by Isaac Asimov
In A Nutshell
When you think of science fiction, you imagine it to be a genre that focuses on, well, science stuff. But you know what? It wasn't always that way.
Back in what is now called the Pulp era of science fiction, the science of science fiction took a backseat to stories about manly-men having manly adventures across the manly galaxy. Real Flash Gordon kind of stuff. They'd travel to distant planets, fight BEMS (that's bug-eyed monsters), and usually rescue a bikini-clad damsel in distress along the way.
Yeah. It wasn't exactly high culture. So Isaac Asimov and his editor, one John Campbell Jr., decided they were going to change all that and refocus the genre on the science.
In 1941, Asimov and Campbell began outlining a new series of stories. Based on his reading of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov imagined a collection of stories focused on the course and development of all civilization, not just the heroics of one man blasting his way across the galaxy.
And the Foundation series was born.
Campbell published the stories individually in his Astounding Fiction, and they were eventually collected and published as novels. The first novel in the series, Foundation, began with the story of Hari Seldon.
Using the fictional science of psychohistory, Seldon predicted the collapse of the Galactic Empire and foresaw a 30,000-year Dark Age to follow. Feeling 30,000 years was about 29,000 years too much, Seldon devised a plan to reduce the inevitable barbarous era to a mere 1,000 years. To accomplish this task, Seldon created two Foundations, refuges of science and knowledge, on opposite ends of the galaxy. The four others stories recounted the struggles of one of these Foundations.
In Asimov's universe, gone were the ray guns and light swords of sci-fi heroes and man-eating monsters of pulp science fiction. In their place were calm, rational-thinking heroes who pursued nonviolent political means to end conflict. Replacing action scenes were scenes where people contemplated profound issues such as individuality and free will. And the science was center stage.
Sound boring? It wasn't. The gamble paid off, and Asimov became a leading figure in the science fiction genre. Foundation spawned two sequels, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. This trilogy would win Asimov a once-in-a-lifetime Hugo award for "Best All-Time Series" in 1966. (Hugos, by the by, are the Academy Awards of the science fiction genre. So, yeah, huge deal.)
Asimov would return to the Foundation universe to write four more books, creating the Foundation series, netting him even more awards, praise, and love along the way. There may not be a hit movie based it, but Foundation definitely earned Asimov a place in literary history—and in the hearts of sci-fi geeks everywhere.
Why Should I Care?
We'll admit it: science can be scary. Well, Bunsen burner accidents aside, it's not so much that science itself is scary, but that scientific discoveries can force humanity to answer some pretty terrifying questions. How we answer these questions could have a profound effect on our understanding of life, humanity's place in the world/universe, or even our sense of self.
Deep breaths…here we go.
Take the human genome project. Scientists worked for over a decade to decode the 20,000-25,000 genes that compose human DNA. Now we have the entire genome mapped, but for all that we learned, we're still left with a host of questions:
- Do we have free will beyond our genes or does our genome determine who we'll be at the moment of conception?
- What does the human genome mean for racial equality? Gender equality?
- Can we alter DNA? Should we?
- What happens to the idea of individuality when what makes us an individual is now a fraction of 1% of any human's entire DNA sequence?
- Does our view of animal equality change depending on how closely their DNA mirrors our own?
And we just came up with those off the top of our heads. Dig deeper into this rabbit hole, and who knows what questions you'll find.
Enter Foundation. Isaac Asimov's novel focuses on a fictional field of science called psychohistory. Throughout the novel, characters struggle with psychohistory, questioning what it means to them. Do they have free will or is their fate determined by mathematics? Can they oppose psychohistory if they so desire? Do those who control psychohistory, control humanity? Should they? What good are individual choices if the fate of humanity is already predicted?
These questions sounding a tad familiar?
When the characters of Foundation question psychohistory, we can consider the same questions without all the scary implications the answers would have if it were involving real science. It's just a novel, right? Pure entertainment.
Well, yeah. But these are the exact same questions we ask in real life. And the answers we find could transfer to real-life scenarios. Even if we can't find definitive answers, we can at least use what we learn to rekindle the conversation.
Very clever, Mr. Asimov. Very clever indeed.