Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy’s Influence on Science Fiction

OVERVIEW

Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest authors of science fiction,”[1] has affected science fiction, and contemporary society, in a myriad of ways:  his “Three Laws of Robotics”[2] have sparked ethical debates among scientists and philosophers; he has influenced and consulted with the creators of both Star Trek and Star Wars, undoubtedly two other major science fiction endeavors that inspire current science fact; and he was one of the most prolific authors in existence, writing 40 novels, 382 short stories, and 280+ non-fiction books during his career.[3]  However, his Foundation trilogy, written at the beginning of his career, initially substituted science for religion, demonstrating a disturbing cynical similarity to the Christian narrative.

SCIENCE AS RELIGION

Asimov, raised without religion by orthodox Jewish parents who emigrated from the USSR, has stated:

I tend to ignore religion in my own stories altogether, except when I absolutely have to have it. …and, whenever I bring in a religious motif, that religion is bound to seem vaguely Christian because that is the only religion I know anything about, even though it is not mine. An unsympathetic reader might think that I am “burlesquing” Christianity, but I am not. Then too, it is impossible to write science fiction and really ignore religion.[4]

Hari Seldon, the little seen, but profoundly felt, protagonist in the Foundation trilogy, created a science which combined history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people.  Seldon also gathered the people of the Foundation together “to harbor science and art during the fall of the Galactic Empire. The Foundation grows in power over the years, using trade and religion to control neighboring planets and systems.”[5]

The religion is described in the first book, Foundation:

[A]ll this talk about the Prophet Hari Seldon and how he appointed the Foundation to carry on his commandments that there might some day be a return of the Galactic Paradise:  and how anyone who disobeys his commandments will be destroyed for eternity.[6]

            A much later “Conversation with Isaac Asimov” points out that part of what Asimov used Foundation to show was the struggle between free will and determinism.[7]

Reading the ‘Foundation’ novels, one experiences an overriding sense of the inevitable, of a pervading fatalism.  Everything in the universe is pre-determined.  Unable to change the pre-ordained course of events, man becomes, instead of the agent of history, an object, a ‘pawn’ (using Asimov’s chess metaphor) (citation omitted) in the grip of historical necessity – i.e. of the actualization of Hari Seldon’s calculations.[8]

            This concept of free will, or freedom of choice, is repeatedly overridden by the predictions, and need for the accuracy of the predictions of Hari Seldon in order to shorten humanity’s suffering due to the fall of the civil authority.

Temptation number one, in Foundation and the first half of Foundation and Empire, was to depict vast populations of human beings as stochastic systems without any effective free will. Hari Seldon waved away free will by saying it would cancel out, averaged over a quadrillion people.[9]

Foundation and Empire made this clear in a conversation between a military commander and one of the Foundation traders:

“‘I have already said that the science had nothing to do with individual actions.  It is the vaster background that has been foreseen.”

“And if I exercise my prerogative of freewill?  If I choose to attack next year or not to attack at all?”

“Attack now or never; with a single ship or all the force in the Empire; by military force or economic pressure; by candid declaration of war or by treacherous ambush.  Do whatever you wish in your fullest exercise of freewill.  You will still lose.”

“Because of Hari Seldon’s dead hand?”

“Because of the dead hand of the mathematics of human behavior that can neither be stopped, swerved, nor delayed.”[10]

            The Foundationers, themselves, constitute a “religious” upper class, seemingly taught by Seldon in order to mitigate the suffering caused by the fall of the Empire from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.  However, Seldon is clear that the science will not track the effects of any one individual or group, but that it will accurately predict the movement of the “mob”.  Unlike the scientific condition described in Newbigin’s work, where:

[T]he scientific tradition as a whole, and the many concepts, classifications of data, and theoretical models which are the working tools of science form as a whole a tradition within which scientists have to dwell in order to do their work…. The progress of science depends, therefore, on the authority of this tradition.[11]

The Foundationers, the scientists of the story, fight to maintain the status quo in order to facilitate Seldon’s predictions of a shorter period of chaos, despite the fact that Seldon has said their individual or even group efforts will have no effect on the final outcome.  There is no effort to develop the science, or to take Seldon’s predictions further within the first two Foundation books.

            “Asimov argued that SF ‘deals with the possible advances in science and with the potential changes – even those damned eternal verities – these may bring about in society.’ (fn. omitted)  These precepts do not square with his novels.”[12]

However, author Jeri Kakela describes how the Foundationers see themselves and their role:

Seldon casts the Foundationers as those “whose destiny it is to save the whole of human civilization. As Seldon repeatedly engages in these crisis-bound conceptualizations of history and future, for the Foundationers his recorded appearances make him a godlike entity behind their national destiny. The Foundationers are thus immersed in ideas of an urgent duty to expand and redeem the rest of the galaxy…”[13]

            For the secular (i.e., non-scientists) among the Foundationers, a distinctly cynical attitude develops toward the scientific “religion”.  The chief trader in religious goods (i.e., nuclear power and technological gadgets) among the galaxy remarks to the Mayor of the Foundation:  “It is remarkable, Hardin, how the religion of science has grabbed hold.  I’ve written an essay on the subject – entirely for my own amusement; it wouldn’t do to have it published.”[14]

Even within a novel where science is the religion, the secular humanistic beliefs of the author shine through, even as the character he creates (a man) allows a religion to develop around his science.

THEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS

Within Foundation, the similarity to the Christian narrative is clear:  ” the Prophet Hari Seldon represents Jesus Christ, the Foundation is organized religion, the commandments are similar to those given to Moses in the old testament, the Earthly paradise is Heaven, and to be destroyed for eternity is the Christian idea of Hell.[15]  As the trilogy progresses, however, it is also clear that:  Hari Seldon is merely a man – a scientific genius – but still, just a man; the Foundation is in the dark as to their true purpose and serves as a front for a Second Foundation about which Seldon told no one; the commandments are only as good as the people are willing to follow and enforce them; and no real concept of heaven or hell, or what the new empire will look like, exists.  All the author has are the theories created through psychohistory, by which it becomes obvious that without a great enough external stimulus, history will continue to repeat itself, ad infinitum.

Interestingly, by the end of the second book, Foundation and Empire, Asimov writes himself out of the rut of repetitive history by introducing a mystical character known as the Mule, which both puts Seldon’s math in disarray, and would parallel with the character of the anti-Christ within Christianity.  Additionally, the Mule will foreshadow what the Second Foundation points to in subsequent novels, Gaia, a planet of beings who use empathic and telepathic abilities benevolently for all of humanity.  This planet is apparently where humanity began, and what they will evolve into, thus bringing the concept of Heaven and heaven on Earth back full circle.

The myth of secularization, whether it be through science or social constructs, is actually shown well within the Foundation trilogy.  Evidence shows “… secularization will not usher in a post-religious era.  Instead, it will repeatedly lead to a resupply of vigorous otherworldly religious organizations by prompting revival.”[16]  In a conversation regarding authors who would build on Asimov’s Foundation series, one potential author commented that the creation of the religion by Seldon would need to be explained:  “I have a line I’m planning for my new book, … ‘It’s clear that you humans, despite all our efforts, are determined to achieve deification; all right, we’ll design one for you.'”[17]

Yet it is not the man-made religion which prevails in the Foundation series, but rather one in which mystical elements, impossible to describe, define or predict through psychohistory, provide humanity with hope for their future, and meaning for their existence.

INFLUENCE OF THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY

Foundation has inspired writers from Douglas Adams to George Lucas, and public figures as varied as Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich. In 1966, the Foundation Trilogy received the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, beating out the Lord of the Rings.”[18]  This provides both a large number of science fiction readers as well as the broader range of political, historical and economic audiences who have been exposed to the ideas Asimov sets forth.

Depending upon how far they have read in the Foundation series, it is possible that they have only been exposed to the negative and skeptical aspects of “religion” through the created scientific religion of the first book and a half.  If they have also been exposed to modern trends in “journalism” or “education”, it may have been an influence in turning people away from true religion simply by focusing on the past failures of those who attempt to guide humanity.

The negativity of the Christian past persists in Foundation:

The trader protagonist Hober Mallow’s visit to the tech-man is a good example of this contrast. In Siwenna, a deteriorated old Imperial province, the tech-men have become a hereditary guild that guards its knowledge and admits nobody but other tech-men to the power plants they guard and maintain. The tech-man that Mallow visits is an embodiment of moral and physical deterioration: as a kind of caricature of a corrupt medieval monk, he is “short, and his skin glistened with well-kept plumpness. His hair was a fringe and his skull shone through pinkly. The rings on his fingers were thick and heavy, his clothes were scented, and he was the first man Mallow had met on the planet who hadn’t looked hungry”.  (Foundation, 202)  Mallow soon discovers that the tech-men possess no actual knowledge of the technology they supposedly maintain: “The tech-man shook his head indignantly. ‘[The generators] don’t break down. They never break down. They were built for eternity’” (206).[19]

            Other examples within Foundation show the manipulative nature of the people within the Foundation as they spread their religion and discourage intellectual pursuits:

I started that way at first because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery, and it was easiest to get them to accept it on that basis. The priesthood built itself and if we help it along we are only following the line of least resistance.[20]

To the people of Anacreon he was high priest, representative of that foundation which, to those ‘barbarians’ was the acme of mystery and the physical center of this religion they had created– with Hardin’s help– in the last three decades.[21]

The religion– which the Foundation has fostered and encouraged, mind you– is built on strictly authoritarian lines. The priesthood has sole control of the instruments of science we have given Anacreon, but they’ve learned to handle these tools only empirically. They believe in this religion entirely and in the …oh…spiritual value of the power they handle…The Foundation has fostered this delusion assiduously.[22]

            And yet, many scientists find no contradiction between science and religion.  The difficulty can arise when those with scientific knowledge try to discuss theology with people not trained in the sciences – Asimov, himself a doctor of biochemistry, had such difficulties.  The Society of Ordained Scientists summarizes the problem:

In [Arthur] Peacocke’s words:  “Although only a small proportion of the population as a whole have any accurate scientific knowledge, it is science and technology which are creating new attitudes. To people so influenced the language of the Church appears to be not only obscure but obscurantist and, even, dishonest. The clergy are, through no fault of their own, ill-equipped to speak effectively to a scientifically conditioned people, for the proportion of them who have had any scientific education is practically negligible. Thus, the ordained leadership of all the churches contains practically none who understand, from the inside, the chief formative influence in the mind of modern man.”[23]

Like Asimov, however, many scientists do not take the time to communicate with believers who speak the same language of science.  And the public, long used to seeing science as an authority, will often cite science as a reason for their unbelief:

The upshot is a hermeneutics of suspicion; if someone tells you that he or she has converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them.  Because what’s usually captured the person is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science … It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality.”  (p. 365)  But you can also understand how, on the retelling, the convert to unbelief will want to give the impression that it was the scientific evidence that was doing the work.[24]

            Books like the Foundation trilogy, and authors like Asimov, often use cynical or sarcastic phrasing, undermining their readers’ beliefs and traditions.  Yet Asimov truly did do the research, exploring Christian writings, and finding them lacking.  His depth of research and writing over the course of his life saw him published in nine of the ten Dewey decimal classifications, including a two-volume Biblical commentary.  Knowing this, admirers of his science fiction writing may not bother doing their own research, and simply take his word for the uselessness of religion.

This sums up the question with regard to the Foundation trilogy:

Religion is definitely all over this initial trilogy, although I still struggle to articulate precisely the point Asimov is making. I suppose I might call the message of this trilogy an intensely humanistic one: Even the seemingly unknowable can become known and quantified, and humanity can gain the tools to predict its own future and peer inside its own minds. Of course, there’s still a deeper philosophical question — what’s the point of all this, really?[25]

CONCLUSION

When a well-educated scientist, prolific author and beloved science fiction writer creates a series of books making science the religious focus, it will have an effect on contemporary society.  The Foundation trilogy is full of contradictions that both parallel and exemplify the worst of Christian history.  Because Isaac Asimov is such a well-known name and author, it is inevitable that his opinions and work will influence both authors and readers in their thinking.  As a fan of Asimov myself, my assumptions have always been that he just didn’t get it, but he told a great story.  It would have been interesting to see if the Society of Ordained Scientists (only organized toward the end of Asimov’s life) would have been able to speak the language needed to break through Asimov’s skepticism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Asimov, Isaac.  Foundation.  New York, NY:  Bantam Dell, 1951.

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation and Empire. New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 1952.

Asimov, Isaac. Second Foundation. New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 1953.

Works Consulted

Asimov, Isaac. 1981. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible : Two Volumes in One, the Old and New Testaments. New York: Wings Books.

Asimov, Isaac. 1981. In the Beginning. 1st ed. New York: Crown.

Asimov, Isaac, and Orson Scott. Card. Gold: the final science fiction collection. New York: Eos, 2003.

Bear, Greg, Gregory Benford, David Brin, and Gary Westfahl. “Building on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: An Eaton Discussion with Joseph D. Miller as Moderator.” Science Fiction Studies 24, no. 1 (1997): 17-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240573. p. 2

Brummond, Michel. “Religion in Asimov’s Writings.” Mike Brummond: On a Mission From God. Accessed September 21, 2017. http://www.angelfire.com/wi/mikebru/Alps.html.

Eger, Martin. “A tale of two controversies: dissonance in theory and practice of rationality.” Zygon 23, no. 3 (September 1988): 291-325. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 30, 2017)

Elkins, Charles. “Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” Novels: Historical Materialism Distorted Into Cyclical Psycho-History.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1976, 26-36.

Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: the foundations of science fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Ingersoll, Earl G., Isaac Asimov, Gregory Fitz Gerald, Jack Wolf, Joshua Duberman, and Robert Philmus. “A Conversation with Isaac Asimov.” Science Fiction Studies 14, no. 1 (1987): 68-77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4239795.

Kakela, Jari. “Enlightened Sense of Wonder? Sublimity and Rationality in Asimov’s Foundation Series.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, March 22, 2011, 171-91.

Kakela, Jeri. “Managing and Manipulating History: Perpetual Urgency in Asimov and Heinlein.” Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research, 2014, 7-22.

Kuklick, Bruce, and Paul A. Carter. “Seldon’s Choice: Variations on a Theme by Asimov.” In Religious advocacy and American history, 190-208. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.

Pohl, Frederik. “Remembering Isaac Asimov.” World Literature Today, May 1, 2010, 37-38.

Smith, James K. A. How (not) to be secular: reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.

Strauss, Mark. “What Absolutely Everyone Needs To Know About Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” We Come From the Future. November 19, 2014. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://io9.gizmodo.com/what-absolutely-everyone-needs-to-know-about-isaac-asim-1660230344.

Wilkins, Josh Wimmer and Alasdair. “Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation.” Io9. May 11, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2017. https://io9.gizmodo.com/5799734/mind-games-and-mysteries-abound-in-isaac-asimovs-second-foundation.

“Foundation and Empire (with Apologies to Isaac Asimov): A Consideration of Hardt and Negri’s Empire.” Social Analysis 46, no. 1 (2002): 167–179.

“History.” Society of Ordained Scientists. May 29, 2014. Accessed September 22, 2017. https://ordainedscientists.wordpress.com/history/.

[1] Cates, Matt. “Greatest Sci-Fi Authors of All Time.” August 13, 2016. Accessed September 18, 2017. https://futurism.media/greatest-sci-fi-authors-of-all-time.

[2] Asimov, Isaac. I, robot. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950.  P. 40.

[3] A Catalogue of Isaac Asimov’s Books. Accessed September 18, 2017. http://www.asimovonline.com/oldsite/asimov_catalogue.html.

[4] Asimov, Isaac, and Orson Scott. Card. Gold: the final science fiction collection. New York: Eos, 2003. P. 297-302.

[5] Brummond, Michel. “Religion in Asimov’s Writings.” Mike Brummond: On a Mission From God. Accessed September 21, 2017. http://www.angelfire.com/wi/mikebru/Alps.html.

[6] Asimov, Isaac.  Foundation.  New York, NY:  Bantam Dell, 1951.  Pgs. 108-109.

[7] Ingersoll, Earl G., Isaac Asimov, Gregory Fitz Gerald, Jack Wolf, Joshua Duberman, and Robert Philmus. “A Conversation with Isaac Asimov.” Science Fiction Studies 14, no. 1 (1987): p. 70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4239795.

[8] Elkins, Charles. “Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” Novels: Historical Materialism Distorted Into Cyclical Psycho-History.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1976, p. 31.

[9] Bear, Greg, Gregory Benford, David Brin, and Gary Westfahl. “Building on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: An Eaton Discussion with Joseph D. Miller as Moderator.” Science Fiction Studies 24, no. 1 (1997): p. 2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240573.

[10] Asimov, Isaac. Foundation and Empire. New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 1952.  P. 26.

[11] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2014. p. 48

[12] Elkins, Charles. “Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” Novels: Historical Materialism Distorted Into Cyclical Psycho-History.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1976, p. 27.

[13] Kakela, Jeri. “Managing and Manipulating History: Perpetual Urgency in Asimov and Heinlein.” Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research, 2014, p. 11.

[14] Asimov, Isaac.  Foundation.  New York, NY:  Bantam Dell, 1951, p. 96.

[15] Brummond, Michel. “Religion in Asimov’s Writings.”

[16] Newbigin, p. 214.

[17] Bear, Greg, Gregory Benford, David Brin, and Gary Westfahl, at p. 8.

[18] Strauss, Mark. “What Absolutely Everyone Needs To Know About Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” We Come From the Future. November 19, 2014. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://io9.gizmodo.com/what-absolutely-everyone-needs-to-know-about-isaac-asim-1660230344.

[19] Kakela, Jari. “Enlightened Sense of Wonder? Sublimity and Rationality in Asimov’s Foundation Series.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, March 22, 2011, pgs. 177-178.

[20] Asimov, Foundation, pgs. 91-92.

[21] Asimov, Foundation, p. 94.

[22] Asimov, Foundation, p. 112.

[23] “History.” Society of Ordained Scientists. May 29, 2014. Accessed September 22, 2017. https://ordainedscientists.wordpress.com/history/.

[24] Smith, James K. A. How (not) to be secular: reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. Pgs. 76-77.

[25] Wilkins, Josh Wimmer and Alasdair. “Mind games and mysteries abound in Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation.” Io9. May 11, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2017. https://io9.gizmodo.com/5799734/mind-games-and-mysteries-abound-in-isaac-asimovs-second-foundation.

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