June Books 14-16) The Foundation Trilogy

14) Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
15) Foundation and Empire, by Isaac Asimov
16) Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

Picked these up off the shelves after doing that Hugo meme the other day, perhaps also in an effort to recapture my early teens when I must have read them for the first time. The basic concept, as if you needed reminding, is that the scientist Hari Seldon, inventing a new discpline called psychohistory, foresees the fall of the (humans only) Galactic Empire and sets up two foundations, one at each end of the galaxy, to preserve knowledge and reduce the forecast age of barbarism from thirty thousand years to a single millennium. We follow the story of the Foundation for the first few centuries of its existence on the distant planet of Terminus, which withstands several challenges to the Seldon Plan and then unexpectedly falls to a mutant who has the power to change people’s emotions, called the Mule. The mysterious Second Foundation intervenes and neutralises the Mule; it then has to also deal with a threat from the first Foundation which seeks to discover and destroy it.

There are two basic concepts here which are completely wrong. First of all, the idea that future history can be modelled to such mathematical accuracy is surely ludicrous. As a very close observer of international politics at the highest level, it seems to me that the two fundamentals are a) the resources available to decision-makers and b) those decision-makers’ own capacity for making decisions. The second of these cannot be easliy modelled. My own view has always been, for instance, that a different leader than Milošević could have pacified the Kosovo Albanians in 1988, when their demands were basically to be left as they were rather than for independence; could have struck a deal between Serbia and Slovenia in 1990 to keep the Yugoslav Federation together; and then would have suppressed any Croat rebellion with the full support of al international actors. In fact, even the first factor, the availability of resources, cannot always be predicted: who would have expected that the meltdown in Albania in 1997, caused entirely by a fairly predictable economic event (the collapse of various pyramid schemes), would result in the looting of Albania’s well-stocked military armouries and the consequent arming of the Kosovo Liberation Army?

The second is, of course, the shadowy Higher Power guiding human affairs, at first apparently Seldon’s Plan, but later revealed to be the Second Foundation’s continuation of his work. I suspect that Asimov must have been attracted by Plato’s notion of a Republic guided by enlightened philosopher-kings; the Second Foundation certainly describes its own mission in similar terms in internal discourse. It is a popular literary trope – see the Da Vinci Code, or indeed the various websites denouncing the annual Bilderberg conferences. But there is a nasty undercurrent too to such concepts, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the more recent nonsense about Eurabia. Asimov does manage to put us in sympathy with the Second Foundation by the end, which is quite an achievement.

The three books are basically fix-ups of stories published individually in the 1940s, and in fact the volumes have little individual internal unity – the story arc of the Foundation’s encounter with the remnants of the Empire is split between volumes 1 and 2, and the arc of the Mule between volumes 2 and 3. The first few stories (after the set-up) are pretty repetitive: Asimov’s heroes defeat their enemies by brain rather than brawn, with much dialogue and little action. The introduction of the Mule – indeed, perhaps more the introduction of the first female character of any note, Bayta Darell – livens things up considerably, and we get a chase around the Galaxy on the Mule’s quest for the Second Foundation, which won the Retro-Hugo for the earliest year yet awarded, 1946. The final story, starring Arcadia Darell, Byta’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, actually turns on the same plot twist, an unexpected revelation of the real identity of another character, but is perhaps the best written segment of all – it includes a brilliant passage about a spaceport, which makes it sound rather like Penn Station in New York – also remarkable because such descriptive passages are generally few in number.

Anyway, it’s a good re-read, but Asimov would have difficulty getting it published today. (I seem to remember in the first edition I read, many years ago, the young student in the very first story segment had the same surname as the imperial envoy in the second segment; in the new edition the latter seems to have been renamed from Dornik to Dorwin, I suppose to avoid confusion.)

One thought on “June Books 14-16) The Foundation Trilogy

  1. Incidentally, why would I want to pretend that the final quote isn’t mine if it was? I really don’t know who said it but it wasn’t me. The one who said it was a mighty smart person. I’m not that smart, just a film critic.

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