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Paleofuture, Part 2: Foundation

By Tom Anderson


Older than the Editor.

Picture courtesy Amazon.


In the first part of this series, I discussed just why I had been reluctant to embrace the sci-fi classics of the 1950s and 1960s. Now, approaching it with an open mind, I will finally begin to take them on and examine them with hindsight, from a paleofuture perspective. In other words, I’ll look at what elements of their future predictions have aged well, and which badly – but in a way that reveals interesting points about the attitudes of the time they were originally written in.

 

Although I actually read Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous at Rama first, I’ll be covering that second in this article series as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is more thematically appropriate. Also, speaking of The Lord of the Rings, Foundation is a rare example of an iconic sci-fi and fantasy work that predates its publication (albeit not most of its writing) and thus cannot be influenced by this masterpiece, also making it interesting. Technically I should say that Foundation was serialised for a decade prior to 1951, but I think there were revisions before the final publication, so I will judge it by that year. I again remind you that I have deliberately only read the first book in the series before writing this article, I will attempt to sum up the plot of Foundation – without looking too much up, as I don’t want to be spoiled on future events by helpful wiki articles.


Isaac Asimov, from the 1950s.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


It is possibly fifty thousand years in the future (the people living at the time speculate it has been around that time since the invention of atomic power). The Galactic Empire has ruled the galaxy for about twelve thousand years. There are no aliens but there are thousands of human-settled planets. It has been so long since humanity came into space that no-one is quite sure where humanity’s original homeworld was, though archaeologists have narrowed it down to three star systems (of which Sol is one). I suspect this is retconned later judging by some of the later titles in the series. The Empire is ruled from the planet capital of Trantor, which is covered in a planet-wide city and is home to 40 billion people, mostly government administrators. It survives only because of a web of imports from agricultural worlds constantly arriving.

 

All seems well, but Hari Seldon, a master of ‘psychohistory’, has scientifically calculated the future and realised that the Empire is inevitably going to fall within a relatively short space of time. Worse, he predicts that the ensuing period of chaos and misery will last thirty thousand years, more than double the length of the Empire itself. However, he also foresees ways that, through subtle manipulation of events, it might be possible not to avert the fall of the Empire, but at least to reduce the period of chaos to one thousand years before civilisation rises again.

 

Initially, he appeals to the Imperial government (the Emperor himself is, like historical China, often a mere puppet) to set up a Foundation of scientists on a distant planet named Terminus, with the goal of recording all known information into an ‘Encyclopaedia Galactica’. With knowledge preserved, he claims it will be easier to rebuild after the Fall. Personally, I always think the mere existence of The Way Things Work by David MacAuley is sufficient to prevent the complete loss of knowledge of technology that apocalypse fantasists seem to foresee.

 

The Empire lets Seldon do it as it gives them an excuse to exile him as an awkward character (in fact, two Foundations on opposite sides of the Empire are founded, but we only see one at this stage). In reality, however, the Encyclopaedia is just a blind; Seldon’s real goal (as far as we can tell at this stage) is to create a nucleus for a new civilisation.


Hari Seldon, as depicted on the 1986 US reprint cover of Foundation.

Art by Michael Whelan, picture courtesy Wikipedia.


An interesting aspect of the concept of ‘psychohistory’ is that its predictions get less reliable over time (as one would expect, as additional factors come into play) and in particular, are most reliable if people don’t know about them and don’t try to alter events accordingly. For this reason, Seldon (a psychologist himself) deliberately ensures the Foundation is all physical scientists and lacks psychologists, because they might figure it out and then throw a spanner in the works. This is an idea that actually gave me a lot of respect for Asimov in this sense, because I associate the 1950s and 1960s with an attitude of going gung-ho for physics and engineering and a converse contempt for human sciences like psychology. As late as the 1980s, Star Trek: The Next Generation had viewers dismissing Roddenberry’s very sensible idea that a long-term space mission would need a space psychologist to manage the crew’s mental health. Here, Asimov certainly gives that field the respect it deserves, well ahead of his time.

 

I should note that Foundation is set over a long period of time – even just this first novel is set over the course of more than a century. There are no consistent characters we follow throughout; Seldon dies relatively early into the book, though it’s later revealed that his (holographic?) image appears every few decades in front of a vault of secrets to warn of what come to be called “Seldon Crises”. These are inflection points in his mapped-out psycho-history of the future, in which the actions of individuals are required to tilt history one the right path. However, precisely because knowing the prediction means that those individuals might make the wrong choice, they can’t know what the framing of the problem is until it’s already over. It’s a rather fascinating concept.

 

The early days of the Foundation see a crisis when they are put under pressure by their neighbours. As Seldon predicted, the Empire is starting to decay, and one consequence of this is the the systems nearby to Terminus (‘the Periphery’) are now effectively starting to self-govern under local feudal aristocrats. This process is quite interesting and shows a certain level of historical awareness from Asimov, as it mirrors the real-life process of decay in both the Holy Roman Empire in Europe and, especially, the Mughal Empire in India. In both cases, titles that were originally intended to imply imperially-appointed sub-administrator (such as nawab and nizam in the latter case) gradually become hereditary monarchs in their own right as the Emperor loses his grip on power. Here, the Royal Governor of the Prefect of Anacreon, one of Terminus’ most powerful neighbours, declares himself King and cuts the Foundation off from communication with the Imperial government. Now the Foundation is pressured to pick sides in the struggle between Anacreon and other breakaway powers.

 

This is mirrored by a political power struggle on Terminus itself. The scientists running the Foundation are effectively subsumed by the temporal power led by Mayor Salvor Hardin, who is the closest thing to a central main character in this first book. Indeed, Asimov observes that physical scientists usually make terrible leaders and administrators, as they are too used to thinking in terms of absolute numbers and don’t have people skills. As someone who works in science leadership and administration, as least for the time he was writing in, he was right – though this has grown more nuanced with more recent generations.

 

Hardin is able to navigate through the early Seldon Crises. He has enough insight to realise that Anacreon and the other powers have lost knowledge of atomic power and atomic weapons, though they still have enough brute force to conquer Terminus regardless. However, he effectively sells the Foundation’s understanding of atomic power to Anacreon. The Foundation builds atomic power plants on Anacreon, but locks its secrets behind a ritualistic religion which it evangelises alongside the development of power.

 

A generation later, the Anacreon nobility find they have lost control of their own planet to the Foundation through its religion (and ability to cut off power), and the threat is defeated and subsumed. The pattern is repeated over and over, though some planets become understandably suspicious as a result. Later, the Foundation continues to extend its influence through traders as well as missionaries, always with strings attached to its advanced technologies which the breakaway states lack. Eventually, the traders become merchant princes.

 

There is more political intrigue and takeovers (which are quite well written). Asimov shows a good understanding of the fact that today’s brilliant radicals sometimes, but not always, become tomorrow’s stodgy conservatives who need to be overthrown in turn. A new threat is presented by Korell, a planet whose ruling Commdor bans Federation missionaries, but traders begin to infiltrate it. They discover that Korell already has some ‘atom blasters’ sold to them by the Empire; the Empire is beginning to reassert itself in the Periphery. The first Foundation book ends with an Imperial fleet on its way to confront the Foundation, leading into the second book (which I haven’t read yet) Foundation and Empire.

 

Let’s now go through this narrative noting some interesting items, both from a paleofuture perspective and considering the impact and influence that this work had on other science fiction authors.

 

Probably my single biggest takeaway from reading Foundation was that Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) now feels a lot less original to me than it did. I am used to noting that Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, and The Wheel of Time (among others) all stole liberally from Dune, but I suppose that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Dune features a far-future spacefaring Empire with a feudal nobility of great houses, a focus on predicting the future (albeit via more mystical means) and an order (the Bene Gesserit) that uses religion to its own ends to try to control planets. It also begins each chapter with a quote from a hindsight-written history work in a very similar way to Foundation. I have mentioned before that I have a never-ending, long-running argument with our former editor Gary Oswald about whether Terry Pratchett’s The Dark Side of the Sun is meant to be more a referential parody of Dune (as he argues) or Foundation (as I do). Now, given that I’ve never even read Foundation up to this point, you might think it’s a little arrogant of me to make this claim, but I am sticking to my guns; Terry Pratchett’s “probability math” is definitely a reference to psycohistory, for a start. However, I will allow that given how much I now realise Dune itself took from Foundation, maybe this is less clear-cut than I thought.

 

Mind you, I have also noted in the past that reading Terry Pratchett’s parodies of works first has often ruined my ability to take the original prototype seriously. This is true of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and anything by HP Lovecraft (both of which were parodied in The Colour of Magic) and more generally the Vancian, Michael Moorcock, D&D style of magic lampooned in early Discworld books. But there are exceptions. I still enjoyed Larry Niven’s Ringworld despite reading it after the Pratchett book that parodies it (Strata) and whether Gary or I am right about The Dark Side of the Sun, I find I nonetheless hold some respect for both Dune and, now, Foundation.

 

Star Wars, of course, also stole from Foundation more directly as well as via Dune, straight from the very first opening crawl: the GALACTIC EMPIRE (in all caps) is lifted straight from here. The antagonist planet of Korell has a government called the Korellian Republic; Star Wars just changed the K to a C and came up with the Corellians, of which Han Solo is an example. The Star Wars capital planet of Coruscant is also very obviously based on Trantor, as are many other city planets throughout works of science fiction.


Representation of Trantor, the city-planet imagined by Isaac Asimov. Also used to illustrate Coruscant.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


One thing I find interesting from a paleofuture perspective is that Asimov gives Trantor’s population as ‘only’ forty billion, which would have been unimaginably many in 1951 (when Earth’s population was barely two and a half billion) but this becomes hundreds of billions, and eventually even a trillion, for writers describing Coruscant. This reflects how our own Earth has proved capable of sustaining a remarkable eight billion people, a number higher than many earlier alarmist works about overpopulation such as Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room (1966) – which became Soylent Green (1973) – imagined would not be possible without mass starvation and dystopian packing-in. While Asimov’s forty billion is scarcely unreasonable for a planet-wide city, it is a reminder that the scaling of population numbers is something that frequently comes up in a paleofuture context.

 

Another interesting bit of influence from Foundation is on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a name I mentioned in the previous article. Those books make mention of the “Encyclopaedia Galactica” as the rather staid prototype to which the guide is a more informal and user-friendly version. As someone who grew up with Adams’ work, it was interesting to see where the name Encyclopaedia Galactica originally came from.

 

Purely from a storytelling perspective, I find it rather fascinating that Foundation is written with a series in mind, ending on a cliffhanger. I suppose this does make sense considering it was originally serialised, but that feels like a very modern thing, writing a science fiction work with the assumption that it’s going to be the first of a series. Historically, I’ve often attributed the ‘default to trilogy’ assumption behind fantasy fiction to The Lord of the Rings, which wasn’t even intentionally written as a trilogy but perhaps there’s more to it than that. I’m also both impressed and amused by the mention of the second Foundation at the other end of the galaxy, which is so obviously an ‘expansion pack continent’ (as it’s sometimes called today) to set the scene for later sequel ideas, I find it surprising to see it in a book from this era.

 

I think Foundation is probably the first science fiction work to posit a far future civilisation which uses feudal titles and offices. It’s not entirely clear to me what Asimov was intending to imply by this; sometimes it comes across as the usual American attitude that such things are associated with atavism and societal decay (which itself seems rather dated now) but not always. Nonetheless, it definitely stands out in an era when the usual tide of futurism was against such things, and undoubtedly influenced their use in other science fiction works.

 

Psychohistory itself is a very interesting idea. In some ways it is very dated, coming before our later knowledge of chaos theory and the butterfly effect; in other ways, its determinism comes with Seldon’s statistical caveat that it is only accurate over the broad mass of a population. It is similar to the kinetic theory of gases. We can’t know where one gas particle is, but we can accurately model and predict what will happen to billions of gas particles interacting with each other. In the same way, psychohistory models the course of a society rather than of an individual, and it is the choices of an individual at the ‘Seldon crisis’ point which matter to keep history on Seldon’s planned track.

 

In some ways, Foundation is interesting because it actually predates a lot of what we might think of as clichés of the classic science fiction era. There are no laser weapons – because the book was published almost a decade before the first laser was demonstrated. Instead there are “atom-blasters”, details unspecified at this point. A common paleofuture problem is that up until quite recently, writers assumed that we would continue to use physical media formats as the default; an issue I am sympathetic to, as I firmly believe that no-one could have possibly predicted that people would be stupid enough to abandon the concept of media ownership en masse. Asimov, however, is strangely immune to this problem in Foundation because he wrote before much physical media (other than records) arose in the first place. He never makes reference to tapes or discs. The closest he comes is the brief appearance of ‘Cellomat legal forms, metal thin and tape-like’ which are inserted into personal capsules. If anything, these are most similar to ticker tape, and can be designed to rapidly decay after reading. Characters are seen reading books on screen, as is common today, though physical books still exist (the possibly-hologram of Seldon, itself a very forward-thinking concept for 1951, is shown handling one in the recording).

 

At the start of the book, the real Seldon has a sound recorder that doesn’t seem to record onto any physical media, and also blocks the ‘spy-beams’ that the Empire directs at him. These are impressive predictions.

 

It is also impressive that, for someone originally writing in the 1940s, Asimov immediately understands what impact atomic power will have on mankind and holds it up as the cornerstone of civilisation – as well as noting that atomic weapons have the potential to destroy entire civilisations. When Hardin hears Anacreon has lost atomic power, he contemptuously smiles and says: “Back to oil and coal, are they?” in a way that perhaps resonates better now than it did in 1951. Of course, Asimov does fail to foresee renewable power here.

 

Asimov also features widespread use of ‘televisor’ screens and ‘hyper-video three-dimensional newscasts’, both of which imply a level of omnipresence of visual media that was certainly not immediately predictable from a writer in his time.

 

It’s interesting to note that the Foundtion setting does not embrace the view that technological progress will continue to be rapid, as might have been expected from a writer who had lived through the first half of the 20th Century. There are certainly technologies there that didn’t exist in 1951 (obviously) but for 50,000 things, remarkably little has progressed.

 

There are a number of reasons given for this. The first section, told from the perspective of a one-off character, Gaal Dornick, who encounters Seldon and joins the Foundation, is interesting because it seems to be written to implicitly convey an assumption that is expressed towards the end of the book: that even before it starts crumbling, the Empire has already become creatively sterile. Archaeologists and historians only bother to read and analyse the works of their predecessors rather than going to make new discoveries themselves, for instance. Right at the end of the book, it’s noted that the Foundation – isolated for a century – has started to surpass the level of atomic technology that the Empire was capable of, even at its height. This is partly driven by necessity, as Terminus has very little metal, so its engineers had to design tiny miniaturised atomic motors. As the master trader and new central character Hober Mallow notes at the end: “We had to develop new techniques and new methods... [which] the Empire can’t follow because they have degenerated past the stage where they can make any really vital scientific advance.”

 

Once this observation is made, one can look back on Dornick’s awed account of travelling to Trantor in the first section and note the assumptions he makes about faster-than-light drive: “Jump through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy... the Jump remained, and would probably remain for ever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars.” On a first reading, that might simply be interpreted as a straightforward description of how the rules work in this setting, but on a second reading one realises that Dornick is expressing the same attitude of “everything that can be invented, has been invented”, which Mallow describes as symptomatic of Imperial decay.

 

This probably help answer one objection I had to the book on my first reading, which is that the rate of decay seemed to happen too fast for me. I thought that while Hardin’s plan to make Anacreon dependent on the Foundation would make sense if it had been centuries of collapse first, it seemed rather fast for Anacreon to have forgotten how to use atomic power in the first place.

 

Mallow’s explanation at the end of the book helps to justify this: “...they don’t even understand their own colossi any longer. The machines work from generation to generation automatically, and the caretakers are a hereditary caste who would be helpless if a single D-tube in all that vast structure burnt out.” Thus, the idea of technology as magic is not something that stems only from the Foundation’s own manipulative religion, but was actually already the status quo even under the Empire, unintentionally so.

 

On the one hand, it’s a rather forward-looking idea for someone writing in the middle of the 20th Century, when I think the idea of a civilisation losing understanding of its own technology would be a fairly radical idea. On the other hand, it’s a confusingly expressed retcon in my opinion, probably driven by the fact that the book was serialised over a number of years and Asimov’s ideas about the setting changed.

 

Nonetheless, it does answer my usual complaint about settings in which understanding of technology is lost. I find them fascinating, but usually rather implausible. Yes, it’s happened in real life with the fall of Rome and people losing the understanding of how to make concrete (for example), or alphabets being forgotten after the Late Bronze Age Collapse of ca. 1250BC, but that’s very different to it happening here and now, with widespread literacy and mass communication.

 

In those earlier periods, literacy and knowledge of such ideas was limited to a relatively small elite who could all get killed off as a result of societal collapse. Communication between civilisations was also very limited. That’s not the case here and now, and it seems even less likely in a far future science fiction setting where there are thousands of planets with billions of humans. What, each and every one of them forgot how (insert lost technology here) worked? Even people living on isolated islands on isolated planets? Every single archive was lost, or people forgot how to access it? All of them?

 

Asimov provides some explanation here with Mallow’s revelation (or, if I’m feeling less charitable, retcon). If the Empire had shifted towards only a small elite knowing these things, while it was still interconnected, and then knowledge gradually became ritual over generations, okay, maybe. Frankly, I’m still not convinced, but I can suspend disbelief at least given the timescale.

 

I have run down a number of quite innovative ideas that Asimov brought to this setting and which have been endlessly copied by other science fiction works. This is all the more impressive given that they were published in 1951 (and even predate that in serial form).

 

This begs the question of whether there is anything in Foundation which does scream “outdated paleofuture”. One rather glaring example is when Sutt, a character speaking to Mallow, sarcastically asks if the Korellian people (now under sanctions and cut off from Foundation technology) will go on strike demanding “Automatic Super-Kleeno Atomic Washing Machines”. Even though Sutt is obviously making up a parodic name, it’s so driven by early 1950s ad-speak that it immediately destroys the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

 

There’s also the fact that everybody smokes. Like, everybody. A lot. In the early chapters a once common place, now sought after item as the Empire crumbles is “Vegan tobacco”. As in, tobacco from the star system Vega. Being reminded that Asimov didn’t use the word “vegan” to mean someone who doesn’t use animal products is another bit of datedness.

 

On the other hand, Hardin self-describes his policy towards an enemy star system as “appeasement” and it turns out he was right, which seems a rather surprising connection for someone writing in the 1940s – in the wake of the catastrophic failure of appeasement at Munich – to make.

 

Another slightly dated bit of terminology – if now perhaps charmingly nostalgic – is that Asimov incorporates faster-than-light communication but refers to it as “ultrawave sets”, something else that sounds like it comes from a 1950s wireless catalogue.


An Ultrawave set, produced by Reverb UK. Presumably not what Asimov had in mind.

Picture courtesy Reverb.


 

However, there are two items in Foundation that are more seriously dated than smoking or fifties ad-speak, which might in fact impair the enjoyment of a reader. If you read the previous article , you’ll be unsurprised to learn that one of them is religion.

 

Asimov very much writes with the attitude of someone whose family fled anti-semitic persecution in Russia and then grew up in multicultural New York. He sees religion purely as a tool of a state elite to manipulate others. He is perceptive enough to note that the Foundation’s leaders start to lose control of it towards the end of the book, as said by the character Jael: “Any dogma based on faith and emotionalism is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user...” and Jael suggests Sutt, Mallow’s political enemy, will be able to use it to rally the people against him.

 

Indeed, many of the long, rambling dialogues in Foundation reflect a contempt not only for religion but for democracy itself (presenting the people as easily manipulated), making it all the more ambiguous how Asimov views the aforementioned Imperial and post-Imperial feudal aristocracies. Suffice it to say that this view is extremely dated and elitist. It’s not entirely clear to me how self-aware Asimov was when he is clearly portraying the Foundation elite as becoming slavishly loyal to the faith of Seldon himself (even swearing by his name and treating him as a divine prophet in all but name) as the common people they view with such contempt are about their fictitious religion. Let’s say I’ll be interested to see where he takes this in later books.

 

There’s arguably an even bigger elephant in the room here, however, which I’ve not mentioned up to now. Asimov has characters with a wide variety of names, real and fictional, reflecting the far-future setting and not really evoking any particular nation of ethnicity. Among those names, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is Jael. Those of you who know your Bible may know that Jael is a woman mentioned in the Book of Judges for slaying Sisera, commander of the army of Hazor that fought against the Israelites. You might therefore assume that the Jael I mentioned above is also a woman. However, you would not be correct, because I believe I am correct in saying that there is only one named female character in the entire book. She is Licia, Commdora (wife of the Commdor) of Korell. She has a handful of appearances towards the end, and appears mostly to be easily manipulated as part of the plot and to be cheated on by her husband. That’s it.

 

Today we are used to stupid Internet culture wars over this kind of thing, which I won’t get into, but if Foundation set the standard for science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, no wonder it got a reputation as a misogynistic and exclusionary genre.

 

The first danger sign is in the first part, when Seldon talks about the Foundation he wants to set up: “All my project; my thirty thousand men with their wives and children...” So, none of these scientists are women, then, apparently. Near the end, when Mallow tells Sutt about sanctions on Korell meaning their people can no longer access Foundation goods: “The small household appliances go first... a woman’s atomic knife won’t work anymore. Her stove begins failing. Her washer doesn’t do a good job...”

 

This is like something someone would write as a daft exaggerated parody of sexism in 1950s America as presented in the media, from a film like “Pleasantville” or something. Even considering the context in which it was written, it’s shockingly backward-thinking and, again, undermines the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Certainly in 2024, and I’d argue probably back in 1951 as well for many people. This is one area where Dune drastically improves on Foundation.

 

The real sexism in Foundation, however, is not really in how it describes women, but how it barely acknowledges their existence outside the couple of quotes I’ve included above. The only analogy I can think of is works of fiction written and set in the United States South before the 1960s which, rather than depicting black people in a racist way, act as though they are non-existent in the first place and never appear in contexts where one would expect.

 

I had got three-quarters of the way through the book and no woman character had appeared at all, and I was wondering how long it would go on before the Commdora and her handmaidens appear so Mallow can sell technology to the Commdor, who dismisses his example as “only feminine frippery”. One wonders just how well psychohistory can model the future history of humanity when apparently everyone ignores the existence of one-half of it.

 

I am aware that Apple TV has commissioned an adaptation of Foundation, though I haven’t seen it. I can only pity whoever had the job of somehow trying to adapt the story while making the gender balance appropriate for 2024. Or appropriate for 1951. Appropriate for 1351 would be a start.

 

Foundation certainly intrigued me in its ideas sufficiently to keep reading the series. But if in some ways I am genuinely interested to see how Asimov develops those ideas (for example, psychohistory and the periodic Seldon Crises, descriptions of technology), in others it’s more a horrified car-crash fascination to see how long it goes before he discovers that women are human beings. I’m actually a bit surprised that this isn’t discussed more often in relation to the series, but maybe – hopefully – it’s only an issue with its beginning.

 

Tune in next time when I’ll be looking at Rendezvous at Rama by Arthur C Clarke, another classic sci-fi author often compared to Asimov. This book was written a couple of decades after Foundation and certainly shows very different attitudes towards the progress of humanity, but ones which still show a lot of paleofuture worthy of analysis.

 

Discuss this article Here.

 


 

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series

 

among others.

 

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