The Foundation Trilogy Reread: Foundation

First Edition Hardback, Gnome Press, 1951

The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity—a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.”

-Hari Seldon

In the early days of science-fiction – the days of Heinlein, Smith, Campbell and Asimov – it was not uncommon for novels to start out as short stories or novellas in the genre magazines, stories that would then be worked into a full-sized novel or series of novels. Foundation may or may not be the first novel to grow out of a cluster of short stories, but it is the most painfully obvious one. Asimov was feeling his way into the Foundation universe – and it’s largely unique character – and it shows.

This is most notable in the simple fact Foundation is a collection of five short stories of varying size: The Psychohistorians, The Encyclopaedists, The Mayors, The Traders and The Merchant Princes. The Psychohistorians is notable for being the last of the set to the written, providing an opening to the Foundation series as a whole; The Merchant Princes is notable because it clearly marks the spot where Asimov decided to turn the Foundation stories into an ongoing series. They do form a rough story arc, but the canon-welding is alarmingly obvious. They also demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of Asimov’s early technique.

(Wikipedia provides an effective plot summery here, so I won’t detail the outline myself.)

This is amply demonstrated by the progression from The Psychohistorians to The Merchant Princes. The first series as little more than an extended introduction, providing some background to the establishment of the Foundation itself on Terminus (right at the edge of the galaxy) and a loose explanation for why the original government is so curiously ineffectual at first. They believe their purpose is to produce the Encyclopaedia Galactica, only to discover – too late – that Seldon had something else in mind. The crisis they face – the very first Seldon Crisis, in which they are cut off from the empire and facing threats from neighbouring newly-independent kingdoms – prompts the city’s mayor to shift his mindset from ‘isolated university town’ to ‘planetary government.’ Each of the early crises brings with it another shift, each one representing a puzzle that has to be solved, a puzzle that – in theory – actually has only one solution. Further, each one represents a further shift of mindset, from religious expansion (The Mayors, The Traders) to commercial non-religious expansion. The Foundation picks up a tool, uses it and then puts it down again.

Asimov’s techniques are not so refined at this point. On one hand, The Encyclopaedists brilliantly highlights the shift from scientific inquiry to retrenchment and slow decay. The original government simply cannot wrap their heads around the shift in power and find themselves unable to comprehend either the internal or external danger. On the other hand, the solution to the outside crisis is simply not outlined (at least until you read the next story, something that must have irritated his original readers). Asimov might, of course, have considered the internal crisis to be more important.

It also marks the growth of a new, coldly-pragmatic ruthlessness that causes no end of problems for the Foundation in the following books. Hardin’s solution to the first Seldon Crisis is to mount a coup, then offer the surrounding four kingdoms science wrapped in religion in return for the Foundation’s political independence. This sets the stage for the next crisis, when one of the kingdoms tries to seize control of the Foundation anyway and is defeated because its people truly believe in the religion of science. The Foundation cannot, however, expand much further because the more-distant states know precisely what will happen if they so much as let one priest within their territory. The Merchant Princes signals the end of the religious-based expansion and its shift to pure trading.

Like in the real world, many of the problems stem from the solutions to the previous set of problems. Having mounted a coup at the end of The Encyclopaedists, Hardin finds himself challenged by another set of activists in The Mayors; having started a phony religion, the Foundation discovers that religion puts limits on their expansion. It also poses, for the first time in the series, the argument between predestination and free will. Seldon may have planned everything, but it’s hard to see the strings. Hardin – and his successors – speak of doing nothing, yet they take action when necessary.

But this is better, in many ways, than anyone else. The empire is beginning its final slide towards destruction, pulling in its horns – there’s only a hint of coming conflict at the end of the book – and giving up on what made it great. Hardin points this out, in desperation; they’re short of nuclear engineers, so they start putting restrictions on nuclear power rather than training new ones. Later, they discover the empire’s engineers really know nothing about how the technology works and are incapable of repairing it if it breaks (which, of course, it does.) The Foundation’s economic superiority gives it a colossal edge.

Is this unrealistic? It would have made more sense in Asimov’s era.

In modern terms, there is much that might be viewed with concern. The decision to create a fake religion was nasty, the willingness to use trickery to open new markets borderline criminal, the Trojan horse of advanced technology perhaps the most moral of the book … and yet, what choice did they have? They were fighting to survive.

The book does not develop its characters as thoroughly as Asimov would do later. Hari Seldon is not the fleshed-out character of the prequel novels. The original government is composed of university professors; the kings, priests and warlords are fairly standard kings, priests and warlords. The only interesting characters are the heroes, although many of them are tainted by their actions. There’s also a fun moment with an imperial official who talks with a ghastly accent, but – as Hardin points out later – manages to chat for days without saying anything substantial.

It’s also notable for avoiding real action. Asimov highlights that early on, when a war-story right out of a pulp novel is indirectly dismissed as boring. The coup isn’t shown, the unrest on various planets isn’t shown, an entire war -largely economic – isn’t shown … the most exciting moments in the book involve political manipulation and courtroom antics, not exploding starships. Even the activists of The Mayors don’t get a chance to do anything before the crisis is over. In fact, thinking about it, the real action in The Encyclopaedists might be the mindset shift, not the coup or the outside threat. But this might have been too subtle.

Foundation hangs together better than it should, in my opinion. And it serves as an excellent introduction to the more complex stories to come, when the Foundation faces two very different challenges to its existence …


Read the other reviews in this series –

Foundation and Empire

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