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The Elements of Science Fiction in Asimov's Foundation
[This essay explores those characteristics of the novel Foundation, which are peculiar to the genre of Science Fiction.]
The most fundamental and obvious element of Science Fiction is its dependence on imagined technological advancements. The SF writer exploits the gap between scientific theory and practice to create a world, or at least circumstances, very different from our own reality and yet very believable because of the scientific logic' behind it all. The SF writer must provide some kind of scientific explanation as to how the fantastic things that are being talked about have been made possible. Asimov, in his novel Foundation, introduces hyper-spatial travel based on the concept of hyper-space, to make the existence of the Galactic Empire possible. Nuclear power supplies the energy requirements and the use of coal and oil, as Salvor Hardin says in the novel, is considered barbaric'. Trantor, the capital of this futuristic Empire has gone a step further to make use of the temperature difference between the ground level and a couple of miles under' to supply all the energy required. The glorious' picture is completed in the first few pages with Gaal Dornick following a light beam for a guide and taking a taxi which rises straight up into the air.
Because of this creation of a new, invented world, it becomes essential that the reader be informed about many things that the inhabitants of this world take for granted. This feature of info-dumping' is quite peculiar to Science Fiction, as writers of other genres need not explain such things as how people travel and which fuels they use. A good SF writer does not get carried away by the brilliance of his innovative ideas, thereby disrupting the flow of the story and burdening the reader with too many facts. Instead, the information is provided in small capsules as and when possible with the least intrusion. Asimov uses various devices for info-dumping to avoid monotony. The first one that we encounter is the use of metatext, the Encyclopedia Galactica, which not only informs the reader but is also the ultimate point of reference. Extracts from this invented encyclopedia introduce some characters of the novel and give glimpses of the kind of world, with its social and political milieu, in which they live. Also, the use of an encyclopedia strikes the reader as a scholarly approach, in keeping with the logic' strategy, while serving an important narrative function.
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Having established a scientific base for the course of events described, SF is not pre-occupied with the concerns of science but the effects that the changed circumstances of the invented world, have on the human society. Alternative visions of the world order can be explored through the world of the novel. In Foundation, though we have the technological advancements as the essential backdrop, much more important is the creation of the field of psychohistory' in the novel a branch of mathematics which can be used to predict the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli'. Psychohistory is thus a kind of advanced sociology: just as the cars of this world can fly instead of just moving on wheels, the sociology of this world (known as psychohistory) can predict the behaviour of a large society, instead of just studying it. And it is the behaviour of human society that concerns the novel. Science Fiction, thus, simply uses science as a means to provide a larger canvass to explore the problems faced by the human race and the possible ways to tackle them. No wonder then, that SF writers prefer the term SF' to science fiction' since it can be expanded in various ways speculative fiction, sociological fiction and so on (Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James in the introduction to The Profession of Science Fiction).
Speculation is at the heart of SF: the SF writer asks the question, "What if ?" and tries to find out answers, opening the path to exploring any number of possibilities. During the early 1940's, the time at which Foundation was written, the most relevant "What if ?" question for an English author would be, "What if the British Empire ultimately falls apart?", which had become a concrete possibility by that time. It was natural to speculate on the future of the world organized anew and the governing forces that would shape the future of human civilization. Asimov creates a metaphor of the British Empire in the form of the declining Galactic Empire, in at least as much that the fall of the Galactic Empire is inevitable and even desirable. Hari Seldon says, "We cannot stop the Fall. We do not wish to; for Empire culture has lost whatever virility and worth it once had." Asimov then goes on to explore how peaceful, progressive conditions can be maintained and how various different societies, here belonging to different planets, can be bound together in a desirable relationship, beneficial for all. Through the pages of the novel, first diplomacy, then religion and finally, trade are tested as tools to serve this end. Asimov's speculation concerning trade has proved to be fairly accurate in the present-day world, with the U.S. being a super-power, essentially due to its economic strength and global trade relations.
Unlike the so-called mainstream' fiction, SF does not concern itself with the study of individual characters or human relationships. The essence of SF lies in exploring the collective problems faced by a whole society. As Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James put it, the future development of human society and technology, the possibilities inherent in scientific and social development' are among the basic themes of SF, clothed in action and adventure. In keeping with this SF tradition, the characters in Foundation are not important as individuals but only as people affecting or being affected by the Seldon Plan'- the plan to lead to the establishment of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Second Empire. The petty Chief Commissioner may ask the narrow-minded question: why should we concern ourselves with events of five centuries distance?' but for the psychohistorian, the mathematician-cum-social scientist Hari Seldon, these events are of "overpowering concern" so as to save "one thousand generations of suffering humanity". In spite of Seldon's concern for humanity, he is not important as a character, which is emphasized by the fact that by the end of the very first section of the novel, he declares, "I am finished," but the story has just begun.
The protagonist(s) of SF are types' as imposed by its readership, consisting of two sections of people. The first is of adolescents, often male and therefore, the young, teenaged protagonist. The second section is that of the marginalized, newly immigrant working class and hence, the immigrant from a marginal planet is the category to which most of the protagonists of Foundation belong. On the first page of the novel, we meet Gaal Dornick, just a country boy' who had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of Blue Drift' and comes to Trantor for the first time. He is naïve enough to believe that his rights as an Imperial Citizen will enable him to have a hearing with the Emperor, when he is wrongly arrested. In another novel of the series, The Prelude to Foundation, we come to know that even the great psychohistorian Seldon originates from a marginal planet. The same is the case of Hober Mallow, the last important protagonist of Foundation. Coming from the planet Smyrno, he is an Outlander' and has a taint in the blood'. Yet it is he who saves the Foundation, working in accordance to the Seldon Plan. Foundation thus presents not one, but a number of protagonists typical to SF.
Lastly, SF portrays the human race as being alone', facing Otherness or the immensity of creation, unprotected by supernatural beings or God. The human race is forced to fall back on its own resources to hunt for solutions and to survive. The planet of Foundation also faces a number of crises and the use of diplomacy, religion and trade are explored in turn. The Seldon Plan itself is a protective measure to save humanity from ten thousand years of barbarism and anarchy, shortening the interregnum between the declining Galactic Empire and the establishment of the Second Empire to one millennium. The interregnum cannot be completely done away with because of the enormity; the huge numbers of people and vast scale of time and space. To establish an Empire of quantillions' of people requires a considerable effort by a large number of people over a time period of a thousand years.
The elements of science fiction discussed above, viz., the dependence on scientific advancements, info-dumping, speculation, the importance of a whole society as opposed to an individual, the typical SF protagonists and the immensity of creation faced by humans; not only establish Foundation as belonging to the genre of Science Fiction but also as a seminal text of SF, a classic in its own right.
Isaac Asimov: Foundation. London, Harper Collins, 1995.
Maxim Jakubowski and Edward James: The Profession of Science Fiction.