Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction

Americocentric

It is Americocentric. There are no other countries worth troubling with on earth. Whether ‘man’ reaches out to colonise the planets, to settle on Mars or Mercury, invents hyperspace and travels to colonise distant planets, or stays at home to create the megacities of Caves of Steel – it’s Americans who do it, with American technology, and American culture.

And the home city is always New York: in the final story of I, Robot, it is New York which becomes seat of the new World Government and the World Co-Ordinator is, of course, American, as are the inventors of robots, and the hyper-drive, and anything else worthwhile that mankind comes up with. 3,000 years later, after billions of people have left earth to colonise the Outer Worlds, detective Elijah Baley lives in New York.

Everyone speaks English

With the result that everyone speaks English. It is one of the many ludicrous elements you have to overcome in order to read the Foundation trilogy, that 12,000 years in the future, and inhabiting planets scattered right across the inconceivable distances of the Galaxy – everyone speaks English. There’s a slight gesture towards reality, in that some of the humans on the more remote planets have an accent which is a bit hard for others to understand. But it’s always, everywhere, basically English that is spoken.

Planets become provinces

I can’t quite define it, but it’s the way all his (and other golden age writers’) universes consist of planets which just do one thing and are treated, in effect, like real-world people treat regions of their countries.

Thus a planet in the Foundation books is a ‘holiday planet’, as if one whole planet were made of beaches and cocktail bars. Another planet just supplies raw materials, in The Naked Sun Solaria is the planet with most advanced robotics. And that’s it. That’s what it does.

Planets – entire planets – are conceived of as one-trick ponies, which do just the one thing. Completely ignoring the evidence we have about the only planet where we know life exists – our own one – that planets are astonishingly diverse, in climates, life forms and so on.

It is a profoundly dumb way of thinking about planets. As if each one is a toy in a childish game. It is an example of the way Asimov and other Golden Age writers dismiss or ignore the mind-boggling diversity of life on our own planet. In Asimov’s fiction planet earth is reduced to American men arguing in rooms. It follows that his view of the entire galaxy is the same, but extrapolated to many more rooms.

It is this reductive gesture which makes so many of the planets in the Foundation stories end up sounding the same. They may be given a paragraph or so of cursory description – but they all have earth-type gravity and air, no radiation or dangerous environmental elements of any kind. They’re just variations of the same kind of futuristic room where Elijah Baley ends up meeting and arguing with people, or the protagonists of the Foundation stories end up meeting and arguing with people. In American.

A human-only universe

This imaginative reductionism is related to the way that there appears to be no other life in the galaxy.

Humans colonise all the other planets, and then hypertravel off to other star systems, and end up colonising pretty much every other planet in the galaxy and yet – encounter no other significant life forms.

It’s not only that this is unlikely (although it’s all completely unlikely). More to the point, it is extravagantly boring. It means that all Asimov’s fiction is about people, the same kind of people, a certain type of calculating adult, calculating the same kinds of odds and trying to figure out whodunnit.

They’re all detective stories

All the Foundation stories and the Elijah Baley stories are, in a sense, whodunnits. The Baley ones, obviously since he is a detective investigating murders. The Foundation ones in a more roundabout sense. In every Foundation story there is a dilemma or threat. Individual or group X think the best way to solve it is by doing Y. But the hero (or heroine) of each story knows better and all the stories end the same way: the secret of what really happened is revealed right at the end. So although they’re not overtly detective stories, they have a similar structure: dilemma – fake leads and red herrings – revelation of the true solution or meaning of events.

Simplistic politics

Having painted a childishly simplistic vision of a galaxy in which each planet does just one thing, in which there are no aliens to disrupt his whodunnits, Asimov only incorporates the most simplistic and child’s-eye version of ‘politics’ as is required to drive the stories.

If there are ‘political’ movements, they are a) perfectly understandable and b) perfectly rational and c) childishly simple.

Thus in The Caves of Steel there is a ‘party’ – the ‘Medievalists’ – which wishes to return humans to a simpler, earlier time. That’s it. There don’t appear to be any other political parties in America, there’s no mention of elections, with the vast amount of corruption and bullshit they usually throw up, let alone of the notion that there are different countries who might be economic or military rivals (as we know there have been throughout all human history).

No – magically, the entire world of national and international politics disappears with a wave of the magic wand, leaving behind just enough of a child’s cartoon version of ‘politics’ (a secret society who want to turn the clock back – about as sophisticated as the League of Red-Haired Men in Sherlock Holmes) as is required for make the hokey storyline.

Pretty much the same ‘party’ – really a conspiracy – appears in the final story if I, Robot where it is the Society for Humanity which opposes the rise of the robots.

Any other notion that people might disagree about fundamental principles of how to run the economy, how to redistribute wealth, whether to allow unchecked capitalism or moderate it or try and implement some kind of state economy, the usual nationalist, xenophobic and populist motivations for politics which we all know from the real world – gone, vanished, evaporated, cleansed – just like other nations or other languages.

Economics

Similarly, Asimov’s take on economics is raw materials are needed for factories on earth. That’s about it. The earth of The Caves of Steel is rigidly hierarchical but we don’t really get to see anyone at work except the police (we do meet a worker in a nuclear plant and the staff of a shop where an anti-robot riot nearly breaks out) and these police could come out of a Raymond Chandler novel or any of the thousands of other contemporary cop thrillers.

Real economics involves the continuously evolving exploitation of raw materials, and siting and building of factories, and the training of workforces to supply technologies which are constantly being invented solely to make money. America has been the world’s leading capitalist economy and society for at least a century. It is extraordinary that Asimov, for all his supposed intelligence, is blind to the disruptive energies of capitalism which always lead, everywhere, to the provision of a high standard of living for many, maybe a majority of a capitalist population, but also always involve low wages, unemployment and – a cardinal fact of untrammeled capitalism – the cycle of boom and bust, with periodic crashes leading to deep depressions every ten years or so.

In the real world it is difficult even to organise the workers in a particular industry to join together to take industrial action or bargain for better pay. In Asimov’s world entire planets truck along quite happily producing raw materials or being vacation planets, with no sense of struggle or exploitation or grievance or class or racial conflict.

All the things which we know absolutely dog the actual world – are excluded from his stories.

Wars

Similarly, real world wars break out for complex reasons and, once started, tend to develop a dynamic of their own and become very difficult to end.

As you might expect by now, wars in Asimov’s fiction are the opposite, as simply motivated and easily ended as his paper-thin notion of politics. Some of the Foundation wars do start for the time-honoured motivation that strong planets see an opportunity to conquer weak ones – but they are nearly always started by specific named individuals who, when we meet them, are portrayed as pantomime baddies.

I’m thinking of the story, The Mayors, in which the planet Anacreon is ruled by Prince Regent Wienis, who rubs his hand and cackles like a pantomime villain or Ming the Merciless, while bullying his whiney teenaged nephew, King Lepold I. It only takes Salvor Hardin to pull off a few tricks (he’s bugged the Anacreon fleet and also manages to turn off all power in Anacreon’s capital city) to overcome Wienis and the threatened war to end as quickly as it began.

My point is that, in the real world, wars are often supported by entire populations which have been whipped up top expect them – as all Europe expected World War One, as the Nazis whipped up the Germans or the Japanese military leaders organised their entire society for war. In Asimov’s fairy tales, the goody only has to eliminate the cackling baddy and the rest of the population instantly returns to being reasonable and peace-loving. Exactly the opposite of reality.

Women

It’s to Asimov’s credit that he gives a leading role to Bayta Darell, who grasps what is going on quicker than her husband in The Mule, and to her grand-daughter, 14-year-old Arcadia Darell, in Search By the Foundation, that Elijah Baley’s wife, Jessie, plays some role in The Caves of Steel and Gladia Delmarre plays the lead, a somewhat stereotyped romantic lead, in The Naked Sun. And not forgetting the way he places Dr Susan Calvin centre stage for the linked stories that make up I, Robot.

Still, Asimov’s failure to anticipate women’s lib and feminism is a good example of the way that, while he and his fans had their eyes fixed on the stars, real and profound social changes were transforming human relationships here on earth (in the West, at any rate) in a matter of just a few decades.

I’m not blaming him for failing to anticipate specific social changes: I’m pointing out that his fictions envisage basically unchanged social relationships stretching for thousands of years into the future and how profoundly misleading a view of human nature that is.

Race

Ditto race. In The Naked Sun the humans refer to the fleets of robots which do all the hard work as ‘boy’. Now this is the offensive, abusive term which white Americans used to blacks from the Reconstruction period onwards, and reached horrible aggressiveness as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Asimov couldn’t anticipate that only a decade or so after he was writing, America was to be seriously divided by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so on.

But that’s the point. While Asimov was extrapolating his neat and tidy Three Laws of Robotics, and anticipated them being carried 100, 3,000 and 12,000 years into the future by white English-speaking, Americans – meanwhile, around him, through the 1950s into the 1960s, the real world descended into a messy chaos.

Summary

This is why so many adult readers, writers and critics were, and are, able to dismiss and ignore most science fiction – it’s because science fiction itself simply excludes and ignores almost everything which makes up the actual world we live in, with all its difficulties and complexities and challenges and, by extension, its rewards and interest.


Reviews of books by Isaac Asimov

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’

1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)

I, Robot is a ‘fixup’ novel, i.e. it is not a novel at all, but a collection of science fiction short stories. The nine stories originally appeared in the American magazines Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950, and were then compiled into a book for stand-alone publication by Gnome Press in 1950, in the same way that the Foundation trilogy also appeared as magazine short stories before being packaged up by Gnome.

The stories are (sort of) woven together by a framing narrative in which the fictional Dr. Susan Calvin, a pioneer of positronic robots and now 75 years old, tells each story to a reporter whose been sent to do a feature on her life.

These interventions don’t precede and end every story; if they did there’d be eighteen of them; there are in fact only seven and I think the stories are better without them. Paradoxically, they make a more effective continuous narrative without Asimov’s ham-fisted linking passages. Calvin appears as a central character in three of them, anyway, and the comedy pair of robot testers, Powell and Donovan appear in another three consecutive stories, so the stories already contained threads and continuities…

A lot is explained once you learn that these were pretty much the first SF stories Asimov wrote. Since he was born in 1920, Robbie was published when he was just 20! Runaround when he was 21, and so on. His youth explains a lot of the gawkiness of the language and the immaturity of his view of character and, indeed, of plot.

So the reader has a choice: you can either judge Asimov against mature, literary writers and be appalled at the stories’ silliness and clunky style; or take into account how young he was, and be impressed at the vividness of his ideas – the Three Laws, the positronic brain etc – ideas which are silly, but proved flexible and enduring enough to be turned into nearly 40 shorts stories, four novels, and countless spin-offs, not least the blockbusting Will Smith movie.

Introduction

The introduction is mostly interesting for the fictional timeline it introduces around the early development of robots. In 1982 Susan Calvin was born, the same year Lawrence Robertson sets up U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. The ‘now’ of the frame story interview is 75 years later i.e. 2057.

  • 1998 intelligent robots are available to the public
  • 2002 mobile, speaking robot invented
  • 2005 first attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2008 Susan Calvin joins U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc as its first robopsychologist
  • 2015 second, successful, attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2006 an asteroid has a laser beam placed on it to relay the sun’s energy back to earth
  • 2037 the hyperatomic motor invented (as described in the story, Escape!)
  • 2044 the Regions of earth, having already absorbed and superseded ‘nations’, themselves come together to form a global Federation

What this timeline indicates is Asimov’s urge to systematise and imperialise his stories. What I mean is that other short story writers write short stories are always part of a larger narrative (systematise) and the larger narrative tends to be epic – here it is the rise of robots from non-talking playmates to controllers of man’s destiny. Same as the Foundation series, where he doesn’t just tell stories about a future planet, or a future league of inhabited star systems – but the entire future of the galaxy.

1. Robbie (1940, revd. 1950 first appearance in Super Science Stories)

It is and 1996 and George Weston has bought his 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, a mute robot and playfellow. The story opens with them playing and laughing and Gloria telling Robbie stories, his favourite treat. However, Gloria’s mother does not like the thought of her daughter being friends with a robot so gets her husband to take it back to the factory and buy a dog instead. Gloria is devastated, hates the dog and pines away. To distract her her parents take her on a trip to futuristic New York. Gloria is excited but, to her mum’s dismay, chiefly because she thinks the family are going there to track down Robbie, who she’s been told has ‘run away’. When told that’s not the case she returns to sulking. Dad has a bright idea, to take her to a factory where they make robots in order to show Gloria that Robbie is not human, doesn’t have personality, is just an assemblage of cogs and wires. Unbeknown to Gloria or his wife, George has in fact arranged for Robby to be on the production line. Gloria spots him, goes mad with joy and runs across to him – straight into the path of a huge tractor. Before any of the humans can react, Robbie with robot speed hurtles across the shop floor and scoops Gloria out of danger.

This story, like the others, is supposed to give rise to some kind of debate about whether robots are human, have morals, are safe and so on. Well, since it is nearly 2019 and we still don’t have workable robots, that debate is fantasy, and this is a sweet, cheapjack story, written with flash and humour.

2. Runaround (March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction)

It is 2005 and two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, have been sent to Mercury along with Robot SPD-13, known as ‘Speedy’. Ten years earlier an effort to colonise Mercury had been abandoned. Now the pair are trying again with better technology. They’ve inhabited the abandoned buildings the previous settlers left behind but discovered that the photo-cell banks that provide life support to the base are low on selenium and will soon fail.

The nearest selenium pool is seventeen miles away Donovan has sent Speedy to get some. Hours have gone by and he’s still not returned. So the story is a race against time.

But it is also a complicated use of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. The pair discover down in the bowels of the abandoned building some primitive robots who carry them through the shade of low hills as close to the selenium pool and Speedy as they can get. (If they go into the direct light of the sunlight they will begin to be irreparably damaged, even through spacesuits, by the fierce radioactive glare.)

They see and hear Speedy (by radio) and discover he appears to be drunk, reciting the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Three Laws of Robotics are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now because Speedy was so expensive to build, the Third Law had been strengthened to preserve him and he has discovered something neither spaceman anticipated, which is that near the selenium are pools of iron-eating gas – much of Speedy being made of iron. When Donovan sent him to get some selenium he didn’t word the command particularly strongly.

So what’s happened is that, in Speedy’s mind, the second and third laws have come into conflict and given Speedy a sort of nervous breakdown. Hence the drunk-like behaviour. He approaches the selenium in obedience to the second law; but then detects the gas and backs away.

The astronauts try several tactics, including getting their robots to fetch, and then lob towards the selenium pool, canisters of oxalic acid to neutralise the carbonic gas. Eventually they tumble to the only thing which will trump laws 2 and 3, which is law 1. Powell walks out of the shadow of the bluff where they’ve been sheltering, into full sunlight, and calls to Speedy (over the radio) that the radiation is hurting him and begging Speedy to help. Law one overrides the other two and Speedy, restored to full working order, hurtles over, scoops him up and carries him into the protective shade.

At which point they give Speedy new instructions to collect the selenium, emphasising that it is life or death for them whether the photo-cell banks are replenished. With the full force of Law One behind him, this time Speedy overrides Law three (self protection) fetches loads of selenium, they fix the cells, everyone happy.

3. Reason (April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A year later the same ill-fated couple of spacemen are moved to a space station orbiting the sun whose task is to focus the sun’s energy into a concentrated beam which is then shot back to a received on earth. They finish constructing one of the first of a new range of robots, QT-1, who they nickname ‘Cutie’, and are disconcerted when it starts to question them. Specifically, it refuses to believe that they made it. In a series of increasingly rancorous conversations, Cutie dismisses the men as flimsy assemblages of blood and flesh, obviously not built to last.

Cutie eventually decides that the main power source of the ship must be the ‘Master’.He dismisses all the evidence of space, visible from the ship’s portholes, and all the books aboard the ship, as fables and fantasies designed to occupy the ‘lower’ minds of the men.

No, Cutie has reasoned itself into the belief that ‘There is no Master but Master, and QT-1 is His prophet.’ Despite this it carried on going about its duties, namely supervising the less advanced robots in the various tasks of keeping the space station maintained. Until the guys realise, to their further consternation, that Cutie has passed his religion on to them and they now refuse to obey the humans. In fact they pick up the humans, take them to their living quarters and lock them in under house arrest.

Powell and Donovan become very anxious because a solar storm is expected which will make the immensely high-powered beam to the earth waver and wobble. Even a little amount will devastate hundreds of square miles back on earth. But to their amazement, and relief, Cutie manages the beam perfectly, countering for the impact of the solar storm far better than they could have. At some (buried) level Cutie is still functioning according the 1st and 2nd laws i.e. protecting humans. The pair end up wondering whether a robot’s nominal ‘beliefs’ matter at all, so long as it obeys the three laws and functions perfectly.

Although marked by Asimov’s trademark facetious humour, and despite the schoolboy level on which the ‘debate’ with the robot is carried out, and noting the melodramatic threat of the approach of the solar storm – this is still a humorous, effective short story.

4. Catch That Rabbit (February 1944  issue of Astounding Science Fiction )

It’s those two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, again. They’re jokey banter is laid on with a trowel and reeks of fast-talking, wise-cracking comedians of the era.

Powell said, ‘Mike — you’re right.’
‘Thanks, pal. I knew I’d do it some day.’
‘All right, and skip the sarcasm. We’ll save it for Earth, and preserve it in jars for future long, cold winters.’

The plot is comparable to the previous story. Now they’re on an asteroid mining station where a ‘master’ robot – nicknamed Dave because his number is DV-5 – is in charge of six little worker robots – nicknamed the ‘fingers’ – digging up some metal ore. Problem is they’re not  hitting their quotas and, when Powell and Donovan eavesdrop on the worker robots via a visi-screen, they are appalled to see that, as soon as their backs are turned, Dave leads the other six in vaudeville dance routines!

After much head-scratching and trying out various hypotheses – as in the previous story – they eventually tumble to the problem. The trouble seems to kick off whenever Dave encounters a slight problem. So it would seem that supervising six robots is simply too much of a strain, when an additional problem is added. Solution? Eliminate one of the robots. Dave can handle the remaining five, plus whatever issues arise in the blasting and mining operation, just fine.

There is, however, a typically cheesy Asimov punchline. So what’s with the chorus line dancing? Donovan asks. Powell replies that when Dave was stymied and his processors couldn’t decide what to do – he resorted to ‘twiddling his fingers‘ boom boom!

5. Liar! (May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Accidentally, a robot is manufactured which can read human minds. With typical Yank levity it is nicknamed Herbie, since its number is RB-34. U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc mathematician Peter Bogert and robopsychologist Susan Calvin, at various points, interview it. Now Herbie, as well as answering their questions, reads what’s on their minds, namely that Bogert wants to replace Lanning as head of U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc, and that Calvin is frustratedly in love with a young officer at the firm, Milton Ashe.

To their delight, Herbie tells Bogert that Lanning has handed in his resignation and nominated Bogert to replace him, and tells Calvin that Ashe is in love with her too.

Their happiness doesn’t last. When Bogert confronts Lanning with news of his resignation, the latter angrily denies it. Calvin is on the point of declaring her feelings for Ashe, when the latter announces that he soon to marry his fiancee.

In the climactic scene the four character confront Herbie with his ‘lies’ and it is Calvin who stumbles on the truth. Herbie can read minds. He knows what his human interlocutors wish. He knows revealing that those wishes are unrequited or untrue will psychologically damage them. He is programmed to obey the First Law of Robotics i.e. no robot must harm a human being. And so he lies to them. He tells them what they want to hear.

Beside herself with anger (and frustration) Calvin taunts the cowering robot into a corner of the room and eventually makes its brain short circuit.

Little Lost Robot (March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

On Hyper Base, a military research station on an asteroid, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive. One of their robots goes missing. US Robots’ Chief Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, and Mathematical Director Peter Bogert, are called in to investigate.

They are told that the Nestor (a characteristic nickname for a model NS-2 robot) was one of a handful which had had its First Law of Robotics amended. They learn that, as part of their work, the ether scientists on Hyper Base have to expose themselves to risky levels of gamma rays, albeit for only short, measured periods. They and their managers found the Nestors kept interfering to prevent them exposing themselves, or rushing out to fetch them back in – in rigid obedience to the first law, which is to prevent any humans coming from harm.

After the usual red herrings, arguments and distractions it turns out that a nervy physicist, Gerald Black, who had been working with the missing robot, had gotten angry and told it to ‘get lost’. Which is exactly what it proceeded to do. A shipment of 62 Nestors had docked on its way off to some further destination. Next thing anyone knew there were 63 Nestors in its cargo hold and nobody could detected which of the 63 was the one which had had its First Law tampered with.

As usual Asimov creates a ‘race against time’ effect by having Calvin become increasingly concerned that Nestor 10 has not only ‘got lost’ but become resentful at being insulted by an inferior being’, and might carry on becoming more resentful until it plans something actively malevolent.

Calvin carries out a number of tests to try and distinguish Nestor 10, and becomes genuinely alarmed when entire cohorts of the nestors fail to react quickly enough to save a human (placed in a position of jeopardy for the sake of the experiment).

Finally, she catches it out by devising a test which distinguishes Nestor 10 as the only one which has received additional training in dealing with gamma radiation since arriving at the Hyper Drive base, the other 62 remaining ignorant.

After Nestor 10 has been revealed, Calvin sharply orders it to approach her, which it does, whining and complaining about its superiority and how it shouldn’t be treated like that and how it was ordered to lose itself and she mustn’t reveal its whereabouts… and attacks her. At which Black and Bogert flood the chamber with enough gamma rays to incapacitate it. it is destroyed, the other 62 ‘innocent’ nestors are trucked off to their destination.

Once again, this story is a scary indictment of the whole idea of robots, if it turns out that corporations can merrily tamper with the laws of robotics in order to save money, or get a job done, well, obviously they will. In which case the laws aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Escape! (August 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Published in the month that the War in the Pacific – and so the Second World War – ended, after the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japan.

In that month’s issues of Astounding Science Fiction readers learned that U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. possess a Giant Brain, a positronic doodah floating in a helium globe, supported by wires etc. Reassuringly, it is a chattily American brain:

Dr. Calvin said softly, ‘How are you, Brain?’
The Brain’s voice was high-pitched and enthusiastic, ‘Swell, Miss Susan.’

A rival firm approaches U.S. Robot etc. It too is working on a hyperdrive and, when its scientists fed all the information into their supercomputer, it crashed. Tentatively, our guys agree to feed the same info into The Brain. Now the thing about the Brain is it is emotionally a child. Dr Calvin thinks that this is why it manages to process the same information which blew up the rival one: because it doesn’t take the information so seriously – particularly the crucial piece of information that, during the hyperdrive, human beings effectively die.

It swallows all the information and happily agrees to make the ship in question. Within a month or so the robots it instructs have built a smooth shiny hyperdrive spaceship. It is over to the two jokers we’ve met in the earlier stories, Powell land Donovan, Mike and Greg, to have a look. But no sooner are they in it than the doors lock and it disappears into space. Horrified at being trapped, the two men wisecrack their way around their new environment. Horrified at losing two test pilots in a new spaceship Dr Calvin very carefully interviews The Brain. Oh, they’ll be fine, it says, breezily.

Meanwhile, Mike and Greg undergo the gut-wrenching experience of hyperspace travel and – weird scenes – imagine themselves dead and queueing up outside the Pearly Gates to say hello to old St Peter. When they come round from these hallucinations, they look at the parsec-ometer on the control board and realise it is set at 300,000.

They were conscious of sunlight through the port. It was weak, but it was bluewhite – and the gleaming pea that was the distant source of light was not Old Sol.
And Powell pointed a trembling finger at the single gauge. The needle stood stiff and proud at the hairline whose figure read 300,000 parsecs.
Powell said, ‘Mike if it’s true, we must be out of the Galaxy altogether.’
Donovan said, ‘Blazed Greg! We’d be the first men out of the Solar System.’
‘Yes! That’s just it. We’ve escaped the sun. We’ve escaped the Galaxy. Mike, this ship is the answer. It means freedom for all humanity — freedom to spread through to every star that exists — millions and billions and trillions of them.’

Eventually the spaceship returns to earth, joking Mike and Greg stumble out, unshaven and smelly, and are led off for a shower.

Dr Calvin explains to an executive board (i.e. all the characters we’ve met in the story, including Mike and Dave) that the equations they gave The Brain included the fact that humans would ‘die’ – their bodies would be completely disassembled, as would the molecules of the space ship – in order for it to travel through hyperspace. It was this knowledge of certain ‘death’ which had made the rivals’ computer – obeying the First Law of Robotics – short circuit.

But Dr Calvin had phrased the request in such a way to The Brain as to downplay the importance of death. (In fact this is a characteristic Asimovian play with words – Dr Calvin’s instructions to The Brain made no sense when I read them, and only make sense now, when she uses them as an excuse for why The Brain survived but the rival supercomputer crashed.

Like most of Asimov’s stories, there is a strong feeling of contrivance, that stories, phrases or logic are wrenched out of shape to deliver the outcome he wants. This makes them clever-clever, but profoundly unsatisfying, and sometimes almost incomprehensible.)

Anyway, The Brain still registered the fact the testers would ‘die’ (albeit they would be reconstituted a millisecond later) and this is the rather thin fictional excuse given for the fact that the Brain retreated into infantile humour – designing a spaceship which was all curves, providing the testers with food – but making it only baked beans and milk, providing toilet facilities – but making them difficult to find, and so on. Oh, and ensuring that at the moment of molecular disintegration, the testers had the peculiar jokey experience of queueing for heaven, of hearing their fellow waiters and some of the angels all yakking like extras in a 1950s musical. That was all The Brain coping with its proximity to breaking the First Law by retreating into infantile humour.

Follow all that? Happy with that explanation? Happy with that account of how the human race makes the greatest discovery in its history?

Or is it all a bit too much like a sketch from the Jerry Lee Lewis show?

Lanning raised a quieting hand, “All right, it’s been a mess, but it’s all over. What now?’
‘Well,’ said Bogert, quietly, “obviously it’s up to us to improve the space-warp engine. There must be some way of getting around that interval of jump. If there is, we’re the only organization left with a grand-scale super-robot, so we’re bound to find it if anyone can. And then — U. S. Robots has interstellar travel, and humanity has the opportunity for galactic empire.’ !!!

Evidence (September 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A story about a successful politician, Stephen Byerley. Having been a successful attorney he is running for mayor of a major American city. His opponent, Francis Quinn, claims he is a robot, built by the real Stephen Byerley who was crippled in a car accident years earlier.

The potential embarrassment leads U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. to send their top robosychologist test whether Byerley is a robot or not.

  • She offers him an apple and Byerley takes a bite, but he may have been designed with a stomach.
  • Quinn sends a journalist with a hidden X-ray camera to photograph Byerley’s insides, but Byerley is protected by some kind of force shield

Quinn and Calvin both make a big deal of the fact that Byerley, if a robot, must obey the three Laws of Robotics i.e. will be incapable of harming a human. This becomes a centrepiece of the growing opposition to Byerley, stoked by Quinn’s publicity machine.

During a globally broadcast speech to a hostile audience, a heckler climbs onto the stage and challenges Byerley to hit him in the face. Millions watch the candidate punch the heckler in the face. Calvin tells the press that Byerley is human. With the expert’s verdict disproving Quinn’s claim, Byerley wins the election.

Afterwards, Calvin visits Byerley and shrewdly points out that the heckler may have been a robot, manufactured by Byerley’s ‘teacher’, a shady figure who has gone ‘to the country’ to rest and who both Calvin and Quin suspect is the real Byerley, hopelessly crippled but with advanced robotics skills.

This is one of the few stories where Asimov adds linking material in which the elderly Calvin tells the narrator-reporter than Byerley arranged to have his body ‘atomised’ after his death, so nobody ever found out.

All very mysterious and thrilling for the nerdy 14-year-old reader, but the adult reader can pick a million holes in it, such as the authorities compelling Byerley to reveal the whereabouts of the mysterious ‘teacher’ or compelling him to have an x-ray.

The Evitable Conflict (June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

The Byerley story turns out to be important because this same Stephen Byerley goes on to become the head of the planetary government, or World Co-Ordinator, as it is modestly titled

The story is a fitting end to the sequence because it marks the moment when robots – which we saw, in Robbie as little more than playthings for children in 1998 – taking over the running of the world by the 2050s.

Byerley is worried because various industrial projects – a canal in Mexico, mines in Spain – are falling behind. Either there’s something wrong with the machines which, by this stage, are running everything… or there is human sabotage.

He calls in Susan Calvin, by this stage 70 years old and the world’s leading expert on robot psychology.

She listens as Byerley gives her a detailed description of his recent tour of the Four Regions of Earth (and the 14 year old kid reader marvels and gawps at how the planet will be divided up into four vast Regions, with details of which one-time ‘countries’ they include, their shiny new capital cities, their Asian, Africa and European leaders who Byerley interviews).

This is all an excuse for Asimov to give his teenage view of the future which is that rational complex calculating Machines will take over the running of everything. The coming of atomic power, and space travel, will render the conflict between capitalism and communism irrelevant. The European empires will relinquish their colonies which will become free and independent. And all of humanity will realise, at the same time, that there is no room any more for nationalism or political conflicts. It will become one world. Everyone will live in peace.

Ahhh isn’t that nice.

Except for this one nagging fact — that some of the projects overseen by the Machines seem to be failing. Byerley tells Calvin his theory. There is a political movement known as the Society for Humanity. It can be shown that the men in charge of the Mexican canal, the Spanish mines and the other projects which are failing are all members of the Society for Humanity. Obviously they are tampering with figures or data in order to sabotage project successes, to reintroduce shortages and conflicts and to discredit the Machines. Therefore, Byerley tells Calvin, he proposes having every member of the Society for Humanity arrested and imprisoned.

Calvin – and this is a typical Asimov coup, to lead the reader on to expect one thing and then, with a whirl of his magician’s cape, to reveal something completely different – Calvin says No. He has got it exactly wrong. the Machines, vastly complex, proceeding on more data than any one human could ever manage, and continually improving, acting under an expanded version of the First Law of Robotics – namely that no robot or machine must harm humanity – have detected that the Society for Humanity presents a threat to the calm, peaceful, machine-controlled future of humanity – and so the machines have falsified the figures and made the projects fail — precisely in order to throw suspicion on the Society for Humanity, precisely to make the World Co-Ordinator arrest them, precisely in order to eliminate them.

In other words, the Machines have now acquired enough data about the world and insight into human psychology, as to be guiding humanity’s destiny. It is too late to avert or change, she tells Byerley. They are in control now.

Despite its silliness, it is nonetheless a breath-taking conclusion to the book, and, as with the Foundation stories, makes you feel like you really have experienced a huge and dazzling slab of mankind’s future.


Comments

The inadequacy of the Three Laws epitomises the failure of all attempts to replicate the human mind

I suppose this has occurred to everyone who’s ever read these stories, but the obvious thing about them is that every single story is about robots going wrong. This doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about a robotic future.

A bit more subtly, what they all demonstrate is that ‘morality’ is a question of human interpretation: people interpret situations and decide how to act accordingly. This interpretative ability cannot be replicated by machines, computers, artificial intelligence, call them what you will. It probably never will for the simple reason that it is imperfect, partial and different in each individual human. You will never be able to programme ‘robots’ with universal laws of behaviour and morality, when these don’t even exist among humans.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics sound impressive to a 14-year-old sci-fi nerd, or as the (shaky) premise to a series of pulp sci-fi stories – but the second you begin trying to apply them to real life situations (for example, two humans giving a robot contradictory orders) you immediately encounter problems. Asimov’s Three Laws sound swell, but they are, in practice, useless. And the fact that the robots in the stories seem to do nothing but break down, demonstrates the problem.

Neither the human mind nor the human body can be replicated by science

Asimov predicted that humans would have developed robots by now (2018, when I write), indeed by the 1990s.

Of course, we haven’t. This is because nobody understands how the human brain works and no technologists have come anywhere near replicating its functionality. They never will. The human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It has taken about three billion years to evolve (if we start back with the origin of life on earth). The idea that guys in white coats in labs working with slide rules can come anywhere close to matching it in a few generations is really stupid.

And that’s just human intelligence. On the physical side, no scientists have created ‘robots’ with anything like the reaction times and physical adroitness of even the simplest animals.

We don’t need robots since we have an endless supply of the poor

Apart from the a) physical and b) mental impossibility of creating ‘robots’ with anything remotely like human capacities, the most crucial reason it hasn’t happened is because there is no financial incentive whatsoever to create them.

We have cheap robots already, they are called migrant workers or slaves, who can be put to work in complex and demanding environments – showing human abilities to handle complex situations, perform detailed and fiddly tasks – for as little as a dollar a day.

Charities estimate there are around 40 million slaves in the world today, 2018. So why waste money developing robots? Even if you did develop ‘robots’, could they be as cheap to buy and maintain as human slaves? Would they cost a dollar a day to run? No.

Only in certain environments which require absolutely rigid, inflexible repetitive tasks, and which are suitable for long-term heavy investment because of the certainty of return, have anything like robots been deployed, for example on the production lines of car factories.

But these are a million miles away from the robots Asimov envisaged, which you can sit down and chat to, let alone pass for human, as R. Daneel Olivaw does in Asimov’s robot novels.

All technologies break

And the last but not the least objection to Asimov’s vision of a robot-infested future is that all technologies break. Computers fail. Look at the number of incidents we’ve had just in the past month or so of major breakdowns by computer networks, and these are networks run by the biggest, richest, safest, most supervised, cleverest companies in the world.

On 6 December 2018 around 30 million people use the O2 network suffered a complete outage of the system. The collapse affected 25 million O2 subscribers, customers of Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, business such as Deliveroo, the digital systems on board all 8,500 London buses, and systems at some hospitals.

In September 2018 Facebook admitted that at least 50 million accounts had been hacked, with a poissible 40 million more vulnerable. Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp are also affected along with apps and services such as Tinder that authenticate users through Facebook.

In April 2018 TSB’s banking online banking service collapsed following a botched migration to a new platform. Some customers were unable to access their accounts for weeks afterwards. About 1,300 customers were defrauded, 12,500 closed their accounts and the outage cost the bank £180 million.

These are just the big ones I remember from the past few months, and the ones we got to hear about (i.e. weren’t hushed up). In the background of our lives and civilisation, all computer networks are being attacked, failing, crashing, requiring upgrades, or proper integration, or becoming obsolete, all of the time. If you do any research into it you’ll discover that the computer infrastructure of the international banks which underpin global capitalism are out of date, rickety, patched-up, vulnerable to hacking but more vulnerable to complex technical failures.

In Asimov’s world of advanced robots, there is none of this. The robots fix each other and all the spaceships, they are – according to the final story – ‘self-correcting’, everything works fine all the time, leaving humans free to swan around making vast conspiracies against each other.

This is the biggest fantasy or delusion in Asimov’s universe. Asimov’s fictions give no idea at all of the incomprehensible complexity of a computerised world and – by extension – of all human technologies and, by a further extension, of human societies.


Asimov breaks the English language

Asimov is a terrible writer, hurried, slapdash, trying to convey often pretty simple emotional or descriptive effects through horribly contorted phraseology.

As I read I could hear a little voice at the back of my mind, and after a while realised it was the voice of the English language, crying out as if from a long distance away, ‘Help me! Save me! Rescue me from this murderer!’

The main corridor was a narrow tunnel that led in a hard, clatter-footed stretch along a line of rooms of no interdistinguishing features.

Harroway had no doubt on the point of to whom he owed his job.

Dr. Lanning smiled in a relief tangible enough to make even his eyebrows appear benevolent.

The signal-burr brought all three to a halt, and the angry tumult of growingly unrestrained emotion froze.

The two giant robots were invisible but for the dull red of their photoelectric eyes that stared down at them, unblinking, unwavering and unconcerned. Unconcerned! As was all this poisonous Mercury, as large in jinx as it was small in size.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Asimov

Born in Russia of Jewish descent, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was taken by his parents to New York while still a toddler and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

He was a prodigy. He sold his first science fiction story at 18, and by his early 20s was selling SF short stories to John Campbell, the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

One of the most prolific authors of all time, Asimov wrote or edited over 500 books, plus hundreds of articles for magazines, encyclopedias and so on. That fact alone should prepare you for his superficial and slapdash prose style.

Out of this vast output, probably his most famous works are two groups of short stories and novels, one clustered around the Robot idea – I, Robot, the Caves of Steel and so on – the other, the seven novels of the Foundation and Empire series.

The story behind Foundation

Late in life Asimov himself gave a detailed account of the origin of the original Foundation stories which he wrote in the 1940s, and then of the various sequels and prequels he was persuaded to write in the 1980s.

For me, the key facts are that the first eight stories were:

  1. written as short stories
  2. for a popular sci fi magazine
  3. when Asimov had only just turned 21

They were never intended for book publication, they were certainly never intended to be considered ‘novels’, they were hacked out for the transient existence of a gee-whizz sci-fi magazine.

But, apparently, the start of the 1950s saw a big transformation of the SF market in America: for the first time proper book publishers became interested in it. No longer was it the preserve of fans and collectors of luridly illustrated magazines. And, as they started publishing SF books, publishers discovered there was an untapped audience for it in the broader book-buying public.

So, where to get the material to satisfy this market? They could approach tried and tested SF writers with book contracts. Bit slow. And they could also trawl back through the vast pulp magazine content produced over the previous decades, cherry picking popular stories which could be reversioned for book publication.

Thus it was that in 1951 – three years after Asimov had had the final Foundation story published in Astounding Science-Fiction – that a small publisher (Gnome Books) suggested republishing all the stories in book format. When Asimov agreed, Gnome went on to suggest that the series, as it stood, started too abruptly and that Asimov should write an introductory story setting the scene and explaining the backstory. Which he promptly did.

Taken together these facts explain the Foundation series’ pulpy worldview, the uneven and often very bad prose style, the errors in grammar and spelling, the very poor proofreading in all versions of the stories, and the looseness with which they hang together.

Foundation and its two sequels were not conceived or written as novels. In fact at just this time, in 1950, the expression ‘fix-up novel’ was coined to describe a ‘novel’ created by just such a glueing together of pre-existing short stories that had been previously published and may, or may not, have had much in common. The stories’ plots could be tweaked to make for consistency, have new connecting material written for the novelisation, or – a popular device – have a new frame narrative and narrator created who could introduce and contextualise each story or ‘episode’.

In the rush to capitalise on the new popularity of SF, ‘fix-up’ became a very apposite description, first applied to a classic SF author, A.E. van Vogt. Loads of the old hacks who’d been churning out sci-fi stories by the bucket load and flogging them to the steaming jungle of pulp sci-fi magazines, suddenly had a cash incentive to cobble the stories together and present them as ‘novels’.

Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series, as well as Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, are classic examples of ‘fix-ups’.

The afterlife of the Foundation stories

So all this explains why the book titled Foundation and published in 1951 in fact consists of the following linked short stories:

  1. The Psychohistorians – the introductory story to the series written at Gnome’s request (1951)
  2. The Encyclopedists – originally published in the May, 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction under the title of Foundation
  3. The Mayors – originally published in the June 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction as Bridle and Saddle
  4. The Traders – originally published in the October 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction as The Wedge
  5. The Merchant Princes – first published in the August 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction as The Big and the Little

The stories got longer as Asimov wrote them, and the second volume – Foundation and Empire – contains just two long stories, or a short story and a novella, The General and The Mule (published in November and December 1945).

Similarly, the third and final volume of the original trilogy – Second Foundation – also contains a short story and a novella:

  1. Search by the Mule was originally published in the January 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the title Now You See It…
  2. Search by the Foundation was originally published in the November and December 1949 and January 1950 issues of Astounding Science Fiction under the title … And Now You Don’t

So, in total, there were eight original Foundation stories, written over a period of eight years, 1940 to 1948, plus the introductory one commissioned by Gnome in 1951. Nine.

As it turned out Goblin Publishers weren’t great at promoting the books, which hardly sold. It was only in 1961, when Asimov had cemented a good book deal with Doubleday, the major American publishers, that they discovered this item from his back catalogue was underperforming. They promptly bought it off Goblin and undertook a big marketing campaign and, slightly to everyone’s surprise, the Foundation trilogy was, for the first time, a bestseller, becoming a phenomenon.

By 1966 a special category of the SF Hugo Awards was created to honour trilogies of novels and the Foundation trilogy promptly won.

By the time I was getting into SF in the early 1970s, the trilogy, alongside Asimov’s Robot books, and numerous volumes of short stories and other novels, thronged the shelves in shiny paperback editions with wonderful covers designed by Chris Foss, and I took them to be among the defining works of the genre.

Foundation cover art by Chris Foss

Foundation cover art by Chris Foss

Posthumous Foundations

Then, twenty years after their first appearance in book form, in 1981, Doubleday asked Asimov to write a sequel to the trilogy. Initially reluctant, Asimov reread the series and realised he had more to say, much more.

He quickly wrote and published Foundation’s Edge (1982), then a follow-up to that, Foundation and Earth (1986). These were followed, after Asimov’s death, by Foundation and Chaos, published in 1998, written by Greg Bear with the permission of the Asimov estate and, in 1999 Foundation’s Triumph, written by David Brin, incorporating ideas from Asimov short stories.

Before his death Asimov also went back before the events covered in Foundation, to describe them in two prequels – Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation, published posthumously in 1993. These have been complemented by Foundation’s Fear (1997) by Gregory Benford.

Like the novels about James Bond or Jason Bourne which were written after their creators died, there’s no reason why new Foundation novels shouldn’t roll off the production line for the foreseeable future.

Foundation and Robot

Not only this but as early as the 1960s Asimov began to link the Foundation stories and their ‘universe’ with the ever-growing world of the Robot stories, by writing stories which feature characters, or issues, or planets, common to both – thus creating an enormously complicated fictional universe.

As you might expect from this huge ‘fix-up’ approach, the resulting ‘universe’ contains plenty of plot holes and inconsistencies for fans and fellow authors to happily crawl over and debate forever.

Now comes news that the Foundation stories are about to be made into a major TV series by HBO, home of Band of Brothers and Game of Thrones. I’d be surprised if they don’t tweak, edit, and amend the original texts to make the content more suitable for TV and the plots fit into one-hour episodes. Plus catering to modern sensibilities by having more female and black leads.

All of which will lead to an even greater ferment of comment and critique online. Thus the endless proliferation and unstoppable afterlife of American cultural products.

The premise of the Foundation stories

It’s a struggle to clamber free of this jungle of backstories, overlapping universes, and real-world developments in order to get back to the primal experience of reading the stories as they were first conceived nearly 80 years ago.

Asimov tells us the original idea was inspired by his reading (not once, but twice!) of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. What, he thought, if he wrote about the decline of a Galactic Empire – from the vantage point of the Second Empire which eventually rose to replace it, after a prolonged dark age? A vast epic history looking back over the decline and collapse of a space empire…

Back in 1940 this appears to have been (surprisingly) a fairly original story. One of the classic early SF tales – H.G. Wells’s Time Machine gives the reader a poignant sense of the passage of vast periods of time, but doesn’t give a detailed chronicle.

Similarly, Olaf Stapledon’s epic SF classic, Last and First Men, deals with the rise and fall of countless human civilisations on a mind-boggling scale, but again it doesn’t go into detail to describe the nitty-gritty events or characters of any of them.

But it’s still a trope – the collapse of empire – familiar to artists and poets for centuries. The twist, the gimmick, the unique selling point which gives the Foundation series its distinctive quality, is the idea that, amid the teeming trillions of the Empire, spread across all the habitable planets of the entire galaxy, a scientific discipline has arisen, known as Psychohistory.

Psychohistorians try and predict human history, based on the vast amount of data by that point amassed about human and social behaviour. And it is this idea which underpins the entire Foundation universe.

Hari Seldon’s role in the Foundation stories

For one of these psychohistorians is the extremely brilliant Hari Seldon, who has used the discipline to map out a precise vision of events which will unfold over thousands of years into the future.

The fundamental premise of the original series is that Seldon can see that the Empire’s fall is inevitable and that, other things being equal, it will be followed by a thirty thousand year-long dark age, until civilisation rises again.

But Seldon thinks he was worked out a plan whereby this thirty thousand year period can be abbreviated to just a thousand years. His plan is to create a ‘Foundation’ of committed men and women who will create a Galactic Encyclopedia which will preserve all the knowledge of the Empire through the dark age and hasten the rise of the Second Empire.

Thus, in the first story Seldon gathers round him enthusiastic devotees of the plan and confronts the sceptical powers-that-be. Then each of the following five stories describes a crisis moment facing the Foundation over the ensuing hundreds of years.

But – and here’s where the psychohistory thing really comes into its own – at each of these crises, Seldon turns out to have already seen and anticipated the outcome. In fact, he turns out to have stage-managed things in order to secure the outcome he wanted.

The technique is exemplified in the first story. This describes young, naive Gaal Dornick arriving on the planet Trantor, magnificent capital of the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire to meet the famous psychohistorian. Dornick has barely arrived and met the legendary Seldon than the latter is arrested and Dornick attends his trial.

Seldon is accused of treason by the aristocratic members of the Committee of Public Safety who, nowadays, rule the Empire (the actual emperor being a puppet figure). He outrages the committee by explaining that in just 500 years the empire will collapse and enter its 30,000 year dark age.

The committee find him guilty of treason but, not wanting to create a martyr, offers Seldon exile to a remote world, Terminus, accompanied by the others who wish to help him create the Encyclopedia. And he accepts.

But here’s the kicker, which is revealed to an adoring Dornick right at the end of the first story: Seldon knew that’s what the Committee would do.

He knew they would offer exile (to hedge their bets – to get rid of him but keep him alive, just in case what he says is true) and he was almost certain that he’d be sent as far away as possible, with the result – as he explains to an awed Dornick – that he has already prepared his community of 100,000 to travel to Terminus! Ta-dah!

Each of the four following stories zeroes in on a similar crisis moment in the Foundation’s history, 30, 50 or 100 years apart. In each one we are introduced to new characters, who face a plight or challenge to the Foundation. And in each story it turns out – right at the end – that Seldon had foreseen the challenge… and secretly planned, or created the conditions, for the challenge to be overcome!

Or, in the words of the hero of the fifth story, the trader Hober Mallow (who overcomes the challenge of his day and, in doing so, becomes the first of the Merchant Princes of Foundation):

‘When the Galactic Empire began to die at the edges, and when the ends of the Galaxy reverted to barbarism and dropped away, Hari Seldon and his band of psychologists planted a colony, the Foundation, out here in the middle of the mess, so that we could incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire.’
‘Oh, yes, yes – ‘
‘I’m not finished,’ said the trader, coldly. ‘The future course of the Foundation was plotted according to the science of psychohistory, then highly developed, and conditions arranged so as to bring about a series of crises that will force us most rapidly along the route to future Empire. Each crisis, each Seldon crisis, marks an epoch in our history. We’re approaching one now – our third.’

So each story occurs in a new period – features entirely new characters – and presents them with a challenge thrown up by the ongoing collapse of the Empire, and the survival of the Foundation. Each of the characters in question beats the challenge and then, they either see a hologram of Seldon (which, we are told, are scheduled to return at regular intervals into the future) which confirms that nature of the challenge and how they’ve overcome it. Or is made to realise (by Asimov’s guiding hand) the nature of the crisis they’ve just passed through and how it adhered to Seldon’s Laws of Psychohistory.

Either way, the characters (and the reader) come to reverence the memory and extraordinary foresight of Hari Seldon even more.

So the Foundation stories are more than just ‘chronicles of the future’: each one contains a trick in the tail reminiscent of a classic detective story, the kind which reveals whodunnit at the end.

You read partly to find out what happens in each story – but also to find out how Asimov will reconcile each new crisis with Seldon’s omniscient prophecies.

1. The Psychohistorians

12,000 years into the history of the Galactic Empire psychohistorian Hari Seldon realises it is doomed to collapse and manipulates the Committee of Public Safety into sending him and 100,000 followers to the remote planet of Terminus to create a Galactic Encyclopedia.

2. The Encyclopedists

Fifty years later, the Foundation is well-established on planet Terminus. The creation of Seldon’s Encyclopedia is proceeding under the control of a board of scientists known as Encyclopedists. The nominal figurehead of the state, Salvor Hardin, realises Terminus is under threat from the four neighbouring prefects of the Empire, which have declared independence from the Empire. By skillful diplomacy Hardin defuses a demand from the Kingdom of Anacreon to establish military bases on Terminus, and also overthrows the Encyclopedists in a coup. To his surprise, when Seldon makes his next scheduled appearance by hologram recording, it turns out Seldon had anticipated the coup and approves of it as the inevitable next stage in the Foundation’s evolution. He also reveals – shockingly – that the Encyclopedia Galactica was always a pretext to allow the creation of the Foundation. It was just a way of getting everyone focused and unified while the real structural consolidation of Foundation society proceeded alongside it.

3. The Mayors

It is 80 years into the history of the Foundation – in other words we are in Year 80 of the Federation Era or F.E. Having preserved its technological knowledge while other imperial star systems are losing theirs, the Federation is well placed to exert power over the four neighbouring kingdoms, but has developed a policy of doing this under cover of a Religion of Science.

Salvor Hardin is now the well-established ruler of the Foundation, but, as the story opens, is threatened by a new political movement led by city councillor Sef Sermak, the ‘Actionist Party’, which wants to attack and conquer the Four Kingdoms.

The kingdom which gives most concern is Anacreon, ruled by Prince Regent Wienis and his nephew, the teenage King Lepold I. (This gives rise to scenes between regent and pimply king which kept reminding me of black and white movies of The Prisoner of Zenda in their camp cheesiness.)

When Wienis launches a direct attack against Terminus, using an abandoned Imperial space cruiser redesigned by Foundation experts, he discovers that the Foundation have installed devices in the ship to prevent it firing. Wienis had planned the attack for the night of his nephew’s coronation as king. Hardin attends this ceremony, out of diplomatic courtesy, but is arrested while the arch-fiend Wienis rubs his hands and cackles like Ming the Merciless,

Little does he know that Hardin has a cunning plan. 1. He has agreed with Anacreonian High Priest Poly Verisof to create a popular uprising against Wienis. 2. The Imperial space cruiser’s weapons turn out to have been neutralised so that they can’t attack Terminus. 3. Instead, the leader of the fleet is forced to make an Anacreon-wide broadcast that he has been compelled to lead a treacherous and ‘blasphemous’ attack against the Federation by the wicked Wienis – which crystallises the popular rebellion against the regent. And then – all technology on Anacreon shuts down. the Foundation maintain it; they have planned for it all to close down. Anacreon is plunged into darkness.

Wienis turns in fury on Hardin and tries to zap him with a ray gun, but the latter is protected by Foundation tech i.e. a personal force field. In fury, Wienis turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.

Thus Hardin is vindicated: the narrator had given the impression that the Actionist Party was gaining the upper hand in the Foundation and threatening his rule. But the calm, clever way he handles the crisis entirely restores his power.

This is confirmed by another scheduled appearance of Hari Seldon by hologram, who confirms his expectation that the Foundation’s immediate neighbours, the Four Kingdoms, will now be virtually powerless and incapable of resisting the Religion of Scientism’s advance.

4. The Traders

It is 135 F.E. If the religion of ‘Scientism’ was the focus of the previous story, this one reveals how trading will be the next stage in the Foundation’s expansion.

The story demonstrates this through a complicated plot involving the imprisonment of one the Foundation’s lead traders (and spies) Eskel Gorov by the authorities on a planet in a nearby system, Askone.

He is rescued by a fellow Foundation trader, Linmar Ponyets, who conspires with an ambitious and rebellious Askonian councilor, Pherl, to overthrown Askone’s council.

Ponyets makes Pherl a device which can transmute any metal into gold – enough to corrupt anyone – but has also plants a video recorder in it. Now, meddling with this kind of old tech is regarded by the Askone council as blasphemous. When Pherl tries to renege on his deal to set Gorov free, Ponyets shows him the tape he’s made recording Pherl committing the blasphemy of using Foundation tech.

Thus (the Foundation’s) Ponyets He can blackmail (Askone’s) Pherl. He promptly gets him to have Gorov released, and to hand over a load of metal ore which the Foundation needs.

On the spaceship back to Terminus, Pherl explains his success to Gorov. Not only has Pherl a) released Gorov b) bartered a big supply of tin out of him but c) since Pherl is likely to become the next Grand Master of Askone, he has also neutralised it as an enemy.

When Gorov criticizes his techniques, Ponyets quotes one of Salvor Hardin’s alleged sayings: ‘Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!’

5. The Merchant Princes

Twenty years late i.e. about 155 F.E., the Foundation has expanded to subjugate the neighbouring Four Kingdoms and is expanding. But there is resistance. Three Foundation vessels have vanished near the planets of the Republic of Korell. Master Trader Hober Mallow is sent to find out why and assess Korell’s state of technological development.

A long complicated plot ensues in which the Foundation’s Foreign Secretary Publis Manlio and Mayoral Secretary Jorane Sutt are both out to incriminate Mallow, but he a) handles a diplomatic crisis with Korell b) establishes relations with Korell’s authoritarian ruler, Commdor Asper Argo.

Noticing the atomic handguns carried by the Commdors’ bodyguards – a technology mostly lost on the Periphery of the Empire – Mallow suspects the Empire of reaching out to the Korellians. Mallow travels to the planet Siwenna, which he believes may be the capital of an Imperial province, and where he finds the impoverished former patrician Onum Barr, amid the ruins of the planet’s former glories.

Barr explains that a previous viceroy to Siwenna rebelled against the Emperor, and that Barr took part in a revolution which overthrew him. The Imperial fleet despatched to put down the rebellion ended up massacring the population, including killing all but one of Barr’s children. The new viceroy of Siwenna is now planning his own rebellion against the Empire.

(This idea of the permanent rebellion of the provinces under a succession of rulers, each of them aspiring to become emperor, quite obviously copies the pattern of the later years of the Roman Empire.)

Mallow goes spying at a Siwellian power plant, noting that it is atomically powered (atomic power is the benchmark of technical civilisation in the Empire) but that the technicians – the tech-men – don’t actually know how to maintain it.

With this and other information Mallow becomes convinced that the ‘religious’ phase of the Foundation’s expansion is over. Henceforward its power must rest on its ability to trade goods which nobody out here on the Periphery has or can fix.

Mallow is elected Mayor of Terminus, and has his opponents, Manlio and Sutt, who were planning a coup against him, are arrested.

But then there follows a real Seldon Crisis – namely that Korell declares war on the Foundation, using its powerful Imperial flotilla to attack Foundation ships. Oh dear. But instead of counterattacking, to everyone’s surprise, Mallow takes no military action at all – he just ceases trading with Korell.

In his Seldonian wisdom he has realised that almost all Korell’s society – including its battle fleet – runs on technology which only the Foundation understands and can repair. Sure enough, without Foundation input, Korell’s economy collapses, and its attack is called off.

Wisdom and understanding – not main force – win the day.

Comments

The stories – and the way they hang together to create a history of the future – generate a sense of scale and vastness which thrills the adolescent mind.

The cleverness of the way Seldon is revealed – at every major turning point of the future – to have anticipated the future, creates the exciting sense of an omniscient hero, comparable to the pleasure the reader gets from identifying with Sherlock Holmes – except on a galactic scale!

BUT the actual plots of the stories themselves – and especially the style, the prose style, and the phrasing of the dialogue – are often execrable. Sometimes Asimov’s jumping between scenes, and the obscurity of characterisation and dialogue, make it hard to understand what is going on – to grasp which moments or details are important or not important.

I only really understood what happened in any of these stories when I read the Wikipedia summaries. Reading about the Foundation stories is quite a lot clearer and more compelling than actually wading through the texts themselves.

Asimov was only just into his twenties when he began the series, writing fast against the clock to flog the stories to a pulp SF magazine.

The scale and ambition of the series are still impressive, and the idea of a master historian able to use advanced maths and sociology to predict the future, and the way each crisis confirms the often unexpected aspects of his thinking – all these are great ideas.

But Asimov’s youth, the hasty writing, and the way so many scenes are straight out of Dan Dare or Flash Gordon or cannibalise other boys adventure clichés – the ragged prose, the derivativeness of so many actual scenes, and the paper-thinness of all of the characters – make reading the book really hard work.

Hari Seldon depicted by Michael Whelan

Hari Seldon depicted by Michael Whelan


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1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
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1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
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