Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Adventure classics -- The rise and fall of civilizations


by Isaac Asimov


Would you bet your future on someone who claims to see 30,000 years into the future of the entire galaxy? Too far-fetched? How about if this seer only promises to predict the future for the next 1,000 years?

This is the premise of Isaac Asimov’s 1951 science fiction classic, Foundation, not to mention its sequels, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. And could even legendary psychohistorian Hari Seldon, who set up the whole thing, have predicted that nearly thirty years after the first volume appeared, a new wave of sequels and prequels would propel Asimov to science fiction demigodhood?

“I love historical novels,” Asimov wrote. But when the idea first came to him early in World War II while he was in graduate school, “to write a historical novel was, however, impractical for me. It would require an enormous amount of reading and research and I just couldn’t spend all that time at it. It occurred to me that I could write a historical novel if I made up my own history . . . A science-fiction story that read like a historical novel.”

He explains the genesis of the Foundation series in Isaac Asimov: It’s Been a Good Life, the condensation his widow Janet Jeppson Asimov edited from the three massive volumes of her husband’s autobiography.

“Why shouldn’t I write of the fall of the Galactic Empire and the return of feudalism, written from the viewpoint of someone in the secure days of the Second Galactic Empire?. . . I was bubbling over by the time I got to Campbell’s (John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction), and my enthusiasm was catching. It was perhaps too catching, for Campbell blazed up as I had never seen him do. ‘That’s too large a theme for a short story,’ he said.”

Campbell insisted on having an outline for an open-ended series of stories. Stymied by the idea of writing to an outline, Asimov eventually wrote eight short stories, published in Astounding Science Fiction beginning in 1942. Four of these and a previous unpublished story were gathered in a single volume, Foundation, in 1951, beginning the tale of how Hari Seldon, born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era, established the science of psychohistory. And established a foundation to carry on the knowledge and culture of the dying empire in the hope of shortening the length of the dark ages he foresaw following its fall. Shortening them from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.

The first Foundation novel, however, covered less than two hundred years of the 1,000-year long dark age Seldon had foreseen. Flinging himself in the breach, in intervals between receiving his doctorate (in chemistry), serving in the Army, getting married, and becoming a father, Asimov continued the story with Foundation and Empire (which would throw a Hitleresque monkey wrench into Seldon’s calculations) and Second Foundation. At their close, he was still only halfway through the 1,000 years between the rise and fall of empires. And there things rested, for decades.

Then, starting in 1981, Asimov wrote two additional sequels and two prequels to bring the Foundation story to a close. His own life was closing as well. In 1983, he had become infected with the AIDS virus as a result of a blood transfusion in connection with heart bypass surgery. He continued writing, switching from typing his own manuscripts to dictating to his wife his poignant “Farewell¾ Farewell” to readers in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

He died in 1992, the year before publication of the final volume, Forward the Foundation.

“. . . In killing Hari Seldon he was also killing himself,” Janet Asimov writes in It’s Been a Good Life, “yet he transcended the anguish. . . Isaac said, ‘like Hari Seldon, I can look at my work all around me and I’m comforted. I know that I’ve studied about, imagined, and written down many possible futures¾ it’s as if I’ve been there.’”

Asimov’s work is widely available at bookstores and online. For more about Asimov on this site, see “The mind of a machine,” July 8, 2011.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor.)

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