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 is 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 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.
•The official Isaac Asimov Homepage.
•There are three additional Foundation cycle novels written in the 1980s and 1990s.