Tampering with Historical Destiny: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

The Foundation Trilogy won a special Hugo for best series of all time. I don’t think they’re quite that good, but I do really like them. There are three books, Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953). But those publication dates are misleading — the Foundation Trilogy really consists of stories that were published in Astounding between May 1942 and January 1950 and later revised and compiled into volumes. These are 1940s Campbellian stories, and the main strength and the main weakness of the books is that they consist of separate episodes with different characters covering the history of the Foundation for about five hundred years. These are not novels in any conventional sense. Decades later Asimov did write four novels in this universe, two prequels and two sequels, and there were also sharecropped novels written by other people. I don’t find any of these sufficiently interesting to go back to. I do keep picking up the original trilogy, however. They’re certainly old fashioned, but that’s part of their charm.

Mild spoilers below. Real spoilers will be indicated.

Hari Seldon developed the science of psychohistory, a statistical science of predicting the future, and he also set up a huge sociogenesis project to shorten the period of barbarism that would follow the inevitable fall of the Galactic Empire. This project consisted of two Foundations “at opposite ends of the Galaxy” set up so that if history unfolded according to Seldon’s laws the barbarism would be reduced from thirty thousand to a mere thousand years. This is a story with huge scope but at a kind of distance that makes it impossible to tell by normal methods. This is a story of historical forces playing out over a whole galaxy and centuries. What Asimov did was to make the Galaxy itself his real protagonist, and to tell the stories of limited individuals caught up in history, as we all are. There’s repetition of course, as he had to explain the set-up in each story, but the effect really is to give you the perspective of standing outside time. Characters in early stories have spaceships named after them in later stories. People have grandchildren. City planets become agricultural planets. Great forces play out and have individual effects. The zooming in and out of perspective has the effect of making the whole more than the sum of the parts.

Let’s start with the good things — this is a galaxy that’s verty lightly sketched but which feels real, and which has been incredibly influential on the subsequent development of SF. To take just one example, the city-world of Trantor was realised visually as Coruscant in the Star Wars movies, it’s been parodied by Harry Harrison and has become part of the general furniture of SF. It’s 1930s Manhattan gone global. The details all work — the names are evocative and very well done. Sometimes they’re taken directly from Gibbon — Bel Riose isn’t a very well disguised Belisarius — but Kalgan and Tazenda and Anacreon are all great names for planets. The Empire uses a spaceship and sun symbol. There’s not much description of anything ever — this is Asimov — but what there is hangs together.

Then I love psychohistory and the whole project of tampering with history from a viewpoint of understanding the forces that shape it. This is something that hasn’t been done much in SF — it was completely new when Asimov did it, and it has not been much imitated. Cherryh’s Cyteen concerns itself with this. But in general we don’t see much manipulation of society, and when we do our heroes tend to be opposed to it. Here it has a good end and they tend to be all for it.

As for the plot, the inevitable working out of Seldon’s plan is done very well. There are reversals of expectations and unexpected developments — unexpected to the reader, anyway. Asimov does well with the solution to one problem setting up a new problem down the line. And just when you’ve had enough of it all working out as Seldon expected, it all goes wrong, with the introduction of the Mule — a mutant who couldn’t be predicted.

Here we get to the things I don’t like. ACTUAL SPOILERS FROM NOW ON!

The Mule has mutant powers of telepathy and emotion control. He conquers a large chunk of the galaxy by converting his former enemies into enthusiastic slaves. The Seldon plan goes right off the rails. To get it back, the secret hidden Second Foundation needs to do something. And they do. And they have secret mind powers too. I have never liked psi powers in SF, but I don’t much mind the Mule having them. It’s just that the Second Foundation are supposed to be masters of psychohistory and psychology. I wanted them to defeat the Mule that way — and I hate all the brain tampering they do later. It feels like cheating. I have always found it deeply disappointing and I still do.

However, this brings me to a thing I like a lot — Arkady Darrell. Now there are no women (except for a mention of “wives and families”) until half way through the second book. But for me this utterly sexist assumption is absolutely redeemed by the presence of Arkady Darrell in Second Foundation. Arkady is a fifteen year old girl that I totally identified with when I was twelve, and I still love her. I smile when I think about her. I don’t like that she inveigled the home-made listening device out of a boy instead of whipping it up herself, but otherwise she was the girl hero I so seldom found, stowing away on spaceships, visiting Trantor, solving the mystery. She’s no Podkayne, she’s active and engaged — and her homework assignment is the smoothest funniest way of getting the backstory into an episode that Asimov ever found.

In this re-read, I remembered the solution to the puzzle of where the Second Foundation were, the question of where the “other end of the galaxy” was. But I misremembered that Arkady worked it out correctly, that after the set-up answer of “a circle has no end” I thought she realised that the opposite end of a spiral is the centre, and that Seldon was a psychohistorian. I was wrong, or the Second Foundation tampered with my memory the way they did with Arkady’s. I think I’d just rewritten the ending in my head to be more satisfying.

As for clunky and old fashioned, their computers are hilarious, and they plan galactic trips through hyperspace using slide rules. File that under “part of the charm.” The First Speaker says that Seldon’s plan could have broken with a real advance in tech, which seems to me nonsense — historical inevitability takes into account changing technology and can predict that it will happen if not what and when. Also we see advancing tech — the astonishing lens that lets you view the stars as they would appear from any planet. (Probably available as an iPhone app. But where is my galactic empire?) This is also ahistorical — the tech level of the middle ages was above that of the Roman Empire in anything that didn’t require huge scale resource management. What got lost was infrastructure, not actual tech advances. So I think that the first speaker misunderstood the Plan.

If you have never read these and you pick them up as a piece of science fiction history, you may find you keep reading them because you’re having fun.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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