Given the lavish production of Apple TV’s Foundation series, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the original Foundation trilogy. Like most people, when I was being introduced to science fiction it was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels that were thrust upon me as cornerstones of the genre, one of the great achievements of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. I’ll be rereading the original three novels of the series from time to time to see how they hold up after all the reading I’ve since done in the genre.
When I first read Foundation, I had no idea about Asimov’s overall career or how he came to write this book. I just opened up my well-worn 1960s printing with a 1951 publication date and jumped in. But it’s important to realize just how young a writer Asimov was when he started writing the stories that were later published in novel format. The novelettes and novellas that later appeared as the Foundation trilogy were first developed when he was in his early 20s and deep in his studies that would lead to his becoming a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. His writing mentor in that early phase was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine. I’ve heard a couple of versions of how the idea got started, but the two agreed that Asimov would write a series of stories about life in a declining galactic empire.
The first two stories, featuring Salvor Hardin, were published in 1942, and the next two, featuring the traders, especially Hober Mallow, followed in 1944. It wasn’t until 1951 that these stories were put together as the novel, Foundation, and a new chapter – the first in the novel – was added at that time. For me, that first chapter, “The Psychohistorians,” is the strongest and most satisfying of this initial novel of the series. It introduces the world of Trantor and the Galactic Empire through the eyes of a young newcomer, Gaal Dornick, “a country boy” who, while being a brilliant mathematician, has no inkling of the true purpose of his new employment with the great Hari Seldon. He longs to tour the great city of the empire – which is hard to see because it covers the entire planet and is mostly built underground. But his dreams of working on Trantor are quickly dashed when he unexpectedly meets Seldon in person and learns for the first time about the basics of psychohistory.
I remember once hearing Alastair Reynolds asked for his recommendation about the best Asimov novel to start with for new readers. He recommended The End of Eternity, saying that Foundation was disappointing because it consists of a series of fourteen conversations, implying that they discuss but do not dramatize the key events of the story. I think that’s a fair criticism, but it’s also true that Asimov achieves a remarkable amount of variety and drama despite this limited form of narrative structure. “The Psychohistorians,” in one sense, follows the pattern: a figure of great insight explains to someone far less well informed the state of what is happening and what the likely outcomes might be. But the conversations of this first section are fresher and more dramatic than many of the others, partly because Dornick’s reactions are quite believable. He had no idea what he was getting into, that is, joining a group of mathematicians whose work was predicting the downfall of the empire and efforts to shorten the dark ages that would follow. That aspect of Seldon’s work had never been published, so it comes as a shock to Gaal that he has been drawn into such deep and dangerous waters in complete ignorance.
There quickly follow his arrest and participation in Hari Seldon’s trial for treason. This trial may be a conversation, but it has an intensity and drama which make it quite compelling. The upshot is the exile of Seldon and his group, which totals almost 100,000 people, to the planet Terminus at the Periphery of the galaxy.
The rest of the novel covers some of the major crises that confront Terminus predicted by psychohistory in its first century and a half. The first takes place fifty years following the establishment of the colony on Terminus, and the second thirty years after that. I won’t go into the details except to note that these stories follow the same pattern of the dominant figure explaining what’s going on to someone who functions as a foil. What keeps these scenes dramatically interesting, for me, is the strength of the ideas about psychohistory and figuring out how the next crisis is going to be managed. Even though we often don’t see the action, the point of each section is to explain more about the strategy for handling the crises, each of which is resolved (mostly) without violence. And in “The Mayors” and “The Merchant Princes” I think the action is quite effectively portrayed, as Hardin in the first and Mallow in the second cleverly use the different forms of power at their disposal to enhance the position of Terminus without the destruction of war.
The history of Terminus over the 155 years covered in this first novel shows an enormous evolution in the uses of power. At first, the encyclopedists assume that it is the power of knowledge, gathered in a single great publication (the Encyclopedia Galactica), that will shorten the dark ages. The first crisis reveals, as confirmed through an appearance of Seldon in hologram form, that the encyclopedia project was a ruse that could enable the establishment of Terminus without posing an obvious threat to the Empire. The resolution of the first crisis actually depends on balancing the power of other planets of the Periphery against one another, and it is Hardin who is keen enough to perceive this. By the time the second crisis comes around, thirty years later, Hardin as mayor has supplanted the power of the scholars and has overseen the development and spread to neighboring planets of a religion based on the scientific inventiveness of Terminus. It is the spiritual power of this widely believed religion that defeats the plans of a would-be emperor to destroy Terminus. After another 75 years, it is the economic power of traders like Hober Mallow that is coming to dominate, and the third crisis is averted by a blockade of trade that breaks the power of Terminus’ rival planets.
That raises interesting points about psychohistory. Supposedly, it is based on a mathematical branch of psychology which analyzes the reactions of great masses of people. It has little to say about the actions of individuals, yet it is possible for Seldon to set in motion a whole series of events which will have a tremendous impact on history by shortening the dark age following the collapse of empire from thirty thousand to one thousand years. And at the end of that thousand years, an improved version of an empire will emerge. That plan can only work, however, if each crisis psychohistory predicts can be successfully resolved. Evidently, those aspects of the plan can be thrown off by meddling of individuals. That is why there need to be powerful figures, like Hardin and Mallow, who are keen enough to perceive the unfolding of each crisis and exercise enough control over wildcard characters to let the “inevitable” resolution take place.
What impresses me about Foundation is the way in which Seldon’s plan is such a unifying force holding together the episodic nature of the narrative. While some of the conversational sections just turn into information dumping because they are so one-sided, many are powerfully dramatic and sometimes take you into the climactic moments of critical events. For me, it’s remarkable how well this novel holds up 80 years after the initial writing, especially since it doesn’t depend on character development and has none of the diversity that has become essential to contemporary science fiction.