The Foundation Trilogy Reread: Foundation And Earth

Just as, long ago, Daneel and his colleague worked out a fourth law of robotics that was more fundamental than the other three, so I could suddenly see a third basic axiom of psychohistory that was more fundamental than the other two; a third axiom so fundamental that no one ever bothered to mention it.

“Here it is. The two known axioms deal with human beings, and they are based on the unspoken axiom that human beings are the only intelligent species in the Galaxy, and therefore the only organisms whose actions are significant in the development of society and history. That is the unstated axiom: that there is only one species of intelligence in the Galaxy and that it is Homo Sapiens. If there were ‘something, new:’ if there were other species of intelligence widely different in nature, then their behavior would not be described accurately by the mathematics of psychohistory and Seldon’s Plan would have no meaning. Do you see?”

What’s wrong with psychohistory?

At the end of the last book, Trevize, the man who is always right, ruled in favor of Gaia and the establishment of a galaxy-wide collective mind linking the entire human race into one entity. But he doesn’t know why. In Foundation and Earth, the last of the post-Seldon books, he and his friends embark upon a quest to find Earth, the semi-mythical homeworld of humanity, and learn the answer to why humanity must unite into Gaia. The quest leads them on a tour of long-forgotten history, from the oldest world known to be still extant to a dead Spacer world, to another Spacer world inhabited by self-reproducing isolationist hermaphrodites, to a hidden world housing the remnants of Earth’s population and, finally, to Earth itself. There, they meet R (Robot). Daneel Olivaw, who explains he has been manipulating humanity for thousands of years, but his time is running out. Is Gaia, he asks, the answer? And Trevize can finally tell him why.

In many ways, Foundation and Earth is the most classically-SF of the Foundation books. Instead of intellectual battles or struggles against predestination, it follows a tiny crew as it travels from world to world. It even features semi-aliens, from the hermaphrodites (one of whom joins the crew) to the robots themselves. The explorers dig up historical mysteries left in the past, although there’s no sense – at the end – they’ll ever take it to a wider audience. It isn’t a bad read, not by any standard, and yet it does have one major weakness. The robots.

They are not bad, in their own universe, but the growth of the unseen mind-manipulating robots into the power behind the throne is jarring. It’s hard to imagine they really controlled the entire galaxy – if indirectly – or that they had as much influence on events as they claimed. The early robot books made sense, but Asimov’s obsession with making them humanity’s secret guardians is more than a little unsettling. They have the same issues as the Second Foundationers, but – despite the three (four) laws – come across as creepy. It is the predestination v. free will theme on a much larger scale. What is the value of human choice when everything is decided in advance?

That aside, the book does operate on a grand scale and, in many ways, continues the theme of how humanity should be governed. Some worlds seek independence from the Foundation, despite its colossal dominance. Others wish to be left alone, to the point they kill all intruders. And other worlds simply die, either through social problems (the spacers are too numb to care their populations are slowly dying out) or enemy action (Earth itself, a story told in Robots and Empire). Indeed, the sheer scale of the universe is a little bit problematic. How could all references to Earth have been removed?

On a smaller scale, the book continues to show how Asimov developed as a writer. The three main characters are all well-drawn, as are the handful of humans (and semi-humans) they encounter along the way. Their struggle over why Gaia should be formed reads true – the idea seems good in the abstract, but they hesitate when faced with its reality. And their personality conflicts make things tense, at least for a short periods. The other matters are only slightly spoilt by the observation, later on, that the robots were pulling the strings.

It does have its cruder moments. At some point between the first trilogy and the remainder of the books, Asimov found himself free to write about S-E-X. Asimov didn’t write incredibly crude material, or the kind of sexual scenes that pop up in many modern novels, but his sexual elements read poorly by modern standards. At one point, Trevize gets complimented on being a ‘loose’ man on a straight-laced world, something right out of a terrible romance novel.

That said, the relationship between Pelorat and Bliss is really quite sweet, though it does lead to a minor plot hole. Bliss is denied entry to a world because she doesn’t have papers and Trevize gets them through by hinting Pelorat is cheating on his (non-existent) wife. This leads straight to a very awkward conversation, but – in hindsight – it is clear the planetary authorities wanted them to land. The plot hole, of course, is why would this happen in the first place? Gaia has been sending agents into the galaxy for decades! They’d have solved this problem long ago.

In the end, the book does point out the problem with psychohistory. It only applies to humans. The Mule, for all of his power, was still human … and he broke the Seldon Plan. What would an alien race do? Trevize rationalizes that an alien race would be enough to destroy humanity for good, turning human nature against it until the battle was won and the human race was gone. Gaia might be the only countermeasure. And, as the book comes to an end, there are hints the aliens might already be here …

Asimov did not, of course, continue the series past this point. I found that unfortunate, although practically any path he chose would either be a retread or a plan-breaking invasion from another galaxy. There are hints the Seldon Plan will continue, at least until Gaia absorbs the entire galaxy, but only in the background. Indeed, it is curious to note that the First Foundation has become part of the background itself and the Second Foundation is barely mentioned. The universe Asimov had created had started to fade. Foundation and Earth is not without value, but – alas – it is the weakest of the Foundation novels.

And perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that the final two books in the series were set in the days of Hari Seldon himself.

Read the other reviews in this series –

Foundation and Empire
Second Foundation
Foundation’s Edge

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