Asimov’s Foundation, and what’s unique about science fiction

12.07, Thursday 27 Aug 2020 Link to this post

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books were the first real sci-fi I read, at about 9 or 10. Apple is releasing a TV adaptation in 2021 (here’s the teaser trailer) – and I can’t help but feel it misses the point, and what the magic of science fiction is.


You don’t need to have read Foundation to read this post, but let me give you the basics.

The premise of Foundation is that the Galactic Empire collapses. One guy, Hari Seldon, predicts the fall, and using his new science (psychohistory) is able to tell that a 10,000 year dark age will follow. Yet he can create a new future! He can shorten the dark age to only 1,000 years by establishing a new society on a new planet - the Foundation of the title - to guide the galaxy back to new heights. Using psychohistory, he shapes the destiny of the Foundation long after his own death, using recorded messages that appear at pivotal moments over hundreds of years.

Foundation, the story, begins in the middle.

Asimov’s first Foundation stories, written in the 1940s, were set 50 years after Hari Seldon’s death. The Galactic Empire had already fallen, the Foundation was already established – but not entirely aware of its destiny. We meet Seldon only as pre-recorded hologram messages. He uses fake-outs and the holding back of information in order to forge the Foundation into what it needs to become.

The story of Foundation is not the story of Hari Seldon. Fundamentally it’s about what happens next.

  • What are the consequences and limits of true prophecy? What if there was a guy who, long ago, said he could predict the future and his prophecies were true?
  • How does a society respond to Manifest Destiny? By taking it for granted, stirring envy in others, pushing back to find its own path… And how should an anointed, privileged child be nurtured towards self-reliance?

Look, nobody gets to say what science fiction is or isn’t, least of all me.

But, for me, what happens next is, in a nutshell, exactly what is special and unique about science fiction.

Sci-fi is a scientific investigation, and the lab bench is the book. It’s a thought experiment in narrative form.

That’s what you don’t get anywhere else. The author has a setting that goes to great lengths to be plausible: a world, a society, a group of people. Then the subject of the investigation: a dead guy who prophesied the present and the future, blessing the current society in ways beyond its knowing.

What happens next? Sci-fi uses the power and constraint of story to find its way through. And by doing that, discoveries are made.

Like any scientific endeavour it starts as a phenomenological exercise: what’s happening? How does this thing behave in various circumstances? Then beginning to probe: what are its limits? How do we break the premise? And finally consequences… what does it mean for this phenomenon to be wielded deliberately; what are the second order effects when others can see the effects …and so on. Dynamical systems are all the same; the reader can readily draw parallels and discover new truths.

And the new truths are about the present, of course.

Foundation can be drawn out into a study of everything from America and Manifest Destiny, to how to express individuality when growing up with wealth and privilege.

For me, spaceships, distance planets and so on – these aren’t intrinsic to science fiction. They’re lab equipment. They provide necessary narrative distance from the everyday such that the reader (and the author) is able to fully explore the premise. But you could do Foundation without spaceships, if you wanted.

They’re fun, of course.

But ultimately:

Spaceships and futuristic cities are just stage dressing.


After the first short stories and novellas, Asimov went in two directions.

  • Into the future: Subsequent stories cover the next 500 years of the Foundation’s future history.
  • Into the past: the short stories from the 40s were published as books, the Foundation Trilogy, in the early 1950s. The opening chapter, written in 1951, is a mini prequel in its own right and shows us Hari Seldon alive for the first time. It’s set pre-Fall, and we meet Seldon at the heart of Empire, at the height of its glory.

After the main run of Foundation novels, Asimov returned to Seldon, and devoted a couple of books to telling his story.

But Seldon’s life only works as a story if you already know the unbelievable truth, that his prophecies were correct (which is why Foundation should be read in publication order, not chronological). Otherwise he could be just another conspiracy nut.


So, looking at the Apple TV trailer of Foundation, it appears that the show is about Hari Seldon, and it’s set during the impending fall of the Galactic Empire.

What show runner wouldn’t want to put that glamour and rotten decadence on screen? I get it!

BUT.

The science fictional magic of the original stories is that we see the aftermath - good and bad - of Seldon’s truth.

We get to see the maturing of the Foundation under the distance guidance of his dead hand, one that everyone can see is always right – but that is none-the-less stifling for its presence. And perhaps, eventually, might be wrong?

Glamour is shown without ever putting it on-screen (or rather, on the page). We see old Empire only from a great distance, from the dusty frontier planet of Terminus, the home of the Foundation at the edge of the galaxy. And we can imagine its splendour!

The galaxy is more sprawling, Empire is grander, and Seldon more omniscient for never seeing them.

So I’m excited to see Foundation on TV.

But from the trailer it looks like it’s leaning in hard on the far-future fantastical setting – great, but for me that misses what makes sci-fi sci-fi. It’ll be fun to see essentially the Fall of Rome with spaceships and a massive CGI budget…

…but it looks like we’re not going to get to explore the what-ifs that made me fall in love with Foundation to begin with

  • What If Prophecy, but Really,
  • and How to Live with Destiny.

And in the era of algorithms that decide our fate, and ethno-nationalists who say that national past gives us rights over the future, I can’t think of topics that need greater examination today.


My view on sci-fi (which is not universal, of course) is why I have such a strong connection with design as a method for innovation: both put new objects in familiar settings, crank the handle, and trust that the process will lead to new ideas.

Science fiction is how we do design’s thinking through making when the only way to make is to put on a fictionsuit.


A coda

Isaac Asimov was horrible to women. I’ve noticed the lack of women in Foundation for as long as I can remember. What I didn’t know until a few years ago was that Asimov was a serial groper of women, a notorious sexual harasser who was enabled by the science fiction community.

Another note: why aren’t there any aliens in Foundation? Well…

Foundation was published in the magazine Astounding. Editor: John Campbell, whose vision and energy drove the Golden Age of science fiction. It would be hard to overstate his influence. However…

Asimov learned of Campbell’s insistence that humans should always be superior to other races in some way. It was clear to Asimov that Campbell’s own views on race were the source of the imperative: just as whites were superior to other humans, so humans had to be superior to any alien race. Asimov didn’t share Campbell’s views, and he didn’t want his stories to reflect them, even allegorically. (In the robot stories, the problem didn’t exist. Campbell didn’t mind if robots were superior to humans.) For the falling Galactic Empire in “Foundation”, however, Asimov chose to sidestep Campbell’s racial views by creating a galaxy-wide civilization with no alien races – a galaxy inhabited only by humans.

Ouch.

The history of science fiction is not a proud one.