Laying New Foundations
by Greg Benford
When I set about writing a new novel set in Asimov's Foundation, titled Foundation's Fear, I remembered that I had always wondered about crucial aspects of Asimov's Empire:
Why were there no aliens in the galaxy? What role did computers play? What did the theory of psychohistory actually look like? Finally, who was Hari Seldon -- as a character, a man?
The new novel attempts some answers. It is my contribution to a discussion about power and determinism which has now spanned over half a century.
Of course, we know some incidental answers. The term "psychohistory" was commonly used in the thirties and appears in the 1934 Webster's; Isaac greatly extended its meaning, though. He didn't want to deal with John W. Campbell's notorious dislike of aliens who might be as clever as we, so his Foundation had none. But it seemed to me there might be more to the matter.
As well, Asimov's uniting of his robot novels and the Foundation series became intricate and puzzling. The British critic Brian Stableford found this "comforting in its claustrophobic enclosure." There are no robots in the early Foundation novels, but they are behind-the-scenes manipulators in both Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation.
Some form of advanced computing machines must underlie the Empire, surely. Isaac remarked that "I just put very advanced computers in the new Foundation novel and hoped that nobody would notice the inconsistency. Nobody did." As James Gunn remarked, "More accurately, people noticed but didn't care."
Asimov wrote each novel at the level of the then-current scientific understanding. Later works updated the surrounding science.
Thus his galaxy is more detailed in later books, including in Foundation's Edge both advanced computers and a black hole at the galactic center. Similarly, here I have depicted our more detailed knowledge of the galactic center. In place of Isaac's "hyperspace" ships I have used wormholes, which have considerably more theoretical justification now than they did when Einstein and Rosen introduced them in the 1930s. Indeed, wormholes are allowed by the general theory of relativity, but must have extreme forms of matter to form and support them. (Matt Visser's Lorentzian Wormholes is the standard work on current thinking. I wrote a paper on wormholes several years ago with Matt, John Cramer, Bob Forward and Geoff Landis, a suitably stfnal subject, published in Physical Review.)
Isaac wrote much of his fiction in a style he termed "direct and spare," though in the later works he relaxed this constraint a bit. I did not attempt to write in the Asimov style. (Those who think it is easy to write clearly about complex subjects should try it.) For the Foundation novels he used a particularly bare-boards approach, with virtually no background descriptions or novelistic details.
Note his own reaction when he decided to return to the series and revisited the trilogy:
"I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did. All three volumes, all the nearly quarter of a million words, consisted of thoughts and conversation. No action. No physical suspense."
But it worked, famously so. I could not manage such an approach, so have taken my own way. I found that the details of Trantor, of psychohistory and the Empire called out to me as I began thinking about this novel -- indeed, they led me on my subconscious quest of the underlying story. So the book is not an imitation Asimov novel, but a Benford novel using Asimov's basic ideas and backdrop.
Necessarily my approach has harkened back to the older storytelling styles which prevailed in the sf of Isaac's days. I have never responded favorably to the recent razoring of literature by critics -- the tribes of structuralists, post-modernists, deconstructionists. To many sf writers, "post-modern" is simply a signature of exhaustion. Its typical apparatus -- self-reference, heavy dollops of obligatory irony, self-conscious use of older genre devices, pastiche and parody -- betrays lack of invention, of the crucial coin of sf, imagination. Some deconstructionists have attacked science itself as mere rhetoric, not an ordering of nature, seeking to reduce it to the status of the ultimately arbitrary humanities. Most sf types find this attack on empiricism a worn old song with new lyrics, quite quaintly retro.
At the core of sf lies the experience of science. This makes the genre finally hostile to such fashions in criticism, for it values its empirical ground. Deconstructionism's stress on a contradictory or self-contained internal differences in texts, rather than their link to reality, often merely leads to literature seen as empty word games.
Sf novels give us worlds which are not to be taken as metaphors, but as real. We are asked to participate in wrenchingly strange events, not merely watch them for clues to what they're really talking about. (Ummm, if this stands for that, then the other stuff must stand for . . . Not a way to gather narrative momentum.) The Mars and stars and digital deserts of our best novels are, finally, to be taken as real, as if to say: life isn't like this, it is this. Journeys can go to fresh places, not merely return us to ourselves.
Even so, I indulged myself a bit in the satirical scenes depicting an academia going off the rails, but I feel Isaac would have approved of my targets. Readers thinking I've gone overboard in depicting the view that science does not deal with objective truths, but instead is a battleground of power politics where "naive realism" meets relativist worldviews, should look into The Golem by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. This book attempts to portray scientists as no more the holders of objective knowledge than are lawyers or travel agents.
The recent "re-norming" of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests so that each year the average is forced to the same number, thus masking the decline of ability in students, I satirize in the very last pages of the novel; I hope Isaac would have gotten a chuckle from seeing the issue framed against an entire galaxy.
From Verne and Wells to somewhere near 1970, science fiction was mostly about the wonders of movement, of transportation. Note the innumerable novels with the word star in their titles, evoking far destinations, and stories like Robert Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll."
But in the past few decades we have focused more on the wonders of information, of transformations at least partly internal, not external. The Internet, virtual reality, computer simulations -- all these loom large in our visions of our futures. This novel attempts to combine these two themes, with several conspicuous scenes about travel, and a larger background motif on computers.
As James Gunn noted, the Foundation series is a saga. Its method lies in a repeated pattern: Out of the solution of each problem grows the next problem to be solved. This became, of course, a considerable constraint on later novels. Asimov seemed to be saying that life was a series of problems to be solved, but life itself could never be solved.
As Gunn remarked, considering that the combined and integrated Foundation and Robot saga now covers sixteen books, perhaps a directory of it all is called for; named, perhaps, Encyclopedia Galactica.
Galactic empires became a mainstay frame for science fiction. Poul Anderson's Flandry novels and Gordon R. Dickson (in his Dorsai series) particularly studied the sociopolitical structure of such vast complexes, for a powerful, autocratic imperial system demands great organizational skill -- the primary asset of the Romans themselves.
Isaac was not always consistent in his numbers. How many dwell on Trantor? Usually he says 40 billion, but in Second Foundation it is 400 billion (unless that's a typo). Spread 40 billion over an Earth-sized world (with all its seas drained) and that's only about a hundred per square kilometer. Surely housing them would not demand a half-kilometer deep city.
Dates also get difficult to follow, across such immensities of time. Trantor is at least 12,000 years old -- and note that we assume that the year is Earth's, though Earth's location has been forgotten. By the Galactic Empire calendar, Pebble in the Sky, which has references to hundreds of thousands of years of expansion into space, occurs about 900 G.E. In Foundation atomic energy is 50,000 years old. The robot Daneel is 20,000 years old in Prelude to Foundation, and in Forward the Foundation. How far away in our future do the Sun and Spaceship emblem rule? Perhaps 40,000 years? No one date reconciles every detail.
Not that it truly matters. I know the dangers of writing a long series over decades. I took twenty-five years to wrestle with the six volumes of my Galactic Center series. Undoubtedly there are contradictions I missed in dating and other details, even though I laid it all out in a timeline, published in the last volume. The aliens of that series are not those implicated in this novel, but there are clearly conceptual links.
Science fiction speaks of the future, but to the present. The grand issues of social power and the technology that drives it will never fade. Often problems are best seen in the perspectives of implication, before we meet them on the gritty ground of their arrival.
Isaac Asimov was ultimately hopeful about humanity. He saw us again and again coming to a crossroads and prevailing. The Foundation is about that.
What matters in sagas is sweep. This, the Foundation series surely has. I can only hope I have added a bit to that.
This article and its previous installment are excerpted from the afterword to Greg's novel Foundation's Fear, HarperPrism 1997.
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