The Foundation as the villains of the Foundation Trilogy

Non-violence is one of the biggest themes of The Foundation Trilogy. Other space operas are filled with space battles and thrilling hand-to-hand combat. There’s very little violence onstage in The Foundation Trilogy. Mostly, the novels consist of people sitting around and talking.

The Foundation explicitly shuns violence. It’s founded on a planet without natural resources, by a colony of academics. They don’t fight their enemies because they can’t; they have to out-think their enemies instead.

One of the major characters of the trilogy is Salvor Hardin, a politician whose motto is, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

So the Foundation Trilogy is, on the surface at least, an extremely ethically advanced series. Forty years before the publication of the original stories during World War II, we had a president, Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war. TR embraced combat; he though war was essential to making nations great, and he said so publicly. In The Foundation Trilogy, we a philosophy of war as something to be avoided wherever possible, and avoidable by any competent person.

And yet the Foundation trades war for deceit, trickery, and cooperating in oppression.

The opening sequence of Foundation deals with Gaal Dornick, a young man from the provinces come to the capital to study mathematics under the great Hari Seldon. Once he arrives at the capital, Dornick learns that Hari Seldon has arranged to have him arrested. Any sensible person would have nothing to do with Seldon afterwards, but Dornick doesn’t seem to have much sense, because he becomes one of Seldon’s loyal acolytes.

Dornick and Seldon are on trial together, and they manage to escape imprisonment, but only by agreeing to leave the capital city, along with Seldon’s 100,000 followers, to the remote planet of Terminus. Seldon remarks that this was exactly what he wanted; his followers would never have gone willingly, so he had to force them to come with him.

Does this sound like the behavior of one of history’s good guys? Apparently so, because the Foundation reveres Seldon. They continue to revere him even after learning that the mission of the Foundation was another lie. Seldon had said he wanted the Foundation to prepare a great Encyclopedia of human knowledge to shorten the dark age following the fall of the Galactic Empire. Fifty years after the founding of the Foundation, Seldon comes back in a recorded message to reveal that, too, was a lie. He was only interested in getting all those academics isolated from the main body of the empire, unarmed and helpless, so they could use nonviolent means to start the climb to the second Galactic Empire.

The Foundation continues in the tradition of its lying founder. Faced with hostile neighbors with more military power but much less advanced technology, the Foundation gives its neighbors the secrets of atomic power. But the Foundation also starts a fake religion, with the premise that its technology isn’t the result of science and engineering but of miracles and magic. Thus, the Foundation perpetuates the ignorance and oppression of billions of its neighbors so that it can strengthen its own power.

So who, exactly, are the villains of this series?

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.

Re-Reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy”

I just started listening to the audiobook of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, which I last read when I was a teen-ager. I got a bug in my ear to re-read it after a review by Jo Walton.

First impressions, based on my memory of the books and my having listened to about five minutes:

The Foundation Trilogy retells Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as space opera, with a Galactic Empire replacing the Roman, and the entire Galaxy — millions of inhabited worlds — standing in for the Earth.

It really helps to know something about Asimov, the period in which the stories were written, and how they were written. The trilogy was written during and just after World War II. This was the period when America was at its greatest power, and we often compared ourselves to Rome.

Asimov was an American, an immigrant, and a New Yorker who didn’t travel or even go outside when he could help it.

As Walton notes, the planet-sized city of Trantor is New York in the 30s, where Asimov was a teen-ager, writ large. Back when Asimov was writing, technology meant that things were going to get bigger and faster — the Hoover Dam! Skyscrapers! Airplanes and cars! Today, technology means things get smaller — iPhones! Genetic engineering! So it was reasonable to assume, in Asimov’s day, that cities would one day grow large enough to encompass whole planets.

The Foundation Trilogy assumes that the Roman Empire was good. That’s a supportable position. But the people Rome conquered might disagree with it.

I love that thing Asimov does where he starts each section with a quote from a made-up history book, the Encyclopedia Galactica, supposedly written a thousand years after the action of the novels.

The first few minutes of the book spend a lot of time talking about how travel through hyperspace works in getting starships around the galaxy. That would all be completely unnecessary today, it’s just a given in science fiction.

The viewpoint character of the first section is a young man on his way to Trantor (New York, remember?) to participate in the Seldon Project. I’ve also been listening to Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann, a spoken-word memoir of the physicist Richard Feynmann, who was Asimov’s contemporary, and also a New Yorker. Feynmann traveled from New York to participate in something called the Manhattan Project. It’s hard to avoid seeing parallels.

That’s a lot to get out of five minutes of listening. I hope I enjoy the rest of the book as much.