A blog post

Asimov’s Foundation

Posted on the 05 June, 2018 at 6:02 pm Written by in Books

When discussing science fiction, and especially books like Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, there is no way to get around Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I remember, as a teenager, how it made a great impression on me. A way out, after having read Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave new world.

(Picture: scan of the book covers, in my library)

Heinlein, like Asimov, gave a basically optimistic view of humankind – of the future – including men and masculinities. Was it naive? Is it any good, today? I remember the thrill of discovering the wide futuristic universe version of Asimov, and gradually, his greater narrative and plot. First, flight from increasing tyranny (Foundation). Second, confrontation (Foundation and empire). Third, an inner revolution (Second foundation). Rejecting empire from within. Does it still hold up? I will re-read and give a comment.

Starting here, with volume one, Foundation.

There is something utterly strange about reading these novels from 1951-52. I don’t mean all the external strangeness, carefully arranged in the books. I mean the inner strangeness, or alienation effect of reading this today, almost 70 years later.

It starts with cigars. Gentlemen, have a cigar. Preferably, a cigar “from Vega”.  These gentlemen fill the scene, almost exclusively. Women are only present for illustration purposes, so to speak, in the first volume of the series. It is all about men – and a “hegemonic” competition of masculinity. There are two main types – the bully types, who use military force, and the smart types, who use religion, trade and other types of force.

There is no reflection on the absence of women. Even if the empire is said to consist of millions of worlds, with all kinds of variety of local star systems and societies, the rule seems the same everywhere – men are in, women are out. They don’t count in the big picture.

I find this amazing. It creates a kind of alienation effect (Brecht). It is unintended (not staged, like in Brecht’s plays), but that is the way it works for me, today.

Isaac Asimov creates a vast galactic empire, and a huge history, faced with breakdown, chaos and anarchy. The Foundation is created to reduce the coming age of darkness. Into this scenery, he paper-clips a report on American masculinity ca 1950.

Of course, decisions are made by men only, and of course, they smoke cigars.

These are the preconceptions that I find amazing, in an author otherwise so imaginative and coherent.  Asimov is central in science fiction for good reasons.

The first volume of the series, Foundation, describes challenges met as the foundation is expelled from the central planet Trantor to the rim of the galaxy, and how it can defeat the powers surrounding it, in a period where central empire rule gradually dwindles.  The heroes of the stories, placed 30 years apart, follow the “Seldon plan”, based on the science of “psychohistory”. This is not a paper clip, maybe, but a quite good approach to the optimal sociological functionalist analysis that dominated the agenda in 1950. If you can only count good enough, you will be able to predict how the future will unfold. Psychohistory is “mass” psychology, not individual psychology, Asimov  underlined.  He might have written “role system”. The idea was much the same.  Like in Robert Heinlein’s work at the time (e g Revolt in 2100), there is a large belief in psychology and sociology.

The masculine hegemony issue is continuously referred to in the books, there is a lot of detail on how one man outperforms another,  but is not reflected on “as such”, as matters between men, implying certain relationships to women and others, to “actors not present”.  The silencing of this whole wider population – science fiction as masculine – was fairly typical of science fiction, one might say – at least until LeGuinn’s pathbreaking work Left hand of darkness, which put gender squarely on the agenda, and other seminal works of the 60s and 70s.

Foundation shows how men with “other” resources may win against men who use force and violence. They do this by mobilizing new resources (religion, trade) and outsmarting the bad guys. They adapt to a changing situation, the fall of the empire.

There are many positive aspects to the ethics, as I interpret it. Men of peace can win, over men of war. But there are also elements that can give me the shivers. How democratic is Asimov in this text?

The Foundation itself is described as partly democratic, although very influenced by a strong leader, who will reappear every generation in a video to give his message to his followers.  The empire is ruled by an emperor, not an elected president, and does not seem very democratic, although there is a clear rule of law.

The alienation effect comes in, for example, when Asimov declares that the goal of the Foundation is to re-establish the empire. OK, this is 1950, he had not read more recent interpretations of a galactic federation or culture (LeGuinn, Banks, and many others).  Is this really the goal? Should strong men, even in the “smart man” less violent version, dominate the world?  Are his paper clips in fact portraits of Amerika  – with a K, a binding to the Third Reich?  At least, the idea of re-establishing a galactic empire with an emperor on top seems to stem more from Europe, than the US. Probably Asimov moderated and developed some of the themes I mention here,in later works, but what was actually written in 1950 is very interesting and important in its own right.

Foundation  belongs to a period where gender was talked about and written about “innocently” – before the big gender challenge of the 1970s and later.

This change is easy to see in science fiction. Starting from the 1960s and attempts to renew and extend the field (e g the journal New worlds, and concepts like “inner space”), personal and gender issues became more reflected upon and problematized – especially by pioneer female authors, but also male authors.

The whole field has gradually been brought along, even though the feminist influence is sometimes superficial (women into masculine superhero types, etc.)  The earlier, innocent writing on gender issues is what interests me, re-reading Asimov.  It has a special charm – a way into conditions not formerly known, in 1950. Basically the empire is the idea on Asimov’s desk. The text describes how men work with such ideas.

Asimov’s men are very different from Philip K Dick’s men – for example. They represent power, not outcasts. Asimov is business-like, while  Dick, writing a generation later, questions what happens, in those situations (cf The Martian Time-Slip).  Dick has become a “survivor” – an author still selling to a young public – due to his problematization of power and consciousness. But it should be noted that these issues are very much on the mind of the young Asimov too, writing Foundation.

At first it may look naive, but then, the innocence gets interesting.