Sunday, July 16, 2017

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Series


Opening Passage: From Foundation (p. 4):

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 in the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.

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.

Summary: Using the mathematics of psychohistory to predict the future, Hari Seldon foresaw the imminent collapse of the Galactic Empire into thirty thousand years of war and barbarism. To reduce that Interregnum to a thousand years, he established two Foundations at opposite ends of the Galaxy, of which the First, on the most distant habitable planet, Terminus, a concentrated bit of civilization with almost no resources that alone preserved a momentum of scientific progress, and around which, in accordance with the secret Seldon Plan, the Second Galactic Empire would form, being forced along that path by a series of Seldon Crises in which a significant set of dangers to the Foundation narrow down all options to one.

Foundation gives the early years of the First Foundation, being in a sense a look at the three formative heroes of the First Foundation: Hari Seldon, seen in his declining years as he manipulates the delicate Imperial situation in order to found a society that will preserve civilization; Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus, who realizes earlier than anyone else what Seldon was really doing and guides the fledgling Foundation through its first two Seldon Crises, using first the balance of power and then religious dominance to secure Terminus a position of importance among the local breakaway kingdoms, and whose ideas after his death begin to make possible the economic spread of Foundation influence; and Hobert Mallow, whose consolidation of this economic sphere of influence makes him the first Merchant Prince and begins to set the Foundation in earnest on a path of ever-expanding influence. Hardin's first Seldon Crisis occurs fifty years after the founding of the Foundation, the Hardin's second occurs thirty years later, and Mallow's about seventy-five years later.

Foundation and Empire, which story-wise is the strongest of the books, begins forty years later as the expanding Foundation comes into contact with the declining Empire which, however, is still the most powerful military force in the Galaxy. Under the brilliant general Bel Riose, the Empire begins re-conquering these outlying territories, including the Foundation, which has nothing that can stand against even the remnant of the military might of an Empire that once had total control over the Galaxy and that still controls the resources of a significant portion of it. However, brilliant Riose may be, however, he operates in social and economic that guarantee his defeat; it is the Empire that is destroying the Empire. Riose falls from glory and the Foundation begins its expansion again.

The defeat of Bel Riose is the high point of the Seldon Plan: it finally becomes wholly clear that the Foundation will certainly succeed not because of heroes like Hardin and Mallow but because it is socially and economically impossible for them not to do so.

It is said at this point that John Campbell suggested to Asimov that for the sake of interest something needed to put the Seldon Plan in danger. Thus the second half of Foundation and Empire sees the Foundation, about a hundred years later, gripped by corruption and on the verge of a civil war with the Independent Traders. However, the Traders throw in with the Foundation in the face of the uncannily swift rise of a new warlord, known only as The Mule. In one of the strongest scenes in the entire series, the government of the Foundation and some representatives of the Traders meet in the Time Vault on Terminus to hear the pre-recorded commentary of Seldon on the Seldon Crisis that the Mule seems to be creating -- and listen in shock as Seldon talks about the civil war between the Foundation and the Independent Traders. Hari Seldon did not foresee The Mule. The the power goes off as The Mule's fleet arrives.

Desperate, a small group of Foundationers journey to Trantor (which, having been sacked, is no longer the capital of the tiny remnant of the Empire) in the hopes of finding out whether the other Foundation is. Three crucial things are learned: that The Mule could not be foreseen by Seldon because he was a mutant capable of directly manipulating emotions; that the Second Foundation was a society of mental scientists, as the First Foundation was of physical scientists, whose entire reason for existing was to keep the Seldon Plan on track; and what Seldon meant when he said that the Second Foundation was located at Star's End. The latter information, however, they only narrowly prevent from falling into the hands of The Mule himself.

Five years later, in Second Foundation, The Mule is seeking the Second Foundation as the only thing in the Galaxy that could stop him, and the Second Foundation by a risky plan manages barely to win out. But win out they do, and turn to the difficult work of returning the Galaxy to the Seldon Plan. But the problem is that in order to stop The Mule, they had made it to obvious both that they really existed and that they had the power to stop a practically invincible man who could manipulate minds. The knowledge causes the reactions of the Foundation itself to deviate from what they need to be, and in particular creates an anti-Second-Foundation faction on the Foundation, resentful of what has become obvious, that they are going to do the difficult and dirty work of building the Second Empire, and that they are then going to be ruled by people like The Mule. Thus the Second Foundation, under its greatest leader must find a way to make the Foundation think that the Second Foundation has been destroyed. This he does, and 377 years after its founding, the Foundation is again on its way to building the Second Empire.

And so Asimov left it for about thirty years; the Foundation Trilogy became one of the staples of science fiction and fans kept pressuring for more. But what else is there to do? Asimov continued the series with Foundation's Edge, which opens 498 years after the founding of the Foundation, and things are going too well -- it is becoming clear to both the Second Foundation (which has the Plan) and to the Foundation (based on comments in the Time Vault after another Seldon Crisis) that things are going too well -- given the disruption created by The Mule, the Seldon Plan should not be as obviously on track as it is. Thus Golan Trevize of the Foundation is sent on a mission, under the cover of trying to find the planet on which human beings evolved, to try to draw out the Second Foundation and discover where they are; Stor Gendibal of the Second Foundation sets out to discover who beside the Second Foundation is managing the Galaxy. They discover Gaia, a unified conscious ecology, which is hoping to expand to a Galaxy-wide consciousness, and Trevize is put in the position of choosing which of the three visions -- a physical Empire under the Foundation, a psychohistorical Empire under the Second Foundation, or a galactic consciousness -- should be chosen. He makes his choice and then spends the next book, Foundation and Earth, trying to figure out why.

And at the halfway-point to the Second Empire, Asimov had no idea where to go next. So he went back instead and wrote Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, about how Hari Seldon invented psychohistory.

Thus the series. It's worth keeping the basic structure of the whole in mind, because this is one of the strengths of the series -- the endless play of ideas across the sweep of history. And the idea of psychohistory is an engaging one. But it's not surprising that Asimov ran out of things to do with it. By the 500-year mark of the thousand-year Interregnum, the Seldon Plan looks hopelessly flawed. Two assumptions of psychohistory are known from the beginning:

(1) It requires a sufficiently large population, being statistical.
(2) It requires that human reactions be relatively constant.

The Mule wrecks (2) completely by his ability to manipulate emotions, and it takes the next hundred twenty years and outside intervention to undo what a single man like The Mule did in five. What is more, it becomes clear that a third assumption has been made:

(3) Scientific advance will not radically change the structure and character of human society.

It is clear that this assumption is on shaky ground, as Foundation advances have gone beyond what anyone could possibly have imagined in Seldon's day. You can't predict the exact course of scientific progress in advance. The gamble was that, however much it would advance, it would advance along the same lines and in the same kinds of ways as before; but Foundation's Edge makes clear that this cannot be guaranteed. And by the end of Foundation and Earth, it is clear that there is a fourth assumption:

(4) Human beings are the only intelligence capable of affecting the course of human history.

And this is shown not only to be false but remarkably false, since there are at least three intelligences in the Galaxy that are not strictly human: Gaia, the hyper-individualistic and self-modifying Solarians, and the robots. And all of these are just nonhuman intelligences who arose out of human history -- the robots were made by ancient human beings, Gaia was made by the robots, and the Solarians are human beings who have genetically modified themselves so that they are hermaphroditic and telekinetic. All three are small factors -- but they are still distorting things, and if there are any alien intelligences, psychohistory can say nothing about them. Technically the Plan will be fulfilled because Gaia sees the Second Empire as a stepping-stone to Galaxia, but the more time has passed, the more things have arisen that the psychohistory cannot handle.

It is interesting to speculate, though, where Asimov could have gone, and, indeed, that is part of what makes the entire series interesting. The basic conceit of the series means that it begins by, very roughly, taking the Fall of the Roman Empire and stapling it to a Renaissance-era expansion from the periphery -- what if Britain, say, were going through the early Renaissance at the time the Western Roman Empire was falling apart? There is never at any point in the series an exact correspondence of events, only correspondences that build on loose allusions that are modified quite extensively, but Foundation expansion broadly parallels early colonialization, if we think of it as the Foundation colonizing not a New World but the old Empire. The Mule messes up the story by introducing something new, although, if it weren't for the fact that the Foundation is on a timetable, probably not much more than Napoleon messed up Europe. By Foundation's Edge it is clear that the Foundation is in the middle of undergoing a kind of technological revolution analogous to the changes in communication, transportation, and the like in the nineteenth century, and its colonializing analogously takes on a highly centralized empire-building character like that of the nineteenth century colonial powers. Not all of these may have been intentional, but we can follow it through, again taking our history rather loosely. The nineteenth century leads to ever-expanding war. The Foundation has no serious external military rivals, so any such war would have to be at least partly civil war. But this would work quite well. Foundation history began to go wrong when The Mule prevented a nascent civil war; what is more, despite the fact that galactic events get back on track, they do so, and are kept on track, by artificial means and not by erasing history. And thus the Foundation, contrary to the original Plan, has never faced a civil war that threatened to destroy it. Once its rise began, it never had to make concessions to survive, except to an invincible superhuman. This is a difference of substance that no external tweaking on its own could fix. And I think there's another assumption of the Plan lurking in the wings that was never quite explored: the assumption that the Second Foundation, as the guardian of the Plan, is not itself a threat to the Plan.

But the books as they exist are something of a closed circle. One of the things that leaped out at me on reading all seven together is that the narrative first and last, Prelude to Foundation and Foundation and Earth are quite parallel to each other. Prelude sees Hari Seldon going on a quest through the sectors of Trantor, which mirrors the Galaxy, in hopes of finding the way to build psychohistory, during which he discovers the Mycogenians, descendants of ancient Spacers from Aurora, and learns of Earth, the original homeworld of humanity, and finds that the Galaxy is in the hands of Daneel Olivaw, the humanoid robot who can manipulate minds. In Foundation and Earth, Golan Trevize goes on a quest through the Galaxy to find Earth, the original homeworld of humanity, in the hope that this will help him to discover the flaw in psychohistory, a quest that takes him to the ancient Spacer worlds, including Aurora, and to Earth, where he discovers that the fate of the Galaxy is in the hands of Daneel Olivaw, the humanoid robot who can manipulate minds. The parallelism is greatly to the disfavor of Foundation and Earth, which has less intrinsic interest, less interesting characters, and less of a story. (Its primary strength is playing around with new ideas, and its exploration of the ways in which the universe can be a very hostile place.) But given that it exists, perhaps we should just take it as calling it a day: psychohistory was an interesting idea with great promise, but like so many such ideas, it became obsolete before half of that promise was fulfilled.

Favorite Passage: He's a relatively minor character, but I think Mayor Indbur is my favorite character in the whole series. From Foundation and Empire:
So Mayor Indbur was the third of the name and the second to succeed by right of birth, and he was the least of the three, for he was neither brutal nor capable--but merely an excellent bookkeeper born wrong.

Indbur the Third was a peculiar combination of ersatz characteristics to all but himself.

To him, a stilted geometric love of arrangement was "system," an indefatigable and feverish interest in the pettiest facets of day-to-day bureaucracy was "industry," indecision when right was "caution," and blind stubbornness when wrong was, "determination."

And withal he wasted no money, killed no man needlessly, and meant extremely well. (p. 120)

Recommendation: The Trilogy are the best, with Foundation introducing the most interesting ideas and Foundation and Empire giving the strongest story; Second Foundation, I think, while quite good, is in some ways an aftermath-of-F&E novel. Of the other four, which are widely recognized as weaker, I personally like Prelude to Foundation best, although Foundation and Earth has the most interesting ideas. I really can't stand most of the characters (especially Golan Trevize) in the two Sequels, despite their many interesting elements, and Forward the Foundation seems to me never to quite find a way to cohere as a story in itself. But the whole series is worth reading, if only to get a sense of the scope and sweep, which is part of the interest.


Isaac Asimov, Foundation, Bantam (New York: 1991).

Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire, Bantam (New York: 1991).

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