Mar 17, 2016

Prelude to Foundation

cover: Don Punchatz
In this blog post I explore the idea that Isaac Asimov's novel Prelude to Foundation can be viewed as the culmination of his long flirtation with cyberpunk themes in his science fiction stories about robots with artificial human-like intelligence.

the Second Foundation confronts the Mule
cover by Hubert Rogers
Punkish Origins
I discovered Asimov's Foundation saga when it was available as a trilogy of paperback novels published by Avon Books. I still own the 1971 edition of Second Foundation which I first read when I was in my personal Golden Age of science fiction. The copyright information for that edition enigmatically says, "...based upon published material originally copyrighted by Street & Smith Publications, 1948, 1949." Only much later did I understand that the Foundation Trilogy was cobbled together, mostly from stories that were originally published in Astounding.

cover art by Robert Schulz
Through the 1940s, Asimov published his science fiction stories in pulp science fiction magazines. Many of his stories included robotic characters. Asimov was the first person to use the term "robotics" in print (1942, Runaround). Only in 1950 did he first publish a novel-length story that had not first been published in a science fiction magazine.

Asimov was often at his best when writing shorter fiction and his early robot-themed novel-length works were compiled from short stories (I, Robot) or first published as a serialized set of chunks in magazines. Asimov's "The Caves of Steel" was originally serialized in Galaxy magazine and "The Naked Sun" first appeared in Astounding. Asimov's vision of future Earthlings living in their caves of steel and afraid to go outside, let alone venture forth into the Galaxy, has always struck me as a horrible dystopia.

 cover by Frank Freas
At about the same time that I discovered Foundation, I was introduced to some of Asimov's compiled short stories through the collection Nine Tomorrows. One of those short stories was 'Profession', which involves a future Earth where human brains are routinely programmed for abilities such as reading and the skills needed to perform specialized jobs within a profession.

I recently suggested that Asimov can be viewed as having long ago written stories that hinted at the spirit of the solarpunk sub-genre.

cyberpunk: the dystopian now
In the same way, we can step back and observe that Asimov helped to provide a foundation for the cyberpunk sub-genre with his stories such as 'Profession' (text of the story). In viewing 'Profession' as part of the foundation of cyberpunk, the first thing I must note is that Asimov placed the events of this "proto-cyberpunk" story in an imagined future that is thousands of years in our future. This is in stark contrast to the preferences of many cyperpunk fans (example) who believe that cyberpunk is now. If your product marketing is centered on fear, then your story will most profitably be set in the present. We've gone through several decades of breathless cyberpunk marketing campaign$ to promote the $ale of cyberpunk-themed game$, book$ and movie$. Often cyberpunk is $old by intentionally stoking people's fear of computers and artificial intelligence.

Full Circle
I wanted to call this blog post "Full Circle", but that name was already taken. Another possible title was "The Pendulum of Doom". When Asimov began writing his robot stories, he reacted against the murderous clanking robots that were featured in some early science fiction stories. Asimov tried to swing the Sci Fi pendulum away from stupid killer-robot stories towards a more thoughtful exploration of how humans and robots might co-exist, but his vision of future robots was not all rainbows and ponies.

Asimov's 1950's proto-cyberpunk version of a "subversive and gritty rebel" is quite tame by modern standards. Still, Asimov's vision is rather chilling: the entire population of the galaxy is subjected to an insidious form of "mind control". Sadly, R. Daneel Olivaw did not appear in the original stories about Asimov's "all human galaxy", but it is fun to imagine that Daneel was there, carefully working behind the scenes to control the rate of human technological advance and the spread of Humanity outwards from Earth towards the 25,000,000 habitable exoplanets of the galaxy. In 'Profession' there are only a few thousand special humans who remain free to create and it is they who are responsible for making new technological advances. All the billions of other people are just programmed for their jobs by computerized devices that insert specific skill sets into their brains. In 'Profession', the protagonist rebels against this system, but in the end he is assimilated just like everyone else. Resistance was futile.

"a La-Z-Boy-recliner experience of the future"
Asimov seemed to believe that robots were the future. Of course, he was "optimistic" in that he depicted the artificial intelligences of the future as being "under control" and as having been programmed to be working for the betterment of humans. Still, Asimov included in his future an almost instinctive resistance among most humans against sharing the world with robots. Thus, in his imagined "future history" the robot masters of Humanity had to work in secret and allow humans to believe that they were free. Which is actually more terrifying, Asimov's vision of a future with the genetically-engineered group-mind composed of creatures like Bliss or the absurd cyberpunk dystopias crafted in Hollywood?

Myopia Matrix
With the advent of the cyberpunk sub-genre, Hollywood and game makers needed a dramatic and visual equivalent of Frankenstein's Monster. Thus, the headjack.

Myths of Science Fiction
I've previously complained about the myth that portrays science fiction as being about predicting the future. Another popular myth is that science fiction is about us, here and now, and that it must "force writers to look at the present moment and decipher its implication".

hierion tubes
As a newly-recognized sub-genre in the 1980s, I don't think cyberpunk saved science fiction, rather it subverted science fiction by pushing the pendulum of stories about computers and artificial intelligence back in the direction of the murderous clanking robots that Asimov had reacted against as early as 1939. I'm a fan of Asimov-style proto-cyberpunk and I can't help but view attempts to make science fiction hip and relevant, in tune with now, as misguided.

Science fiction should be about taking a step (or two, or twenty) beyond they myopia of concern for the present. The authors of many early science fiction stories were obsessed with "tubes" and "rays". They told stories about a near future in which new technologies were powered by newfangled tubes and soldiers used magical death rays rather than guns. In contrast to such myopic near-future stories, Asimov took a step beyond the present and invented positronic brains, imaginary technology that carried his story telling far beyond the soon-to-be-obsolete "tubes" of his present world in the 1940s.

Not Reading Science Fiction
Bliss and Pel
I suspect that Anders has never read the entire Foundation saga. We really don't need to take the "science" of psychohistory seriously. By the time that Asimov wrote his last words about the Foundation, he knew that the Cult of Seldon had been created by Daneel in order to give a false sense of confidence to the First Foundation. Psychohistory was a "cover story" for a hidden cadre robots who were controlling human minds and behavior and guiding human civilization into the future.

I like to think that Golan Trevize is a personification of Asimov, reborn after his death from a heart attack in 1977 and having been asked to write another novel in the Foundation series. Simultaneously, Janov Pelorat can be viewed as the ghost of the "old Asimov", the man who wrote the original Foundation saga back in the 1940s. While writing Foundation's Edge, Asimov began a search for the unquestioned assumptions that were hidden behind the mysterious success of Seldon's Plan for the galaxy, success that even the Mule had been unable to derail. Trevize and Pelorat went along for the ride on Asimov's investigative journey through the galaxy. What they found was the even more mysterious hidden world of Gaia, a planet with a vast telepathic group mind.

cover art by Stephen Youll
Foundation and Robots
After the success of Foundation's Edge, Asimov next wrote another story about R. Daneel Olivaw: a novel set early in Humanity's exploration of the galaxy. Police detective Elijah Baley discovers that the spread of Humanity, outwards from Earth into the galaxy, is being secretly guided by a telepathic robot, Giskard. Giskard and Daneel, working to guide Earthlings towards further exploration of the galaxy, are The Robots of Dawn. Giskard tells Baley that someday a future science of psychohistory will be needed. Baley wonders if in addition to his telepathic abilities, Giskard can somehow "see" into the future.

original cover art by Jim Burns
After Giskard passed the secret of positronic brain telepathy to Daneel, a small cadre of robots spent 20,000 years controlling Humanity and moving the human population of the galaxy towards the formation of a vast group mind: Galaxia. Asimov imagined the Foundation saga unfolding in an "all human galaxy" with no alien beings on the stage. As told in Foundation and Earth, Asimov ended his Foundation saga with a question: might alien life forms with advanced technology exist beyond our own galaxy?

Written in the 1980s, I think the end of the Foundation saga can constructively be viewed as Asimov-style cyberpunk. Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, with their depiction of the decline of Trantor, can be fit conceptually into the cyberpunk genre. Sadly, Asimov died while writing Forward the Foundation and he never had the chance to continue adding on more stories to the saga after the events that he described in Foundation and Earth. It is our task to continue the story that Asimov began.

robotic master
In the Exode Trilogy, Daneel is himself just a puppet and there have always been technologically-advanced aliens lurking in the background of the "all human galaxy". I have fun thinking of Hari Seldon and Golan Trevize as examples of Asimov's type of neo-cyberpunk heroes who each discovered that humans are just puppets of the positronic robots that had been controlling human minds and the course of Humanity for 20,000 years.

Seldon on the surface of Trantor by Peter Elson

Prelude to Foundation is rather long-winded and self-indulgent. Many parts, like Seldon's near death when he gets lost on the surface of Trantor, are hard to swallow. Maybe someday Asimov's estate will release a condensed version.

Next: investigating the first science fiction
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