Asimov’s Surprises

Foundation Trilogy

I finished watching the second season of Apple’s Foundation series last night.

I had watched the first episode when it was released and I hated it, so I waited until all the episodes were available so I could watch it one episode per night. It did improve, and I found a lot of things that I like about it, but perhaps just as many things that annoyed me.

Rather than dwell on it (perhaps I’ll get back to it sometime), I want to talk about what I loved about Asimov’s original trilogy.

Paul Krugman has often written that it’s one of the things that inspired him to go into economics, as he was impressed by the concept of psychohistory, the science invented by Harry Seldon that allowed him to forecast the collapse of the Galactic Empire and plan for a shorter interregnum to prevent thousands of years of Dark Ages that would result in mass wars.

But what I liked was the stories that Asimov wove from his ideas. Sure, I liked the ideas and the way Asimov wove various concepts into his stories (could humanity really forget that it had originated on a planet named Earth?), but it was the stories and especially the surprises that Asimov spun into them that I really enjoyed.

The first story was good but the next few were merely ok. In fact, when I first began reading the trilogy, I stopped about three quarters of the way through the first volume, because the stories were merely ok. (When I re-read the Trilogy I enjoy those “ok” stories a lot more than I did on first reading.)

But I came back.

And it was in the second volume, especially in the second story in the second volume, the one entitled “The Mule”, that’s where Asimov really grabbed me.

The first bunch of stories basically followed the pattern: there was a crisis and because Seldon had planned for it, the Foundation triumphed because Seldon’s Plan couldn’t fail.

But in “The Mule” the Foundation encountered something that Seldon’s Plan couldn’t foresee, and suddenly the Foundation didn’t seem quite so invulnerable.

And not only that, but apparently Asimov had been reading some Agatha Christie, and he had learned how to misdirect the reader, so although “The Mule” was a killer science fiction story it was also a terrific mystery story—it packed a real didn’t-see-that-coming punch followed by a twist that I hadn’t anticipated either—and the hero of the story turned out to be a woman, which was practically unheard of in science fiction back in the 40s when Asimov was writing.

Then in the final volume of the trilogy Asimov outdid himself with yet another terrific mystery story in the second story, which was the concluding story of the trilogy. That story piled one surprise on top of another surprise; even once you think Asimov is finished surprising you and he’s just wrapping up some loose ends, he floors you with yet another twist. I’m still not sure just how he managed it. I don’t think Christie ever jammed that many twists in any of her yarns.

And what’s even more surprising is that it really does seem like he had planned all those twists from the very start, though he has written that he only wrote them one story at a time with no idea where the next one would lead. That’s why he never finished the thousand year saga of the Foundation, as he didn’t know where to go next and it had become so complex he didn’t want to think about it anymore.

Would someone encountering those stories today feel the frisson that I did when I first read them? Perhaps not. A lot of those misdirection techniques have become quite common in the years since. 

But boy did they knock my 13 year old self for a loop when I first read them.

BTW, I’m reusing an image of the Foundation Trilogy that I’ve used before because WordPress still has not addressed the tech problem which makes it more difficult for me to upload new images.

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