FUTURE SOCIETIES IN ASIMOV'S FOUNDATION SERIES Sunil Deepak, 2003

Introduction

Science fiction (SF) has been credited with anticipation of the future developments through flights of imagination, especially in terms of new scientific and technological discoveries. For example, space travel was presented in science fiction books many decades before it became a reality. What about the capacity of science fiction writers to foresee the sociological changes affecting human societies? Have SF writers tried their imagination to think up new and different organizations of future societies?

In this sense, it can be interesting to take a critical look at the visions of future societies through the work of one of the most famous of SF writers, Isaac Asimov. The "Foundation" series written by the world renowned SF writer Isaac Asimov was written over a period of about forty years (between 1942 and 1986). It provides an interesting and perhaps a unique opportunity to look at the evolution of this subject over a period of about forty years, by allowing a comparison of evolution of future societies in a writer's fictional world, in two parallel time frames – the development of fictional “Foundation Empire” over a period of seven hundred years, as well as, evolution of society in the real world where the writer lived.

Isaac Asimov, the writer

Asimov was born in Russia in Petrovichi near Smolensk in 1920. In 1923, when he was three years old, his parents Isaac Asimovemigrated in USA where he grew up in Brooklyn (New York). He graduated in chemistry from Columbia university and after a short spell in army, went to Boston medical school for a doctorate in biochemistry, completed in 1949. He started working in the same biochemistry department at Boston medical school and became assistant professor in 1955.

He had started showing an interest in writing science fiction from a very early age and his first SF story was published in Amazing Stories in 1939. He went on to write hundreds of SF stories and novels till his death in 1992 at the age of 72 years. During these years he won numerous awards and prizes for his work including Nebula and Hugo awards.

The first three books of the Foundation series, were originally written around 1942 as eight separate stories and published in Astounding magazine – these were published in the book form about ten years later (Foundation 1951, Foundation and Empire 1952 and Second Foundation 1953). The three books became immensely popular and were reprinted many times and are considered as classics or cult books. Two more books were added to this series, almost forty years later – Foundation’s Edge (1983) and Foundation and Earth (1986).

For the analysis of this article, the first three books of the Foundation series written around 1942 are considered together as one group, while the two later books written in eighties are considered as another group, to take a critical look at their fictional future societies. The fictional evolution of societies is compared with evolution of the society in the real world.

Future societies in the first group of Foundation books

The first group of the Foundation books start with Trantor planet as the capital of the declining galactic empire and follow up the creation of the two Foundations in a peripheral planet of the galaxy (Terminus) over a period of about 400 years.

A general overview of the life in different planets of the galaxy in these first three books of the series, shows many deeply feudal societies based on monarchies or feudal lords on one hand and poor, oppressed populations on the other hand, engaged mainly in agriculture or small scale handicrafts. There are some democratic societies in some planets, which can be seen as mirroring the American society in the second world war period, where the author lived at that time. Thus on the whole, the books do not present any new kinds of socio-political organizations developed by human societies but rather the future galactic empire socio-political world mirrors the existing societies of that time.

Role of Religion: In terms of the four hundred years of socio-political evolution of societies in the first three Foundation books, there are many changes like rise in the power of psychologists, the reign of scientific-priests, rise of merchant-class, etc. As far as religion is considered, it is presented as the "opium of the ignorant masses", manipulated by scientists with superior intelligence, who use science to create impressions of miracles and supernatural and thus control the masses and elites. In this view of religion presented as "cynical manipulation of people's ignorance", there is no place for any discussion on God or spirituality in these books.

Women in the first group of Foundation books: These first three books are mainly the world of men – all power positions are held by men while women are marginal figures. The men hold all positions of power - they go on space travel, they run empires, they are the merchants, etc. while the women are hardly mentioned. In the first book, Foundation (1951), the first and the only woman character of the book comes after about 120 pages and it is a minor character, Licia, the wife of commander Asper Argo in a planet called, Korell. Licia is a stereotyped character of a wife – egoistic, petulant, easily placated by her husband Asimov book coverby the gift of a necklace.

The second book (Foundation and Empire, 1952) has a more important woman character, Bayta married to Toran, rebelling against the power of the Foundation. However, even Bayta, in spite of playing a more active role, is still a wife first and a person later. While her husband thinks about fighting, she must cook the food and take care of the men. She is worried about her appearance like “all women” and tells lies about her real age. If she tries to be impertinent, her husband can smack her. Later on, during a war, there is a description of women living in the planet of Haven – like the American women during the second world war, these women of Haven mainly work in factories, giving their contribution to the war, crying and waiting for news about their husbands and brothers from the war-front.

The third book (Second Foundation, 1953) has another important woman character, Arcadia. She is more enterprising, spies on her father and his friends, hides in the air-ship of her uncle to run away from home and yet, she is careful about her reputation and can not have an unknown man in her room, alone with her.

Thus overall, the women characters in this first group of Foundation are very conventional, probably more backwards than the situation of real American women of that time.

Other aspects of society in first group of Foundation books: In all the first three books of the Foundation series, smoking is widely prevalent in the galactic empire every where. Those higher up in the hierarchy smoke cigars while the lesser ones smoke cigarettes. It is common to offer cigars or cigarettes to guests and almost every one smokes.

The three books show an almost religious veneration about the power of psychology as the new science, which can resolve all ills of the society. Nothing seems to be impossible for psychology and psycho-history. Again, this might reflect the expectations from psychology as a new division of science in the pre-world war II scenario.

There is no real understanding about ecology or nature conservation in the future world of Foundation – going in aeroplanes to hunt giant birds is a favourite sport in the galaxy and thousands of birds are killed. The new emperors must show their capacity of being good emperors by killing these birds. Hunting of other animals is also possible like on Kalagan planet, made especially for hunting of animals.

The character of Mule (Foundation and Empire, 1952), is the only person with disability described in the first three books of Foundation. The Mule is “the mutant and the deformed”, a stereotypical representation of disabled persons as a mentally sick “bad guy”, full of cruelty and ambition, except for his love for Bayta, as “she is the only woman who likes him in spite of his deformity”.

The description of development of power of Foundation by providing technology as “religion of science”, worshipped by planets ignorant about science and scientific developments, expresses a very cynical view about organized religions as being exploiters of ignorance of general public.

Future societies in the second group of Foundation books

The second group of books written after about forty years, take up the story of Foundation for another two hundred years period and include the search for the original planet (Earth) from where, humanity had spread to the whole galaxy. These books also deal with the discovery of the living planet, Gaia.

In terms of general socio-political organization of societies in the two books of the second group of Foundation books, the political and social organization of societies continue to be very similar to that described in the first group of Foundation books – feudal societies, monarchies, democracies, etc. without introduction of any new political or social systems.

Women in the second group of Foundation books: In this group, there are many important women characters – Harla Branno - the mayor of Terminus, Delaro Delarami – speaker in the second foundation, Novi Sura – a Haurian rural woman who wishes to become a “studion” and Bliss – representing the spirit of Gaia. However, none of these women characters represent a new gender awareness or man-women relationships by the author.

Harla Branno, the mayor of Terminus is manly and unfeminine, wears men’s clothes, a stereotypical view of women who loose their femininity because they aspire for power. However, Harla is also a grandmother and a family woman, so the author seems to accept that women in power can have a family life, and this fact makes her character more interesting.

Delaro is a more complex character – she is ambitious, cold blooded, vicious, vengeful, deceitful, thin, pale and good looking in cold way, using her position in the council of second foundation for personal gains.

Novi is rural pumpkin, an Elisa Doolittle – waiting for her professor Higgins (Gendibal) to teach her manners and proper accent. Gendibal is ready to make a fiery speech about racial discrimination to defend Novi in the council, but his real relationship with Novi is that of a superior man with an inferior woman.

Finally, Bliss in Foundation and Earth (1986) is a representation of ecological awareness and inter-connectedness of life in the living planet of Gaia.

Other aspects in second group of Foundation books: No one smokes any more in these two books and the word cigar or cigarette is never mentioned. No one goes for hunting as well. The religious awe towards the “science of psychology” in the first group of Foundation books, is less evident in these books. On the other hand, there is a new ecological awareness and the Planet of Gaia expresses this awareness very well. Thus, these changes reflect the changes occurring in the contemporary modern societies in the decades following the second world war.

Final considerations

An analysis of future societies in Isaac Asimov’s future worlds in the Foundation series of books is quite disappointing. While these books may represent the engagement of writer’s imagination in the future development of new technologies, as far as their social worlds are concerned, these seem to be taken directly from existing models of societies in which the author lived at the time of writing and are transposed on the future vision of societies without any innovative ideas. The changes in the societies between the two groups of Foundation books, seem to represent the real changes in societies (mainly American) in the intervening forty year period, without any elaboration of new concepts from writer’s own imagination. The societies in Asimov's world are reflection of societies in real world - seen from heterosexual, white, men's point of view. The concerns of different minority and exploited groups, including those of feminists and disabled activists do not find any echo in the imaginary worlds of Asimov in the Foundation series.

Does that allow us to draw a general conclusion that science fiction may not be the best ground to search for innovative ideas about potential future social organizations of societies? To come to any such conclusion, it may be useful to look critically at the works of other important science fiction writers and perhaps, other works of Isaac Asimov.

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