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Asimov’s Foundation fumbles

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The science fiction writer of the last generation who has been in the public eye lately is Ray Bradbury. His rather silly complaint about Michael Moore‘s use of ‘Fahrenheit’ in the name of his movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, has gotten more ink than it deserves. I don’t believe there is a copyright violation issue. Furthermore, the nod to Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, can be perceived as a compliment. But, the sci-fi writer who has had my attention for the the last two weeks is Isaac Asimov. Though I have read some Asimov over the years, I did not approach the Foundation cycle until now. I may have picked up the first book because I was stymied by Ursula Le Guin‘s Hain cycle. However, Asimov’s Foundation books have their frustrations, too.

Asimov began the cycle in the early 1950s, when he was in his early twenties.

The time is millenia into the future. Humans have colonized the galaxy and reached an inventive zenith in which technology is well-dispersed, and mainly nuclear. Technological civilization is in decline, though few realize it because the process of decay is so slow. At the edges of the Empire, worlds have drifted back to using fossil fuels and wood as energy sources. The royalty of the Empire is not interested in seeing, hearing or saying any evil, that is, any acknowledgement that all is not well. Enter one Hari Seldon, the superhero of the Foundation series. He is a psychohistorian, a psychologist who can foresee the future by studying aggregates of people and determining their likely responses to stimuli. His goal is to soften the decline of the Empire into barbarism for 30,000 years he believes is inevitable. He plans a recovery that will take only 1,000 years. Seldon manipulates the emperor into setting up his dream laboratory — a planet where he can develop his theory to his heart’s content.

Seldon and his followers are exiled to Terminus, a planet at the far reaches of the galaxy that they develop from scratch. The exile serves the government’s purpose by eliminating dissenters who might disrupt the status quo. It serves Seldon’s purpose by giving him free reign over a population that, at first, is fully dedicated to his ideas. The initial rationale given for the existence of the Foundation is that it will research and publish an encylopedia containing all of the knowledge of mankind. But, by the end of Foundation, the first book of the series, that rationale ifs revealed as a pretext. The Foundation exists to keep technology alive and innovative. While the Empire loses its technological sophistication, the Foundation will gradually spread its technology to surrounding planets. The initial method for spreading technology is religion. In return for inventions of the Foundation, other planets agree to allowing ‘priests’ from the Foundation to ‘minister’ medicine and other science.

It isn’t long before some rulers of barbarous planets reject Foundation technology rather than have their power threatened by Foundation priests. The method for transferring technology shifts to traders. The traders engage in mercantile capitalism, without the threatening trappings of religion. However, they will become a threat — to the Foundation because of their independence. Another threat precedes them. Seldon can only predict matters involving large groups of people. Psychohistory does not apply to individuals. Therefore, he misses the emergence of a mutant leader 300 years into the Seldon Plan. The Mule grasps power over much of the Foundation’s reach by controlling the minds of leaders of various governments and factions. Foundation and Empire chronicles the Mule’s impact on the Foundation and the inevitable clash of what remains of the Empire and the Foundation.

Another set of protagonists in the Foundation series is a secret second Foundation that considers itself the ally of the first. Seldon’s plan has been for the Second Foundation, consisting of the mentally powerful, to be the leaders of the technologically superior Second Empire. Leaders of the original Foundation rebel against the notion. They consider themselves the true heirs to Seldon’s vision. In Second Foundation, the two groups finally meet. The result is a resolution that appears to consolidate the power of the first Foundation, while eliminating the second.

Though the plots of the three novels may sound complicated in description, they are not when actually reading the books. There is a group of leaders who are either on the wrong track or despotic. A single man rebels against them, and orthodoxy, and gets the next step of the Seldon Plan right. The first of the righteous renegades is of course, Hari Seldon. He reappears in holographic form time and again to confirm that events are proceeding as he predicted.

Some aspects of Asimov’s futurism are puzzling. Despite the passage of time, human life expectancy hasn’t increased. People still get the same diseases and there no are cures or even restoration of missing limbs. Smoking, likely one of the habits any advance society will find a less harmful substitute for, is prevalent. Nor is there is any caution about the dangers of nuclear power. Women get little attention in the novels, and then stereotypically. Bayta, the heroine of Foundation and Empire, achieves the distinction because of the Mule’s romantic attraction to her. In Second Foundation, her teenaged granddaughter is a kind of good luck charm for the male characters. The sexual stereotyping is particularly noticeable if one has been reading Le Guin. Her early books, written during the same period, explore the role of gender in future societies. Asimov seems to believe sex roles are fixed. There are also no nonwhite characters in the three Foundation novels I read.

The frustration I am experiencing with Le Guin’s Hain cycle is the opacity of the Hain themselves. The Hain influence other planets by introducing superior technology to them, but it is not clear what their own planet is like. The main frustration I’ve experienced with Asimov’s Foundation cycle is the lack of growth in human capacities he envisions for the future in these books. Asimov places all his faith in a single sort of human, the vigorous male leader who sets less vigorous male leaders straight, achieving power for himself. Asimov’s ideal is not mine.

Reasonably related

*The official Isaac Asimov Homepage.

*There are three additional Foundation cycle novels written in the 1980s and 1990s.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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About The Diva

  • SFC SKI

    I enjoyed reading the Foundation trilogy also.

    While Asimov is a good writer, I think that to compare him to Le Guin is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, because Asimov wrote more to explore a concept or an idea or technology, and its effect on society, the sociological aspect , if you will. LeGuin, on the other hand, writes from a more individulal, more personal level.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    I have all of the Foundation books, and I enjoy them, but I really don’t think Asimov is a great writer. A great story-teller, yes, but not a great writer.

    As far as your complaints, MD, I think that they’re the result of Asimov himself being a bit young and a bit simplistic. Those things simply never occurred to him! He admitted elsewhere that he had little experience with women until well into his career, and he originally wrote Foundation in 1941, when he was 21 years old. (It was published in book form in 1951.)

    Asimov’s I, Robot series similarly suffers from a simplistic approach, but both series are still enjoyable to read.

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    Having never quite recovered from “Eat everything on your plate before you leave the table,” I will be reading the other three Foundation novels. Stay tuned for the reviews.

    Currently, I have about 100 pages to go in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. One more book after it, and I’ll have finished the Hain cycle. Then, I’ll have more to say about it.

  • The Theory

    I read the series back in late middle school or early highschool. Really enjoyed it. I suspect if I read them again now, I would be a little bit less enthusiastic… But I definately consider the books a building block of my youth.

  • http://www.iamrighturpie.blogspot.com/ jadester

    i have so far only read these three books once, and it was a few years ago now so i probably didnt understand it wholly. I will look for your points next time i get round to reading them (will be awhile yet as i have a few of thse classic english lit. books to get through)

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Jim

    Actually, there is a reason why in Asimov’s future the human lifespan is not longer and certain medical advances which you would think would be there are not. The prehistory of the Foundation series is in the robot books. Particularly “The Caves of Steel”, “The Naked Sun”, “Robots of Dawn” and “Robots and Empire” In these books you find out that humanity was split into the spacers and the settlers. The spacers were the recipients of all the higher technology and life enhancing science and had lifespans of hundreds of years and they subjugated regular humans and ruled as an empire of their own for a long time. By the time thir power waned and the settlers expanded to create the first galactic empire, humans wanted no part of long life after seeing the results in the form of the spacers. Also, because the spacers were so dependant on their robots, they wanted no part of robots either which is why there are no robots in the foundation series.

    You also have to remember that “Foundation” was also a series of early short pieces by Asimov made in the 50’s when most of the scifi being writen was aimed at young white males. His writing in later foundation books like “Foundation and Earth” is much better with more diverse characters and more character deevelopment. In my opinion, “Foundation” is a bit dry with the later books having more character depth and a more emotional impact on the reader. I particularly like “Prelude to Foundation” and “Forward the Foundation”

    Stay with it, it fleshes out better in the other books. “Foundation” is more like a framework for the universe he is writing the other books in.

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    Thank you for the insights, new Jim. I have completed two of the three decades later novels in the cycle now. I am waiting to get my hands on Foundations’s Edge. The later three don’t turn up in bookstores, so I’ve had to order them. There will be another review when I’ve read and absorbed all three.

  • http://www.c-double.com Chris Curtis

    I have read quite a few books by Asimov, and I have to say that along with Arthur C. Clarke and Bradbury he is one of the greatest scifi writers that I have ever read. The Robot series is probably my favorite, and I love the way he tied the two Foundation and Robot series together.

    I found this list of Asimov’s books a while ago. I don’t remember where, but it does give you a great way to attack his works.

    “1. The Complete Robot (1982). This is a collection of thirty-one robot short stories published between 1940 and 1976 and includes every story in my earlier collection, I, Robot (1950). Only one robot short story has been written since that collection appeared. That is Robot Dreams, which has not yet appeared in any Doubleday collection. [Robot Dreams (1986) does contain it; see also Robot Visions (1990)]

    “2. The Caves of Steel (1954). This is the first of my robot novels.

    “3. The Naked Sun (1957). The second robot novel.

    “4. The Robots of Dawn (1983). The third robot novel.

    “5. Robots and Empire (1985). The fourth robot novel.

    “6. The Stars, Like Dust– (1951). This is the first of my Empire novels.

    “7. The Currents of Space (1952). The second Empire novel.

    “8. Pebble in the Sky (1950). The third Empire novel.

    “9. Prelude to Foundation (1988). This is the first Foundation novel (although it is the latest written, so far).

    [9a. Forward the Foundation (1993).]

    [9b. Foundation’s Fear (1997).] The first novel in the Second Foundation Trilogy, it was written by Gregory Benford. Takes place after the first chapter of Forward the Foundation.

    [9c. Foundation and Chaos (1998).] The second novel in the Second Foundation Trilogy, written by Greg Bear. Takes place at the approximate time of Hari Seldon’s trial.

    [9d. Foundation’s Triumph (previously titled Third Foundation and Secret Foundation) (1999).] The third novel in the Second Foundation Trilogy, written by David Brin.

    “10. Foundation (1951). The second Foundation novel. Actually, it is a collection of four stories, originally published between 1942 and 1944, plus an introductory section written for the book in 1949.

    “11. Foundation and Empire (1952). The third Foundation novel, made up of two stories, originally published in 1945.

    “12. Second Foundation (1953). The fourth Foundation novel, made up of two stories, originally published in 1948 and 1949.

    “13. Foundation’s Edge (1982). The fifth Foundation novel.

    “14. Foundation and Earth (1986). The sixth Foundation novel.”

  • http://leoniceno.journalspace.com Leoniceno

    With regards to your comment that Seldon’s novel does not have any non-white characters, I thought that Seldon’s mathematician assistant who he saved from the heat-sinks was non-white. I could be mistaken.

    One would imagine that 10,000 years in the future most taboos associated with racial inter-marriage would be totally defunct, and that mixing of races would make race more difficult to differentiate.

    I believe in Prelude to Foundation Asimov offers an explanation as to the lack in life-expectancy increase. He says that when life expectancy reaches a certain point, generational conflicts cause society to break down and lose those technologies, resulting in equilibrium.

    Apart from those niggling points, a good review of the series.

  • EC

    So many good and positive things have, deservedly, been said and written about Foundation’s that I will state only some of my reasons of dislike:
    1 – Although the story and dialogues are very easy and interesting to read, I found most lead characters to be unlikeable, namely, Salvor Hardin or Mallow. Also, in another level, theych made me remember Capt. Kirk’s obtuse and illogical decisions… Many times what they decide and do is quite unnatural and illogical.
    2 – These 2 characters, mainly, don’t make much sense to me, within the scope of psyco-history. Without them or their decisions, the crisis they “solved” wouldn’t be solved at all! And since psycho-history couldn’t predict their individual existence and actions, it doesn’t make much sense to me.
    3 – What is the sense of the 1st foundationers to “rebel” or want to overcome the 2nd foundation? They believe that Seldon’s plan is all-mightly and faithfull and it obviously depends on the 2nd foundation, so why do Dr. Darrel and friends try to defeat them?
    4 – How come does the super-mutant Mule gets defeated by a “normal” guy? After all, since he is naturally-gifted mentat, that also have exercised his powers all his life and which has unsurmountable motivation, he should have been far superior than a non-mutant, which only has mentat powers since he was educated as such, and which motivations are not personal, but only to serve Seldon’s Plan, etc.etc.
    Also, how come does the Mule concede defeat so easily? This part is completely nonsense to me…