Asimov’s Foundation and Finding Hope in Crisis

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When I was a child, I used to have recurring nightmares about the end of the world. I’m not sure I was particularly prescient; rather, I think it was a product of my being very young and impressionable during the height of millennial Y2K hysteria coupled with the more pressing anxiety of living in a home filled with alcoholism and domestic abuse. Whatever the cause, I dreamt about the apocalypse off and on for years—the dreams themselves ranging from a basic world-on-fire cliché to a much more original and disturbing vision of golden buzzsaws ceaselessly multiplying and slicing the world into oblivion.

At some point, I stopped having the dreams. Like the rest of the world, I was somewhat chagrined when the new millennium finally arrived somewhat anticlimactically and with very little drama. Eventually my home life did improve in several important ways while also becoming worse in others as I got a little older. That anxiety, however—and specifically the way my subconscious connected personal trauma and distress to fears of world-ending catastrophe—never really went away. What is civilization but a grown-up, globalized version of the childlike ideal of having a safe bed to sleep in at night? Things were better for now, but I was aware of how easily the winds could change.

In high school, I had somehow become friends with one of the rich kids. His parents were divorced like mine, but the whole affair seemed tidier, more antiseptic, more civilized than my parents’ ordeal—rife with hearings, restraining orders, and court-mandated therapy—had been. Nevertheless, he and I were friends, and because of that fact, I found myself invited to his family’s house boat for a week in the summer after my freshman year. Hitherto, vacation had largely meant time filled with even more opportunities to read, so I grabbed a random book from my mother’s bookshelf to occupy myself. That book turned out to be Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

I had never read Asimov before, and I was lucky that the book I had chosen was one of the few examples in his bibliography that was not connected—for the most part—to his robot mythos. It didn’t require a lot of previous knowledge of his work, but it did require my full attention. I was engrossed in the novel to the point of being rude to my hosts. When I was finished with it, I would dive in again, only occasionally putting it down to eat, sleep, or occasionally do the kind of diving I was meant to be doing and swim. At one point, my friend’s father politely asked me what I was reading, and I handed the book to him. “This is the best book I’ve ever read,” I said definitively, despite the fact that if someone had asked me why I felt that way I don’t think I would have been able to answer. He glanced at a few pages and then at me. He smiled, but his eyes seemed to say, Who invited the weird kid?

Despite the hackneyed nature of that label, it was nevertheless one I wore with no small amount of pride, but my version of weird was very square and controlled. I was weird, but to a point. I still cared about what people really thought about me, and I consciously cultivated an image that could appeal to as many people and groups of people as possible. High school is and, many would argue, should be the time for that—there’s a lot to figure out and a sense of identity and independence to establish. By my senior year, a rigorous academic load, strained relationships with both my parents, compartmentalized trauma, and my ever-decreasing ability to bury the knowledge that I was gay all piled onto the more commonly shared trials of adolescence and the unique pressures I had put on myself. I almost imploded. I lost about 50-60 pounds, developed ulcers, and I barely graduated despite being one of the best students at my school just the year before. I had found myself, once again, facing a personal apocalypse.

This period of crisis lasted longer, and with it, the preoccupation with post-apocalyptic survival in the cultural zeitgeist seemed to ramp up as well. The Hunger Games ushered in a return of the fear of society’s most brutal urges… What would it take to make civilization started turning on itself like some sort of autoimmune disease? The Walking Dead was even more on the nose with this idea, exploring the metaphor through the lens of zombies and cannibalism. And outside of literature and television, the world seemed to be fixated, for a time, with the end of the Mayan calendar and another possible doomsday. Against the backdrop of this cultural landscape, my health improved, but my life remained otherwise unrecognizable from the path that seemed to lay before the kid who had first read Foundation on that house boat. Fast forward another ten years—with the pandemic, climate anxiety, and an ever-increasing awareness of racial and economic iniquities contributing to new heights of cultural anxiety and upheaval—and it seems that we’re once again forced to recognize our failures and myriad shortcomings as a society.

This was the context in which I first heard that Foundation was going to be adapted into a TV show on Apple TV+ just a few months ago, and it was like a dam bursting. Strangely, I hadn’t thought about the novel in years, and suddenly it was all I could think about. The details of the plot flooded back into my conscious mind, and the novel’s themes seem more pertinent to me now than ever.

For those who are unfamiliar, the premise of Foundation and the subsequent books in the series begins with a man named Hari Seldon. Seldon is a mathematical genius who has pioneered a discipline he calls psychohistory that enables him to predict the broad strokes of human history thousands of years into the future with a near preternatural accuracy. The problem is that he has taken into account the current Galactic Empire’s deteriorating infrastructure, political power, and economic stature along with a growing ignorance and lack of social responsibility in its citizenry—a state of affairs that might sound all too familiar to readers in 2021—and seen not only the fall of the Empire, but the chaos and suffering that will ensue for many millennia because of it.

Despite his best efforts, Seldon has determined that there is no way to avoid this outcome, and the best he can hope to do is to shorten the time it takes for civilization to recover by creating a Foundation who will work to preserve human knowledge and steer humanity, when it can, on a path that Seldon has shaped. Seeing Seldon and his ideas as dangerous, but also fearing that killing or imprisoning him may make him into a martyr, the Galactic Empire humors Seldon and allows him to form his Foundation in the Empire’s outermost periphery, far from the center of civilization. Little does the Empire know, this is all part of Seldon’s plan—a plan that Seldon also keeps secret from the rest of the Foundation, since too many people armed with the details and foreknowledge might prevent his ideal future from happening.

As the Foundation grows, the Empire begins to crumble just as Seldon predicted. Since the Foundation was on the outskirts of the Empire to begin with, it isn’t long, astronomically speaking, before it loses all contact with the Empire. The vastness of space, the Empire’s shrinking influence, and Seldon’s eventual death leaves the Foundation all alone as it must fulfill Seldon’s mission without access to the knowledge of the future that he possessed.

The first Foundation novel is split into five parts that were each previously published independently as short stories but take place in the same universe at different points in the Foundation’s history. Asimov has stated that the plot of the novel was inspired by Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and it’s not only easy to see those historical parallels in the story but clear reflections of the modern world as well. However, more than the complexities of this world and its philosophical and religious underpinnings, it was the personal stakes that stood out to me the most.

Most of these five stories center on two central characters. As a reader, it’s so interesting to consider this choice when considering the vast scope against which other aspects of the novel play out. These characters exist within a narrative that spans centuries. Even characters with tremendous power and influence in one story may be a speck on a timeline, a historical footnote, unrecognizably transformed by the vagaries of the passage of time, or forgotten altogether in the future. Oddly enough, I took comfort in that. Nothing is so horrible that it lasts forever. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that.

In the first part of Foundation, called “The Psychohistorians,” Seldon talks about the society he finds himself in and calls it “a freezing of caste” and indicts its “damming of curiosity” in describing the factors that make the fall of the Empire inevitable. Reading those words in a modern context made me pause and put the book down for a few moments. I couldn’t help but reflect on the current state of affairs here in 2021. I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, and I thought of the protests against social and racial injustice made just last year in the name of Breonna Taylor. I also thought of how so many refuse to accept scientific fact in modern society, the droves of unvaccinated in my state coming to mind. I forced myself to start reading again. I was seeking asylum and escapism from these thoughts, after all.

The more I read, however, the more I started connecting the dots and realizing that even though the book was eliciting troubling thoughts and feelings from me, I don’t think Foundation is a story about despair—I think it is ultimately about hope. To survive, really survive, one must have hope. I’m not talking about a feeble, passive sort of hope that is based on nothing beyond mere optimism. Foundation and the namesake organization in the novel is about using human history to comfort humanity when it reaches a crisis. Indeed, in later parts of the novel, after Seldon’s death, there are especially bleak moments in the story that the Foundation refers to as “Seldon crises.” In these moments of looming catastrophe—examples include the possibility of atomic interplanetary war, at one point, and religion being used as a crutch and becoming so powerful that it endangers the advancement of civilization at another—all the proponents of the Foundation’s ideals can do is hope that they are acting in accordance with the plan Seldon set them on. Perhaps even more comforting to me was the idea that no matter how traumatic the crisis, its immediacy and potency will wane over time, but the stories and lessons it leaves behind may be significant enough to assist and inspire a future generation of humanity.

Boarding that train of thought and allowing for some introspection, it became clear to me that true hope is ultimately a bold choice full of power and agency. It’s true that no one can escape crisis. It comes for each of us in numerous forms, whether personal or societal, but in crisis there is also incredible opportunity to draw from the strength of humans of the past and to persevere long enough to inspire someone in the future.

It seems to me that much of the media being created and consumed right now reflects a society in crisis. I haven’t yet seen Apple’s Foundation series, but what excites me most about Asimov’s novels and their adaptation in this particular moment in time is that they have the potential to be such indelible reminders of the strength we can find in choosing to accept crisis when one finds oneself in it, and choosing to be hopeful in an actionable way, to act compassionately and work towards a better future.

Reaching this understanding of the book that so resonated with me when I first read it years ago, I cannot help but be comforted, the anxieties left behind by the nightmares from my childhood dispelled. I see the hope that lies at the heart of crisis, whether it be humanity’s or my own. Societal fears and the personal apocalypses I have faced are nothing but Seldon crises waiting to be conquered. They are inevitable, tests that must be confronted, and all we can do is face them with as much knowledge and empathy and understanding as we can—and hold onto the hope that lies in knowing that even if whatever we build now crumbles into ash, something new will eventually arise… something better.

Ben Gierhart is a writer and theater artist based in Louisville, KY. He writes everything from essays, plays, articles, comic book scripts and short stories, but if you want even more, check him out on Twitter (@LunarCrescendo) and Facebook (Ben Gierhart – Writer/Theater Artist)!

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