Jul 8 2011 11:19am

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.

Mike Houser
1. tharkad
Thanks Jo, these are some of my favorite stories. I'd love to know your take on Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury. I loved it originally but it was a long read and I have not got around to a reread.
2. Dank
Foundation and Foundation and Empire are two of my top ten all time favorite books. I agree that the psychic battle stuff in Second foundation was silly though, and it didn't hold up to the standards of the others.
Clark Myers
3. ClarkEMyers
Agreed the stories and the mashup are nicely done and almost invariably remembered fondly.

The ends here are I think used to justify the means - aspects of at least overt control under the Seldon plan by the Mayors of Terminus are tyrannical.

Evil must come into this world but I wonder at deliberately introducing a presumably lesser evil for a greater good - always and forever an interesting topic and character study I suppose.

I'd describe Seldon's psychohistory, Valti's psychodynamics (Poul Anderson's Marius, Un-Man, and Brake) as another G-d that failed - along with General Semantics, Whorf Sapir and so much more in (mostly John Campbell associated?) speculative fiction .

Science Fiction that seemed scientific before Chao Theory and wide spread understanding of the butterfly effect (both in terms of sensitivity to initial conditions and also in time travel I suppose). Seems to me that later introducing R. Daneel as a deus ex machina along with suggestions in End of Eternity support this theme of failure - as Poul Anderson also suggested in his own later works.

R. Daneel behind the curtain is maybe what the Mule might have been if people had been nicer to the different among them Bayta/Arkady style. Then again if three laws+/- could be programmed into meat then and in that case would some ends justify some means?
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
Jo - I enjoyed these as well. "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" remains my favorite SFF quote of all time (even better than Heinlein's Lazarus Long epigrams).

Tying to our other current re-read, I keep feeling a Second Foundation location vibe re some of the players at the Academy in the Kingkiller books. Hmm.

Chris Hawks
5. SaltManZ
I first read these something like 7 years ago, in my mid-20s. I actually read the entire Robots-Empire-Foundation series in order, including some of the Asimov-approved stuff. And while I found that the Robot books (the only ones I'd read previously) held up quite well, and the sequel/prequel Foundation books were entertaining enough, the original Foundation trilogy had to be some of the driest, most boring SF I'd ever read. There were some neat ideas, and I loved the Mule, but man I can't recommend these to a modern SF/F reader, apart from their (obvious) historical value.
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
SaltManZ@5:I have to agree with you on the dryness of the original Foundation. I first read them 30-some years ago and like you I liked the ideas, but the prose was like wading through dust.
Oddly, Asimov's nonfiction works are almost always lively, engaging and full of fun.
7. seth e.
I read Foundation first as a (young) adult, and I had almost the exact opposite reaction to SaltManZ and shalter. I was impressed that Asimov was able to write a page-turner in which very little happened; I thought his prose was old-fashioned sf, but completely fun. But I didn't buy psychohistory for a second. It always seemed like the worst end of simplified, mechanistic Modern culture theory to me.

And I also don't care much for psionics, enough that I didn't even like the Mule's appearance. I had a similar objection to Jo Walton's problem with the Second Foundation: I wanted psychohistory as an idea to fail or succeed on its own merits, not because an all-powerful spanner in the works managed to cheat destiny. The Mule is basically a deus ex machina as antagonist.
8. Makgraf
"Mild spoilers below. Real spoilers will be indicated."
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Tharkad: I'm planning to re-read that in a few weeks when I'm home again. Watch this space.
10. Dr. Thanatos
Among my all-time favorites.

A couple of points:

1: in the last section it was explicit that the Seldon Plan, as further developed by the Second Foundation, was aimed at producing a citizenry ready to be ruled by the psychologically elite. This produces a certain discomfort in me, and it's clear in Asimov's later sequels that he realized this and found a way to subvert it.

2: The Mule is my hero. Aside from the fact that in Foundation and Empire he is clearly played by Woody Allen, there is a great deal of emotional resonance for me and I suspect for many others out there who have dealt with fertility issues. "I call myself the Mule, but not because of my strength."

3: Jo, did you forget Arkady's sainted grandmother Bayta? Her character was written in the 1950's I think. She solved the mystery of the Mule and acted on it, saving the day without help from the moderately useless men in the story. Considering most of her SF contemporaries were screaming at aliens and telling the Lensman what a manly specimen of a man he was, I'd say she stands out at least as much as her grand-daughter as a female role model at a time when the genre didn't really have any.
lake sidey
11. lakesidey
I first read the series in the early nineties, in fairly random order (as and when I managed to lay hands on them), which spoiled a few of the surprises. Coincidentally, I just reread the original trilogy and the first two robot novels over the last fortnight (revisiting them after 16 years!) and found that I still liked them, thankfully.

They were among the first science fiction I read, and Arkady Darell and the incomparable Daneel Olivaw remain high on my list of beloved fictional characters (I have also been known to quote Salvor Hardin on occasion, with suitable modifications to suit context). The picture of the huge, sprawling, decadent galaxy is one of the most enduring images of two and a half decades of reading. OK, so the science is a little out of date - I'm fine with that. (Let's see how well the stories of today stand up in the light of new inventions, 50 years down the line.....And there's Asimov's almost-fetish for mind control of various sorts (Spoilers: the Mule, the 2nd F, Gaia, Daneel/Giskard). But these are small flaws in a great work.

(Actually, given that we just abandoned the space program, maybe the science of 50 years down won't be that radically different :o( )

lake sidey
12. lakesidey
Oh, and I forgot, I originally read these with beautiful Michael Whelan covers, which I loved (those editions, alas, have long fallen by the wayside as I changed 2 colleges, a few jobs and 4 cities in the meantime....I still have my Foundation's Edge from that time though, somwhere in....that pile of books over there? Umm. I think.)

13. Foxessa
One speculates whether Foundation could now, with so much technological change since then, be considered slide rule punk? Hmpf. Better think about that more, C.

I did love Foundation for many years, re-reading it frequently.

Love, C.
14. Foxessa
Funny coincidence too, that Donald Kingsbury, was brought up at the top of comments. I just refreshed my memory of his long pre-internet novel, Courtship Rites, via the internet, because of reading Kameron Hurley's God's War.

Love, C
David Levinson
15. DemetriosX
Another interesting take on the whole concept is Michael Flynn's In the Country of the Blind, which concerns the problems of having your controlling group stay on message over the centuries (well, decades in his story). I guess it helps to have an immortal, benevolent robot pulling the strings.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
I didn't forget Bayta, I just didn't talk about her much because I don't find her very interesting. She's not a screaming female, true, but she's another kind of cliche, a simpering madonna, so compassionate, so loving. Give me Arkady making faces in the mirror and eavesdropping on conversations any day.
Kristen Templet
17. SF_Fangirl
I agree with with SaltManZ@5 and shalter@6. I read tons of Asimov as a kid and liked him a lot, but somehow I never got around to reading Foundation until my late 20s. I found it a massive disaapointment - slow and kind of stupid. I am still very fond of the robot stories and novels. I recall enjoying the first story in the book with Hari Seldon creator of psychohistory. But I remember the rest of the stories in Foundation as being silly and boring with people sitting around talking until there there was no other decision they could make. Psychohistory is clearly fantasy or bad science. I heard the series gets better with the introduction of the Mule, but Foundation left me with no desire to read any further in the series.

I do wonder if anyone is actually fond of Foundation as a stand alone or if people only like it because it sets the stage for a enjoyable story with its sequals/prequels.
18. zaldar
Ah come on blue the lovly mothering female is not a bad character. Sure it is something women become as they get older but you are generally more compasionate than men (generaly certainly some men are more compasionate than some women...cassy's mother doesn't rank high on the compasionate scale). I read these and went all the way to where he connected the robot novels. Now not only was he one of the most prolific authors he had the longest series in exestince ever. I actually like the overmind nature of the ending and the mule. Remember it was the right choice because it allowed us to come together, end our internal divisions and be prepared for what is in the other universes and undoubtedly coming. A worthy goal, we will eventually be discovered and believing the aliens will be benevolent...well its infantile.

And yes us abandoning the space program was the worst decision of the new century but it is just another sign of American decline...
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
I read the Foundation Trilogy when I was about 12, the first time. I probably have read it again a dozen or so more times since, though it has been some time since I read it last. While I agree about many of your points, Jo, it still has to be recognized as a landmark work. It's what made Asimov part of the big 3 in 20th century scifi.

On the books themselves, while you may have liked Arkady, I thought she was a bit too childish and annoying. Also, I thought the psi powers that The Mule had were too all encompassing. But , overall, the trilogy hangs together, its a huge story scope, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion. *not counting the additional books

Today is a terrible day for scifi..for science...and for the future.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo

I think there are a whole pile of problems with women in older SF, there's complete absence of women, or there's presence of really cliched stereotypes of women. It doesn't take much to make me happy, give me Gloria Brooks McNye or Arkady Darrell and I'll defend you against charges of sexism for decades. But those stereotypes get awfully wearying, it's like being shut into a box that's too small and the wrong shape. It's not like you can't get out, it's that fighting your way out before you can do anything else gets irritating.

So reading your comment today as a forty-six year old mother, I aim my laser pistol in your direction and ask if you exactly how sure are you that I'm nice and nurturing and compassionate. I flip off the safety cap and a red dot appears on your chest. Are you feeling really confident in your beliefs? And more than that, are you feeling lucky?
j p
21. sps49
Foundation is still a Big and Original Idea story, and just because it was easier to be first with an idea back then doesn't mean it was a good idea. Maybe I'd feel differently if I first read it now, but it holds up okay on re-reads.

I can't fault an author much when progress sillifies their future!science. Usually.

I haven't read any non-Asimov R&F books, but I still enjoy his merging of Robots and Foundation books- except for the very end, which creeps me out.
22. Queen MyrdemInggala
bluejo@16 - so Bayta's a simp? Simps simper, after all - according to the Clarke-Asimov Peace Treaty, that's one thing they're extra-good at.

No, seriously, Bayta made the whole Mule episode tolerable for me. I loved it that there was this "background female", who had already worked out everything before her husband, who was supposed to be in charge, had the faintest idea what was going on. And then she turns the tables on the Mule, and shatters his hopes of Galactic Domination.

I could understand her talking emo with a blaster in her hand - that image stayed with me through High School and helped keep me sane.

Queen ConegUndunory MyrdemInggala
23. Nicholas D. Rosen
I wouldn't describe Bayta as a simpering madonna. Even aside from her use of a blaster in her climactic scene, she can be tart-tongued, and she initiates a little domestic violence with Toran, you may recall.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
24. tnh
Zaldar, thank you for providing the occasion for Jo's response.
25. a1ay
She's not a screaming female, true, but she's another kind of cliche, a simpering madonna, so compassionate, so loving.

Er, doesn't Bayta blow the head off an innocent man - Ebling Mis, who's a nice guy and a friend of hers - in order to save the galaxy? This is not stereotyped nurturing-mother behaviour. Even Cordelia Naismith confined herself to killing enemies, and then only with considerable remorse and distaste.
William S. Higgins
26. higgins
In Hawaii, the Galactic Lens exists. Last year I met Jon Lomberg, its designer.

Here's a surprise: it's biological.

William S. Higgins
27. higgins
The Galactic Lens exists in Hawaii. It's 100 feet across. Last year I met its designer, Jon Lomberg.

It's biological.

28. Miguel Detonacciones
You might be interested to know that a real psychohistory may have been discovered "down here on Earth" recently.The
new mathematics on which it is based is presented as an algebra that
can model human dialogues -- and the 'self-dialogues' that are
individual human thought-processes as "soundless monologues" -- and the "reap the wind, sow the world wind", and "'as you do onto others, so shall it be done unto you'" dialectics of moral dynamics.The creator of this psychohistory, and the discoverer of the newmathematics behind it, calls himself "Karl H. Seldon", and theorganization that he co-founded is called "Foundation EncyclopediaDialectica" , with its two 'co-headquarters' at "Terminious, CA." and at "Stars' End, NY".The
seven "simultaneous" Karl-Seldonian "psychohistorical equations" were recently publicly revealed, in detail, via the following URLs:

These seven equations are written in the algebraic language of the must rudimentary of the progression of new systems of mathematics that "Dr. Seldon" discovered in 1996.

This first system of "psychohistorical mathematics" is, simultaneously, (1) a 'contra-Boolean arithmetic of logic', founded on a theorem which is a hitherto never considered, strong negation of the "Fundamental Law of Thought" of George Boole's original algebra of formal logic, and (2) a "non-standard model of "Natural" Numbers Arithmetic".

The "existence" of such"non-standard models of "Natural" arithmetic" was predicted as a direct implication of the Lowenheim Skolem Theorem of mathematical logic, and as a conjoint implication of Kurt Goedel's Completeness andIncompleteness Theorems at the level of "first order" logic , but not constructively so.

"Karl Seldon's" arithmetic uses the four "First Order Peano Postulates" that form the foundation of the axiomatics of ordinary "Natural" arithmetic, but in a way which leads to a qualitatively different system of arithmetic, in somewhat the same sense that "Non-Euclidean Geometries", by varying the Euclidean "Parallels Postulate", differ qualitatively from Euclidean "Natural" Geometry, but more in the sense in which Abraham Robinson's "Non-Standard Analysis" is a "Non-Standard Model" of the "Real" Numbers that simplifies expressions of the Calculus by rigorously allowing "actual infinitestimals" as "Hyper-Real" numbers."Karl Seldon" next used this first psychohistorical algebra to model a potentially infinite progression of ever-more-descriptively-powerful
"psychohistorical algebras", languages which presumably allow a finite
progression of predictively-richer versions of his seven
"psychohistorical-dialectical equations".

However, those richer versions have not yet been published.

Worth a look-see, IMHO!



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