Issue #260 – The Foundation Trilogy

Isaac Asimov is unquestionably a genius, but it sure as heck isn’t for his character development.

So, um, does that count as a controversial opinion? Do I get to trend on social media now?

When I first read Asimov I found myself amazed and disappointed by him. Amazed by the logic and puzzles and solutions presented, disappointed by the fact his characters were so flat they could be measured in Planck lengths. (Science humour!) If you’ve never read Asimov before, expect to get invested in the situation, not the characters.

The original Foundation Trilogy is what put Asimov on the map. Written as short stories during the 40s, they were released in the 50s as a trilogy of books: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. While there are more books in the series, it was a world he wouldn’t revisit until the 80s.

Inspired by Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov considered a similar situation in a much larger Galactic Empire, and wondered whether it was possible to predict human events accurately enough, not to prevent the fall, but limit the dark years that would follow.

To do this, he invents psychohistory, a form of statistical analysis mixed with history and sociology on a huge scale. Psychohistory doesn’t concern itself with individuals (who, ultimately don’t matter) but the masses.

Consider: Hitler didn’t take over Germany. The conditions in Germany created a mindset in people that allowed someone like Hitler to take over. If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone similar—someone promising them strength, a return of lost national pride, and giving them an enemy to hate.

Knowing the Empire is doomed, the creator of psychohistory, Hari Seldon, establishes two Foundations. They are tasked with turning thirty millennia of darkness into just one. He sets the first Foundation far away on the metal-poor and obscure planet of Terminus and the second at the opposite end of the galaxy.

The Foundation at first believes that their goal is to create a great Encyclopedia to preserve all knowledge against the coming darkness, but after fifty years they learn that this was all a ruse. They were placed at Terminus because it would cut them off from the Empire as it began to decay and force them into galactic affairs, and their actions would become dictated by the pressures placed on them from the outside, to the point where at each major crisis they faced would leave them only one choice to follow. That is the nature of Seldon’s Plan, that by understanding how the Empire would crumble, the Foundation could be put into a position to best take advantage of it at every turn.

In his Robot series, Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics. Many mistakenly think these laws are meant to be perfect and infallible, but really the point of them was so Asimov could explore all the problems that could arise despite their seeming infallibility. The same is true of Seldon’s Plan. What happens when the Foundation begins to believe and trust too much in the Plan and, later on, in its failsafes? What happens when an individual arrives that is completely outside the scope or predictive capability of the Plan? This is explored in the second half of the series with the appearance of a powerful mutant known only as the Mule.

Interestingly, there are similarities to be drawn between the end of the Second Foundation and the end of I, Robot.

Reading Asimov’s early works today can be a bit odd. His ideas resonated so much with the science fiction community for so long that they end up being repeated and copied by others. Galactic empires, predictive science, techno-priests, they are all Asimov’s invention, and a newcomer might not realize how fresh and original those ideas actually were back then.

As mentioned earlier, a major problem with the series (and Asimov’s writing in general) is that his characters tend to lack, well, character. They either lack defining characteristics or have ones that are exaggerated and archetypal. They rarely feel like real people and more like a necessary cast to put the play in motion. While the character driven elements do improve in the second half of the series, it’s a problem that’s he’s never quite shaken.

Another thing to remember is that these stories were initially written in the 1940s, and it shows. Not just in the silly campy ways we come to expect from SF of the era (just about everything is nuclear—nuclear handguns, nuclear knives, nuclear kitchen appliances) but the language is so dated it might as well wear a fedora.

But it also shows in gender relations. In the first five stories of the series there are no female characters of importance, and the first one who is introduced is, ultimately, only there because she is a woman. It shows in myriad ways, such as Seldon sending 50,000 scientists to Terminus—and their wives and children. It’s a little disheartening to see one of the giants of science fiction be unable to envision a future with anything remotely like gender equality in it.

What’s refreshing about the stories is how they don’t rely on action. Great battles and wars and the fall of worlds often happen in the background, but they tend to feel inconsequential. And, in a way, that’s the point. The stories of the Foundation deal with something bigger than the rise and fall of a single warlord—those are merely the consequences. It’s a change of perspective, and one that’s well worth experiencing.


SF Debris has a great look at Foundation. Here’s just a taste.

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