Isaac Asimov's Foundation and the Limits of Liberalism
The nerdy classic is quite possibly the definitive statement of 20th Century American liberal thought.
Over the weekend, The Atlantic ran an essay of mine about the Apple+ TV series Foundation, a science fiction epic ostensibly based on Isaac Asimov’s classic novels, which ultimately functions as a rejection of just about every important idea Asimov presented in his books.
The story is here, and I urge you to read the whole thing. It’s about Liberalism, empire and epic drama. For this newsletter, however, I want to focus on some material that we decided was a little too dorky and obscure for the Atlantic’s big general audience. Let’s face it: My subscribers revel in obscure and dorky things. I want to honor that.
Foundation has been a staple of nerd culture for so long that it’s easy to forget just how improbable its career has been. When Isaac Asmiov pitched the first Foundation story to Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, the United States was yet to enter the second world war, television did not exist, and the best sci-fi writers in the world were scoring $64 a story. The idea that a quick sale to a pulp magazine might become an enduring American cultural touchstone was a flight of fancy too far-fetched for even the most imaginative writers. Publishers at the time didn't even offer science fiction books. Ace Doubles — cheap paperbacks containing not one but two novels — would not arrive for a full decade after “Foundation” was released. Everything in the field appeared between lurid magazine covers.
Sci-fi was very much a young man's game, and its tropes -- rockets, extraterrestrials, etc. -- were interpreted by thinking adults as inherently juvenile indulgences. Sci-fi publications marketed themselves almost exclusively to adolescent boys, and the leading practitioners were only slightly more mature than their audience. Asimov was 19 when he took the subway to the Astounding office in Manhattan and asked to see the editor, who turned out to be a comparatively ancient 28.
According to Asimov's memoirs, Campbell was the dominant creative persona in the early years of their partnership. At the time, the editor was on a roll, adding authors Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke and A.E. van Vogt to Astounding's stable decades before Hollywood would turn their works into classic films (2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Starship Troopers, the unjustly overlooked Killdozer).
Asimov was in good hands, but it took him a couple of years with Campbell to make his breakthrough, if success in so small a market can be termed a breakthrough. It happened in the spring of 1941 with a Campbell assignment that Asimov titled "Nightfall" -- a story about a planet constantly illuminated by multiple suns that experiences a rare total eclipse. The sudden plunge into darkness inspires mass public terror, and ferocious mobs rage across the planet, destroying centuries of cultural and scientific achievement. When the light returns, the planet has already been condemned to a new Dark Age.
"Nightfall" remains among the best material Asimov ever produced (the very best, in my own view, and fodder for a 1955 radio adaptation that is still just great). Campbell paid him a 25 percent bonus over his usual rate, so Asimov decided to pitch the motif again on a grander scale. This second time around, the light of the world going out would be the Galactic Empire. But where "Nightfall" had been a tale of destruction, "Foundation" would be a story of rational perseverance. Its hero, Hari Seldon is not a swashbuckling pulp adventurer, but a kind of super-economist, preserving humanity’s knowledge amid the collapse of the Galactic Empire so that intellectual life can be rebuilt around a new Empire a thousand years into the future.
Campbell liked “Foundation” even more than “Nightfall” and so Asimov was tasked with making it into a grand series, ultimately offering up eight stories for Astounding between 1942 and 1950. Along with Heinlein and Clarke, Asimov was embraced by readers as one of the very top names in the field.
But being a star in the disposable magazine business was no way to make a living. Combined with the revenue from 20 other short stories he wrote over the period, Asimov's science fiction output was good for about $700 a year -- less than a third of the era's median household income. Like most of the pulp writers of the day, Asimov had no family money to fall back on. Born in the Soviet Union sometime in late 1919 or early 1920, he emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of three, and would be attesting to his patriotism and helping strangers pronounce his name into the 1980s. His father ran a candy store in New York, and young Isaac spent most of his time hawking cigarettes and chewing gum to customers when he wasn’t in school.
So despite his fame, the financial pressures of the sci-fi business persuaded him to remain in graduate school studying chemistry, even though by his own account he was a poor researcher and a difficult student. Pearl Harbor provided a lifeline. In the spring of 1942, Asimov's friend Heinlein, a former military man, recruited him for a job as a chemist at a Navy facility in Philadelphia. With a salary of $3,200 a year, the job secured Asimov's place in the American middle class. Asimov and Heinlein would remain friends all their lives, but their politics would diverge sharply after the war. Asimov remained a devout New Deal liberal, but Heinlein turned right in the 1950s and became, Asimov believed, too hard a man.
World War II gave Asimov a taste of prosperity, and he had no intention of giving it up for a life of starving artistry. By 1950 he had figured out how to make solid middle-class money as a writer — just not as a science fiction writer. He was instead becoming one of the most in-demand non-fiction writers in the country, penning columns and magazine features on science, before eventually branching out into books on everything from photosynthesis to Shakespeare scholarship to Biblical interpretation to the history of Mesopotamia, math, Rome and more. When Asimov suggesting compiling his Foundation stories into a book, his nonfiction publisher Doubleday turned him down, as did Little, Brown & Co., one of the other major houses fixing up sci-fi stories for hardcover release. Asimov eventually found a home for them at Gnome Press -- a tiny specialty sci-fi outfit that essentially went bankrupt when Asimov sued them for control of the books over unpaid royalties.
That seemed to be the end of the saga. In his late 30s, Asimov became a kind of grand old man for the sci-fi field as it expanded into the book market, attending conferences and hosting awards ceremonies. He kept writing sci-fi — in the 1950s he published some of his best novels, including The End of Eternity and The Caves of Steel — but they were labors of love, not lucre.
And yet Foundation wouldn’t die. In 1961, two decades after he pitched the first story to Campbell, a Portugese publisher inquired about issuing a translation of the novels. Asimov wasn't interested at first -- what was the point when Gnome didn't pay royalties?
But the international inquiry started a chain of happy accidents leading all the way to Apple's blockbuster prestige TV series. By 1961 Asimov had a new editor at Doubleday who sensed a profit opportunity from a sci-fi classic, and quickly helped Asimov get control of the books for a glossy re-release. This time around, with a real publisher providing marketing muscle, the Foundation books sold very respectably, putting the stories back on the map for the 1966 Hugo Awards, where Foundation was nominated for a special Best All-Time Series award. Asimov claims in his memoir that he was certain The Lord of the Rings would win, but he was wrong. Foundation won. As Hollywood popularized science fiction to a much wider international audience across the '60s and '70s, new converts awed by 2001 or Star Wars would pick up the greatest series of all time. In 1973, the BBC even made a radio adaptation, which isn’t very good, but here you go anyway:
The commercial smash of Star Wars, in turn, transformed the sci-fi book market. There had been sci-fi best-sellers before -- Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren -- but the vast majority of sci-fi books sold in the 1950s and 1960s had been intended not for bookstores but grocery store check-out aisles, as short and disposable as the magazines that they competed with. To this day, both the Hugo and Nebula Awards officially define a "novel" as a work of just 40,000 words or more — pretty svelt by contemporary standards. Grocers wanted to jam as many paperbacks into their small display racks as possible.
After Star Wars, however, every self-respecting bookstore had a sci-fi section, and bigger novels tended to sell better than small novels -- more bang for your paperback buck. So in 1981 Asimov's editors at Doubleday told him to write a new Foundation novel at twice the length of his usual novel (his last major sci-fi project, The Gods Themselves had come in at 288 pages in 1972). They offered him a $50,000 advance -- ten times his standard nonfiction payout, and double the median household income of the day. Asimov couldn’t say no. He spent nine months on Foundation's Edge, and when it was released in 1982 it was a staggering hit, spending 25 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. It was also surprisingly good, taking home the 1982 Hugo award for Best Novel. Asimov got a bigger advance for another sequel, Foundation and Earth, which spent almost 4 months on the chart. Eventually Foundation swelled to seven volumes, rivaling Gibbon for length and crushing him in sales with over 20 million copies. Four decades after a chubby graduate student typed out the first story, Foundation had made Isaac Asimov rich and famous.
The reason Asimov remains so well-known today is not because his books are so great — they are, but plenty of great books don’t get blockbuster TV treatment 80 years after publication. Like passengers on a sub-FTL starship, the Foundation stories spend most of their time in cold sleep, awakened every 20 years or so when a superfan with influence finds a reason to revive them — and for most of the past century, the ideas have remained current. Apple’s TV adaptation is an attempt to modify Asimov’s universe for a world in which Foundation’s themes have lost their intellectual hegemony (see The Atlantic piece for more detail). The show’s execution is ultimately very disappointing, but if there is any justice in the world, it will re-up Foundation for another twenty years or so of public life, by which time someone else will come along with a better update.