The Foundation Trilogy: “If you ask me, the Galaxy is going to pot!”

I listened to a big chunk of the audiobook of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation while walking over the past few days. Still enjoying the hell out of it.

The series originated as a series of eight stories published in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1950, then published as The Foundation Trilogy in 1951-53, according to Wikipedia. I’m pretty sure I remember reading somewhere that the very first story of the first volume of the series was actually written last, for the book publication. Let’s say that was 1950.

The publication history is important to know, because it places the series in time. When you read it today, you’re not just reading a ripping science fiction story. You’re getting a glimpse of what a leading intellectual of 65 years ago — literally another century — thought the future would look like.

And what does it look like?

As I’m listening, I’m finding it easy to imagine the Galactic Empire as an art deco science fiction world, like the 1936 HG Wells movie Things to Come.


More images from Things to Come.

The future is big. Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, is a planet entirely covered by a single city, with 40 billion plus people.

It’s centralized. All of those 40 billion plus people are employed in governing the Galactic Empire. Here in the real world of 2011, we’re seeing a failure of big, centralized institutions. But back when Asimov was writing, the huge bureaucracies of the West had pulled the world out of a Great Depression, and kicked Nazi ass. So it was reasonable to assume that a huge, bureaucratic government would be the best way to govern the Galaxy.

It’s REALLY big. The viewpoint character of the first section is Gaal Dornick a young man from a small town in the Midwest come to New York for the first time– oh, wait, no, I mean a young man from a provincial planet on his first trip to Trantor. He is processed in a vast open office, filled with row on row of desks, a room so large that he cannot see the far wall, just desks vanishing off into the mist. A filmmaker around the time Asimov was writing used a similar image; in that film, the scene was soul-deadening wage-slavery. In Foundation, it’s a source of breathless wonder.

Everybody’s in a hurry, everything is crowded. People are helpful but in a brisk way that can be taken for rudeness. Several characters comment that nobody on Trantor goes outside, or sees the sky, ever, and they’re fine with that. One character has to consult instrumentation to find out what the weather is. People take taxis to get where they’re going.

In other words, it’s New York written large. Of course, New York isn’t like that in real life. Not exactly. But I remember a conversation with a shoestore clerk on Manhattan who said he hadn’t left that island in fifteen years. He seemed matter-of-fact about it, even proud. So it’s easy to imagine a future where the entire city is just converted into one big building. And indeed Asimov wrote that future too, in The Caves of Steel.

Some of the Galactic Empire’s technological wonders are things we take for granted today. Super-scientist Hari Seldon owns a pocket calculating machine, which is described as a featureless little slab that displays numbers in red. I remember Asimov bragging about 30 years later that he’d predicted pocket calculators, even getting the colors of the digits right (early pocket calculators displayed digits in red LEDs). It’s also a good description of an iPhone — except our iPhones today are way better than the Galactic Empire’s calculators of 10,000+ years in the future. Hari Seldon can’t play Angry Birds on his gadget.

Seldon is described as so brilliant and driven that he actually sleeps with his calculator under his pillow, in case he is struck by inspiration during the night. If he were that brilliant, he’d sleep with it on his nightstand, as most of the rest of us do today in the real world.

Other than the pocket calculator, information is presented on actual pieces of paper and microfilm. No iPads and notebook computers in this world.

So we’re more advanced than the Galactic Empire in that regard.

Indeed, our technology here in 2011 is in every respect more advanced than Asimov’s vision of the future world of 2011, except for two things: We don’t have a mathematical science for predicting the future, and we don’t have interstellar travel.

Plastic is cool. Saying something is made of plastic in Foundation is saying that it’s a luxury item, hi-tech, top-drawer. Asimov describes Galactic aristocrats wearing plastic helmets, and presenting guests with cigars in plastic boxes. This is unintentionally comical today, after decades of plastic being used for cheap consumer crap. But Asimov wrote before all that.

Speaking of that cigar box; Asimov describes it as appearing perfectly to resemble water. How would that work, precisely? I can’t visualize a box made of water.

The title of this blog post comes from a line of dialogue in Foundation where a character laments the decline of the Galactic Empire. I’ve seen it cited as an example of how clunky the book is to modern eyes. I say phooey to that. I say it’s charming, as is the characters’ use of “Space!” and “Galaxy!” in lieu of swear words.

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