I’ve decided that after years of claiming to be a Sci Fi aficionado, it was time to face the cold hard reality that I am, in fact, a hack. There are literally a hundred so-called science fiction “classics” that I’ve simply never read. Well, this series “The Education of Ira” was designed to fix just that. Then, finally, I can have the justifiable right to be a pompous asshole. It will be glorious!
Nearly every single list I looked at whilst trying to determine what books should (and shouldn’t) be on this must-read expedition through the Sci Fi classics had this trilogy at #1. Beyond that consensus was pretty scattered, which makes Foundation all that much more impressive. This herd of cats that is the Sci Fi critical community were, by and large, still able to rally around this old set of three short story collections by one of the first science fiction rock stars: Isaac Asimov. Naturally, it seemed the logical place to start.
Isaak Yudovich Asimov was a biochemist and teacher in Boston, and perhaps the single most writing-obsessed individual that the english language has ever seen (if not the US, at the very least). Over 500 books are attributed to his writing or editing, along with somewhere in the neighborhood of 90,000 letters and postcards. I mean, imagine this guy with email or twitter! It would have been an avalanche! He also had the distinction of being well-recognized and beloved during his lifetime, a feat that seems rare. He was born in 1920, which would have made him 22 when the first “Foundation” short story was written and published in Astounding Science Fiction. That’s pretty incredible to think about, even if 22 was considered an “older” age during that time period. He’d continue to expand on the Foundation universe over the next 6 years, and these series of short stories were compiled into novel-form in the early 1950s.
The plot is relatively simple; as it was with Ancient Rome, the great empire of man will crumble and fall, it is mathematically inevitable. The resulting anarchy that follows will plunge the galaxy into a massive ten-thousand-year Dark Age. But, one brilliant man, Hari Seldon, has a plan. A plan derived from the statistical foretelling of “psychohistory” that can save humanity thousands of years of rebuilding, strife, and ignorance. The instruments and protectors of this Plan, are the Foundations.
Being a trilogy, there are naturally three parts to the story (duh). The first book, Foundation, concerns the earliest days of the Foundation, including how it was set up (which is the only time that we actually meet Hari Seldon, architect of the whole damn thing), and its earliest trials and tribulations which are each referred to as a “Seldon Crises.” Though Seldon is already dead by the time we move onto the first set of crises the Foundation must overcome, he has pre-recorded messages that are designed to appear during each crisis and reassure everyone (reader included) that what’s happened was planned for, predicted by psychohistory, and that we’re still on track. That falls apart midway through the second book Foundation and Empire when a mutant named The Mule shows up and puts everything in jeopardy. The fact he’s a mutant is important; he exists outside the known variables of normal human behavior, and he is therefore unpredictable by Psychohistory and Seldon’s Plan. The final book, Second Foundation concerns the mysterious “Second Foundation” that Seldon had set up on the opposite side of the galaxy for like-wise mysterious reasons. Who are they? What do they have to do with the plan? WHERE are they?
The first thing that jumped out to me reading through this vast opus of time and space, was how downright Chekhov-ian Asimov is in his writing style. And I don’t mean the bridge officer of the USS Enterprise, I mean that famous Realist playwright from Russia (which is also where Asimov was born, by the way). Nearly all the action of the entire trilogy happens off-stage, and what we’re “witnessing” as the reader is a series of conversations; either in the lead-up to a crisis, the aftermath of one, or both. Though there are dozens upon dozens of battles with ships, and soldiers in numbers so vast that they are hard to imagine, none of them have any prose dedicated to them as they happen. Instead, we have powerful men and women meeting each other face to face for battles of wits and words.
It’s actually quite impressive, if you think about it, to succeed at keeping the reader engaged and excited in your story without the usual hallmarks of a space adventure (such as describing a harrowing space battle). And, he succeeds. This happens to be the first Asimov that I’ve ever read, but I’d wager real money that this type of mastery with dialogue is something that defined him as a “master writer.” The characters are always extremely well crafted, their point of conflict with the others in each scene is razor sharp, and the stakes are nothing short of the fate of the entire galaxy. Much of this comes from the fact that, as incredibly intelligent and powerful as most of his characters are, they are still not sure of what each outcome will be. *They* are living in suspense, very much in the present as each situation unfolds, which lends an immediacy to the work overall, and offsets the vastness of time that the stories span.
The next thing that struck me, and which actually made the series the most enjoyable for me, was the technology that Asimov imagined. See, one of my favorite aspects of Science Fiction is that it’s always such a product of it’s time; what sort of cutting edge scientific and social advancements were happening while the author wrote the story? What did the people of that time think the far future would look like? Well, 1942 was the age of the atom bomb and nuclear fission. So what else would Asimov project into this grand future but “nucleics?” “Nucleics” was his term for the theory that we’d eventually control the atom and its power so completely, it would take us to the stars and beyond. There are faster than light ships, glowing jewelry, personal shields, ray guns, the list goes on; all powered by the atom. It was Asimov’s answer to everything. I find that faith in nuclear power to be very…innocent. It was before the Three Mile Island incident, before Chernobyl, before Fukushima. It was before the dangers of nuclear fission, and its limitations, really became apparent. Its raw power, however, was obvious even then; the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in 1945, and they changed the world. The atom was an untapped, explosive, and largely unexplored frontier of massive potential. Asimov was certainly taking inspiration from a hot and exciting topic.
I also found it fascinating what was NOT in the Foundation series; namely computers. The first computer is largely recognized to be the Zeus Z3 in 1941, so they were certainly circulating amongst the scientific community like nuclear physics were. For some reason, however, the computer didn’t catch Asimov’s attention. Foundation is literally the first Sci Fi series I’ve ever read without the ubiquitous use of computers. Asimov’s foresight apparently didn’t extend into this area quite yet, although I have a suspicion his Robot series may have corrected that omission.
All that said, it’s clear that Asimov’s preoccupation was with people, as opposed to technology. The core of Foundation and each subsequent novel is unquestionably Psychohistory. It posits that at some point in the far future, our understanding of psychology, sociology, and statistical analysis will reach the point where, mathematically, it will be possible to predict major social events with incredible precision. It’s an interesting theory, especially since he had the mathematical savvy to include how vast the human population had become in his far future. Such incredibly large data sets would indeed change the game in the statistics world. It was a reasonable point that so much information could make it possible to predict the course of the future.
It is important to note, unfortunately, that within a couple decades and the advent of Chaos Theory in the advanced mathematics world, Psychohistory was pretty much declared impossible. Chaos theory studied the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, and found that variances compound by orders of magnitude the farther down the line you go. Which is to say, even the teeny tiniest amount of changes in the early phases of a system will lead to huge differences in its outcome. It’s similar to the concept of the famous “Butterfly Effect”; one butterfly flapping it’s wings can turn into a hurricane. Even so, it was a fascinating concept, Psychohistory, and certainly worth a book series.
Another side-effect of these novels essentially being a collection of short stories was just how many characters you’re introduced to in the span of the three books. It’s rather staggering, and certainly a new experience for me. I understand why this series has never been adapted for the screen; when we’re jumping ahead 100 or 200 years with each story, our “heroes” are completely reinvented each and every time. Movies and TV run off central characters…Foundation has virtually none. There were two in particular, however, that stuck out to me above the rest. First, and foremost, is The Mule, who is a *fascinating* character because he’s a game-changer. He turns everything on its head, and puts everything at risk. Asimov also does a wonderful job making him intimidating. He has a superpower, and what he can do with it is genuinely terrifying. The other is the spritely Arcadia, who appears in the last book of the trilogy. I loved her for completely different reasons; she’s smart, funny, adventurous, and full of life and excitement. We get a lot more time with her than most of the other characters, save perhaps The Mule. Her exploits as she journeys to find, and run from, the Second Foundation are some of the most long-form and in-depth sections of the trilogy.
The most exciting individual moments from the trilogy also fall upon these two engaging heroes. Top honors would have to go to The Mule and his show-down with the Second Foundation, which is *scintillating* prose. There are layers upon layers of “truth” to be uncovered, and as a reader, I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen, or who was going to win. Likewise, there is a similarly-structured climax in Second Foundation between Arcadia and her father over the true location of the Second Foundation. It’s a technique that Asimov was obviously honing, this Agatha Christie-esque get-everyone-in-a-room-and-identify-the-real-killer peak to a narrative, and it’s a lot of fun. There’s a reason why that shit has worked for hundreds of years. It was also very exciting in Second Foundation when we learn just how off-track the Seldon plan has become and how incredibly small the chance is of putting things right.
Finally, it struck me just how fun and exciting it must have been back in the 40s to consume these stories in serial form, as they were all originally published in the monthly magazine Astounding Science Fiction. What a different time! They were truly stories of the pulp age, before television, and secondary perhaps only to Radio Dramas in terms of serial entertainment for the masses…although I do suppose that there were also the serials showing in the movie theatres at the time as well. Regardless, these magazines were immensely popular, far more popular than their long-form novel counterparts. The more I think about it, the only thing that comes close to that age of short-form writing today are comic books. I find the idea of reading one of these Foundation shorts one month and waiting breathlessly for the next installment to be quite exciting. It’s equally enticing for me to imagine being a writer in those times, spreading out my stories for a dedicated audience of readers.
Now, it’s not all completely roses and highest praise. I did have some issues with this vaunted trilogy. Of course I did, it was written 70 years ago; we’ve learned some things since then.
The first criticism, however, seems to be a pretty decent logic-police-type error that I don’t really have an excuse for. Why is the Second Foundation the enemy? There is literally a book-and-a-half of this trilogy dedicated to the attempted exposing and destruction of Seldon’s mysterious Second Foundation. Now, The Mule wants to find and destroy it for obvious reasons; he’s not a protector of the Seldon Plan, he’s a believer in himself and his own abilities. He wants to conquer the galaxy in his own way, First and Second Foundations be damned. I can also even understand the mindless mobs distrusting the Second Foundation and its shrouded power; a general, formless unknown to be feared. But, for Foundationers, sworn protectors of the Seldon Plan, to be unquestioningly convinced that the Second Foundation must, at any costs, be stopped seems like a complete contradiction. The Second Foundation is PART OF THE PLAN. Hari Seldon himself formed the Second Foundation just like he did the First. Why would they be the enemy? Asimov’s characters manage to have, if not complete faith, unswerving hope in the Plan. Yet, they have none at all when it comes to the mysterious role that Seldon gave the Second Foundation. I suppose it’s not so much that they ultimately decide the Second Foundation is the enemy, as it is Asimov’s characters’ complete failure to acknowledge the obvious possibility that the Second Foundation doesn’t have to be, and most likely *isn’t*, the enemy.
There were a couple other smaller issues I had, as in the afore-mentioned lack of the more traditional “exciting” story-telling styles of having space battles, trials and tribulations happening real-time, etc. The “series of conversations” method is still quite thrilling, given Asimov’s skill, but I suspect there are many who will find it less engaging than a more grandiose, modern story-telling style. There were also some very transparent plot points, which Asimov clearly didn’t want me to know yet, but I did. The identity of The Mule is one such plot point. I’d wager you, too, can pretty easily figure out who he is several hundred pages before it’s actually revealed. I must say, however, that these points of predictability are much fewer than those reveals that are, in fact, genuinely suspenseful and surprising. Ie- it’s an easy criticism to write off. There are still more than enough twists to keep you guessing. You’ll have to let me know if you figure out where the Second Foundation is before its final reveal in the last few paragraphs. And no cheating!
In the end, it’s pretty clear to me as to why this body of work is considered by most to be the definitive Science Fiction epic. It’s not the most polished, or the most extensive, or really any of those usual cap feathers…but it was one of the FIRST. Yes, there were epic works before this one. The Princess of Mars comes to mind, and I believe that work in particular was cited by many Sci Fi writers of the time, including Asimov, as a strong influence. But, then again, nothing is ever created in a vacuum. Everyone has their sources of inspiration. For me, what sets these stories truly apart is the *fascinating* scientifically-based core of the story, that is Psychohistory. Asimov took that idea, grafted it onto the story of the Fall of Rome, and created an entirely new universe of mankind in the far future. That’s the definition of Science Fiction. Pair that amazing concept with, for the most part, impeccable execution, and you have a classic. The scale of the goings-on must also be mentioned again; and empire of humans in the trillions of trillions, time-spans of thousands of years…I mean, I don’t know if that scale has ever been matched. It’s truly awe-inspiring, the size of his imagination, and it was a wonderful world to live inside, if even as a passery-by. There are six other novels in the series.
I recommend Asimov’s Foundation as highly as I can for anyone who’s interested in history, both our own, and that of mankind’s distant future.