I picked up an old hardback copy of Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi Foundation trilogy at the local library several months ago and finally got around to reading it during my illness.
The books are fascinating, in spite of their problematic elements, and clearly Asimov paved the way for later sci-fi authors, much as Tolkien did in the fantasy genre. For instance, the Galactic home planet of Trantor is “one big city”–something that the new Star Wars prequels completely ripped off with the planet known as Coruscant.
But one disappointing aspect of the books was Asimov’s dismissive view of God and religion. As wikipedia describes him:
As I pointed out here, parents will teach their children some belief system, and so unsurprisingly Asimov became an atheist, since his parents seem to have been practical atheists. In other words, while they didn’t “force” their ostensibly Jewish beliefs on Asimov, in fact they “forced” their atheistic beliefs on him and he became indoctrinated into atheism.
And this comes out in his books. Religion, one that looks remarkably like Catholicism and even includes concepts like putting a country under interdict, is a tool used by his canny protagonists to gain control of people and planets and to cloak their scientific superiority in mysticism.
But, like with Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the real problem with the rejection of God in the Foundation series is that ultimately we don’t have characters or people or even a galaxy that we care a lick about.
Let me explain: The noble purpose of the protagonists in the series is to save humanity from 30,000 years of “dark ages” (which will occur when the Galactic Empire crumbles). The hero has an idea that could reduce those thirty millennia to only one millennium. But the godlessness of the characters and the meaninglessness of individual lives in the story’s unfolding makes one question whether it matters if “humanity” suffers for 1,000 or 30,000 years. In fact it is unclear that people’s lives under the Galactic Empire were any worse than what they are during the Dark Age portrayed in the book.
Like with Dune, then, you end up with characters fighting for a “humanity” that has no ultimate purpose, no eternal truth, no imprint of the divine on it. When none of the characters are truly good, you end up not caring which “side” wins. Because both are equally bankrupt and vicious, only with differing ideas about irrelevant things like how the Empire should be built.
Asimov forged the path that many other atheistic sci-fi authors have followed upon.
One cool thing that came from reading this series, however, is a new book idea I thought up. I’ll sketch the details of it out in another post.
Overall, I would recommend the books as interesting old sci-fi, with creative ideas (like the mathematical field of “psycho-history”) and an epic story in terms of time scale and vision.