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Isaac Asimov's Foundation: A Holistic Analysis of Micro and Macro Plots in the Asimov Universe - The Prequels

This series of analyses is meant to explain how the great Isaac Asimov wove a gargantuan number of micro plots into one continuous story that encompasses many thousands of years: the existential conflict and the struggle for survival of the humankind in the future.

Photo Courtesy of Douglas Kirkland/Corbis

Be warned, all ye late visitors entreating entrance at Asimov's chamber door: This series of analyses is meant to explain how the great Isaac Asimov wove a gargantuan number of micro plots into one continuous story that encompasses many thousands of years: the existential conflict and the struggle for survival of the humankind in the future. Heavy spoilers as well as philosophical commentaries on fictional sociopolitical structures and scientific progress abound...

I believe I must start with a little explanation of why I am opting to break down OMNI's already-successful edit and compilation of my articles on Asimov's Foundation Series, which, as of now, is listed 5th in the first page of Google search (in Turkey, at least) by the keyword combination "Asimov foundation guide". This is a cooperative success, beyond my wildest imagination, of the nameless OMNI editor and myself. If s/he chooses to unveil him/herself, I would be honored to include his/her name here as well.

When I first got the offer for an opportunity to write about the great Isaac Asimov's science-fictional universe in OMNI, following the suggestion of my name by esteemed Mr. Matt Cates - who is the most prolific article writer I have ever met personally, VOCAL was not yet operational. 

Shortly after I finished the holistic analysis of the Foundation Series and submitted it to be reviewed by the editors, the game-and-paradigm-changing platform, VOCAL, became online - providing intellectuals from all walks of life not only the opportunity but also the power to let their voices be heard over the elitist editocracy of the industrialized writing sector.

Even though I originally planned the analyses of the vast Asimov Universe to be published as a series of articles (and perhaps only to be compiled together after the last page written by the great Isaac Asimov in connection to the enormous Macro Plot is analyzed and jotted down), by the strike of some unexpected favor from the powers-that-be, the afore-mentioned and deeply respected nameless editor decided to merge the articles together to create, as an end justifying the means, the most impactful piece online about Asimov's Foundation Series.

Now that I have found the time to start writing the analysis of the great Isaac Asimov's Robot Series, which will hopefully be followed by the Empire Series, I strongly believe that the interconnections within the gigantic Macro Plot should be emphasized, much more than can be conveyed in a guide which may seem to have been designed only for the Foundation Series.  Furthermore, since now I am left alone with VOCAL, and without the tremendous assistance of my nameless editor, I must somehow figure out how to optimize the power and opportunity vested in me by VOCAL, and its creator, Jerrick Media.  

A Long Time Ago into the Future, at the “Other End of the Galaxy”

Long before the incessant arguments among Star Wars fans were heard all over the galaxy about when-to-watch-which-episode, Isaac Asimov had split his fans about which books of the Foundation Series should be read before the others. 

And rest assured that the Asimov-split had much more to contemplate on, for in 7 books, with prequels and sequels added to the original Foundation Trilogy over a real-time span of 42 years - from 1951 (book release of Foundation, Gnome Press) to 1993 (posthumous book release of the second prequel, Forward the Foundation, Spectra) - the Foundation Series covers a fictional span of almost 550 years of endeavor for a better future in the future. 

Bearing in mind that Isaac Asimov has been considered to be one of the most creative and prolific writers in the genre (with 8 Hugo and 2 Nebula Awards, a crowning All-time Best Science-Fiction Short-Story Award from The Science Fiction Writers of America, and countless others), the writer of this humble piece firmly believes that the overall vision of any author is worth following so as to, at least, honor his/her fictional legacy. 

And thus, our journey into the future of the future begins as envisioned by the great Isaac Asimov with the Prequels of Foundation Series…

Prelude to Foundation (1988)

“Why, he wondered, did so many people spend their lives not trying to find answers to questions—not even thinking of questions to begin with? Was there anything more exciting in life than seeking answers?”

― Isaac Asimov, Prelude to Foundation

Style Analysis

Prelude to Foundation is the first of two prequels added to the original Foundation Trilogy (1951-53), which later would come to known as Foundation Series with the addition of prequels and sequels written between 1982-93. 

The style of Prelude to Foundation is nothing like the original novel of 1951, Foundation: this prequel is a novel that focuses on the actions of one protagonist over a relatively short duration of time. 

When compared with the original style of the trilogy, i.e. chronological chapters set to follow one another between relatively long intervals, the style changes between the books in the Series can be seen as an indication of how Asimov allocated importance either to the characters or to the events that have a role to play in his Macro Plot of the future in the future of humanity. 

The novels in the Series that focus on one character without any intervals of the chronological flow of time can be deemed to indicate to the reader that the character in focus is as important as the events narrated through the book. 

However, when the events should take precedence over the characters introduced, Asimov reverts back to the original style of pretending to be a chronologist, paying minor attention to people captured among the events happened between long intervals of time, and thus, by slightly de-signifying the characters, he successfully conveys the overall importance of events, which in their entirety would bring out the causes and effects of their own shaping.

Plot Analysis

It is 12,020 G.E. (Galactic Era). For more than 12.000 years, the human race, thanks to hyper-space traveling technology, has colonized the Milky Way Galaxy into a Galactic Empire. 

The Galactic Empire, whose failures have started to outnumber its successes, is still able to hide its swaggering behind the Gordion Knot of a social, economical and political mess comprised of millions of habitable worlds and over 500 quadrillion people. 

The oppressive and authoritarian rule of Emperor Cleon I is at its peak. A young mathematician from a backwater planet called Helicon arrives at the Galactic Capital, Trantor, to present in a mathematical convention his latest work. An associate professor at a considerably young age, Hari Seldon claims that by using advance mathematical calculations over the behavioral data of an enormous number of people in order to deduce the patterns of behavior of the masses, a new field of science could be used to predict the future actions of the galactic society.

Hari Seldon’s presentation grants him a short but enlightening interview with Cleon I, during which the scientific naïveté of Seldon bores Cleon I, who insists on manipulating the outcomes of such statistical predictions, and thus, directing the masses by way of fortune-readings in order to gain political advantage over his opponents (or, as simplified in real-world politics, “for the greater good”).

Dismissed by the Emperor as useless and terrified-to-the-spine by his newly-dawned fear of politicians’ using his method to better lie to the galactic society, Hari Seldon decides to take a tour on the Imperial District to freshen his mind. After a chance altercation with some ruffians at a public park, he runs into a reporter, Chetter Hummin, who persuades Seldon that his life in danger. Hummin admits that Seldon’s work in hypothesizing that the Empire has entered a period of collapse is significant and offers help both for Seldon’s safety and furtherance of Seldon’s studies through his vast contacts as a media-person.

This marks the beginning of the “journey” each successful piece of fiction requires employing. However, since Asimov’s style tends to use already-developed characters, he primarily uses Seldon’s journey around Trantor to throw at the reader bits and pieces of information related to his other equally successful series, Robots, whose timeline was set roughly 20.000 years before the Foundation Series. These “bread-crumbs” throughout all his Foundation books, creates an incredible continuity of the “Macro Plot”, surpassing even Tolkien’s perhaps, and, in fact, connects almost all his works - starting from I, Robot - to convey his vision for the future of humanity in one grand story-line.

The secondary purpose of Seldon’s journey seems to have a more practical objective when it comes to sociocultural observations Asimov made back in his time. The districts in Trantor that are visited by Seldon reflect in the readers’ minds a somewhat distorted projection of Earth and its countries. Since, later in the Macro Plot time-line, Trantor will be revealed to have been settled by descendants directly from Earth (the Settlers as opposed to another column of humans trying to severe their ties from Earth, the Spacers), during Hari Seldon’s first visit to Trantor, some the districts in the capital of the galaxy seem to have pretty much distinct and closed-off cultures that are in constant opposition to each other, similar to the historical and sociocultural positions of countries in the real world. A more detailed description of Trantor and the social psychology of its 40 billion inhabitants can be found in The No-Kidding Coolest Planets in Science Fiction.

It would be helpful to illustrate two examples on the point, though, which also have great significance within the “micro plot” of Prelude to Foundation. The Mycogen District exercises heavily fundamentalist practices similar to some religious autocracies on real-time Earth so much so that, apart from de-identification of individuals by using numbers after clan names to denote a single member of the clan, showing one’s hair or touching someone outside one’s immediate family is considered to be one of the greatest sins. Whereas, in the Dahl District, the laborers seem to have a somewhat proletarian (or pseudo-proletarian) rule over the other classes, which are in turn became minorities in the course of the fictional time-line.

It is in Mycogene that Hari Seldon discovers major references to pre-Imperial history of the galaxy and to one, unique planet from which the humans are thought to be originated. The original planet is called Aurora (Dawn in Latin) in Mycogen. Also, it is here that he comes across an alien notion and religious tradition which proposes that there were once mechanical entities called Robots, which, according to Seldon’s trained scientific mind, may have recorded the behavioral patterns of large quantities of people over long periods of time.

In the Dahl District, however, Seldon is informed by vocal tradition that the original planet is called Earth and that Aurora is deemed to be the ulterior nemesis of Earth, causing in a now-obscure way the destruction of the original planet from which humans first spread to the galaxy.

As Prelude to Foundation draws to its end, Seldon is forced (both by his own reasoning skills and by external influence) to accept two major break-points on how to develop his theories on the prediction of the behavioral patterns of the masses, which he now aptly calls “psychohistory”. One is that instead of continuing his search on the original planet, which may lead to nothing since it is said to be destroyed, Trantor seems to be a better place to observe and analyze the behavioral tendencies of great numbers of people.

And second, with the shocking revelation of the alter-egos of Seldon’s main source of help, Chetter Hummin, not only as a very-high level bureaucrat in the ranks of the Empire, but also as R. Daneel Olivaw (whose initial R. indicates that he is one of a long-lost human-manufactured machines, a Robot, and a very special one, indeed) that the robots have existed throughout the course of the known human history, and recorded the data Seldon has been looking for.

These break-points not only creates the ultimate philosophical foundation of Seldon’s newly-termed scientific field, psychohistory, but also invites the reader to plunge into the Macro Plot of one of the Grand Masters in science-fiction through an almost 30.000-year-old story of future into the future.

Forward the Foundation (1993)

“You don’t need schooling to be a philosopher. Just an active mind and experience with life.”
― Isaac Asimov, Forward the Foundation

Style Analysis

Although it is the second prequel to the original Foundation Trilogy, Forward the Foundation is actually the last book written by Isaac Asimov. It was published posthumously, as the great author of science-fiction passed away only two weeks after the completion of the book. 

The style of this prequel is much like the original novel of 1951, Foundation: a novel comprising of chronological chapters set to follow one another between long intervals. Bearing in mind that Asimov's preference between two inherently distinct styles conveys an alteration between the significance of events and individuals, as detailed in the Style Analysis of Prelude to Foundation, it would be safe to say that Forward the Foundation employs a chronologist's view of the events that followed the first prequel. 

In other words, since Asimov focused on Seldon’s major role in the future of humanity as a significant individual in Prelude to Foundation, it is now time, throughout Seldon’s years on Trantor until Foundation - both the book and the concept within the Macro Plot - would set off, to focus on significant chapters of the fictional chronology that shapes the future within the future.

Plot Analysis

Eight years have passed since the break-through for psychohistory as told in Prelude to Foundation. Hari Seldon now holds the key to apply his once-theoretical concept of psychohistory into the blurry events of galactic proportions and predict, within a statistical deviant, how the masses will react to which stimulus. 

Seldon is now developing his initial “fall of the Empire” hypothesis into a theory, predicting that the Galactic Empire will fall relatively soon, and with millions of inhabited worlds and a population of over 500 quadrillion people, there will be a post-Imperial barbaric chaos all over the Milky Way Galaxy, which may continue for 30.000 years as a result of the power vacuum set off by the collapse of the Imperial power structure.

Seldon's dedication to his field of work, together with the help from a high-level bureaucratic ally as told in Prelude to Foundation, throws him at the heart of galactic politics, escalating him to the pinnacle of bureaucratic power as Cleon I's First Minister. It will suffice to note that Seldon’s rise to power is closely related to the mysterious disappearance of Cleon’s previous First Minister.

Seldon is able to hold his position for a mere 10-year period, until the Emperor, Cleon I, is assassinated. This incident not only points out the turning point in Seldon’s short but influential political career, but it also provides an ample opportunity for Seldon to experience first-hand that psychohistory cannot be applied to predict the fate of a single individual - for the machinations of the statistical predictions to work, there must be an adequate number, say quadrillions, of individuals.

As Seldon’s work starts to be influential, in line with his political career, his private life sets on a course of tragic deterioration. Everybody who has a close relation with Seldon is lost to him, either with untimely deaths because of political conspiracies or under civil unrest, save for his granddaughter Wanda. By the time Seldon is statistically certain about the time-line of the collapse of the Empire and the ensuing period of barbaric power vacuum, and starts to draft his Grand Plan to shorten this period of Gothic rule (as was the case after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in real world history) his immediate family is reduced to his granddaughter, whose innate abilities helps Seldon to devise a fail-safe mechanism for the Grand Plan.

Having experienced the classic tragedy of an individual (in line with the modern and/or post-modern societies of the real world), who is successful in his work, but who fails miserably in his private life, Seldon is now filled with renewed resolution, despite his failing health, to set off on his bold track to initiate his Grand Plan to alter the course of human history toward a better future when compared to the alternative barbaric outcome which may set fire to the Milky Way for the next 30.000 years to come.

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