it came to collecting the magazine tales into book-form, for the first volume of ‘Foundation’, Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press considered the original opener – which became chapter two, “The Encyclopedists”, too abrupt a plunge into the collapsing Galactic Empire. Hard-core ‘Astounding’-readers had experienced little problem with it, but the more general paperback market might need a little more easing in. Asimov saw Greenberg’s intervention as an opportunity to polish and add some cohesion to the tales. So he concocted “The Psychohistorians”, using Dornick to travelogue Trantor. His chapter became Part 1 of the book, although the last to be written and the only one never to feature in magazine-format.

After Dornick’s time, within the fledgling Foundation’s initial fifty years, Terminus gets caught up in the local wars of surrounding systems, beyond the Emperor’s failing powers of protection. The planetary kingdom of Smyrno and the Royal Governor of Anacreon are the first to secede from the Empire, becoming new rising regional powers. The Foundation has to choose its role, as a detached scientific community vulnerable to their predatory ambitions, or to militarise and assert itself as a power in its own right. Terminus adopts neither option. Prince Regent Wienis forces a confrontation over the discovery of a derelict two-mile-long battle-cruiser of the Old Imperial navy, found drifting in space and renovated by the Foundation using a technology the devolved periphery worlds now regard with mystical awe. Mindful of Seldon’s maxim that ‘violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’, the Foundation learns to play off their rivals against each other. With Seldon’s Plan revealing a 98.4% probability of success, they use cunning against ruthless feudal might, and science against the forces of ignorant superstition, manipulating events and would-be tyrants with patronage, and then the abrupt withdrawal of patronage. Stealth and guile.

Unlike the arc of the ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’ histories, Asimov’s Galactic Empire is not a federation that includes alien species. It is an exclusively human empire. This can be credited at least partly to John W Campbell’s inclination towards a human-only galaxy. And if Asimov wanted to sell the tales to ‘Astounding’, he had to stay within his favour There are creatures, the giant Nyakbird that Leopold I hunts through the skies of Anacreon. But it’s not clear if these are native species, or terran life-forms that have migrated and adapted through mutation to niches in the new or terraformed worlds opened up through star-travel. Asimov’s vision of human destiny is of the race spreading out across the galaxy until academics debate which is and which is not the forgotten home-world. An idea picked up by EC Tubb for his epic multi-volume saga of ‘Earl Dumarest’. And pursued by Asimov himself in his later additions to the ‘Foundation’ cycle.

Yet Galactic Empires, whether ‘Star Trek’s Federation, or Poul Anderson’s Terran Empire, would seem a logistical impossibility. Brian Aldiss, in the introduction to his 1976 anthology ‘Galactic Empires Vol.1’ declares that ‘galactic empires represent the ultimate absurdity in science fiction’. Asimov readily admits his model for the ‘Foundation’ stories was Edward Gibbon’s epic ‘Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire’ – merely shoved out into space, so he was well aware of the administrative problems of mere terrestrial imperialism. Yet Asimov, the Gibbon of the rise and fall of future history, is on the side of order. And for all its flaws, ‘sometimes tyrannical, sometimes benevolent, always orderly’, the Empire’s administrative cohesion provides galaxy-wide stability. It may be a place of ‘the effete and perfumed dandies of the Imperial Court and their sparkling and libidinous ladies’, but its erosion into a warring chaos of ‘rough and raucous warlords who ruled in iron the worlds they had gained in blood’, is a bad thing. His ‘Foundation-ruled galaxy is designed to work in orderly fashion according to the programming of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory’. And it’s the hyper-space jump that makes stellar distances tractable, and commerce on the galactic scale he envisages, just about feasible. Realistically, there are two schools of thought on this. That there are certain physical limitations which are absolute and will never be surmounted. Such as the speed of light. The distance between stars. Forever beyond reach, except maybe by centuries-travelling hibernation-cabinets or generation-ships. Too slow for Empire. The other aspect is that humans are naturally inventive problem-solving creatures. That, presented with a challenge, and given the longevity of a rational science-based technological culture, sooner or later something analogous to – but in all likelihood totally unlike Asimov’s hyperspace jumps will be devised, operating according to concepts and principles we cannot yet comprehend, enabling viable star-travel. And, after all, pre-technology European empires – Spain, Portugal, Britain, administered their colonial dominions around the globe networked through sea-voyages involving months of stressful travel.

Asimov’s prose-style can be pedestrian, with none of Brian Aldiss’ incandescent visual flashes of illumination, none of Robert Silverberg’s yearning poetry or Samuel R Delany’s fluid mythopoetics. He even claimed never to reread his own drafts. Maybe that was just bravura? Yet it performs its function. Like the poverty of special effects employed by early low-budget SF-movies or TV-series which nevertheless inspired awed respect, it’s necessary to look beyond the occasionally ramshackle structure to glimpse the immense head-spinning vista of worlds, alien suns and glittering futuristic cities caught up in his swirl of vast galactic events. Certainly for me, reading these books for the first time, as a teenager, they seemed explosively visionary. Despite his limitations, his prose can be the literary equivalent of CGI, conjuring up the thronging galaxy in its majestic decline. And in its way, within its context, Asimov was also altering and innovating the genre. His protagonists are not the familiar Space Opera action-heroes who had populated earlier SF. There is action, but much of it is expressed through dialogue, with vast cosmic events occurring off-stage, between the lines, or tucked in as a neat flicker of resolution to the episode. He’s more concerned with mapping the motivational politics of events than solving them through dashing exploits involving blaster-gun battles and futuristic weaponry.

There are two definitions of the word ‘foundation’. The first is as an academic establishment, in this case the one convened by Hari Seldon to interpret and understand the social forces driving galactic history. To reduce them down to equations, to extrapolate and use those equations. There’s nothing mystical about psychohistory. It’s no fortune-telling scam, it’s a science that operates on mass-observation and percentage probabilities. Psychohistory cannot handle too many independent variables. It does not work through individuals ‘any more than you can apply the kinetic theory of gases to single molecules. It works with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only ‘blind’ mobs who do not posses foreknowledge of the results of their own actions’. Neither does it create the future, it merely uses scientific methodology to interpret its trend projections. Each successive crisis in Foundation history is mapped. Because the future has been calculated by Hari Seldon, operating on the true ‘symbology of psychohistory’. ‘Seldon predicted a series of crises through the thousand years of growth, each of which would force a new turning of our history into a pre-calculated path.’ But it’s not infallible and will be open to micro-tuning adjustments to bring it into line with new event-data as it occurs. Paths that are fine-tuned by Hari Seldon’s own periodic appearances, from his wheelchair, fingering his book, giving his guidance and probabilities, via timed video-recordings screened in the Time Vault. He provides a narrative continuity link to the events. And his thousand-year Plan clarifies. The second meaning of ‘foundation’ is as the grounding base-level of a structure that will be erected upon it, and in this sense the operational Foundation functions by seeking not to change, but to edit events. The Foundation is to be ‘the means by which the science and culture of the dying Empire was to be preserved through the centuries of barbarism that have begun, to be rekindled in the end into a Second Empire’.

All the while, the episodic short-story mosaic-structure provides an impression of a multi-faceted galaxy thronging with incident. That is the nature of so vast a project. Figures slip in and out of the narrative. The resourceful Salvor Hardin, who seizes power as the first mayor of Terminus. Limmar Ponyets, the devious trader who outwits the Grand Master of the Askone. Until, with the four kingdoms as Foundation protectorates, Terminus confronts the Republic of Korell in the Whassallian Rift. And Merchant Prince Hober Mallow thwarts an attempted war by shifting policy from the spread of atomics under the guise of religious belief in the Galactic Spirit, to expanding Foundation influence through trade. Even though Korell, and Siwenna, torn by ‘rebellion and ruin, ruin and rebellion’, lie on the outer rim of imperial space, and benefit from the support of the declining Old Empire.

From the opening paragraphs of the second volume, ‘Foundation And Empire’, Asimov seems to be expanding his vision. As though his ideas were firming and his confidence in projecting them to a sympathetically receptive audience was more assured. He draws on an epic wide-screen scale that its predecessor only hints at or suggests. Although it centres on a group of clearly-defined characters, their actions encompass galaxy-spanning strategies. Young energetic Bel Riose, a troublesome general of the Imperial Fleet, visits Siwenna hunting rumours of the rise of the mysterious Foundation. Resulting in the shrunken empire launching an offensive in a bid to close off the ‘manifest destiny’ of the ‘cult of magicians at the extreme end of the galaxy’. The character of Riose is supposedly based on the career of Eastern Roman General Flavius Belisarius, as told by Gibbon. In classical times, his legions were instrumental in reconquering territories lost to barbarian incursions. Now, unlike the uniform worlds Asimov described in ‘Foundation’, Riose establishes his operational base on the rocky barrenness of a wandering sunless planet. While representatives of the twenty-seven Trading Worlds meet on the twilight zone of Radole, a gravitationally-locked ‘ribbon’ world.

Riose works with Duem Barr, a family connection extending back to Hober Mallow’s original meeting with Onum Barr on Siwenna. Barr is dubious, he considers Riose to be working counter to the irreversible tide of psychohistory, which is ‘as absolute as the laws of physics’. But together, they employ the still-powerful Imperial Fleet to encircle the Foundation, in a ‘sphere of Inclosure’. The other activist is Trader Lathan Devers, in whose ship he and Barr escape the Imperial Fleet and visit Trantor on a futile mission. Eventually, it is internal divisions and court intrigue that ends the military incursion at its point of victory. The ailing emperor Cleon II (in a seeming reference to the doomed Romanov’s), and his advisor Brodrig, working through the Council of Lords, regard Riose’s adventure as an anachronism which – if successful, will result in popularity that could be used as a weapon against the Emperor. So Riose is recalled and executed, a victim of his own success. But in a sprawling galaxy of ‘kingdoms, republics, planet-states and dictatorships of one sort or another’, there are other crises awaiting the Foundation. One that the Seldon Plan is unable to predict.

Three-hundred years into Foundation history, Terminus is complacent in its belief in the inevitable triumph of the Seldon Plan, and has a hereditary mayor – Mayor Indbur, now more concerned with bureaucratic process than innovation. When rumours begin reaching them of the ‘Mule’. A new antagonist emerging as one of ‘the warlords who have inherited the splinters of the old empire’. For Seldon’s Plan, the individual does not count. The ‘Mule’ is no ordinary individual, but a genetic mutation from ‘the tramp worlds’ in the ‘backwash alleys of space’. ‘Not a man to look at’, the scrawny gangling figure who assumes the title of ‘First Citizen’ is a melancholy tragic character, seeking revenge on a humanity from which he’s genetically excluded, and a galaxy in which he has no place. Was the Mule always part of Asimov’s scheme? By his own admission the evidence suggests he was not. Asimov started out by working story by story, with a cohesive framework provided by Seldon’s Plan. But if the future is so comprehensively mapped and each crisis is both anticipated and resolved by psychohistory, it removes the uncertainty necessary for fiction to function. At the point at which the Foundation’s triumphs become predictable, an upsetter – provided by the Mule, becomes a narrative requirement. But if he’s a plot device, this ‘queer, ugly weakling’ who leads a ‘strange nonhuman life’, is also one of Asimov’s most powerfully imagined creations.

Two separate missions to investigate the Mule converge on his conquered pleasure-planet, Kalgan. Honeymooning dissidents Bayta and Toran from the subterranean cave-city Haven, a remote outlying Foundation world which is the ‘only planet of an only sun of a Galactic sector that trailed raggedly off into intergalactic vacuum’. And Captain Han Pritcher of Foundation intelligence, who inconveniently believes his loyalty lies more to truth than it does to his short-sighted superiors. Meanwhile, Rebel Trader-worlds form an alliance with the Foundation to stop the Mule, as they prepare for Seldon’s fifth appearance in the Time Vault. ‘Can a genetic accident of unpredictable properties be taken into account in the Seldon plan? – no, it cannot. Seldon fails to mention the Mule, even as his ‘ugly battle-black ships’ paralyse all nuclear power on Terminus, and the Foundation is forced to surrender. ‘In three-centuries the Foundation had grown from the private project of a small group of scientists to a tentacular trade empire sprawling deep into the Galaxy – and half-a-year had flung it from its height to the status of another conquered province.’ Haven, alone, remained under siege.

Han Pritcher first conceals a tiny atomic bomb beneath his tongue in a failed assassination-attempt, until the Mule’s mental powers induce him to switch sides, and ally with the new empire. For the Mule ‘has the ability to realign the emotional make-up of an enemy’. While, as Haven falls in reaction to a projected ‘field of emotional repulsion’, Toran and Bayta, with Magnifico Giganticus – supposedly the Mule’s fleeing Clown, plus Ebling Mis – a scientist-psychologist given to some ‘unprintable’ expletives including ‘Ga-LAX-y’, seek guidance to reach what, if anything, remains of the old Empire, for clues to the location of the Second Foundation. They find a diminished Neo-Trantor ruling twenty worlds through Emperor Dagobert IX, lost in a dementia fantasy, and Trantor itself derelict, sacked and cannibalised. It was a ‘gorgeous and impossible memory of the great past’ that ‘alternately dreamed of past and future’. Mis drives himself near to death tracking references in Trantor’s vast library archives. Until Bayta executes him with a blaster… because Magnifico the Clown, has been controlling events to his own ends all along. As if the reader hasn’t already suspected as much, he is the Mule. Asimov’s fictional females tend to be insubstantial trifles, only Bayta emerges as a truly defined character (at least until the time of her granddaughter!), and she ‘strides among them like an equal’. The fact that her comparative equality needs stating in this way is comment enough. Yet her unforced protective friendship with the Mule proves to be his vulnerability. Her Beauty, to his Beast. And she kills Mis before the Mule’s mental powers force him to reveal what he’s discovered of the Second Foundation. Ensuring its continued secrecy.

The third volume, ‘Second Foundation’, consists of two distinct phases – ‘Search By The Mule’, and ‘Search By The Foundation’, which again began as two connected novellas in ‘Astounding SF’, although by now Asimov’s future-mythology had assumed not only its own momentum but a degree of reader expectation sufficient to justify such prominence. The reclusive Mule has become ruler of a ‘Union of Worlds’, and for a five-year period of peaceful consolidation, he controls ‘the greatest empire since the end of the Galactic Empire itself’. His expansion halted only by his wary awareness of the Second Foundation. With ‘Interludes’ that reveal the inner workings of the Second Foundation itself, told from the point of view of a detached narrator, the Mule initiates a new venture to locate his secretive adversary. The mission consists of the loyal Han Pritcher, returning from a series of earlier failed attempts, newly allied to the charming ambitious Bail Channis, a curly-haired chancer free of the Mule’s control. It’s a tetchy relationship. Calculating from a Trantorian perspective Channis identifies a twenty-seven-planet oligarchy in the mouth of Pelot’s Nebula with a name – Tazenda, which resembles ‘star’s end’. Pritcher’s resentful knowledge of his own mental alteration leads him to suspect that his ‘conversion’ may have dulled the intuitive responses that might have enabled him to reach such a decision. Acting on little more than this hunch, their arrival on the bleak subject-world of Rossem is viewed through the perspective of local peasants. There, in a ‘battle of bluffs’, Pritcher and Channis accuse each other of being unwitting ‘tampered’ agents of the enemy. Until the arrival of the Mule himself adds a kind of crime-detection dénouement in which clues are deflected and explained. He ruthlessly destroys Tazenda, under the belief that by doing so he is destroying the Second Foundation. But it is the Second Foundation who have planted the deceit of Tazenda by deliberately programming Channis with the misleading information, as a lure to draw the Mule away from his Kalgan power-centre, enabling the First Speaker to enter, and adjust his mind. Following this encounter with the First Speaker, the muted Mule subsequently becomes ‘an enlightened despot’.

Asimov is only infrequently a technologically innovative writer. His vision of Trantor is, in all but scale – and spaceships, a clunky-retro 1940’s New York. Rather than presenting glittering constellations of audacious ideas he tends to seize upon a single central theme and pursue it relentlessly. His major concession to future-speculation through the ‘Foundation’ universe lies in the realm of mental powers. With little basis in real science, it is nevertheless something that other SF writers of the period had already conjectured as being the next evolutionary phase. It was the Mule’s mental powers that made him ‘the seeing man in the kingdom of the blind’. But his mutational abilities are explained as being the result of human potentials that have elsewhere atrophied. The Second Foundation is attempting to restore the same powers, through the application of rigorous discipline. They are no longer content to allow the Seldon Plan alone to determine outcomes. Their ‘Prime Radiant’ holds an evolving and adjusted plan to bring into being what they consider to be a better-designed tomorrow, a Second Empire based on mental strengths. What Asimov somewhat ominously terms ‘a benevolent dictatorship of the mentally best’, with the Second Foundation itself forming ‘a ready-made ruling class… virtually a higher subdivision of man’. The idea may seem chillingly elitist to modern sensibilities, but much SF of the time seemed in favour of such an enlightened rule of science.

The Mule’s intervention, which had ‘threatened to shiver the (Seldon) Plan into fragments’, instead had ‘bent the Plan seriously, but not fatally’. As psychohistorians work with masses, so does Asimov. Individuals are not important. So, as regards the issue of historical inevitability, Asimov seems to favour a kind of collective predestination. That world-figures who appear to jolt history in dramatic new directions – the Caesars or Napoleons, work within the train of events, and within the limits made possible by their time. Even the greatest men are not as powerful as an idea, with the rest of humanity tumbling randomly in its slipstream. The only individual to exercise significant free will over galactic events is the Mule, and his disruption is temporary. The Second Foundation corrects his interference back into line with the ongoing Plan. Yet the crisis he’d precipitated had forced the Second Foundation to break cover and reveal its presence.

As the Mule had already detected, and as the First Foundation’s encephalographic evidence confirms, agents of the Second Foundation were already amending the future according to their own design. Working to ‘force a galaxy of stubborn and stupid human beings back to the path’. The story-cycle’s final scenario pits the conflicting ambitions of the two Foundations against each other as the First sets out to seek the Second, and the Second strives to prevent its discovery. It’s one of the most vivid sections of the entire cycle, with a rich mix of strongly-imagined characters, views from multiple perspectives, a mind-game of conflicting theories, and at last Asimov choreographs his first ‘Foundation’ space battle. A generation after the Mule’s passing, ‘Search By The Foundation’ commences with the stammering Homit Munn setting out to seek clues within the Kalgan archives, unwittingly carrying a fourteen-year-old stowaway in the shape of would-be novelist and ‘ferocious little romantic’ Arkady (Arcadia) Darell. She is the granddaughter of Bayta. Born on Trantor she’d lived there for the first ten years of her life, until the Mule’s demise allowed her family to return to Terminus. Asimov is not good at writing teenage girls. Stettin, Lord of Kalgan, is power-hungry, intent on establishing his own empire either through an alliance with the Foundation by ‘marrying’ Arkady, and when that fails, by conquering it. Arkady works on Stettin’s vanity, through the conduit of his mistress, Lady Callia. Until the venture turns back on her, and Arkady is forced to flee. Who can be trusted? What is the extent of Second Foundation penetration and influence? Who is their agent or a puppet under their mental control? Surely not the pink confection that is Lady Callia? And what about Preem Palver, the comical Mamma & Pappa who assist Arkady escape from Kalgan with some kind of Jedi mind-trick, to safe refuge on Trantor? And is Stettin’s Kalgan fleet, launching its attack on the Foundation, guided by the invisible hand of the Second Foundation? Munn believes, after his research in the Mule’s Palace, that there is no Second Foundation. Palleas Anthor, student of Dr Kleise, believes that a hidden Kalgan elite forms the Second Foundation. Toran Darrell and his daughter Arkady insist that Terminus is also the base of the Second Foundation.

It ends with the Foundation believing it has detected, and destroyed the sect of fifty Second Foundationeers in their midst. For them, the Second Foundation no longer exists. So it has succeeded in sealing off the visibility the Mule had forced upon it, by working through and manipulating Arkady. Finally it is revealed that Preem Palver is twelfth First Speaker. And the great University/Library complex of Trantor disguises the Second Foundation. The future of the galaxy is fixed. In fact, from the story-cycle’s opening moment, from the insertion of the ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ quotes, it’s evident that this future has always been fulfilled. That the Second Empire was always destined to triumph as a culmination of the Seldon Plan.

‘Foundation’ is vast. It wasn’t always intended to be. But that’s the way it grew. The first three books, less a trilogy as a story-series, established the Isaac Asimov brand as one of the most distinctive within SF. Although published obscurely by Gnome Press, who lacked the financial clout to promote them, they languished until August 1961 when Doubleday rescued the rights and republished them to wider recognition. Soon regularly voted and quoted as one of the genre’s crowning concepts, it rather belatedly won a 1966 Hugo as ‘The Best All-Time Series’. He seemed content to leave it that way as his career evolved through unexpected detours, through works of straight science popularisation. Already there were others picking up and developing the ideas he’d propounded, even by satirising its familiarity through the well-observed comic send-up of Harry Harrison’s ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’ (1965). Until, three decades later Asimov was persuaded to return to Trantor, by his publishers – Doubleday lured him with ten times his usual advance to secure ‘Foundation’s Edge’, and by his own growing intention to tie his scattered oeuvre into some kind of linked cohesion ‘in the form of historical novels of the future’. First by extending the ‘Foundation’ future, then by returning to its origins with two prequels, going back and adding to the Hari Seldon back-story, much as he had done at Martin Greenberg’s instigation with “The Psychohistorians” chapter of ‘Foundation’. By merging his Robot novels with the ‘Foundation’ series, and linking them to the Empire stories (starting with ‘Pebble In The Sky’, his first novel from 1950, Doubleday), Isaac Asimov created a block of fifteen novels, 1,500,000 words spanning 20,000 years of future history. He even suggests space for further interspersed additions – ‘as many as I like’. It could – and has been argued that the short story restraints imposed on the first three books forced a discipline on Asimov, which works to their considerable benefit, a discipline that the later, occasionally self-indulgent books do not have. In the same way, the lack of mature character-depth the reader overlooks in episodic short stories, becomes glaringly obvious when over-extended. Similarly, by returning to the themes he’d abandoned, he could no longer do so as the innovator. Over the decades between, the ideas that had once shaken up and reordered the SF multiverse with mind-expanding visions, had become common currency of video gaming consoles. Overtaken and outperformed by his imitators, ‘Foundation And Earth’ – for example, is merely a space adventure with the ‘big idea’ of Galaxia the stuff of a ‘Star Trek’ episode. By slotting the three original books into this vaster superstructure, and then imposing upon it contrived linking devices to make it work, reduces the significance of what Asimov had achieved. While conceding that the later cycle-additions expand the scale of Trantor into a fully-realised megacity, deepening its back-story and bringing to life its vast diverse population of submerged nations with conflicting ambitions, there’s an argument for the book’s irrelevance. When posterity judges Isaac Asimov it will value what he wrote in the 1940’s, and dismiss what came later as harmless light entertainment. The only books you really need on your shelf are the first three.

The ‘Foundation’ series first germinated ‘when I was a lad of twenty-one’, an idea Isaac Asimov came up with on a 1 August 1941 subway journey across New York. A fictional recreation of the decline of the Roman Empire, replayed on a galactic scale. It is an idea that operates from the assumption that the human race does not learn from its mistakes of the past. Which makes for fiction on an epic scale. Yet there’s a chance that the future will not necessarily be an endless repetition of the past. Chances are, it will not happen in the 1940’s way that Asimov fumblingly suggests. Hopefully it will not happen in the decayed barbarism of empire lapsing into a tedious succession of anachronistic feudal kingdoms and the ludicrous rituals of petty dynastic royal intrigues. Instead, the age of representative democracy and rational science-based technology offers a historic window of opportunity that, if it’s allowed to persist, has the potential to transform human destiny in ways we cannot yet imagine. For, as Asimov notes, ‘it is the chief characteristic of the religion of science that it works’. Is something resembling ‘Foundation’s star-spanning future remotely likely? Is that at all possible? Or are humans doomed to stay bound to this single Earth, forever warring over the same shifting continents until evolution or global catastrophe does away with them? The future, one way or another, will happen. The thousands of years with which Isaac Asimov so casually deals, will happen. But this is what SF does. This is one of its functions. In its unsophisticated way it poses questions of destiny.


ISAAC ASIMOV:
FOUNDATIONS, ROBOTS & EMPIRES

‘FOUNDATION’ first published in Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1953. Paperback by Granada Publishing Ltd in Panther Books, 1960. ISBN 0-586-01080-7. ‘In a future century the Galactic Empire dies and one man creates a new force for civilized life’ – cover-blurb from uniform Avon Paperback editions. Part I: ‘The Psychohistorians’ (first published in first book-edition of ‘Foundation’ by Gnome Press, 1951). Part II: ‘The Encyclopedists’ (first published as ‘Foundation’ in ‘Astounding SF’ May 1942). Part III: ‘The Mayors’ (first published as ‘Bridle & Saddle’ in ‘Astounding SF’ June 1942). Part IV: ‘The Traders’ (first published as ‘The Wedge’ in ‘Astounding SF’ October 1944). Part V: ‘The Merchant Princes’ (first published as ‘The Big & The Little’ in ‘Astounding SF’ August 1944).

‘FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE’ first published by Gnome Press, USA, 1952. UK paperback by Granada Publishing Ltd in Panther Books, 1962. ISBN 0-586-01355-5. ‘The most terrifying menace known to man threatened the hard-won victories of a new civilization’ – cover-blurb from uniform Avon Paperback editions. Part I: ‘The General’ (first published as ‘Dead Hand’ in ‘Astounding SF’ April 1945). Part II: ‘The Mule’ (first serialised as ‘The Mule’ in ‘Astounding SF’ November & December 1945).

‘SECOND FOUNDATION’ UK paperback by Granada Publishing Ltd in Panther Books, 1964. Collins, March 1994. ISBN-13 978-0586017135. Trilogy published in uniform editions by Panther, 1966. ‘Two mighty forces of civilization oppose each other in a galactic battle for mastery of the universe’ – cover-blurb from uniform Avon Paperback editions. Part I: ‘Search By The Mule’ (first published as ‘Now You See It…’ in ‘Astounding SF’ January 1948). Part II: ‘Search By The Foundation’ (first serialised as ‘…And Now You Don’t’ in ‘Astounding SF’ November & December 1949 & January 1950).

* All quotations from the ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ reproduced from the 116th Edition published in 1020FF by the Encyclopedia Galactica Publishing Co, Terminus, with permission of the publishers

SUBSEQUENT ‘FOUNDATION’
BOOKS BY ISAAC ASIMOV

‘FOUNDATION’S EDGE’ (Doubleday, October 1982. ISBN 0-385-17725-9) The first new addition to the ‘Foundation’ cycle, following a thirty-year gap from the original books, it began as a short story “Lightning Rod”, and became the first-ever Asimov book to make the ‘New York Times’ best-seller list (no.3 in December 1982). Humans have been a space-faring species for 22-millennia (according to the Hallblockian chronology). There’s much catch-up reiteration of the ‘great drama of Galactic history’ from earlier books – Salvor Hardin, Hober Mallow, The Mule, Arkady Darell. It’s half-a-thousand years into Foundation history (498FE), and female Terminus-mayor Harla Branno ‘The Bronze’ confronts troublesome Councillor Golan Trevize over his insistence that the continued accuracy of the Seldon Plan indicates the Second Foundation still exists. The impasse is resolved by sending him on a mission to locate it. With him there’s ancient-history Professor Janov Pelorat who seeks to settle the ‘Origin Question’, hunting clues in Trantor to find long-forgotten Earth which, they decide, could be ‘the other end of the Galaxy’ of Seldon’s enigmatic words. Their research takes them to Gaia, a world-mind causing the ‘anti-Mule’ mental interference which the Second Foundation has detected (Quindor Shandess, 25th First Speaker) , and which it – in turn, considers responsible for perfecting the Seldon Plan. Trevize learns that Galactic history will be decided between First & Second Foundations, and by the evolving Galaxia superorganism as Gaia expands. While opting for ‘I/we/Gaia’, Trevize decides the answer must lie in the reason why all references to Earth have been deleted from the Galactic Library. At 140,000-words, it’s easily the longest contribution to the ‘Foundation’ cycle to date.

‘THE ROBOTS OF DAWN’ (Doubleday, 1983. ISBN 0-385-18400-X) Starting out as the abandoned story “The Bounds Of Infinity”, this is Asimov’s first tentative attempt to bridge his two fictional ‘Robot’ & ‘Foundation’ continuums. Police Detective Elijah Baley is seeking to establish a new colony-world in spite of opposition from ‘Spacer’ world Aurora, which intends to populate the galaxy itself using robots. When Baley clears Auroran-leader Hans Fastolfe (of ‘The Caves Of Steel’) – creator of R Daneel Olivaw, of ‘roboticide’, destroying the mind of robot R Jander Panell, it opens the way for the new colony to becomes possible. Baley’s investigations hinge on the sexual-romantic human-robot relationship between Panell and Gloria Delmarre-Solaria (of ‘The Naked Sun’), but involves Fastolfe speculating about a ‘law of humanics’ which will become the basis of Psychohistory. The novel also mentions Susan Calvin, a link back to the earlier setting of ‘I, Robot’ and the forthcoming ‘The Bicentennial Man’

‘ROBOTS AND EMPIRE’ (Doubleday, 1985. ISBN 0-385-19092-1) Why are there no robots in the first ‘Foundation’ books? There are two answers. The first response is that there are! Elijah Baley’s humanoid positronic robot companion R Daneel Olivaw becomes the long-lived secret presence within ‘Foundation’ history. While, two-hundred years after the events of ‘The Robots Of Dawn’, the other answer is that the new colonies founded by Baley’s project, Solaria and Baley-world have become the basis for more ‘Settler’-worlds encroaching into ‘Spacer’ space. These colonists from Earth are opposed to the Spacers’ reliance on robots. To end Settler expansion, Spacer roboticists Kelden Amadiro and his ambitious and unscruplous apprentice, Levular Mandamus scheme to use a ‘nuclear intensifier’ to irradiate Earth. Olivaw, with fellow-robot R Giskard Reventlov (who possesses secret telepathic powers) must reconfigure the Laws Of Robotics to enable them to stop the plan, hence the Zeroth amendment (‘No robot may harm humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm’) which permits intervention when ‘the end justifies the means’ (a dubious proposition used to justify wars in terran history, with outcomes notoriously vulnerable to unexpected ‘chaos theory’ outcomes!). Although they fail to stop the atrocity, they extend its period to 150-years, thereby resulting in the opposite of Amadiro’s intention as floods of anti-robot humans migrate from doomed Earth to populate the galaxy (as a prelude to the founding of the apparently robot-free Galactic Empire), while the contradictions of the Zeroth amendment cause Reventlov to malfunction-cascade. Before ceasing he passes on his powers to Olivaw, who assumes the responsibility of guiding humanity through the millennia to come.

‘FOUNDATION AND EARTH’ (Doubleday, 1986. ISBN 0-553-58757-9) Following on from ‘Foundation’s Edge’, Golan Trevize, Dr Janov Pelorat and miss Blissenobiarella (from Gaia) search for Earth in the gravitic pocket-cruiser ‘Far Star’ (named after Hober Mallow’s ship) which takes them to Comporellon (formerly known as Baleyworld). More sexually open than before, Trevize has sex with Mitza Lizalor, while Pelorat has sex with Bliss! Directed by scholar Vasil Deniador to the abandoned ‘Forbidden World’ Aurora – one of the fifty ‘Spacer’ worlds from Asimov’s Robot mythos, which is ‘unterraforming’, then to robotic Solaria (as featured in ‘Robots & Empire’, with a sly text-reference to ‘Caves Of Steel’), to Melpomenia which has lost its atmosphere, then to ‘New Earth’ – oceanic Alpha (Centauri) which was first resettled by refugees from devastated Earth. Finally, entering the Solar System, they discover Earth to be a radioactive wasteland, but within Earth’s moon they meet R Daneel Olivaw, who explains how he’s been manipulating human history for thousands of years towards not only Psychohistory but towards Galaxia too. Asimov even explains the retro-techno aspects of the original three books in ‘that at Trantor, the larger civilisation was deliberately held at a level of low technology in order to hide the small kernel of Second Foundationeers’. The novel ends with Olivaw, whose positronic brain is degrading, fusing it with that of rescued Solarian child Fallom – ‘hermaphroditic, transductive, different’. At 510-pages this single volume is only thirty-pages shorter than the entire original 548-page ‘Foundation’ trilogy

‘PRELUDE TO FOUNDATION’ (Grafton Books, November 1988. ISBN 0-553-27839-8) Instead of propelling his ‘Foundation’ history further forward, Asimov opted for a prequel to the first ‘Foundation’ stories. Set in 12,020GE, 32-year-old Hari Seldon arrives on Trantor to speak at the ‘Decennial Convention’. He’s summoned by Cleon I – the last Galactic Emperor of the Autun dynasty, and his Chief of Staff Eto Demerzel. When Seldon explains Psychohistory is impartial mathematics that can’t be used for propaganda purposes by the regime, he incurs Cleon’s displeasure. Later he meets Chetter Hummin. There are a number of emerging plot-leads. Hummin is actually Demerzel – who turns out to be R Daneel Olivaw (the ‘R’ stands for Robot). Seldon meets Dors Venabili – who he will marry, and who also turns out to be robotic, as well as his adopted son Raych Seldon. And the Trantorian Mycogenian sect (which uses robots) directs him towards their racial origins on Spacer-world Aurora – which Seldon confuses with legendary Earth, but is actually the innermost planet of Tau Ceti, the first extra-solar human colony. People use teleprints and holovision, technology never mentioned in the original books. And Trantor has a zoo exhibiting ‘aboriginal species’

‘FORWARD THE FOUNDATION’ (Spectra, January 1993. ISBN 978-0553565072) As with the original ‘Foundation’ story-cycle, this second prequel novel began as a series of stories – not in ‘Astounding SF’, but in ‘Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine’ with “Forward The Foundation” (in the November 1991 issue, becoming Chapter 1: ‘Eto Demerzel’), “Cleon The Emperor” (April 1992, Chapter 2: ‘Cleon I’), and “The Consort” (April 1993, becoming ‘Dors Venabilis’) plus two additional chapters edited into shape by Asimov’s widow Janet, ‘Wanda Seldon’ & ‘Epilogue’. With chapters spaced ten-years apart, following directly on from ‘Prelude To Foundation’ and leading up to the first of the original ‘Foundation’ trilogy. For ten years, Seldon is Galactic First Minister to Cleon I, replacing Eto Demerzel (aka R Daneel Olivaw) who resigns and disappears. After the Emperor is shot and killed by his gardener – replaced by a military junta, Seldon’s robotic wife Dors also dies while foiling an assassination attempt on him. His adopted son Raych dies during a Santanni rebellion. As he devises what will become the ‘Seldon Plan’ he tasks his granddaughter Wanda with creating the ‘Second Foundation’. 81-year-old Seldon dies as the Prime Radiant projects the unfolding equations of his completed ‘Thousand-Year Plan’. This book was completed just prior to Asimov’s own death on 6th April 1992

AUTHORISED ‘FOUNDATION’
BOOKS BY OTHER WRITERS

‘FOUNDATION’S FRIENDS’ (1989. Tor, August 1997. Expanded & Revised Paperback ISBN 0-8125-6770-6) anthology of short stories set in the ‘Foundation’ universe, edited by Martin Harry Greenberg, includes work by Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card’s “The Originists” about Hari Seldon establishing the Second Foundation, and Harry Turtledove (“Trantor Falls”) about how the Second Foundation survives the final sack of Trantor, and “Foundation’s Conscience” by George Zebrowski set in 1056FE after the creation of the Second Empire

‘FOUNDATION’S FEAR’ by Gregory Benford (Harper Prism, February 1997. ISBN 978-0061056383) first of the ‘Second Foundation Trilogy’, set between the first two chapters of ‘Forward The Foundation’. Cleon I tries to requisition Psychohistory to serve the Empire, with Seldon as ‘First Minister’. Seldon has a humaniform robot-spouse Dors Venabili. There’s a Mesh (internet), and aliens – the original Trantorians, dispossessed by terraforming robots 20,000 years earlier. After various adventures with Sims (sentient simulations) seldom eventually accepts Cleon’s position

‘FOUNDATION AND CHAOS’ by Greg Bear (Harper Prism, February 1998. ISBN 978-0061052422) second of the ‘Second Foundation Trilogy’. This novel expands and retells events involved in “The Psychohistorians”, the first chapter of the original ‘Foundation’ novel, but introduces the element of R Daneel Olivaw’s background contrivances which were not present in the original book. If Hari Seldon was the uniting presence of the original ‘Foundation’ trilogy, the subsequent additions impose Olivaw as the real continuity figure – simply because, as a robot, his extended longevity is expansive enough to encompass all of the events described (at the time of ‘Foundation And Earth’ he is 19,230 years old), and in doing so, extends the mythos to merge elements of Asimov’s Robot Tales. The first ‘humaniform’ robot, constructed by Auroran roboticist Han Fastolfe (see ‘The Robots Of Dawn’) immediately prior to the age of the Settlers, he lived at least until the formation of Galaxia, hence spanning the entire history of the First Empire. ‘Foundation And Chaos’ also details Wanda Seldon & Stettin Palver’s initial attempts towards establishing the ‘Second Foundation’. Seldon’s robotic wife Dors Venabili is also reconstructed and returns.

‘FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH’ by David Brin (Harper Prism, 1999. ISBN 978-006105639-0) the third of the ‘Second Foundation Trilogy’, follows the recording of Hari Seldon’s holographic messages, as he retrospects his life and his completed ‘purpose’. Yet he travels with Horis Antic to a planet called Demarchia, and assists in the destruction of data-capsules that reveal historical evidence of the human past. In a sub-plot Dors Venabili discovers the truth about the imposition of the Zeroth Law, via the preserved head of robot R Giskard Reventlov. Finally the various protagonists meet up on Earth where Seldon speculates to R Daneel Olivaw about the future triumph of the First & Second Foundations, uniting with Galaxia, to form the Second Galactic Empire. The evidence of the ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’, which has been used as a framing device from the very start and throughout the evolving cycle, proves that his speculation will turn out to be true. The book also features a ‘Foundation’ chronology compiled by Attila Torkos. Yet, as the extended cycle reaches it conclusion, the future-history is still only 500-years into the predicted 1,000-years of chaos that will pass before the rise of the Second Galactic Empire. Time enough – surely, for someone to write further additions…?

ABOUT ASIMOV’S FOUNDATION

‘THE SCIENCE FICTION OF ISAAC ASIMOV’ by Joseph F Patrouch Jr (Doubleday, 1974, Granada Publishing, 1976, ISBN 586-04393-4) ‘A lively survey authorized by the Master’

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