Asimov’s Foundation: revisited

Long ago, in the dawn of galactic history, way back in the 1970s, on the crust of a planet orbiting an insignificant star on the fringe of the star charts, a small bipedal creature hunched over well thumbed copies of secret lore printed on cheap paper and marvelled at the immensity of space and time.

From one end of the galaxy to another there was a crumbling Empire; and only Hari Seldon’s successors could save its billions of people from 30,000 years of barbarism. Maybe other kids like me felt like misfits as we fumbled at games and got relegated out of teams to merely keep scores on sports days. But we were involved in the sweep of galactic history. We also knew the Laws of Robotics by heart. We read Asimov.

I spent the earnings of my paper rounds (remember those?) on Asimov’s books. When I had enough cash (remember cash?) I made my pilgrimage to the sacred local bookshop. I’d approach the cash register already reading the first page and cycle home to read late into the night, straining my eyes at the tiny print and firing up ganglion after ganglion in my brain. Weeks would have to then pass before I could afford the next title, so what did I do? I read the titles I already had over and over again.

Asimov’s Foundation series appealed to me because they they were NOT space operas in which brawny jocks blew up green aliens and rescued females clad in scraps of cloth and leather. There are certainly wars in the story but they take place on the fringes. All the action is comprised of talk: talk and thought; people using their brains to solve vast problems of strategy, politics and the sweep of history. (‘I am .. not a clef-chinned, barrel-chested hero of a subetheric trimension thriller’. General Bel Rios to Brodig. Foundation and Empire.). To a teenager who was regularly pummelled by cricket balls because he never worked out how to catch them, this was great reading.

Eons passed. Propelled by my interest in Table Top Wargames, I read much history, and realised that Asimov’s ‘pyscho-history’ was well based on the events on good old brutal Earth. The decay of his Galactic Empire is loosely modelled on the fall of Rome. General Bel Riose, who retakes parts of the old Empire but falls foul of a suspicious Emperor is obviously inspired by Flavius Belisarius who angered Emperor Justinian of Byztantium by being too successful. The “Traders” and their Association recalled to my mind the early aggressive European traders such as the Portuguese and, later, the powerful East India Company. There are many points of inspiration that I eventually spotted -and I imagine fellow Asimovians did too.

More eons passed – let’s call them ‘human decades’. There I was the other day browsing in the sacred local library, repository of the wisdom of the ages (and an astonishing number of Harry Potter books) when Lo! I chanced upon all three Foundation titles.

“Read us, Mark”, they called in that quieter-than-thought but unmissable voice that books transmit when they spot their likely readers (You all read a lot; you know the voice I mean.) “You’ve only read us a dozen times before. Take us home. You don’t even need to do a paper run in the rain any more. Borrow us. We’re free from your local library.” Readers, your Correspondent borrowed them.

What an intriguing return journey this is. It’s like returning to the town where you grew up but being now able to see it differently. Look, there on the second page are the ‘calculator pads’ that Asimov imagined in the 1940’s*. I thought it would be wonderful to have something like that – and now I do. I call it a ‘smart phone’. And there is the reference to the planetary power source that I did not understand at all in the 1970s but now know to mean thermal power. And look, there is the basis of all sci-fi travel, beloved by novelists and movie makers, without which their stories would be impossible even as improbable fiction – the notion of ‘Hyper Jumps’.

With the magic of hindsight, I can see too how Asimov was still stuck in the 1940s and 1950s despite the far reach of his imagination. For one thing, the characters read newspapers. Another oddity, is that although Asimov crafted his Robot novels on the idea of a ‘positronic brain’, there is little computerisation in the Foundation series – although, to be fair, he was imagining a decaying civilisation in which nothing new got invented. And there is the omission worthy of note even to a teenage boy in the 1970s: there are few women; and such who do appear, like Batya in Foundation and Empire, are introduced with cringeworthy emphasis on their looks. Tobacco smoking remains prominent and the men light up cigars at any excuse. Smoking inside space ships! The thought chokes me up.

*These stories by Isaac Asimov were first published in magazine form by Street & Street Publications and the first paperback editions in 1952 by Gnome Press. The 2016 edition by HarperVoyager is the one which I photographed above (with my calculator-pad-smart-phone.)

Where to find the Foundation series: At BookDepository (free shipping) and Book Shop Org (supporting local bookshops). Or visit the sci fi section of your revered local bookshop, repository of the wisdom of the ages and of books that will call to you from the shelves, “Take us home, take us home.”

You are at Mark’s blog called Baffled Bear Books. Mark is a dark coffee tragic and bibliophile as well as the Guardian and blundering typist for Mawson Bear, Ponderer of Baffling Things and one of this bright world’s few published bears.

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