Asimov and the Foundations of Fantasy
Seventy years have passed since Isaac Asimov penned the first of his Foundation stories. Tens of thousands of years in the future, humanity has colonised far beyond the Solar System and established a galaxy-wide empire, dependant for trade and communications on faster-than-light travel. One single planet, Terminus, is beginning to exercise control over the whole, both militarily and psychologically, according to the principles of psychohistory, a science invented by Asimov’s most durable human hero, Hari Seldon.
It is a comfortable vision for those of us living in the 21st century, not because the Foundation galaxy is some kind of cosmic paradise – it is anything but – rather that, with our wars, famines and plagues, it is remarkable that our species has managed to survive long enough to colonise one other planet, let alone millions.
For as long as human beings have known there are other worlds out there, they have dreamed of breaking free of earth’s gravity to visit them. And that is a long time indeed if we include the moon, the sun and the other planets of the Solar System in the premise.
Asimov was surely the first writer to create a fictional universe that was at once outlandish and (almost) credible, and to explore technologies that, while fantastical, were grounded in real science. Not only did he create a new science of his own – something that no other author had ever done, but his fiction also gave us robotics – a word he is credited with inventing, its three laws, the positronic brain and the hyperdrive. Though it would take a decade for Asimov to polish his stories ready for publication in novel form, it was a decade in which space opera came of age and developed as a serious sub-genre of science fiction.
Psychohistory is a mathematical science which combines an understanding of the human mind with the laws of probability to predict events centuries in the future. Asimov’s galactic populations are large – quadrillions or quintillions – making such predictions feasible, especially as the direction of events is in the hands of Second Foundationers with mind controlling abilities.
The term space opera was originally meant in a derogatory sense, making fun of the cheap and sensational tales that appeared in the pulp magazines and short story digests of the early 20th century. Though science fiction was popular and had a loyal and dependable market even then, many in the mainstream of fiction, both writers and critics, regarded it with disdain. No serious author wrote sci-fi, especially not fiction that depicted space travel.
Really? The earliest authors of the genre are respected household names today. The fame of Jules Verne, HG Wells and Aldous Huxley rests primarily on the quality of their science fiction. Jules Verne explored the possibility of space travel in two stories, From Earth to the Moon in 1865 and Around the Moon, its sequel in 1870. For all that he makes a few mistakes, his stories are remarkably scientific in their conception and execution. Vernes’ other sci-fi tales such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth are among the best ever written.
But it was during the twenty years beginning in 1950 that the explosion of quality and science-driven space fantasy took place The revolution in sci-fi literature was headed by a handful of writers who had already made names for themselves in Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and other pulp magazines of earlier decades.
[Isaac] Asimov, born in Russia in 1919 or 1920, emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1923. A graduate of Columbia University in chemistry and biochemistry, he became a science academic at the university of Boston. He began writing science fiction stories while still a schoolboy and was selling them to magazines before leaving his teens. Arguably at his best with the short story, as in his brilliant collections I, Robot and The Martian Way, Asimov published no fewer than fifteen science fiction novels in the 1950s, including the first three Foundation books (originally short stories) and two featuring his agoraphobic space detective, Elijah Baley, and humanoid robot creation, R. Daneel Olivaw.
In The Naked Sun, Baley is assigned to solve a murder mystery on the planet Solaria, an underpopulated paradise where the human settlers – the Spacers – are served slave-fashion by dozens of robots. Aided by Daneel and comforted by Gladia, a long-living Spacer beauty, Baley endures the open spaces and wild weather of Solaria to come up with a clever but bewildering solution to the problem.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Asimov turned away from sci-fi to write other genres and a series of books on popular science, the one notable exception being a novel based on the film Fantastic Voyage. He returned to the Foundation, and to Solaria, in the eighties to combine some of his best ideas in stories like Foundation’s Edge, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire.
Extraterrestrials are conspicuous by their absence in Asimov’s universe. Instead, he gives us worlds on which humans have adapted and changed to become as alien as any to be found in Star Trek. The transducing hermaphrodite of Foundation and Earth is more menacing than any bug-eyed monster encountered by the starship Enterprise. And in an age when artificial life cannot always be distinguished from organic, we find murderous robots who define humans by their way of speech and, in defiance of the First Law, kill those who do not conform.
Fashions in literature change, but there is no time limit for amazing stories. Why else, after more than two thousand years, are we still reading the works of Homer? Why, after a few hundred years, are we still reading fairy tales to our children? In a few hundred more, our descendants may be reading something else, but it’s a good bet that science fiction will be high up on the list.
We will never cross that final frontier but we will not stop trying.
[The above post is an extract from Chapter 5 of my new book It’s a Fantasy World!, now available from Amazon worldwide.]