Three decades after his Foundation stories became classics, Isaac Asimov returned to that universe. In Hugo winner Foundation's Edge, he covers old ground and new, and shows how a whole galaxy can work in harmony, in more than one sense.
It is day four of Foundation Week for Blogging the Hugos, and time to discuss the book that got us into this whole mess: Isaac Asimov's Foundation's Edge, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1983. (To recap, we've already covered Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.)
JW: Remember when I said Second Foundation was my favorite book of the series? I may have to retract that. Maybe that sounds a little crazy; I believe there's a general, totally defensible assumption that Asimov's later additions just don't have quite the vitality and verve that mark the original Foundation Trilogy. And believe me, you won't hear me arguing that Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, or Forward the Foundation are as artful or interesting as their much younger predecessors.
But Foundation's Edge...
For those just joining us, let me recap briefly: Isaac Asimov wrote a collection of short stories and novellas between 1941 and 1950 about the Foundation, an agency created by the mathematician Hari Seldon to preserve humanity's knowledge after the fall of the massive Galactic Empire. Guided by Seldon's future-predicting science of psychohistory, the Foundation would reduce what otherwise would be a 30,000-year dark age to a single millennium. These stories were collected in three novel-size books — Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — and were frequently regarded as Asimov's best work.
The only problem with the original Foundation trilogy was that it was supposed to cover 1,000 years — and it only ran through three centuries or so. For years, fans pled for a continuation. And finally, Asimov obliged, with Foundation's Edge, published in 1983.
Obviously, Edge is a little different from the earlier stories, in that it's written as a stand-alone novel, rather than being a set of connected shorter pieces. But I don't want to make too much of that, except to note that the approach seems fitting to me. There's no reason Asimov had to write the book as a unified whole; I can't imagine Doubleday would have rejected it if he'd turned in 100,000-ish words broken into two or three or however many separate segments, or that fans would have thought twice about him doing so.
But we've already talked about how in the later trilogy stories, it often seemed like he was covering old ground for the umpteenth time and deepening or riffing on it. And while Edge kicks off like another iteration of what has come before — especially in the first three short chapters, where we're introduced to protagonist Golan Trevize and his companion, the old historian Janov Pelorat — ultimately, Asimov starts us on a journey that will take us further from the Foundation's home planet of Terminus than we've ever gone before. It seems only fitting to do so in novel-length form; it's just one more example of how the scale is constantly ramped up in the Foundation series. (That said, I don't want to overstate the importance of the shift in format. It seems most likely that, just as Asimov wrote the first Foundation stories as short stories or novellas because they were commissioned by a magazine that traded in those forms, he wrote Edge as an unbroken novel simply because his publisher asked him for an entire book.)
Anyway, as for those first three chapters, they're a more nuanced twist on the old Foundation setup, aren't they? A junior councilman in Terminus' government, Trevize is a smart, cocky upstart who is certain that things are not what they seems, but who can't convince the folks in charge that he's right. He's Salvor Hardin and Ebling Mis all over again (in my mind's eye, he even looks like Hardin). Or kind of, anyway — as we soon learn, Trevize is not quite the infallible political genius Hardin was.
Nor is the obstinate Foundation leader, Mayor Harla Branno, directly comparable to the authority figures Hardin and Mis had to confront (Lewis Pirenne and Mayor Indbur, respectively). When the novel opens, Branno's administration has just successfully navigated a Seldon crisis, and received congratulations from Hari Seldon's holographic recording for doing so. So for one thing, unlike her predecessors, Branno is intelligent and alert to the Foundation's history.
For another, she isn't dangerously overconfident, either. Trevize thinks she is: He is sure that the Seldon holograph's validation is, contrary to all appearances, actually a terrible sign. After all, didn't the Mule knock the Seldon Plan off course way back in Foundation and Empire? And didn't Arkady Darell help her father totally eliminate the Second Foundation — the only force capable of getting the Plan back on track — back in Second Foundation? Well, if the Darells succeeded, then what are the chances that the Plan corrected itself so precisely? The odds are infinitesimal. As a result, Trevize is certain that the Second Foundation must still be out there, in hiding, controlling the First Foundation's destiny. And Branno, he thinks, must be a fool to not see it.
She does see it, of course. But she fears that the Second Foundation has agents on Terminus, and doesn't want to show them her hand. Given that, Branno is peeved when Trevize confronts her publicly with his suspicions, but she quickly turns the situation to her advantage. Using her considerable clout, she "exiles" the councilman. Supposedly, he and the aging Pelorat are put in a fancy new gravitic ship and sent out to find the possibly mythological planet Earth, humanity's original home. In reality, Branno wants them to root out the real home base of the Second Foundation.
So: Protagonist isolated by his concern that something is terribly wrong? Check. Conflict with official authority that puts the plot in motion? Check. And then quiet machinations to uncover the secret operations of the Second Foundation? Check. We've definitely been here before — but now we're going somewhere else entirely.
AW: Foundation's Edge is the Platonic ideal of an Isaac Asimov novel. If I can summarize one oft-repeated (and eminently fair) criticism of Asimov's style, it's that he didn't so much create characters as he did mouthpieces for his various viewpoints. His stories are excuses for lengthy conversations with some hard science thrown in for good measure. His science fiction doesn't have deep nuanced relationships, it doesn't have epic battle scenes, it doesn't have aliens (unless you want to count his human-built robots), and it definitely doesn't have sex.
In his last major science-fiction novel before Foundation's Edge — and that of course would be The Gods Themselves, which we discussed earlier in this series — Asimov moves somewhat away from that, delving into the last two of those with relish (and depending how you feel about certain pairings in that book, having a valiant stab at the "deep nuanced relationships" bit). It even has lengthy dialogue-free passages that describe the future world of humanity and the parallel universe of the aliens.
But Foundation's Edge does away with all that shit and offers all dialogue, all the time. To throw out a completely wild estimate, about 90 percent of all the text in this book is just people talking. I'd say this is the Foundation book most ready to turn into a screenplay, except the resulting movie would be about twelve hours long. You've got Trevize and Pelorat discussing and debating everything from space travel to the Second Foundation to humanity's mythical home world, an obscure pebble in the sky known in ancient legends as Earth...or is it Gaia?
You've got Mayor Branno — who I'm going to go ahead and assume is intended as a Margaret Thatcher pastiche — and her security chief, Liono Kodell, two lifelong politicos trying to outwit the Second Foundation. And then you've got Trevize's Second Foundation equivalent, the ambitious young Speaker Stor Gendibal, who spends all his time trying to convince the other Speakers of the Second Foundation that there is some unknown third group also working to mend the damage the Mule did to the Seldon Plan. There are long stretches in this book that are completely free of anything but dialogue, and it would all seem rather clunky if the ideas contained within those conversations weren't so damn interesting.
This entire book takes the chess game aspect of "Search by the Foundation" and ratchets it up to ridiculous levels. Every single character is trying to think six moves ahead of their opponent, and all the characters face foes they fear may be invincible. Once again, the First Foundationers Trevize and Branno are at war with the Second Foundation, of whom they know next to nothing and against whom they can only hope their minds remain free from attack. The Second Foundationers, on the other hand, are trying to deal with this mysterious third group, whom Gendibal dubs the Anti-Mules. There are double agents, triple agents, subtle mental conspiracies, and incredibly long cons, and through it all you're never quite sure if anyone actually has the upper hand.
As you say, this makes for a more complex Terminus story than what we've seen before, as the brilliant loner who sees the truth about the Seldon Plan isn't nearly as brilliant or as lonely as he thinks he is, and the establishment idiot who believes everything is fine is actually fearsomely intelligent and deeply aware of how wrong things really are. She is, however, very much the establishment, and the Foundation government takes on some disturbingly authoritarian characteristics in this book.
This book starts with a simple enough premise, that 500 years into the interregnum between empires, the Seldon Plan is working perfectly. As you say, it first asks how, considering the damage done by the Mule and the apparent destruction of the Second Foundation 200 years beforehand, could the Seldon Plan possibly be working so perfectly? But Asimov is moving toward a more subtle question, and that is whether the Seldon Plan is actually a good thing for humanity in the first place. Yes, Asimov is here to put his entire damn system on trial, and it's Golan Trevize who must stand in judgment.
Oh, and he also asks a third question, one I know plenty of his fans dearly wish he had never asked: Where the hell are all the robots? But I suspect I'm getting ahead of myself, so I pass the talking stick back to you.
JW: Oh, the robots.
I want to talk for a moment about Stor Gendibal, who has fascinated me since the first time I read Foundation's Edge. For all the time we spent with the Second Foundation in its eponymous book, he is the first member of that mysterious sect we actually get to know.
Not that that means very much, since he pretty much reads exactly like Golan Trevize. Like you say, they're sides of a single coin, and truly, they differ only superficially, mostly due to geography. Even Gendibal's mentalic powers don't distinguish him especially, as it's determined later on that Trevize possesses the rudimentary materials for psychic ability too, and would have been snatched up by the Second Foundation as a child if they'd known of him. And frankly, I suspect Asimov couldn't have made them all that different if he'd wanted to; I'm not totally convinced he had the facility for characterization to write two people occupying the "young, brash, smart, good guy" valence as distinct individuals. Fortunately, it doesn't really matter, since it's sufficiently fun to observe the structural resonances and reflections in the story and not get caught up its cast's lack of nuance. Let Asimov's renown serve as a lesson to all aspiring novelists: All those rules you've read about how you have to create well-rounded characters or have to avoid blatant infodumps? If what you've got to say is compelling enough, those rules don't mean shit.
So, yeah: Precocious politician Gendibal discovers the same problem Trevize does — that the Seldon Plan is working suspiciously flawlessly — ratcheted one level up. He suspects that the Anti-Mules are secretly working to support the Plan and manages to convince the First Speaker that he's right. But he can't prove it to the rest of the Speakers, and so, just like Trevize, Gendibal ends up quasi-banished, with the task of rooting out the problem on his own.
In a way, this book must have been kind of easy to write, or rather, structure. Marshall McLuhan talked about how when the detective story appeared as a medium in the late 19th century, it was constructed differently from previous literary forms: Instead of starting with a cause and seeing what effects follow from it, with a detective story, you have to start with the effect — the crime — and work out how it was caused. And as we've discussed, the Elijah Baley books are only the most obvious of many of Asimov's SF tales that can be rightly be considered detective stories.
In Edge's case, yep, Asimov is putting the whole Foundation system on trial, to see whether the First Foundation's path wins out, or the Second's — or the Anti-Mules'. And you have to imagine that he knew from the outset what the answer would be.
Spoiler: It'll be the last one. And if neither Foundation is going to emerge victorious — well, then, it's obvious that he has to set up the Second Foundation as just as petty and fallible as the First. So Speaker Delora Delarmi seizes on the First Speaker's endorsement of Gendibal's suspicions, and uses the situation as a chance for a selfish power play. Frankly, the Second Foundation looks way uglier than the First in this book. After all, the Speakers actually have math — empirical evidence — that can help them determine if Gendibal is on to something, and they blatantly disregard it. Atrocious behavior from a group of supposed masters of the human psyche.
Anyway, once Asimov knew how Foundation's Edge was going to end, well, its basic structure must have become obvious: Show that both Foundations are unqualified for long-term leadership of the human species. Do that by having the actions of each mirror each other.
So: We have Trevize and Pelorat hunting Earth, in turn hunted by Trevize's fellow councilman and former friend Munn Li Compor, a spy for Mayor Branno. And then we have Gendibal hunting Trevize and the Anti-Mules, accompanied by Sura Novi, a peasant Hamishwoman from Trantor whose mind is so pure, he can examine it to tell if any untoward psychic activity is taking place. And now I'll let you talk for a while.
AW: You talk about how Asimov loved his mystery and detective stories — indeed, by the time he wrote Foundation's Edge, there's a good argument to be made that he was far more a mystery writer than a science-fiction writer, thanks to his rather charming Black Widower stories. What's interesting here is that, for perhaps the one and only time in his career, Asimov implicitly comes out in favor against detectives, seemingly suggesting that, just this once, some mysteries are better off left unsolved.
Let me back up a bit. In all the previous Foundation stories, the problem-solving structure was always more or less about the same thing: Identify the crisis that has beset the Foundation, then figure out the correct historical pattern that will solve it and allow the Seldon Plan to continue. The Mule stories represent a slight deviation from this, but the larger objective is pretty much always about our heroes trying to figure out how best to keep the Seldon Plan going.
But Foundation's Edge presents something different. The Seldon Plan is working just fine, and both the First and Second Foundationers could just as easily leave well enough alone. Asimov makes this particularly explicit with Mayor Harla Branno, who sees herself as a capable administrator who has not been given any opportunity to make her mark upon history. Unwilling to be a footnote, she puts into action an ever so slightly insane plan to crush both the Anti-Mules on Gaia and the Second Foundation on Trantor — and yes, Branno knows damn well where the Second Foundation is. With these two threats eliminated, she can bring the entire galaxy under the Foundation's control and triumphantly found the Second Empire 500 years earlier than expected.
Here's the thing, though — she only finds herself in this situation because she's insightful and fearless and confident enough to believe she can win against seemingly impossible odds. These are all traits that were unquestionably heroic when Salvor Hardin was springing his trap on Anacreon back in "The Mayors," and yet here her actions are clearly not meant to be seen positively. This is the one time where an Asimov character actually would have been better off just leaving well enough alone, contenting herself to a quiet life of good public service on Terminus. The continued existence of the Second Foundation presents her with a mystery — indeed, it's the exact same mystery Toran and Arkady Darell faced in "Search by the Foundation" — but this time it's pretty clear she would have been better off never trying to solve it.
The same is true for the Second Foundation. The incumbent First Speaker Quindor Shandess has had a quiet career much like Branno's, and he is actually perfectly willing to complete his tenure and enter a quiet retirement. But of course Stor Gendibal is impossibly ambitious, determined to not just become First Speaker but to accomplish the feat at a younger age than any of his predecessors. Asimov relates the customs of the Second Foundation, explaining that a young Speaker only requests a private audience with the First Speaker when he or she has something to say of monumental importance. Gendibal, of course, must find the most important thing imaginable to tell Shandess, which is part of why he's so desperate to prove the Seldon Plan is wrong and that the Anti-Mules must exist.
And it's in that motivation that we see the crucial difference between the "detectives" of Foundation's Edge and those in the previous stories. Neither Branno nor Gendibal are motivated by any altruistic desire to see the Seldon Plan preserved; rather, their burning ambitions force them to find the mysteries that others would have been perfectly happy leaving well enough alone. I know you had a hard time with Toran Darell II's motivations in "Search by the Foundation," where he is willing to destroy the Second Foundation and, with it, humanity's safety net out of a personal desire for freedom. I didn't have as much of a problem with it, and I saw it as a last-ditch effort to wrest back control of one's own destiny, to rid the First Foundation of an almost mystical belief that the Second Foundation will show up and take care of everything. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that's what Asimov intended, as it's revealed that's precisely the effect First Speaker Preem Palver was trying to accomplish with his various machinations.
But here, in Foundation's Edge, I'm not so sure about the wisdom of that stance, and it appears that Asimov isn't either. At least in "Search by the Foundation" there was a quantifiable reason why the Second Foundation's continued existence (or at least knowledge of same) was bad for the First Foundation, but the only people who are bothered by the Second Foundation in Foundation's Edge are Golan Trevize and Harla Branno. It's suddenly far less clear why the existence of the Second Foundation is a bad thing, and Trevize and Branno's objections seem rather less like a reasoned, principled stand and more like the dogma of power-hungry individuals convinced that they and they alone should be in charge, whatever the costs.
Again, the exact same can be said of Stor Gendibal and his Anti-Mules. There's no reason to think that the Anti-Mules are at all malevolent — indeed, the very name that Gendibal gives them implies that they are forces for galactic good. And yet he is convinced that they are hostile and must be destroyed, with the clearest reason that he can muster being the vague belief that, when it comes time to found the Second Empire, the Anti-Mules will step in and be the real rulers. It's remarkable that he has the gall to see this as a bad thing, considering that's precisely what the Second Foundation intends to do.
Indeed, Asimov spends a little time detailing how First Speaker Shandess imagines the Second Foundation's vision for the new Empire, and it's a benevolent enough vision, one in which people will all be reasonably happy and the First Foundation can still wield a reasonable amount of control within certain limits. Whether that particular vision is a fair representation of what this sharply political, constantly infighting Second Foundation is actually capable of is another matter, but my point is this — if Gendibal had enough devotion to that ideal to override his own personal ambition, he might recognize that the Anti-Mules have not actually revealed themselves as a malevolent entity, or even really as a threat to the Second Foundation, and he might have seen the wisdom in leaving well enough alone. It's a rare Asimov book where that can be considered wise.
Indeed, part of what I love about Asimov is that his stories present a cosmos where there is never any greater power than knowledge. Intellectuals and clever strategists are almost always the heroes in his stories, and moreover technology is only rarely the enemy — indeed, his entire robot corpus was part of a lifelong effort to shatter what he dubbed the Frankenstein complex, the irrational belief that robots and other advanced forms of technology must invariably spell our doom. Foundation's Edge doesn't quite contradict that, but it complicates that theme more than pretty much any other story he wrote. If knowledge really is synonymous with power, then there's always the danger that those who seek knowledge and a fuller understanding of the universe are really just out for power and control.
I think keeping all this in mind makes it a lot easier to understand what Asimov is driving at with the introduction of Gaia, a planetary organism in which all its humans (and everything else, from the animals to the rocks to even the walls) are part of a larger whole. It's the rare Asimov creation where contentment is preferable to curiosity and, shockingly enough, Asimov actually seems to agree with this point of view. That's a huge reversal from where he had been going with his previous Foundation stories, indeed with almost all the fiction he ever wrote, and the only way to see this as not being completely arbitrary is to understand why, in Foundation's Edge, the detectives are actually the villains.
JW: I want to do another quick summary, because (1) I have nothing to add to the piercingly intelligent things you just said, and (2) I'm afraid we might have skipped some plot details and confused some readers who aren't familiar with the book: Ultimately, Trevize and Pelorat do not find Earth, but they do find a mysterious planet called Gaia. There, they meet a woman named Blissenobiarella — er, Bliss, for short. Bliss looks like a regular attractive human female (with a Sir Mix-a-Lot booty, as Asimov for some reason never tires of pointing out), but she is really part of the greater whole of Gaia — which, as you've already mentioned, is a planetary organism, a conscious eco-system that has the potential to eventually evolve into the exponentially larger Galaxia.
Not long after Trevize and Pelorat get to Gaia, Gendibal and Branno show up, in separate ships. And we learn that Gaia has maneuvered for years to get to this moment, because Trevize is very special. He possesses an almost unerring instinct for intuiting the right choice from limited information. Gaia wants him to choose whether the First Foundation, the Second Foundation, or Gaia should be in charge of humanity's future. (Now, technically, Gaia could compel humanity to follow its path — it has the power to do so — but the planet is bound to a strict ethical code that says it can't do that. This is the essential point about Gaia's nature: It's a collective whose parts can operate largely as individuals, but who share a conscience and can't mistreat others without painful consequences. Why their morality is almost hardwired this way — well, you'll get to that shortly.)
Here's what I find especially interesting about Trevize/Asimov picking Gaia as the future of the galaxy, rather than either Foundation: We've talked before about how the Seldon Plan makes almost a religion out of materialism, how it's at root an effort to reduce every human decision to an empirical, predictable phenomenon. And Asimov was, of course, an avowed atheist. In fact, he served as president of the American Humanist Association.
But the choice that humanity should be absorbed into Gaia — gosh, I guess you could argue that it isn't a throwing up of the hands, an acknowledgment that, OK, fine, our rationality alone isn't enough to guide us. But boy, it feels pretty close. It is definitely of a different order than the pure reductionism that reigns supreme in the preceding Foundation stories. I mean, Trevize makes his decision based on what is explicitly deemed an inexplicable feeling, pure gut instinct. (That said, I should note that he personally is uncomfortable with being used as a "black box," and the plot of Foundation and Earth hinges on Trevize's adamant desire to find evidential support for his instinctive decision.)
Man, we really did jump over most of the middle of the book, didn't we? In our defense, let me say that the middle is: (1) not that good, compared with the beginning and end; and (2) even less memorable than it is good. (I just read it, and I've forgotten most of it.) So much of it is consumed with Trevize and Pelorat's cover-story search for Earth, but since their investigations only lead them to Gaia by the end, this part of the narrative lacks even the fan-servicey callbacks to Asimov's non-Foundation stories that dominate the next book. Truly, much of the middle feels like we're in a clockwork, just being carried from place to place as the plot necessitates; it's interesting to observe, but pales in comparison to the big reveal we can sense lying at the end. Based on that, I could see why someone might say Foundation's Edge got its Hugo as a courtesy, a grateful nod to the master for returning to a cherished mythos. But me personally? I find the beginning setup and the end and Gaia/Galaxia so unexpected, and so masterfully fitting, that I think Asimov earned the award.
What else? Um, there's an allusion to The End of Eternity in a story the Gaians tell, right? (I haven't read that book, but Wikipedia confirms this, although it notes that Asimov agreed it didn't quite work.) And I should mention — not because I think it's that germane but because it jumped out at me pretty fiercely — that someone could write a really awful, but kinda valid, master's thesis on the negative portrayal of women in Edge. I mean: Harla Branno — intelligent, seemingly reasonable woman, who turns out to be a power-hungry, crazy bitch. Speaker Delora Delarmi — intelligent woman who is, on the surface, a power-hungry crazy bitch. Sura Novi — subservient, bright but uneducated woman, who turns out to be totally deceiving everyone. And then Bliss, who, OK, I will grant, is fine, even if Trevize never cares for her and that comes through in the dialogue. (Let me note this, too, from early in Chapter 10: A whole three of the Second Foundation's twelve Speakers are ladies. Again, I say, For shame, you supposedly enlightened would-be rulers of the galaxy. And further, let that be noted by anyone who denies the implicit institutional sexism that pervades our culture. Even in a future society of mental wizards, it seemed perfectly natural that a whole half of a population would constitute only a quarter of its ruling body. Not to beat up on Asimov unduly — it was thirty years ago, I know — but he does seem almost beneficent as he notes the fact, as if he's saying, "Look how open-minded I am! Three whole women!" But I digress; my dander is just up lately.)
AW: You know, your mini-rant reminds me of my first reaction to reading Foundation's Edge. I can't have been much older than 12 or 13 at the time, and I think it was only my fifth Asimov book, following I, Robot and the original trilogy. I already was well on my way to falling in love with Asimov's writing — he's still my favorite author, for better or worse, and I suspect that won't change anytime soon — but I distinctly remember about halfway through reading Foundation's Edge having a bit of an epiphany. Eager to share my insight, I went to my father — who had introduced me to Asimov and had generously given me his much-read, now forty-year-old copies of the original trilogy — and I asked with the innocence and bluster of youth, "Dad, was Asimov a sexist?"
Now, since then, I've read a lot more, and I don't think he was ever a sexist. But yes, the gender politics of Foundation's Edge aren't great, and they're actually worse here than at any point in the series other than perhaps the largely female-free Foundation. I don't know whether I'd share your negative take on Sura Novi — even she isn't aware of her deceit, and both versions of her character seem like fundamentally good people — and Bliss is arguably better characterized here than in Foundation and Earth, although the constant discussion of her rump really is deeply strange. Even Harla Branno, I'd argue, has faults that are not necessarily any worse than Stor Gendibal, and I think the negative aspects of her character can be read more as Asimov's specific reaction to Margaret Thatcher (I'm guessing on this, but he was a fierce and often heavy-handed critic of eighties conservatism) than as a general repudiation of women in power. But yes, Delora Delarmi is a really nasty piece of work, possibly the single most detestable character in the entire series, and that doesn't look good when there are so few female characters to begin with.
I'd also like to deal with another thorny part of Foundation's Edge: Asimov's decision to incorporate his robot stories into the Foundation universe. This was, I believe, a controversial decision, particularly among longtime fans who had grown up with the original stories as their own independent entities, and who perhaps saw this merger as a rather pointless, self-indulgent exercise that detracted from their individual impact. I totally get that argument, but I actually think Asimov had some legitimately good reasons for doing this, and in fact I think this merger adds to the power and persuasiveness of Foundation's Edge. Let me explain by sharing with you a short treatise on the subject that I prepared earlier, specifically during our discussion of Second Foundation. I'll warn you now — this is about to get seriously hardcore in its nerdiness...
Part of the reason we're tackling all seven Foundation books is so that we can actually understand Foundation's Edge in its proper context. That's all well and good — any new reader would be pretty much utterly lost if they tackled Foundation's Edge without reading the original Foundation Trilogy — but Asimov has a larger purpose with this book, and that's to begin the tricky process of merging together as many of his fictional universes as he possibly can. Starting with Foundation's Edge, Asimov wrote four books — first this, then The Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire, and Foundation and Earth — which first merge together two different sets of loosely connected but not definitively shared universes - the Susan Calvin and Elijay Baley stories in one case, the Empire and Foundation stories in the other - and then combine all four universes into a single, linear timeline. There were, I think, a couple reasons for this. One, it allowed him to bring his most popular creation into the Foundation universe, as so many of his readers and publishers demanded, and two, I honestly just think the intellectual challenge of it all fascinated him. I also think there's a third, far more interesting reason why he did this in Foundation's Edge, but I don't think it's immediately obvious without some explanation of the particular references. So now, I really think it's time I unleash the full force of my encyclopedic Asimov knowledge and explain how all this fits together, and why it actually matters to the specific plot of Foundation's Edge.
In this particular book, Asimov offers one explicit connection to a previous book, a set of garbled references to another, and introduces a key concept from his other works. Specifically, he has Munn Li Compor recount the story of Pebble in the Sky, Asimov's first (and maybe most underrated) novel, which concerns a radioactive Earth's last desperate attempts to escape its obscurity and dystopian decay by striking back at the entire Empire. If nothing else, it reconfirms that the four stories in the so-called "Empire" series (The Stars, Like Dust, The Currents of Space, Pebble in the Sky, and the short story "Blind Alley") really do take place in the same fictional universe as that of the Foundation, which was generally assumed but not explicitly confirmed in the stories until now. There's also, I think, another reason why Asimov incorporates Pebble in the Sky, but let me delay on that point just a little bit longer.
The next connection we have, rather unexpectedly, is to The End of Eternity, my favorite Asimov book (indeed, my favorite book by anyone) and his one really serious exploration of time travel. The story that the Gaian elder Dom tells gets some of the details right — in the novel, the Eternals had dominion over seven million years of human history, and they subtly altered history to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number, all without any of the regular humans (or Timers, as they were known) being even the slightest bit aware of the temporal manipulations. And, indeed, as Dom suggests, Eternity ultimately does come to an end, so as to ensure human domination of the galaxy. He gets many of the crucial details wrong, though — the Eternals were not robots, but in fact quite cripplingly human, and they did not exactly cease operations voluntarily...but I'll leave that aside, as I rather hope we'll be able to discuss The End of Eternity in far greater detail somewhere down the line.
Anyway, next up we have robots. As it happens, Asimov doesn't really offer too many concrete connections to either of the specific strains of robot stories, be they the near future Susan Calvin stories or the far future Elijah Baley mysteries (again, two strains that were clearly related but not explicitly linked together until The Robots of Dawn). Instead, we get the general concept of robots, we get to hear the legendary Three Laws of Robotics, and we get an explanation as to why robot-dominated societies ultimately failed. Considering just how far apart the original robot stories and the original Foundation stories really are in terms of the universes they depict, his decision to move slowly in bringing them together is hardly surprising, and it wouldn't really be until Foundation and Earth, the final book in his Linkage Quadrilogy — a term no one has ever used before and, in all likelihood, never will again — that robots and the Foundation finally really snap together. But still, we clearly exist in a universe that once had robots, and that's enough for our purposes.
And what is the purpose here? It only became clear to me upon rereading Foundation's Edge, because this is the first time I've read it with full awareness of the rest of the Asimov corpus. Back when I was a lad, I read all the Foundation books before I jumped into the wider Asimov universe. At the time, I just saw the references as throwaway things, not even properly comprehending yet that they were oblique references to other books. But now? Well, now I'm returning to Foundation's Edge from the other angle, as someone who is intimately familiar with the entire Asimov canon, and I realized upon rereading that these references are not, in fact, a one-way street.
I only noticed any of this because of one particular word that tipped me off. At one point, Second Foundationer Stor Gendibal recalls his school days, when it was drilled into his head that mental communication must be extremely precise, or else one can make fatal mistakes — such as the legendary case of a Second Foundationer mistaking the mysterious new warlord the Mule for some random pack animal. Here's the line in question:
Gendibal remembered his own student days when he made an error in reception that seemed, in his own mind, to be both insignificant and understandable. His teacher — old Kendast, a tyrant to the roots of his cerebellum — had simply sneered and said, "A horselike animal, Cub Gendibal?" and that had been enough to make him collapse in shame.
The odd word there is "Cub" — a term that, yes, can be used to refer to students or young learners, but outside the scouts and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, I've never heard the term used...except in The End of Eternity, where all prospective Eternals start out as Cubs. And then, once they complete their training as Cubs, they next become Observers...the exact same position Munn Li Compor fulfills for the Second Foundation. And, like Observers and true Eternals, there's a distinct divide between Observers like Compor and true Second Foundationers like Gendibal. It's an intriguing overlap of terms, particularly because much of the charges laid against the Second Foundation in Foundation's Edge — that it would be a paternalistic nanny state done in by constant calculation, that its rulers are just as petty and beset with internal conflicts as any other humans, that it is quite simply a "dead end" — are precisely those made against Eternity in the earlier book. For those wondering what a Second Galactic Empire run by the Second Foundation might look like, Asimov provides The End of Eternity as evidence for why it might well be doomed to failure.
And I think, once started down this road, we can take it still further. An empire formed by the First Foundation would simply be "the first Empire reborn," and Asimov's clearest depiction of the first Empire is in Pebble in the Sky, where it is a large, inflexible dictatorship done in by provincial hatreds, undiplomatic ignorance, and endless, pointless bureaucracy. For those who doubt the case against the First Foundation, he offers a book where the last of the Earthmen were willing to wipe out all humanity in order to rid the galaxy of the First Foundation's spiritual predecessor. And then, of course, we have robots, who are quite explicitly put forward as the behavioral models for the Gaians. We know that a Gaian future won't just be a galactic superorganism: It will be a superorganism that lives in compliance with the spirit of the Three Laws of Robotics.
Here, Asimov does not offer so clearly a negative case, because he doesn't offer any explicit links at all, be they to stories where robots are unquestionably positive (like, say, "Bicentennial Man") or those where their potential dark side is revealed ("That Thou Art Mindful of Him" being the most obvious example). Asimov has pulled off a neat trick here in subtly conditioning those who come to Foundation's Edge with a good working knowledge of his prior works: The First and Second Foundation are associated with clearly negative examples, while Gaia is linked with every robot story Asimov ever wrote, and we're forced to judge for ourselves whether robots were, on balance, a good thing and something worth emulating.
Under those conditions I think there's good reason to think that Golan Trevize makes the right decision in choosing Galaxia, even though I very much share Trevize's own misgivings about the death of individuality. It's a clever spin on George Santayana's legendary observation that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" — except, in this case, it's those who cannot remember their previous Asimov novels are condemned to repeat them. So then, let nobody say Asimov was being gratuitous or fan-servicey in pulling together all his different worlds into a single universe. Whatever their apparent discontinuities, they all keep coming back to the same crucial themes, and putting them in subtle conversation with each other really adds to the power and richness of Foundation's Edge.
JW: Damn — this is why you are essential to this project. OK, I retract my use of the word "fan-servicey," and though I am tempted to maintain that the unavoidable clumsiness of some of the integration of all the mythos threatens at times to undermine all of Asimov's efforts — well, shit, you seriously just blew my mind there, and I thank you for doing so, as it's tremendously deepened my already high regard for this book. Just...wow.
OK, I would like to make one more note in closing, and it's about the book's title. Foundation's Edge stands alone among the seven Foundation books, as the only one whose name isn't an absolutely clear description of its contents. And though I think the title makes perfect sense once you think about it, its meaning might not be immediately clear.
It took me awhile to figure out, anyway: Foundation's Edge is where we've reached the limits of the Foundation's scope and powers. Again, I realize that sounds painfully obvious, especially following all the discussion we've been through above (and even more so after I found a cover for the Spanish version); but it didn't quite occur to me until recently, because it's followed by three more novels that all also have "Foundation" in their titles. Really, though, Trevize's decision (and I also love the title because "edge" conveys that sense of a fate hanging in the balance; it's much better than Asimov's original, Foundations at Bay) marks the last time we see the Foundation as an active force. In books six and seven, in fact, it won't even exist.
In the next book of course, the Foundation is still out there. But it plays so little a role that the title is merely more a convenience for the reader. That realization makes ending this section of our journey that much more poignant. But I guess we'll bid Terminus a fond farewell here, and move on tomorrow to Foundation and Earth.
"Blogging the Hugos" is a series examining the Hugo Award–winning novels in (more or less) chronological order. Coming tomorrow: Foundation and Earth, by Isaac Asimov, from 1986 — which didn't win a Hugo but which has a whole bunch of close relatives that did. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. Alasdair Wilkins lives in Los Angeles and is a reporter for io9.