Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

In 1974 I was twelve years old. I had been reading on my own for close to eight years, and had been reading "grown-up" books--with varying degrees of understanding (oh, how I blushed for my younger self when I reread some of them years later)--since I was ten. At some point my dad--who always related to kids better as potential adults than as the kids they were--started giving me grown-up books for birthdays and Christmas. That year, 1974, I received an omnibus edition of The Foundation Trilogy, newly published in paperback.

Isaac Asimov's grand, sweeping, galaxy-spanning future history of the human race blew my mind. It's a trite expression, but--considering my age at the time, and the era when I received the book--utterly apt.

I read The Foundation Trilogy (that exact copy) biannually throughout my teens, and have been giving it a once or twice a decade read (same copy) since hitting my majority. (As a young adult I had my first moment of dreading a parent's impending senility when, for Christmas of 1982, I received another copy, hardcover this time, of the same book. Before broaching the subject with my dad--he was, after all, only 44, so I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt before suggesting that perhaps he needed to see a specialist--I opened the book. It was inscribed by the author on the half title page, "To Rebecca with love, Isaac Asimov 22 Dec 82." Very classy, dad.)

As the novel opens (don't quibble with me here, okay?: I know a trilogy is three separate novels, but I read them all at once at a very tender age and have never thought of them as anything but a single entity) the Galactic Empire, which for tens of thousands of years rose and expanded until it "stretch(ed) across millions of worlds from arm-end to arm-end of the mighty double-spiral that was the Milky Way," is falling, and has been for centuries. As is the way of these things, though infrastructure crumbles and vice of all kind rages, the quadrillions of inhabitants of the Empire are blissfully unaware.

Hari Seldon is a mathematician and creator of the science of Psycho-History, a discipline which, by using complex computations, can predict the movements of mankind--but only on a massive scale. Though branded a traitor and nicknamed "Raven" for his predictions, he manipulates the powers that be into allowing him to set up a Foundation at the far end of the Galaxy, a group that will be dedicated to writing an exhaustive encyclopedia chronicling mankind's achievements. This, Seldon predicts, will shorten the period of barbarity that will inevitably follow the fall of empire from 30,000 years to a mere millennium. 

These plucky couple of hundred thousand exiles, sent to a tiny planet with no natural resources, must dig deep and find their own natural resources, lost to mankind in general centuries earlier as part of the complacency of empire. The first book of the trilogy, Foundation, takes place over the first two centuries of the Foundation era. Told in short, intense episodes, the book follows the rise of the political class on Terminus, the Foundation's planet, as it learns the true nature of its exile, through the development of a trading economy and the creation of a galactic religion revolving around the worship of atomics. Every fifty years or so a "Seldon Crisis" looms, the successful overcoming of which takes the Foundation closer to its goal of restoring humanity to the greatness that allowed it to conquer the Galaxy in the first place. 

Book two, Foundation and Empire, continues as Foundation traders roam further and further afield, and closer and closer to the once great seat of power, Trantor. As the Empire has crumbled warlords have taken power, and the Foundation traders peddling atomic trinkets--jewelry that gives the wearer an angelic aura, deep freeze units and other household conveniences--are seen as Magicians. The Foundation's progress toward a new empire progresses apace until a monkey wrench is thrown into Seldon's Plan, a freak of nature which a science dealing "not with man, but with man-masses" could never prepare for.

And the last book, Second Foundation, details the first Foundation's desperate search for their sister Foundation, set up in secret at the opposite end of the galaxy, and which they now view as antithetical to their destiny.

All of the usual criticisms of Asimov's work can be applied to The Foundation Trilogy. The writing is often stilted, the characters one-dimensional (and nearly all male), the dialog wooden. But I didn't care about that as a twelve year old, reading it in just a few marathon sittings. Then, I was awed by the grandeur, the hugeness of the vision. Tens of thousands of years. Twenty-five million planets. Quadrillions of people. The story was compelling. It moved quickly, and it ranged far--far!--and wide. The two episodes that were my favorite on that first reading--that of the young couple, Bayta and Toran, who pick up a fugitive with unusual talents while on their honeymoon, and that of the plucky future novelist Arcadia Darell (none-too-coincidentally just about my age)--remain my favorite episodes today. Both contain, in my estimation, Asimov's best female characters who, while as wildly stereotypically fifties women as it's possible to be, are still bright and courageous and fascinating.

What has struck me upon more mature readings is Asimov's joyous and unbridled optimism, something I don't think most young readers are even capable of detecting, let alone appreciating. If I were to choose an epigraph for the work it would have to be from Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god!

For, though Asimov is clear-eyed enough to recognize the darkness that lies within an individual man and what it can drive him to, still, he's in love with mankind and what we can achieve.

And so, The Foundation Trilogy is and always shall be one of my favorite books of all time. In my personal canon it sits on the same shelf as Gravity's Rainbow, Winter's Tale, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a book that formed me and one that I will always come back to. And if you have never read it, and are thinking of picking it up: I envy you, reading it for the first time! May it bring you as much joy as it's brought me, and may you always be able to see the nobility in mankind.


EnriqueFreeque said...

I meant to ask over on LT, how did your dear Dad acquire a signed copy addressed to you from Mr. Asimov? That is so cool.

Rebecca Glenn said...

Pretty neat story. My dad was in news--mostly radio for most of his career, but for a few years in the early 80s he did an overnight news show on CBS called Night Watch. The set for the show was study-ish, with trucked in books on the bookcases. He interviewed Asimov just before Christmas, and happened to notice that one of the books-by-the-yard was an Asimov. Voila, one stolen book later, I have an heirloom.

EnriqueFreeque said...

That's a great story! Your Dad, face to face with Asimov! Wonder if it's on YouTube somewhere, the interview.

Rebecca Glenn said...

My sister tells me loads of his stuff his on YouTube. I've never checked, myself, having less than satisfactory video capabilities on my computer.

On a related note, during that same period he got me Bob Weir's (of the Grateful Dead) autograph in much the same way. My dad had some book about the Dead he'd used for research, and had Weir sign it for me. He wrote, "This book is a pack of lies. Bobby Weir." Years later we hosted Phil Lesh, the Dead's bass player, for a signing, and I brought the same book in and showed him Weir's comment. He added his own, "Just like most fiction...Phil Lesh." Too bad Garcia was long dead by that point; I could've had the holy trinity.

EnriqueFreeque said...

How many stories do you have like that?! That's a book, er, a great blog-piece in the making at least, sounds like to me!

I took a peek at Asimov interviews '82, and found a bunch in Spanish, but alas, no Nightwatch, not yet.