Some background: The Golden Age of Science Fiction, as it has come to be known, is a period (roughly spanning the years between 1938 and 1953) during which marked interest in futurism and the potential of scientific and technological breakthroughs influenced authors to craft stories set far into the future featuring, and often explicitly about, technology written to feel plausibly extrapolated from that of the time of writing. This approach, and the intellectual tradition that comes out of it, is often referred to as “Hard” sci-fi in an attempt to stress its focus on scientific realism and to distinguish it from (and in more than one instance tacitly imply a superiority over) other “pulp” or “fantasy” inspired science fiction. Indeed a great many sci-fi writers claim that this is the defining feature of science fiction: That it portrays a future that can reasonably be expected to derive from real-life science and technology. This is a very pervasive attitude and one that will crop up on more than one occasion on our journey, so it's best we take a look at it here.
In many ways then Foundation is the text best representative of the Golden Age style, at least as it pertains to Star Trek: A sprawling attempt at a space epic spanning multiple generations that chronicles the decline, collapse and rebirth of humanity's galactic empire written by Isaac Asimov, already famous as one of the leading lights of the period for his Robot short stories. The Foundation and Star Trek series are not directly connected, but there are enough superficial similarities between the two and Asimov's influence on later science fiction is ubiquitous enough it merits a discussion.
Perhaps the biggest point of comparison between Foundation and Star Trek is that both franchises started out as one self-contained work that very quickly snowballed into a series of sequels, prequels, retcons and continuity-laden spin-off works handled by first, second and third generation fans. In the case of Foundation, the, er, “foundational” work in question is a series of short stories Asimov wrote for Astounding Magazine in the 1940s and then edited and re-published as a trilogy of standalone novels in the early 1950s under the titles Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. While Asimov himself went on to write four additional novels in the series during the 1980s and 1990s (two sequels and two prequels) for the sake of brevity, scope and chronological relevance I'm only going to be looking at the original trilogy here.
The central premise of the trilogy, as explained in the original Foundation, is that a mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon has invented a new science called “psychohistory” that blends math, sociology and psychology in such a way so as to allow him to accurately predict human behaviour on an individual and societal level millennia out into the future. This methodology has led Seldon to predict that the Galactic Empire, at the time over 12,000 years old and seemingly stable and prosperous, is actually on the verge of a systemic collapse that will plunge the galaxy into 30,000 years of darkness and regression. Seldon believes the only alternative to this is to set up a Foundation to collect the entirety of human knowledge into an Encyclopedia Galactica-This will, according to Seldon, help to prevent the loss of the accumulated progress humanity has made and shorten the duration of the Dark Age by 20,000 years. This angers the Empire's decadent aristocracy who sentence him for treason, but, unwilling to turn him into a martyr by executing him, Seldon is exiled to the planet Terminus with those loyal to him to form the Encyclopedia Foundation.
The rest of the first novel follows the development of the Foundation on Terminus over the next century as it faces threats from four rival kingdoms who have split from the Empire, in particular the life of the heroic Terminus City mayor Salvor Hardin, a charismatic maverick leader concerned that his hands are being tied by the Foundation's managing Board of Trustees who don't take the dangerous political situation seriously. At crucial moments of crisis, pre-recorded holographic messages left by Seldon appear to Hardin and the other protagonists assuring them that everything is going according to plan and, miraculously, the most recent disaster was predicted and accounted for in the Master Plan and that Seldon knows that the Foundation (revealed as a front for Terminus to become the seat of the Second Galactic Empire) will make the correct choices to ensure its survival. Eventually the Foundation spreads beyond Terminus and becomes a collective built on a network of traders who exchange advanced technology for alliances with neighbouring kingdoms, and by the end of the novel it becomes a powerful Empire in its own right that even boasts a state religion called Scientism, based on worship of and complete devotion to Foundation technology and scientific progress.
At the end of the first novel the most egregious and worrying flaws in Foundation, and indeed all of Asimov's brand of Golden Age science fiction, should be apparent. From a contemporary perspective (or at least mine) it's an almost appallingly crass and paternalistic work that utterly revels in technological determinism and the virtues of a specific Western, and if we're being honest United States, brand of neoliberal imperialism. Hardin is the classic American individualist, heroically fighting the corruption and inefficiency of bureaucracy and the ever-present threat of The Other and the protagonists of the last two sections are both rugged frontier traders.
Then there is, of course, the Church of Science and Scientism, an idea so stupefyingly and self-evidently wrong its name has been rightly re-appropriated by modern thinkers looking to criticise any manner of western scientific arrogance and authoritarianism. Asimov pays us lip service near the end of the first novel by having Seldon say something about how The Church is a means to an end and will eventually outlive its usefulness, but this is nowhere near satisfying and is actually worse: Asimov is essentially admitting here that something like Scientism has to exist in some form at some point to keep those of lesser intellects in line. It's for their own good to join the Foundation, see, and The Church is there to make it easier for them to accept its natural authority. Somehow this doesn't make me feel any better.
|Foundation and Empire|
But for me the most distasteful aspect of Foundation is Seldon himself: The whole concept of psychohistory is a horrifyingly dehumanizing one, positing as it does that all of human culture and behaviour can be reduced down to equations, models and proofs. Asimov seems to recognise at least some of the negative implications of this and tries to work around them in Foundation and Empire with the character of The Mule, an aspiring despot disguised as a circus clown who, thanks to a freak genetic mutation, has the ability to control thoughts and emotions. Seldon didn't account for The Mule in his plan, forcing the Foundation of his time to improvise lest the entire nascent empire fall before him. But this doesn't work either, because, far from showing how flawed something as distant and overreaching like psychohistory is by neglecting the inherent, well, humanity of humans, The Mule is instead the personification of the outlier: A data point that doesn't doesn't match the existing theory but can be safely disregarded. And despite his enormous power and the threat he poses, The Mule can ultimately be rejected because the Foundation finds a way to counteract his abilities and safely lock him away on an insignificant planet. It's not entirely clear how this result is any different than it would have been if Seldon *had* predicted The Mule: Seldon has always seemed to bank on people improvising in times of crisis before, so why is this time so unique? The theory just needs to be tweaked a little, it doesn't need to be tossed out entirely.
Another reason The Mule fails to in any way engage with the series' fundamentally flawed premise is that, once again, he's one outstanding individual with special gifts. He's not the face of some populist revolution to out the new boss, who really, really is just the same as the old boss, he's one outstanding man who is dangerous because he doesn't conform. Furthermore, he's dangerous because he can forcibly turn people against the Foundation: In other words, the biggest threat the Foundation will ever face is not that people might collectively decide they don't want to live under a Scientistic theocracy, but because one man might poison their thoughts and blind them to the Foundation's true righteousness. This is Red Scare tactics 101.
Asimov also halfheartedly tries to problematize the series with the concept of the Second Foundation, a mythical counterpart to the Foundation “at the other end of the galaxy” that provides the impetus for the plot of the second half of the second book and the entirety of the third. The idea, as I understand it (though I never found it especially clear in any of the books), is that this Foundation is designed to nurture the growth of telepathy and other “mental sciences” (interestingly not anthropology, philosophy or the humanities, though) to counteract the original Foundation's emphasis on physical sciences. Asimov attempts to justify this by retroactively making Seldon a social scientist, which doesn't fly at all as he is perfectly clearly a mathematician in the original book. The Second Foundation is also dedicated towards refining psychohistory to predict even the most unlikely of occurrences, such as The Mule. In other words it's basically just a a metaphor for the notion of scientific replication and the refining of the experimental method in subsequent trials, so it's done nothing to redeem the series or address its glaring issues.
It's hard to imagine how Asimov, born to a Russian Jewish family in 1919 (i.e. Old enough to witness the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War) could have penned something so clearly in favour of empire building, but that's precisely what Foundation is: The goal of the Encyclopedia (itself a top-down concept based on archiving and reiterating a historical master narrative rather than the generative sharing of knowledge and ideas) is expressly to serve as the first step in building a new, better Empire, just one built on science and technology instead of brute military force, hence the dual meaning in the name. While we're still a little ways off from the most overt links between science fiction and US neo-imperialism, the seeds of that partnership are sewn here.
Ultimately though Foundation is a work of Golden Age science fiction, and these sorts of prejudices are things inexorably bound up in the entire genre: The fact of the matter is the “Golden Age” happened concurrently with the end of World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. There was a prevailing sense that scientists would build the future for us and if society could be reoriented around science and rationality we'd all be a happier, healthier and more prosperous people (just witness any of the “House of Tomorrow”-style pop futurism that also characterized the era). We can't really fault Foundation for being so firmly of its time and genre. It's a defining work in Golden Age science fiction, so of course it's going to act like Golden Age science fiction. However, historicizing these themes doesn't make them any more palatable to a modern reader, nor does it excuse their reiteration in future works far removed from this specific context. Unfortunately though, for a very long time afterwards this is going to be the defining model for how “proper” science fiction “should” work and the consequences of this are going to be far from ideal.