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Nov 27, 2015

The Metafoundation

1966
In 1966 Isaac Asimov won a special Hugo Award for the "Best All-Time Series". His Foundation Trilogy was selected from among a group of nominated series that included Burroughs' Barsoom, Heinlein's Future History, Smith's Lensmen and The Lord of the Rings.

Stalagmites and Stalactites! (click image to enlarge)
Possibly the first "science fiction" story I ever experienced was the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth (I saw the movie on TV).

About the same time, Star Trek arrived on TV. I didn't become consciously aware of Asimov's existence until I read his novel The Gods Themselves.

Foundation trilogy
cover art: Don Punchatz
Soon after my discovery of Asimov, I read the Foundation trilogy. Even at a young age, I knew that there was something special about Asimov's ability to tell a science fiction story. Eventually, Asimov added additional novels to the Foundation Saga and united it with his Robot series.

cover art by Jean Targete
The 1990s were a low point for science fiction. With the death of both Asimov and Carl Sagan, I had to face the fact that Asimov would never write a sequel to Foundation and Earth and we'd probably never see a movie sequel for Contact. Gene Roddenberry had died in 1991 and through the mid-90s I had to endure three different Star Trek spin-offs that glorified endless war and fictional politics over Roddenberry's original vision of a future that we'd actually like to inhabit.

Metafoundation
The 90s closed out with Benford, Bear and Brin writing a second Foundation trilogy. Many Asimov fans reacted like Don Web: "Spare us!" But fans of Asimov continue to struggle with -and puzzle over- the Foundation series. In my case, I wrote my own sequel to Foundation and Earth.

cover art by Fred Gambino
I like the idea that Asimov brought into existence a fictional universe where we can all explore the implications of artificial intelligence for the future of Humanity. Asimov himself had the pleasure of first imagining a future where Earthlings spread through the galaxy and then later he re-imagined it all as a galactic future for both humans and robots.

"Genres are constrained conversations." -Gregory Benford

Benford's afterword for Foundation's Fear mentions the importance of science fiction fandom. It is thrilling to imagine that somewhere right now there is a young boy or girl in their own personal golden age of science fiction who is just starting to read Foundation, a child who will go on to both be a fan of Asimov's fiction and also write their own re-imagined version of the Foundation saga, a version that will ultimately eclipse even Asimov's original. Benford mentioned that in a similar way, Shakespeare's Hamlet drew upon earlier plays that had the same plot.

However, anyone who tries to expand on Asimov's Foundation saga faces a dire risk: introducing the unacceptable retcon. For example, one of the charming features of Asimov's fictional universe is hyperspace. Asimov himself was not averse to applying a retcon to hyper-spatial travel. In the original trilogy, piloting a spaceship through the galaxy was depicted as being rather like sailing around the world in the year 1,500. In Asimov's later expansion of the Foundation Saga, during the time of Golan Trevize, late 20th century Earth computer technology finally came to the Foundation and it suddenly became much easier to navigate between the stars.

Daneel
"Constraint is essential...science itself yields crisp confines." -Gregory Benford

I love the idea that for 20,000 years Daneel had prevented scientific advancement. Constrained by his programming, "he" could not afford to let humans make significant changes to human nature. I agree with Brin: the constraints imposed by science are an essential feature of science fiction.

"In place of Isaac's 'hyperspace' ships I have used wormholes." -Gregory Benford

Asimov had his scientific training in chemistry and he was a professor of biochemistry. Benford's background is in physics, with a long-standing personal interest in wormholes. I believe it was a serious error for Benford to take his own interest in wormholes and shove it into the Metafoundation. Once you allow yourself to start making changes like this, you might as well stop pretending that you are in the same fictional universe as Asimov. Be honest with your readers and admit that you are in an alternate universe that was inspired by Asimov (and there's nothing wrong with that).

 A serious problem for science fiction as a new literary genre was the dominance of physics and physical science in the 20th century. Asimov's interest in biology and, indeed, all branches of science and human learning, was an advantage that he had over most more narrowly specialized scientists and science fiction writers. This makes the Metafoundation a challenge and something of a field of landmines waiting for authors like Benford and Brin (also with a background in physics) who have tried to contribute to the Metafoundation.

Who wants to go?
Click image to enlarge.
We can usefully contrast these two physics nerds (Benford and Brin) to Carl Sagan. Sagan had a deep interest in biology and he took the time to learn some biology. Physical scientists generated some very cringe-worthy ideas during the 20th century including the claim that it can be mathematically proven that biological evolution is impossible. In related fantasy, some science fiction has explored the idea that evolution is only possible if DNA is a quantum computer. An oldie but a goodie: you could breed humans for luck. My personal favorite "biological" theory from the world of physics: consciousness is made possible by the action of quantum gravity in synapses.

original cover art by Michael Whelan
Sometimes I wonder which has done more damage to the science fiction genre: 1) unemployed physicists who write science fiction stories that contain bogus biology or 2) Hollywood'$ commercialization of science fiction. Everyone in the world should be respectful to Asimov and be thoughtful when adding stories to the Metafoundation. It would be nice if we could avoid having physics nerds and Hollywood'$ sausage grinders irreverently dumping garbage into the Foundation fictional universe.

2016
Next year, it will be 50 years since Asimov won the Hugo for best series. Maybe this is a good time for Asimov's estate to issue another call for new science fiction works that are inspired by Asimov's Foundation.

source
Maybe the next round of additions to the Metafoundation could be orchestrated by someone who is not a physicist.

Related Reading: can HBO do a Foundation TV show?

Next: fiction writing as a disease.
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