Saturday, 31 July 2021

Asimov chronological reading project

Warning: a 12000-word post. 

About six years ago, I acquired the last major Isaac Asimov novels I had not yet read, notably the 1980s Robots novels and the two Foundation prequels. I then had the feeling I ought to have re-read the other books first.

It's no secret that Asimov later intended certain books to belong in the same universe. Yet I had not so much cared about the order in which the Robots-Empire-Foundation grand tapestry could be read. I had little motive to start the project so soon after the last books had been put down. In addition, I still lacked most of the Robot short stories.

Now that some time has passed (this was early 2020) and I've got the last missing Robot stories, I could get back to reading it all in an order.

But what order? One of the suggested lists comes from none the less than Asimov himself:

Here I stumbled on a purely chronological order, and a modified, hybrid order.

The latter makes a good point about the Foundation prequels (The Algernon_Asimov's hybrid order). I've been fighting with myself whether to read the Foundation prequels before or after the proper Foundation series. It's not because of spoilers, as I've read it all already, but for stylistic reasons. In the end I chose to read the prequels last.

Talking of spoilers, I'm not out to reveal all plot points deliberately, but can't help it entirely.

Although I'm hardly qualified to comment on these themes, I'll immediately note that Asimov's books are somewhat sexist, and although they are not racist, the attempts at countering racism can be clumsy. But I think adults should be able to read novels with differing viewpoints in a detached way, without becoming raving lunatics through exposure to themes that haven't aged that well.

Before I go deeper into the reading, I'll give the list.

To begin with:

-The End of Eternity

For this reading task, the key idea here is that an agency called the Eternals constantly meddled (will meddle) with Earth history in order to improve humanity's chances in it. From this follows an in-story explanation for why there are no competing, intelligent alien races in the Milky Way, but an abundance of habitable planets for people to settle.

I'm not going to discuss this in more detail, it could even be left out.

Robot stories

-The Complete Robot (short stories)
-(Mother Earth) 1949 (short story)
-The Caves of Steel 1954 (as serial in 1953)
-The Naked Sun 1957 (as serial in 1956)
-Mirror Image (short story, from The Best of Isaac Asimov; The Complete Robot; Robot Visions)
-The Robots of Dawn 1983
-Robots and Empire 1985

The reading order is clear. It makes sense to postpone reading Mirror Image from the Complete Robot until after the novel Naked Sun.

I also acquired Mother Earth which fits here chronologically, but it's not much of a robot story. It's usually not mentioned in these reading lists.

Empire stories

-The Stars, Like Dust-- 1951
-The Currents of Space 1952
-Pebble in the Sky 1950 (Asimov's first novel)

Asimov suggested reading Currents of Space first, then The Stars, Like Dust-- and finally the Pebble in the Sky.

These stories have an old-timey smell about them, but it's worth mentioning these novels were written after Foundation.

Foundation stories

-Foundation 1951 (serialisation in 1942-1944)
-Foundation and Empire 1952
-Second Foundation 1953
-Foundation's Edge 1982
-Foundation and Earth 1986
-Prelude to Foundation 1988 (prequel)
-Forward the Foundation 1993 (published posthumously)

The conundrum is whether to read the two prequels before the Foundation.

The Reading Experience

Tired already? Well I'm just beginning. What follows is my reading experience of the books.

I generally wrote my impressions while reading or shortly afterwards, and then adjusted the text after reading the later books.

I. The Complete Robot (short stories)

These robot short stories don't all fit with the imagined overarching chronology of Robot, Empire and Foundation stories, but they have enough common themes and terms to help set the stage for the later books.

Mirror Image needs to be postponed as it is explicitly set between The Naked Sun and Robots of Dawn.

These are Earth era stories, I'd say around 2000s. The technical faculties of the human race are on the increase and artificial, autonomously thinking humanoids are now a reality. In the earlier chronology the robots are not yet completely humanlike and the human race has not moved out of the solar system. Later, human-like robots are a cause of concern, and a few planets have already been colonized.

After a selection of mixed stories there's a novel's worth of Susan Calvin stories. Calvin is a robot psychologist and an important figure in the early days of the robots. For the grand Asimov arc, this might be the most relevant material in the collection. Not only because the stories have more sophisticated robot themes, but they also chronicle the first attempts at building a hyperdrive. Without this, the later human expansion would be impossible, and it turns out the history of the drive and the robots are intertwined.

Having said this, the story where the hyper leap is performed is quite silly. Asimov brings in his earlier slapstick characters and in my opinion the great moment becomes tonally wrong. The characters are more interested in the psychology of the robot, instead of being in awe of one of the most important events for the whole humankind.

Susan Calvin herself is introduced as a simplistic character: brought in so that the robot stories could also address the emotional, temperamental, lovelorn, motherly, and other supposedly "feminine" qualities. Thankfully this facet of her character gets subdued in the later stories.

It's worth noting that Asimov's robots are of a particular breed. They are not decidedly machine-like, but more like sub/super-humans with personalities and those famous three laws that are so ingrained in their thinking. The short stories together give a good outline of what Asimov means with a robot, a near-human like intelligence in a humanoid body, most often mobile but not always.

The robots are based on the "positronic" brain, which on first sight is just a literary device meant to dismiss the technology behind it. But Asimov does not completely shirk away from the task. The brain is described as a webwork of connections too complex to understand or to program in any explicit sense. Instead, a kind of psychiatrist is needed to coerce and figure out the condition of robots. In reality, as neural nets are now common, there are kinds of machine intelligences that learn rather than are explicitly programmed, so perhaps Asimov wasn't far off.

Typical of science fiction short stories, Asimov's stories often deliver a "reveal" or a wild science-fictional idea that seeks to overturn our conceptions. What if man-like robots are indistinguishable from the persons they imitate, can perform spying or deliver weapons of terror on behalf of rogue organizations and nations? Would an Asimovian robot make a better politician? Can a human fall in love with such a robot? Would you prefer a robotic pet over a "real" one? What's "real" anyway in this context?

Robots may be making choices that improve mankind more broadly versus the good for an individual. Machine-made moral choices between preserving "better" and "worse" people are slowly becoming more and more relevant as we decide what kind of choices automated cars ought to make. All this and more is already present in Asimov's robot stories.

Some of the themes are more conceptual, or resemble philosophical exercises. Would a mind-reading robot work well with the Three Laws? What if the First Law is compromised somewhat? Can a robot be persuaded to work for the benefit of mankind, if these actions might cause immediate harm to an individual?

At times the Three Laws are a way to introduce and discuss human moral philosophy through the simplified example of the robot. This is pretty much admitted directly in one of the stories, Evidence. "A robot behaves as the best of men would."

Mother Earth (short story)

This short story can be found from the Early Asimov vol. 3. It is not very essential to the whole storyline, and not entirely compatible either. But it gives insight on the early times of Earth's isolation, not covered in other works. This is a transitional period, when Earth and the Spacer colonies still interact, but the link is breaking.

It turns out Earth with its colonies formed an Empire, but Earth could not hold on to it, as the spacer worlds gain independence and share more commonalities with each other than with Earth. The Earth people can but dream of an Empire to come, perhaps this time, a Galactic one. But conditions need to be carefully arranged in order for this to happen in the future.

Asimov-style, there is a grand timescale, numerous political back-stabbings, various sciences get to play a part and to crown it all there is a surprise solution. The story is poorly written and can't really contain the scope of what is presented. Interestingly much of the robots/spacer political background is already set up here, it's just the later stories have more detail and a strong foreground plot.

It is already established that there are "some 50" spacer worlds, and that Aurora is the most important of them. Aurorans also live far apart, whereas Earth appears to be overpopulated. The spacers still rather openly visit Earth although they avoid the people. Likewise, there is an Earth ambassador on Aurora (but not for long).

The story might be about nativism, in the way settled peoples begin to justify and define "us" and "them" against new settlers. Certainly the Spacer self-identification is soaring. Although Earth was initially revered as the originator of the colonies, the spacers now despise Earthmen and find little in common with contemporary Earth. Spacer policies towards Earth are described as openly racist.

A few spacer worlds get named: Rhea and Tethys are nearly as important as Aurora, and the distant Faunus and Hesperus delineate the outer reaches of the Spacer worlds. As far as I recall Rhea, Tethys, Faunus and Hesperus are never mentioned again in Asimov's books.

There is an interesting speculation of Earth launching a bio-attack, but this possibility is dismissed as the Spacer worlds are so healthy and immune to disease. This fits somewhat poorly with what the later stories say, but maybe the situation changed fast or wasn't really known well in the first place.

Caves of Steel

The first novel-length robot story (initially a serial). Plainclothesman Elijah Baley gets to solve a murder of a roboticist on planet earth, and the answer is indeed very science fictional.

A bunch of planets have been settled by Earth, now turned Spacers who resent Earth as a backwater place. The tension between superior Spacers with their robots and the Earth forms the backdrop for the story.

The Earth cities (the titular "Caves of Steel") are overpopulated to the point where human race is terrified of the outside, and it appears people have space and privileges based strictly on their professional rank. Much is made about reversals of privacy mores, as it is now necessary to share communal space. 

The spacers don't move about the Earth freely, but only access it via the Spacertown enclave/spaceport. Spacers in turn are apparently frightened of having a microbial infection from the filthy Earthmen. Earth people do not visit the spacer worlds at all, and the Spacertown very rarely.

The marvel of the story is really the robot character of Daneel Olivaw, almost indistinguishable from a (spacer) human. Baley reacts to him with a strange kind of resentment, blowing a fuse(!) every so often when Daneel behaves in a strange manner. A recurring theme is that a human would react to a humaniform robot in somewhat "human" ways.

It turns out this small story has repercussions for the future history of mankind. How Elijah handles the case has strong implications for the Earth/Spacer relations.

Urban overpopulation, street gangs and artificial humans are sci-fi themes ahead of time. Having a detective as the protagonist and artificial humanoids does make me think of Blade Runner (the film) from a much later era. Not to mention the off-world colonies! But there's very little "punk" in Asimov's world, sure the future is not ideal and has injustices, but as a policeman Baley is in the straight and the narrow and the robots are not keen to play a too-human part.

Naked Sun

This is a near direct sequel to Caves of Steel, continuing with Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw as the now interstellar detective duo.

A murder has occurred on Solaria, a spacer world where people have abolished the need for visiting anyone physically. This seems old hat to us, what with our facebooks, gadgets and such. In fact, Solaria's virtual visits seem quaintly intimate. Who bothers to make a telephone call nowadays. [With hindsight of 2020-2021, I might be persuaded to read this differently again!] Possibly, portraying oneself naked with no qualms in front of a live-transmitted camera is something for our age.

Whereas Caves of Steel can be considered an extrapolation of metropolitan urban lifestyle, Naked Sun might have taken some inspiration from suburban landscapes, as suburbs/Levittowns were a burgeoning 1950s US phenomena.

Another detail that dates the work is the Solarian sociologist, who is seen as perversely lost in his study for not basing his sociology on mathematics. I'm doubtful if much of sociology today is based on mathematical predictive formulae, but in Asimov's day this branch may have appeared promising.

The element of this "sociologist" can be taken together with Foundation's "psycho-history" (A kind of super-sociology). Both examples revolve around predicting systemic collapses in society through the introduction of quantifiable elements.

The book is best taken as an exposition of the Solarian way of life, as the solution to the murder is convoluted and not especially satisfying.

Mirror Image (short story)

A short story from The Complete Robot, featuring Elijah and Daneel, set out to solve a conveniently logical mystery on a spaceship. Two scientists claim the other has plagiarized the work of the other, and both their robots support their masters. After interrogating the robots, Elijah comes to the human conclusion.

In the grand scale of galactic history it does not say that much, but goes to show that human intuition and "psychology" still trumps the robotic mind, not an unimportant theme to Asimov.

The meeting of the minds is mentioned often in Robots of Dawn, and it's made very clear that this was the last time the detective buddies met before that story. This might be just a blatant advertisement to get people to buy the collection, as the story is not that important.

Robots of Dawn

First of the "new" robot novels. It might seem dismal at first. A quarter of the book is devoted to explaining how high-tech toilets work. In addition characters discuss sexual habits at length in an adult and composed manner. Such is the future! O brave new world!

Well, considering the earlier books these themes are not that off. In some ways the earlier Robot stories already probed into the subject matter in the confines of what was considered acceptable at their time of writing.

However, soon the murder mystery gets into full swing. Throughout the investigation Elijah presents numerous varying accusations before hitting the right one (a somewhat weird modus operandi) and the solution is more sophisticated and interesting than in the Naked Sun.

A meta-reference involves the acknowledgment of a "hyperwave drama" describing the events in Naked Sun. It's nice when science fiction accepts that fiction exists in the future too.

For this reading what makes Robots of Dawn fascinating is that this is the first robot novel that intentionally begins to glue the Robot and Foundation universes together. Foundation's Edge came before this, so it remains to be seen how this idea is handled there.

To continue the long bridge to Foundation, the roboticist Hans Falstoff is shown engaging in an early form of "psychohistory". I felt namedropping this field was too much. The clue that Hans was engaged into robotics for the sake of predicting the behavior of mankind, should have been enough. The opportunity to include this in a Robot novel seems valid, as Naked Sun already featured a dabbling sociologist.

Another nod is the wonderment about the lack of sophisticated alien creatures while colonizing the nearby planets—there is no alien life in the Foundation galaxy. Asimov also needs to explain why robots were not widespread in the Foundation worlds, if they were so highly advanced at the time of Aurora's scientific heyday. Motions are made towards that end. Asimov's endgame will be revealed in the late era novels Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth, and I felt Robots of Dawn also seeds these developments.

Working backwards, the short stories within Complete Robot are referred to (Especially Mirror, Liar! and Positronic Man) and it's a given possibility that those short stories are in-universe tales and legends about the early days of robots, rather than the direct "reality" of that universe. It would be silly if every other Earth robot was somehow exceptional and transcended the limits of robotics. In the larger canvas, only Daneel and Giskard can afford to be truly exceptional.

As Asimov must have now been more informed of computer technology and the near future of that field, this may have required some changes to the robots. Having a huge amount of humanoid robots plus enormous computational capability would be a force to displace the entire human race. Asimov has a lot of 'splainin to do to make his earlier, pre-computer era works, fit. Giskard already has more abilities than a human would have. Cleverly, a point is made that as Daneel was intended to pass as a human to humans, he never really had that much superhuman abilities to begin with.

Robots and Empire

This story begins with something of a contradiction with Robots of Dawn. There, Baley was told never to have met Gladia again, but they do meet. Being based centuries after Baley's time, his presence in the book is largely retrospective. After some centuries, Baley's victory in the previous book is in danger of being nullified. Earth has begun to settle other planets in force, but the Spacer policy is turning towards increased resentment.

Deservedly, Gladia now becomes more of a main character, even if the robots tend to steal the show. Baley's presence is still felt, due to his achieved a legendary status as an early settler and the initiator of the whole settling movement. Without Baley's more brusque character to counterpoint the proceedings, the dialogue is often just Daneel and Giskard exchanging courtesies and lamentations with each other. This makes for a surprisingly compelling reading, though.

I noticed this book has a different story structure than the previous books. The story is first largely told from the perspective of the heroes, then it shifts to the bad guys, telling what they had been up to at the same time. I'll get back to this in the next book.

The characters are slightly cartoonish, with a clear line between the bad guys and heroes. I recall when reading the book in relative isolation from the other books I didn't like it all that much. As a part of the whole sequence it seems to work better, to the point I'd even say Robots and Empire is best seen as a transitional novel in a sequence like this.

Now, a complex bit: What Asimov wrote earlier on, as a reflection of those times, had to be retroactively made to indicate shifts within the culture of the in-story human universe rather than as an obvious change from 1950s style writing to 1980s in our world. From the cool and level-headed sophistication of the spacer worlds and logical robot stories we eventually turn to the romantic, action-oriented Empire stories. The hand Asimov is playing is that we should accept if the mores and cultures in the chronologically later novels appear "backwards" to us. The times could change in the future too!

Importantly, to make it all fit, Earth has to "become radioactive" and in turn forgotten. This isn't the best part of the story but I can see it needs to happen. Whereas originally a result of an atomic war, it is revealed to be something else. Asimov was likely now aware that a plain global nuclear war would not render Earth as completely unlivable as was needed.

Although Gladia is the heroine of the book, Daneel and Giskard are the real protagonists, willing to take the burden of guiding the human race. Their reflections on their limitations and the development of the "zeroth law" is quite touching. For the Asimov's later Foundation novels, this is significant.

The book ends rather abruptly. The bad guys catch on to Giskard's plotting, but despite having this intelligence they make a rather poor show. I did appreciate the portion where Vasilia seeks to convince Amadiro of the threat. Amadiro's dismissal of her can be thought as the bad guys' true downfall. Vasilia's trust in her ownership of Giskard was in turn her hubris. It's bluntly told but these themes and characterisations at least I felt were perceptively made.

Not everything becomes conveniently solved to set the stage for the Empire novels. What happened to the Solarians? What was the final decline of the spacer worlds like? These themes will have to wait.

The Stars, Like Dust-- 

The internal story chronology suggests this should be read after Robots and Empire, although Asimov himself suggested reading Currents of Space. At this point I liked the idea of the literal chronology and thus followed with this novel.

The Son of the Rancher of Widemos is finishing his studies on Earth, and it indeed has turned radioactive, but not yet completely unlivable. The cause is nuclear war, contradicting Robots and Empire, but this could be a historical mistake on part of the story protagonists. 

I'll suggest there was a major nuclear war somewhere on top of everything, and the overall radioactivity was attributed to the war after sufficient time had passed. Remember, although Amadiro wanted to see the Earth destroyed in his lifetime, the real plan was to make the burn so slow no causality could be attributed and the Spacers would not be implicated.

If I had to pick a single Asimov novel that resembles Star Wars, then this would be it. Hyperjumps, blasters, futuristic melee weapons, a hidden rebel world, an ultimate "weapon", mistaken and surprising identities. This is not to say Star Wars copied Stars, Like Dust-- directly. The tradition of a space fairy tale goes back to pulp and adventure novels, such as Burroughs' Mars stories or Flash Gordon.

The Tyranni is an empire of several worlds, possibly related to what will become the mighty Trantor. The narrator speculates that 4 million habitable worlds might exist in the galaxy. It is not clear how many have been inhabited, but at this point the number is at least more than thousand, as Rhodia and Tyrann are the 1098th and 1099th worlds to be settled. Tyranni have existed at least for 700 years.

Characters keep conspicuously mentioning an archaic Earth document that could be the most dangerous weapon in existence. I'll make no secret of it, it is the US constitution, in what must be one of the most groan-inducing reveals in Asimov novels. (I learned he was persuaded to add this detail.) Also, the plot resolution is of the "hero had outsmarted them all along" variety which might not be that inspiring.

For the first time I'm able to look at more analytically how Asimov bridged his much later Robots and Empire with this 1950s tale. Apart from setting up the Earth as radioactive, some details come up. For instance, neuronic whips and photocube are objects that are mentioned in both. The photocube, a six-sided "hologram", is hardly relevant to the plot, it's just one of those tiny objects that adds some sci-fi color.

Here, at a chronologically later date, a character muses whether the photocube could be made to display different things in each facet. In Robots and Empire, written later, but representing an earlier era, there is already such a photocube! With this detail Asimov is rubbing this on our face: technological progress and distribution is not uniform and ideas do not always accumulate.

What may seem strange is that the male chauvinist / sexist universe of the 1950s Empire novels had to be foreshadowed in Robots and Empire from 1985. Asimov's novels are not super-progressive at the best of times, but the Empire novels tend to be the worse offenders. Here, in the 1950s novel Artemisia is on the surface an active character, but her feminine outer qualities are referred to constantly through the male protagonist's viewpoint. In Robots and Empire, the "1985" settlers behaved rather crudely and already consider that a woman's place is not on a spaceship.

I mentioned that Robots and Empire had a slightly non-linear structure, and the same structure is employed already here! Considering the title, this structure and the above issues, I am sure that when writing Robots and Empire Asimov very consciously balanced the content and style equally as a 'Robot' and an "Empire" novel.

I enjoyed the old-fashioned science and space-travel inserts in the story. How can you navigate a hyperjump, assuming you have to do it by hand? How to establish a radio contact manually between two ships? How does one even know where one is in space? How to spot a planet in an unknown solar system? What would happen if a meteorite punctured a ship hull but was not forceful enough to puncture itself out?

These kind of questions hark back to that golden era of science fiction, when the future was more about rocket travel, humanoid robots, mental and medicinal advances, and less about networked digital computers.

The Currents of Space

On Florina, there's a city with two layers. Above, the Squires from planet Sark live a life of luxury, whereas the (relatively) indigenous enslaved Florinians live on the edge of abject poverty. Florinia is the only producer in galaxy of spice fabric called kyrt, which can be utilized for many purposes, from expensive clothing to cigarette enhancement, and even spaceship parts. Attempts to reproduce this material on any other world has so far failed.

Enter the protagonist, Earthman, a spatial analyst who has information crucial to the perpetuation of the Sark/Florinian way of life. Too bad he was violently psycho-probed and left wandering mindlessly at the outskirts of the Florinian city. This is the central mystery: who did the deed and what is the secret the Earthman was harboring?

The Townsman and his escalating crime spree are a deviation for Asimov: not such a nice guy. Although the reader can sympathize with him in the beginning, it is more difficult to do so towards the end and as the plot gets terminated, the resolution is not that satisfying. It's possible the Townsman has the spotlight as the memory-challenged Earthman is not very interesting as a character.

Couple the two-level city with an amnesiac protagonist, and you'll get the starting point for the plot of Final Fantasy VII! Well, the literal upper-lower setup is a sci-fi staple from at least since Metropolis if not H.G.Well's Time Machine.

There is a wealth of stuff in the book that can help relate it to the later novels.

The imperial capital world of Trantor is mentioned the first time in this whole reading order, if I'm not wrong. The Trantorian Empire is on the cusp of becoming a Galactic Empire, only a bunch isolated mini-empires and exploitation schemes like Sark/Florinia stand in the way. If aggravated, the rest of the galaxy might still serve a considerable blow to the Trantorian way, so the Empire has to proceed cautiously on these worlds.

Possibly the Trantorian Empire are the Tyranni from the previous book, grown and evolved into a more beneficial political unit. However, the following makes no mention of the Tyranni:

"In ten stages, half a millennium would pass and the crimson would spread like a widening bloodstain until more than half the Galaxy had fallen into the red puddle. [...] As the Trantorian Republic became the Trantorian Confederation and then the Trantorian Empire [...]"

For the record, people at Sark don't know where Earth is and hardly believe the idea that one world could be the origin of the human race. So, at this point at least the notion is not very widespread.

One important side-point is a comment on the racial makeup of the galaxy. Most people are considered to be of averagely "brown-ish" complexion, whereas Florinians are prominently white. A person from an all-black world Libair feels affinity with the white Florinians, as now both are subject to possible prejudice and racism? However, it seems skin-color based racism is not a general trend in the galaxy.

"There were few worlds in the Galaxy in which the skin color was so extreme as on either Libair or Florina. Generally, intermediate shades were the rule."

Libair itself appears to have resulted from a racial persecution. The theme is not well handled (a racially uniform galaxy?) but interesting for the reading project: It suggests that most people in Foundation times are not white "caucasian". The racial makeup of the galaxy is adjusted to be more diverse in the later novels.

One of the Squires of Sark is strongly portrayed as sexually ambiguous. Having a sexual minority as an extension of a bad guy's evilness and "perversity" in stories where sexual minorities never come up otherwise, is something that doesn't fly quite well anymore. Apparently he abuses the Florinian workers with the aid of a psycho-probe, that's dark stuff indeed, and it could have been left at that.

I can also recommend reading this after Stars, Like Dust-- as it seems Robots and Empire connects better with that book, and the chronological order is rather obvious. Although none of the Empire novels are especially great, I liked this a notch less than the previous book.

Pebble in the Sky

This is to me the weakest of Empire novels and a contender for the least appealing book in the whole run. This is not to say it's unreadable, and as an element of this long project it feels more motivated.

An Earthman from 20th century travels through time in a freak accident, and we're again in the future history of the Empire. Yet, after this very unlikely event, another nearly as unlikely event befalls on him: he will be treated with the Synapsifier, a novel invention unique to this time and place. The device improves his mind and eventually he can read and even affect the minds of others.

The story is loaded with more coincidences, and one of the characters even comments on it. However it is not a plot point and the story gets resolved without anyone wondering the strange turns in it.

Asimov is here most vocally speaking against racism, intolerance, prejudice and bigotry. Still, sexism is abundant, perhaps more so than in other stories. In a turn of events, the racial animosity is between Earth and the Empire, particularly the neighboring systems.

It's possible all three original Empire novels might be read as commentaries on contemporary United States, but I don't have the means to open up this interpretation. Asimov seems to be saying "look here, in the future it may be the whole of Earth will be persecuted. So think about your actions now!"

The book also has the kind of romance I've now come to expect from Asimov's stories. The Imperial archaeologist Bel Arvardan is the hero that epitomizes the Empire novels; young, intelligent, impulsive. There will be initial strong love interest, but this becomes threatened and only in the end they admit the error of their ways. There are also cinematic clichés, such as talking through cloth to disguise a voice in a telephone and using a kiss to hide from onlookers.

Although the story is nicely bookended by the Earthman's condition, it's uncertain why he needed to be introduced at all. Was Asimov unsure about his first novel-length story set in the far future without any 20th century aspect to hang it on to? Schwartz the Earthman doesn't really work as the reader's avatar, as we are supposed to root for Bel after all.

Perhaps the Earthman is a comment on Philip Nowlan's Buck Rogers (in Armageddon 2419 A.D). A nuclear accident sent him too into the future, to fight a world war. As a kind of anti-Buck Rogers, Schwartz can't speak the language, the world doesn't find any use for him, the mind-boost does little to improve his condition at first; he becomes embittered and little cares for the heroes' plight.

Time travel is something that was apparently a closed book after End of Eternity, but here I guess we must accept that if the physical laws of the universe allowed it in the first place, it could happen again in some form.

The Earth remains radioactive but people live on it. It is even suggested the radiation is not that high and that Earth people may have become used to it. This does not fit strongly with the later legend of Earth's downfall, especially as here the people are intent on clearing the radioactive soil away.

It is now certain the Empire spans the entire galaxy and a kind of galactic peace has been achieved.

"[...] all the hundred million star systems that composed the all-embracing Galactic Empire."

Some scale to the process is also given:

"[...]thousands and tens of thousands of years in which Man spread through the Galaxy-of the wars and misery. You don't know of the first centuries of the Empire, when still there was merely a confusion of alternating despotism and chaos."

As part of the reading project, the best part was the inversion of the plot in Robots and Empire, in which a plot against Earth sealed its slow destruction. Now, likewise radical factions on Earth are planning the destruction of the Galaxy, through a surprisingly plausible bio-weapon attack. (War of the Worlds, anyone?) This back-and-forth is what helps cast a structure over the later robot-era and the Imperial times.

So, although I previously felt these novels can only offer vignettes about Imperial life, with the above in mind I've come to feel that something more has been achieved by reading this all together. The longer story gives more weight to Earth's tragedy and the bitter ends it might lead to.

Yet, even if the newer robot novels did a good job in enhancing the Empire novels, there's still not that much to go towards Foundation. Who knows, I might again be surprised. The synapsifier at least is clearly an invention that should be considered important in light of both the robot and foundation stories.


Ah, the Foundation. What strikes me as odd is how Foundation appears better than the Empire novels, which were written later. Goes to show the stronger idea carries with it a better narrative, or that Asimov was growing tired of sci-fi when writing that Empire stuff?

Apparently inspired by the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation (initially a serial from 1940s) is a sequence of short stories that maps the Galactic Empire's downfall, with decades in between. Hari Seldon perfects the science of psychohistory to the point he can predict the ruin of the Empire, but also produces a plan that averts 30000 years of regression and turns it into a 1000-year interregnum.

At the beginning we meet Hari Seldon and his trusty calculator in Trantor, but later only his hologram, as a prophet for the present yet a ghost from the past. Seldon assembles the Foundation on Terminus, and in his appearances it is revealed there is also another Foundation, at the "opposite end of galaxy", or at "The Star's End". This second foundation does not feature in these stories otherwise, and I'm wondering if it is one of the additions to the original serial.

The different sub-stories don't have super-complex plots, which is perhaps to their credit as they don't get to grow as convoluted as the Empire novels. Their resolution tends to be repetitive, though: the hero grows wise to the oncoming Seldon crisis and is able to outsmart the opponents, smugly describing afterwards how he and Seldon had seen it all coming.

In the novel format the constant introduction of new characters does grow wearisome and in the end I find I'm not that interested in a bunch of space traders. The first part with Seldon on Trantor is one of the more fascinating parts, as it deviates from the Imperial/romantic pattern. No wonder Asimov later returned to this in the prequels.

But the overall trajectory is what makes Foundation famous. The planet Terminus becomes isolated from the Galactic core, and the vast in-between spaces become backwards barbaric buffer zone, regressing back to oil-and-coal economy. As the Foundation holds the keys to nuclear technology at the outer reaches, this becomes a bargaining chip in the interstellar bid for survival and power.

The words "nuclear" and "nucleic" by the way are freely thrown about, which may appear strange to current readers. I'm guessing that at the time of writing the original serial it did not have all the negative connotations. In the later novels Asimov explained that in the future any traditional nuclear weapons could be very easily countered, so perhaps in these times any "nucleics" could be harnessed safely.

A religious priesthood is first used to smuggle a dependency to the Foundation technology to other worlds without instilling the ability to produce it first-hand. Later, trading nuclear-based gadgets directly will be the means to turn worlds towards the Foundation way. The book ends with a first encounter with the still-existing Empire, laying the groundwork for the next story.

Earth is largely forgotten in these stories, except for one mention. Lord Dorwin is an amateur archaeologist, who is interested in the Origin Question. Alpha Centauri, Sol and 61 Cygni are mentioned so he's not that far off. 

However the item is only brought out to show how Dorwin and the Imperial scientists are only interested in interpreting texts and no longer doing anything new or empirical, demonstrating the intellectual stagnation at the Empire's core. The origin question does become a plot point in the later novels.

Some clues about the scale of the Empire can be found. The galaxy spans "nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets", all led by the Trantor-headed Empire. This marks "12000 years of Imperial progress". This is different from the "hundred million star systems" in Pebble in the Sky, but arguably not all the systems need to have inhabited planets. The 25 million is quite off from the estimate of "4 million habitable worlds" by the narrator in Stars, Like Dust--.

To the astute reader, the meta-narrative of the Encyclopedia Galactica quotes and the footnotes reveal that the Foundation project must have been successful.

These are stories of kings and regents, princes, adventurers, boys and men. Women appear only at the final part, and not as main characters. There's a housemaid who is easily impressed with jewelry, and the shrewd Commdora nags at his husband.

Foundation and Empire

Instead of short stories, this book spans two short novels or novelettes. The first tells the story of the first proper Imperial aggression towards the Foundation, whereas the second deals with the case of the Mule.

Some of the best Foundation material is here. The space battle/espionage story is a rollicking adventure with some light philosophy thrown in. If we know what the future is going to be, should we try or can we affect the course of history? If we know ourselves to be a part of grand plan, can we help enforce it, divert it, or should we just let it take its course?

In this first story, something of the feel of the three Empire novels is present, but in moderation. The technological difference between the Foundation "magicians" and the decayed Empire is made apparent. Nice to see the photocube again! We get a short look at life on Trantor, too. Interesting they still consider printed newspapers as a sound practice. Well, who knows it might be some kind of reusable digital plastic.

The first story marks an end point of sorts for classic Foundation stories. As the plot resolution in these stories can be nothing else than the fact Hari Seldon figured it all out and individual action does not really matter, it cannot make for endlessly compelling reading.

But whereas the original Foundation short stories maneuvred around this point, it is here addressed more head-on, and this makes it possible to tell a new story. It also gives some resolution to the original Foundation cycle that was still lacking in the previous novel.

The Mule story then changes the course of the Foundation novels. The Foundation is on a brink of a civil war between the Traders and the governing Foundation proper. Democracy has become a swearword and the Foundationers are on the verge of becoming tyrants in turn. The newly-wed couple Bayta and Toran become unwitting agents to find information about the mysterious Mule, who is intent on a spree of conquest. This turns out better than expected, and the Mule strikes a wedge into what would otherwise become a full-blown civil war.

An individual can matter, if anomalous enough, and Seldon's plan is finally taken off-kilter. This, again, helps make an interesting story.

This is one chapter that benefits from not knowing much about it beforehand, so I won't go into the cluster-bomb of reveals at the end. Suffice to say the attention begins to shift towards the Second Foundation.

The Mule story features something of a rarity, a central woman protagonist. Reading cynically, this is simply needed to have a more surprising ending, using the character to produce a more "female" outcome to the story resolution, against the reader expectations of that era.

Second Foundation

This novel also contains two stories. The commonality between them is that the action is interspersed with short peeps into the life of the Second Foundation and their desperate gamble for survival.

The first story tells of the Mule's search for the Foundation, and frankly I had forgotten about it. In my memory, Mule was not much discussed after his apparent downfall in the last book, but here he is. In effect he is already defeated, but he still tries to find that pesky Second Foundation. Han Pritcher the Mule-converted and the not-converted Bail Channis conduct the search.

This quest takes them to the small, reclusive empire of Tazenda, which kind of sounds bit like the Star's End from Seldon's speech. Who's the secret agent and where is the Second Foundation located? It turns out it's not there, but in a twist of events it's not there either!

One imaginative section describes the Lens. The Lens is a feature onboard starships, where the entire galactic map and views into it can be simulated interactively to aid navigation and research. It even enables the non-professional to perform the hyperjump. This resonates nicely with the hand-calculated hyperjump in Stars, Like Dust--, showing the development in this one area. I'll discuss this some more when I arrive at the Foundation's Edge.

The second story takes place after some time has passed, featuring Arcadia Darell the granddaughter of Bayta from the last book. At first we see her writing an essay with a voice-operated transcriber, and Asimov already envisions some of the problems that might arise from such a setup. Funny that detail about accepting a mistyped word because the machine "knows better". This in the 1950s!

Well, now, the (First) Foundation is mightily interested in the legend of the Second Foundation and has started to invest into studying the sciences of the mind, something they were not supposed to know too much about. An unhealthy trust or distrust in the looming 2nd F. also jeopardizes the grand Seldon plan. A bunch of independent conspirators collect together at the Darell residency to plot the discovery and downfall of the Second Foundation. After meddling with affairs, a war ensues between Kalgan and the Foundation, but does the Second Foundation enter to interfere?

Having a teenage girl as the protagonist is a first in these stories, and it's performed pretty much like you'd expect from Asimov: She's not that into technology, is somewhat romantic, scheming and manipulative, does not shirk from opportunity to go shopping and visit the hairdressers at Kalgan's metropolis. She is bound for the undue attention of the First Citizen of Kalgan, who's become tired of his not-too-bright mistress.

I'm starting to think that unless there is a plot-technical reason for a character to be a woman in Asimov's novels, they are not. In one passage Asimov makes it clear it is a galaxy of men, and their ladies and mistresses may exercise power from behind the scenes but no more.

Where is the Second Foundation? Where's that supposed other end of the galaxy? How literally should that tidbit of information be taken? Again, it's not there, no it's not there either and certainly not there. The mystery is milked to the end, and this is acknowledged in the story itself. The final resolution sounds like something invented for this story. Especially Seldon's tip about Star's End is not very elegantly addressed, but simply backed up with poetic material the reader had no access to beforehand.

There's only so much you can make out of this conflict of the mentalists and the Foundation at this point, and it's all told here. The mind-bending false identities, manipulated minds and double-double-outings and outsmarting beginst to get over the top. Frankly I'm not surprised Asimov did not continue the stories immediately afterwards. It's not easy to fill thousand years with something that would top this game.

Foundation's Edge

After nearly 30 year hiatus in Foundation novels, Asimov returns to the task.

Time has moved forward in the novels, too. Nearly 500 years have passed since the founding of the Foundation on Terminus, and the Seldon prophecies have never been more accurate. The councilman Golan Trevize is making noise about the Seldon plan being fake and naive. He reasons quite well it could not be that perfect unless the Second Foundation was still pretty much alive and pulling the strings.

Turns out this is a public secret anyways within the innermost political circle of the Foundation, especially with the mayor. She sends Trevize out from Terminus, ostensibly to find Earth together with the historian Janov Pelorat, with the secret mission of finding the Second Foundation, but in all truth they are likely whisked away as an undesirable element.

The tale is again interleaved with the Second Foundation point of view, but this time it's a complete story of the Speakers and young radical Stor Gendibal, mirroring Trevize. The Speakers turn out to be a quarreling and petty lot, Demari Delmare being the resident Bitchy McBitchface. I'm wondering how these muppets kept the galaxy at bay. That should be proof enough there is a another secret faction in play, as suggested by Gendibal!

So, yes, the Second Foundation controls the first but someone in turn controls them. In a way it's the same story all over again but now the Second Foundationers get to eat their own medicine. Again we get to suspect identities and mind-tampering in most unexpected places.

However, the road-trip quality of the quest to uncover the mystery of Earth/Gaia and how it is interweaved with snippets from past novels is what keeps the intrigue alive. The archaeologist Bel Arvardan and the synapsifier from the Empire-novels get name-dropped, as does the myth of Earth's radioactivity. Eternals get mentioned as a myth, too, as it is suggested the Eternity was founded by robots concerned with the welfare of the human race. The Robots and Empire era and the second-wave of settlement by humans alone gets referred to here, and what with the quotation of the Three Laws of Robotics, the intertextuality gets very dense.

In the end, everything converges at the orbit of Gaia and the fate of the galaxy gets pinpointed to a single moment and choice. It turns out the planet is host to beings who feel the entire planet as a living creature (in a reference to Lovelock's Gaia). Tapping to this source makes their mentalic powers far superior to that of the 2nd foundation. There are also ecological and environmental overtones to this solution, for example it seems the planet is extremely self-sustainable compared to the rest of the galaxy.

The three factions then form a kind of triangle, where First Foundation represents the physical, technological and hard science aspects, the Second Foundation is the mental-intellectual, "psychological" dimension, whereas Gaia represents the empathic, the intuitive and the subconscious. (This may be an allegory of Asimov's self-reflection on his growth from the first towards the third) Having to choose one over the other seems unfair, but that's maybe why the sequel Foundation and Earth was written, plus there's still that puzzle: who removed all references to Earth from the library of Trantor?

It's a strong possibility that not all Gaians are humans but highly advanced humaniform robots. Some leeway is still allowed around this issue, but it just may be it is here the Solarians ended up. Remember that Landaree in Robots and Empire, although not highly powerful in mentalist terms, could already pass as a human. Giskard and Daneel already demonstrated the telepathic skills could be passed on. Ten thousand years later, who knows?

The advanced spaceship Far Star is undoubtedly one of the heroes of the book. As earlier Asimov works could be accused of underestimating the development of computers, here he makes a safely over-the-top proposal. The computer reads the mind of its user, so flying the ship and other functions becomes a breeze. 28 hyperjumps are calculated in succession and the journey is finished in less than an hour, as opposed to a month. Also, the Lens from previous book becomes updated as the galactic chart is now projected into the thin air and responds to mental suggestions, producing geometric aid and a time-lapse to boot.

Some of the themes in the novels are about the philosophy of cosmology, the creation and nature of intelligent life, using Asimov's universe as an example. Both Trevize and Pelorat become expositional characters as the science-fictional ideas are poured out during the long hours inside the Far Star.

As in all newer Asimov novels, there are now more women: Mayor Branno, the Speaker Delmare and the Hamishwoman Novi get to represent different facets of the galaxy. Making the intelligent Delmare such a foul creature, and siding with the "simple and pure" Novi seems nauseating at first, but it does help manipulate the reader expectations.

Having the powerful elderly women portrayed as nasty and scheming probably reflects on the Asimov's state of mind, but it may also be a course correction for the author who tended to idealize women in his earlier stories. These portrayals are actually something of a red herring and Asimov's characters are fortunately (slightly) more nuanced. For example, what seemed like an all-round good guy among the mentalist speakers, Gendibal, turns out to be a bit of a condescending prick when left together with Novi.

Foundation and Earth

As a departure from previous Foundation novels, this story continues almost directly from the previous one. Also, the story is not interleaved or split in any way, as the focus is on Trevize, Janov and Bliss/Gaia as they search for Earth.

Some adjustments are made to the conclusions of Edge. Asimov backpedals from the notion that Bliss might be a robot, possibly to keep the fate of the robots more mysterious as yet. Also, although Trevize already decided the fate of the Galaxy, he has become unsure and wants to justify the decision, so the fate is still lingering.

So the motive to find Earth is not those lost Trantorian records (which would make a somewhat poor plot) but an intense feel that Earth might help answer this conundrum. It's also found out that the planet Gaia's intrinsic "cloud memory" does not hold any memories of Earth either, which increases the stakes further.

The original notional mission given by the Foundation continues, and the trio sets out in the good ship Far Star. Comporellon is the first destination as per the tip given by Munn Li Compor in the previous book. The earlier name of the world was Benbally, and Baleyworld before that, so we are swiftly in the territory set by Robots and Empire.

Comporellon, by the way, orbits Epsilon Eridani so we know exactly where it is, currently about 10+ light years away from Earth. Given the story is more than 20000 years in the future, a fast moving star could actually have moved a few light years.

After various mishaps (and infamous sexual escapades) a university professor gives a set of coordinates found from a derelict ship, that might lead to the "spacer" worlds, while also dismissing the story of a romance between spacer and a settler as fiction. This is a reference to Gladia and Baley.

Within the frame of this chronological reading project, it is quite satisfying to backtrack the worlds toward Earth, almost as if the whole series is unwinding and reeling back to some central pinpoint and a cosmic reveal. This is one feature that might favor concluding the reading with this book.

The first of the spacer worlds is Aurora, and it is found devoid of any intelligent life that Bliss/Gaia might detect. As the humans have apparently left long time ago, the terraforming of the planet has begun to reverse. They encounter some trees, a pack of dogs and a rusty robot.

Solaria hasn't changed much, they really meet someone and it's revealed the Solarians didn't move out after all. They just burrowed in with their robots. It's something of a let-down, but it's also quite logical. Apparently about 1200 Solarians live there. Solar power, thermal shifts and geothermal energy is enough for them and their strangely ostentatious lifestyle that yet has no audience. In the meantime they have learned to abolish gender. Our entourage picks up the child Fallom (I guess from Fallos+Ovum) who shows incredible potential for intelligence and learning, not to speak some telekinetic ability.

The third coordinates bring Trevize and Janov on Melpomenia, a seemingly dead world. The encounter with the deadly moss brings into mind the bioweapon plot Earth vs. rest of the Galaxy from the Empire days. 

Handily the coordinates to the 50 spacer worlds are found and from interpolating them our heroes discover the likely neighborhood of Earth. I'm noting here the otherwise advanced computer calculates for minutes a task that I think shouldn't take but a fraction of a second, even if factoring in things like motions of the stars and such.

Speaking of bioweapons, on Alpha (Centauri) they are greeted well with a small human population who yet again are intent on killing the crew. This interlude seems unnecessary, but for story purposes it makes sense to have some other humans present before the end. Earth myths get repeated again, and Elijah Baley gets name-checked.

And then, finally, Earth! The approach to our homeworld from the outer edges inwards is something I always felt great about, possibly because Asimov could borrow his popular science approach, describing the worlds as they come along.

(Ok, I'll warn this one time: anyone wanting to avoid the whole-series spoilers might leap over the following.)


Earth IS radioactive, even more so than in the past, but it is on the Moon where the secret finally unfolds.

Yes, it's Daneel Olivaw, the 20000-year old robot. And as has been common in this reading project, it is revealed that a special someone planned it all along. In a grandest possible scale: Daneel the robot organized Gaia/Galaxia, Daneel the robot organized the Foundation and established psychohistory, Daneel and his robots hid Earth from all records and it was Daneel who arranged the party to arrive at Earth.

Apart from other things, Daneel explains that he was involved with the radioactive topsoil removal project (mentioned in Pebble in the Sky) but that the project fell flat. So, that's that explained.

What seems slightly missed opportunity is that Daneel does not explain that Earth needed to be destroyed. The bioweapon threat could have been mentioned here, as it would have been one valid reason not to allow Earth to rise again and to allow it to fall to obscurity. Although now thinking about it, it may have been wiser not to mention the Earth's destruction to a bunch of humans...

As Daneel has been acting as a kind of divine being, it would have been nice to question this and also have a story that addresses theology through science fiction. Instead, the ending is over rather quickly, and the explanation behind all events is not a long one. As Daneel is now set to die, he needs to fuse his brain with a new one, and from Fallom he gets one. So, Forward the Galaxia.

The final note is that although the Gaia/Empire/Foundation choice might not affect that much the human future in the galaxy, there are other galaxies and possible other intelligences, and not at all benevolent. Galaxia is the best bet to prepare for them. This points to a higher gear, one that is no longer associated with any stories Asimov wrote, as they centered on Earth and the Galaxy. What follows is a New Era, transcending this story scope altogether.

The Solarians are pointed out as an inner threat, but this matter is left cloudy as Daneel could continue working on the Galaxia project only because these spacers existed. After reading the Asimov biography, I get that he meant to continue the story, but was persuaded not to. Perhaps that was wise.

The story is largely a vessel for discussing the pros and cons of an individual/isolate culture and the galactic consciousness proposed by Gaia. This somewhat derails the focus from the Seldon project, but arguably there's not much more to say about it. The Gaia/Isolate debate is a better continuation of the themes that Asimov explored in the Foundation series.

Although the characters appear to have a relativist stance toward the Solarian culture, the overall message seems clear: it's a warning sign, a horror. Arguably there are deranged elements in Solarian culture, but things like gender removal (from body and language), never mentioned elsewhere, are put into the same package.

I would have wanted Solaria to impinge even more on the galactic scene, especially as the secret of their disappearance was so prominently left hanging in Robots and Empire. It would stand to reason they might have known of the Second Foundation through listening on the galactic communication channels. Would the Solarians have suffered them to exist?

I recall this book was a mild disappointment the first time around more than 25 years ago. Then, I had little knowledge of the Robot novels. Daneel who? The spacer worlds are so central to this story it might have been called Robots and Foundation, not just because it features a lot of robots but because the book so clearly relies on both series. The end reveals are not very forceful if you've not read the Robot novels.

And that's it! The finale to Foundation, the life, universe and everything!

Well, two books still remain: Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation.

Prelude to Foundation

Despite some book adverts listing this prequel before the Foundation novels (and Forward the Foundation after them), my first instinct is that it works better after Foundation and Earth.

The appearance of Daneel at the end of Foundation and Earth is a surprise reveal, as is his involvement with the Foundation's ... founding. The questions arises, how did he do it? This book gives answers to that. I think it would not make sense to read the original Foundation with the pre-conception that Daneel worked behind the curtains.

However, this opinion changes during the course of the novel and I tend to feel it has been mostly written to be read before Foundation. For example, many future plot points are hinted at the end of the book that yet avoids "spoiling" any Foundation stories.

Stylistically I think it harks back to the earlier Foundation stories, it even has a whiff of the Empire books in it. At least I feel it is without the new complexities introduced in Edge and Earth. Again there will be reveals and a couple of identities are not exactly what you might think. This was my second reading and I had nicely forgotten a few things so it still felt quite fresh.

Ultimately, the reading order could work either way and I already regret I didn't try the other order. Perhaps after 5-10 years.

Emperor Cleon I is interested in young Hari Seldon as he presents his paper that suggests to a layman that future could be predicted. To hell whether it actually could be. One of Asimov's funniest lines is here:

"Not all persons would be equally believed, Demerzel. A mathematician, however, who could back his prophecy with mathematical formulas and terminology, might be understood by no one and yet believed by everyone."

The thing is Hari Seldon could postulate a theory of psychohistory, but is not in any way convinced it could be made to work—there are simply too many variables in the galaxy. This gets mentioned quite often. In fact, if this book was made into a musical, the grand refrain would be "theoretically possible, but not practical".

So, the story is set on Trantor, and immediately Seldon gets assaulted by street thugs, and partly rescued by a guy called "Chetter Hummin". It also turns out Seldon has background in martial arts. Chetter stays in the background but Dors Venabili, a historian, will accompany Seldon in his road-trip through Trantor.

It's a nicely paced story that keeps on shifting the scenery. I admit it is interesting to read about Trantor in its heyday. This planet has been so often mentioned yet no stories were set entirely on it.

But on the other hand, just possibly, the reputation and the grandeur of the world was better presented when it was hinted at rather than directly described. But this is what prequels do, they tell the untold story even if it would be better not to.

At this point Asimov did not envision Trantor as a planet with a metal surface, as the topside has domes, polar caps, dust, some soil and a weather system. So it would probably look like a fairly ordinary planet from some distance, and not like Coruscant or Death Star from Star Wars.

Trantor underground is not a uniform world, but a patchwork of different mini-worlds (it says 800 at one point). This allows Asimov to give a story with a dense variety of "worlds" even if the narrative stays on this one planet. Much of the discussion is about discussing the different habits of people, but also the nature of simulation and prediction. One of the most otherworldly of the sectors is the Mycogen sector, occupied by descendants of Aurora, proud of their heritage and yeast-farms.

Dahl sector suffers from an internal class-struggle and some street-fighting gangs. Seldon picks up a mathematician, and Dors reveals herself to be an adept knife-wielder.

So, again the story mentions the fifty spacer world territory again, and robots, and the three laws. For those advocating this prequel should be read after Pebble in the Sky, it could work as a reminder at a spot where the theme is not otherwise mentioned. The opponents might argue that having a robot-themed book in the middle of everything might not feel correct.

If I recall correctly, there was a tidbit in previous books that Seldon got insight for psychohistory on Trantor's yeast-farms, so this gets expanded here. After visiting various factions in the world, Seldon begins to see Trantor as a microcosm of the Galaxy and a testbed for the psychohistorical theory.

One of the truisms in the later novels was that Seldom could not anticipate Foundation's technological progress. But it seems Seldon is quite aware of technology going forward and backward. Ok, so it's not explicitly discussed as part of the psychohistorical equations, but it does seem to come up.

Another part of the legend is that the Mule, a mutation, derailed the Plan and Seldon did not foresee it. But there's this experience at the yeast farm:

"There are, occasionally, viral infections and there are sometimes unexpected and undesirable mutations. There are times when whole vast batches wither or are worthless. [...]The trouble is that even the most careful forethought and the most cleverly designer computer programs can't always predict what is essentially unpredictable." 

This is also Seldon's cue to discuss a potential supernatural element that could predict or guide even the unpredictable. Prelude to Second Foundation?

In addition, Asimov tries to fix the earlier male-centric stories by saying there had been women Emperors, and the Mayor of Wye is a woman. Dors is a great character and some of the gender habits of the Trantor sectors are discussed critically. Seldon's bland attempts at flirting is something that nearly ruins it all.

Forward the Foundation

Fast forward ten years, we get to see Seldon's mid-life crisis. He's first a professor at the Trantorian university, then the first minister of Trantor, then again working at the University where psychohistory is now studied in full.

The gist here is that Seldon can't make psychohistory practical even after eight years, but as events conspire to make him an active player in Trantorian politics, we see he has been putting it to work all the time.

Disappointly, although this book spans several decades, it has the same characters and even the same locales as the last one, as if Asimov didn't want to throw away the good inventions. But as we don't learn that much more about Trantor, it doesn't have the same novelty.

It turns out Seldon's lifework on Trantor was constantly hampered by a never-before mentioned faction called the Joranumites, whose leader was toppled easily enough but the remnants keep coming back. At the same time Seldon grows old and his adopted son grows up and forms a family.

There's something wistful and grim about this book, which gives it strength, but at the same time the plot elements and details are not on par with the previous book. The Joranumites and other threats tend to have a silly side to them.

Seldon becomes a First Minister of Trantor for ten years, and I'm not sure if this was ever mentioned before either. There's a convoluted plot to get him assassinated as new gardeners are hired to the Imperial grounds. It somewhat begs belief that a person who has a claim for being the Emperor, is taking part in a murder attempt, in the flesh.

More people join the psychohistory movement and it finally becomes possible to apply it. Seldon begins to resent the young hotshots who are necessary for advancing the theory further, but eager for credit. Seldon tries to get funding and aid from the Library and other parties, but gets constantly rejected. These are depressing real-life elements not often seen in Asimov's work.

Asimov must have met a lot of people who think that science fiction is about predicting the future, perhaps even asking him to give pointers about the things to come. In this way, the idea of "psychohistory" has become meta-science-fictional. The Foundation story is a science fiction way of asking, what if science fiction was in fact able to predict the future in a grand way? Although Seldon is in any case comparable to Asimov, here it's quite clear that Psychohistory = science fiction, and Asimov = Hari Seldon.

In another level, in storytelling terms, Psychohistory is the reveal, the turning of tables, the underhand plotting, the "he knew it all along". When Joran tries to topple the First Minister Demerzel and in turn the Emperor, the Emperor's instinct is to execute the Joranumites. Seldon however suspects this would destroy the Empire, and instead builds a secret plot that undermines and dissolves the Joranumites' popular appeal and in effect destroys their leader. This is told in 1950s Foundation-style and to me demonstrates that what in the books is the reveal plot twist, is actually evidence of psychohistory in action.

Again I am still unsure if the two prequels would better fit before the original Foundation novels or after, as I read them here. Stylistically they seem to lead in to the earlier Foundation novels, but then again it might work as a bookending device.

After the grandiosity of the Foundation and the Seldon prophecies, these two books nicely bring the story back to an individual level. Despite projecting himself into the future with a far reaching effect, the lifetime of Hari Seldon comprises a very personal, small universe, that keeps on dwindling as his friends and family die around him and his health deteriorates. It's quite poignant, really.

The Last Question

As an afterthought, I'd like to include the short story The Last Question, although it might be considered incompatible with the above grand arc. But that story alone tells of Asimov's endless optimism, and if there still remains a lingering sense of ok, so what, what happened then? then the Last Question might work as a summation of the whole of Asimov's output.

End notes

One observation is that Asimov does not provide much detail about his universe. Tolkien-style appendix material, by author or others, is not really available.

I can understand not all the millions of worlds are described, but it's surprising that only a few of the 50 spacer-worlds are given a name, even less a location or characteristics. Also, there are really no substantial stories that would describe more of those 50-worlds era systems. 

It is possible that Asimov the scientist did not want to make overt predictions about which known stars had a planetary system, so he left it more open. Or the spacer worlds were better left nondescript, so their petering out of the galactic scene becomes more credible.

In Foundation and Earth, he relaxed somewhat and suggested that Alpha Centauri and Epsilon Eridani had planets. Approaching 1990s, extrasolar planets were far more certain and hardly anybody doubted they existed.

Asimov's hyperspace is in theory not tied to distance, so there is no guarantee the destination system is a neighbor to the first one. So the described locations could be pretty much anywhere in relation to each other. Only when searching for Earth the story begins to zoom in to a particular locality.

Asimov also points out in the end that as for hyperspace all distances are zero, even intergalactic jumps are feasible. Perhaps it's just that nothing practical could be achieved from jumping to Andromeda. Or it might be really difficult to calculate—the stars would be nowhere near where they seem to be due to distance estimates and gravitational lensing. It could be an one-way trip.

Reading so much Asimov at one go is bound to reveal some negative aspects of it. The somewhat simplistic and silly main plots and their reveals, especially in the older novels, get to be irksome. Often the real meat is in the light philosophy and science debates inserted into the discussions.

The overarching tracking of "future history" from the days of Robots to the heyday and downfall of the Empire is nevertheless a grand achievement and gains more force from reading it all together. I cannot imagine a comparable work really.

I inevitably begun to see it as a life's work, which led me to read a short Asimov biography, Asimov:The Unauthorized Life by Michael White. This did not influence my view on Asimov enormously, but it did somewhat shed light over his marriage personal life troubles, which might in part explain some of his writing too. It also told that Asimov adopted a TRS-80 model II for writing in the early 1980s, so he was not just simply posing for the micro ads.

The 1980s novels (Foundation's Edge) were the best selling thing for Asimov, cemented his reputation among the wider public and helped build a resurgence of interest towards his earlier work and especially Foundation.

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