The Rest of Asimov’s Foundation Story

The Empire Trilogy

Three of Asimov’s earliest novels are tied into the Foundation universe, even though they were very early works. There are some discrepancies since he did not have a completely worked out idea of where everything would go, but that is where you can employ good old retconning, i.e retroactive continuity. For the Empire Trilogy I want to present the three novels in order of their internal chronology rather than publication date. That way we can see the development of this society as Asimov presented it.

The Stars, Like Dust (1951)

This novel is a mystery that begins with a young man named Biron Farrill, from a planet in one of the Nebula kingdoms. He is completing his studies on the planet Earth, which is mostly radioactive. Asimov’s explanation at the time was that this was because of a nuclear war, but he would later retcon this into a different explanation (see below in Robots and Empire). He is told that the Tyranni have killed his father, and that he should leave the Earth. The name Tyranni is not very creative, really, since the name alone tells you they are the bad guys in this story. The plot sends Biron from person to person and planet to planet trying to outrun the danger, but he has stolen a Tyranni ship and they are after him. He is betrayed by one of the people he thought was helping him, and ends up captured by the Tyranni. They go to the coordinates of the supposed rebel world that is going to overthrow the Tyranni, but there is nothing there, and the Tyranni conclude there is no rebel world. But it turns out that the world Biron first went to after leaving Earth, one of the worlds the Tyranni have conquered, is secretly plotting a rebellion, and they have found a document with the power to help them: The U.S. Constitution!

OK, this is not the greatest novel ever written, and Asimov considered it his least favorite. And there is reason to think the Editor of Galaxy Magazine, for which this was written as a serialized novel, may have been a bad influence. Trantor is in the background, which is why we can place this novel in the same universe. But otherwise the connection is tenuous at best.

The Currents of Space (1952)

In this book, Trantor is now a sizeable empire covering about half of the galaxy. The plot revolves around a man named Rik who is suffering from amnesia. But he is gradually recovering his memories. He eventually realizes he was a scientist studying the material of interstellar space in the realm of the planet Sark. Sark has a colony world called Florina which is in the next solar system to Sark, and it produces plant fiber called Kyrt which cannot be grown on any other planet, though no one knows why. As Rik regains his memory he realizes that he had discovered that Florina’s sun is about to go nova due to a current of carbon atoms that is hitting the sun. This is where the title comes from. And it also explains why kyrt can only be grown on Florina, because the carbon atoms flowing into Florina’s sun have caused it to emit light in certain frequencies not found in other stars. When Rik first discovered all of this, someone else used a psychic probe on him, and did so very poorly, which is what caused his amnesia. Of course, this is all political dynamite. Sark depends on Florina for its wealth, and Trantor would very much like to add both Sark and Florina to its growing empire.

It is clear that Asimov is making this an allegory about cotton and slave-holding American south. But of course he wants to make a point about the stupidity of racism, and he does this by making the native population of Florina red-haired and very pale skinned. And they are exploited by the much darker-skinned Sarkians. And Rik’s boss in the scientific agency, who is searching for him, is described as very dark and with wooly hair. So the lighter-skinned people do all the work and the darker-skinned people live of the wealth they produce. Not terribly subtle, perhaps, and Heinlein would do something similar in Farnham’s Freehold where he has the aftermath of a nuclear war resulting in blacks enslaving whites on future Earth. But this novel is a step up from The Stars, Like Dust.

Pebble in the Sky (1950)

This is Asimov’s first novel. He had published the Foundation stories as a series of short stories and novellas that were later collected and treated as novels, but this was written from start to finish as a novel. It starts in the 20th century as Joseph Schwartz, a retired tailor is walking down the street in Chicago, when an accident at a nearby nuclear facility transports him thousands of years into the future. While the amount of time traversed is not specified, a character guesses 50,000 years, but that cannot be correct given how this fits into Asimov’s future history. But it is far enough that Schwartz cannot understand the language. So he is mistaken to be a mental defective, and thus the perfect candidate for experiments aimed at improving brain function , experiments that have already killed several people. But on Schwartz the experiment works, and he not only quickly learns the language but also gains mental powers like telepathy.

Earth is at this time part of the Empire of Trantor, the same Empire from the Foundation series, but in an earlier period where it has not yet controlled the entire Galaxy. Earth is a troublesome and rebellious planet whose inhabitants consider themselves superior to the rest of the Galaxy. A Procurator is the governor imposed by the Empire, and he has a garrison of troops at his disposal. Earth has large areas of radioactivity which are thought to be the cause of some interesting diseases, such as “radiation fever”, but in reality the planet is a hotbed for viruses. A rebel group plans to release a nasty and virulent virus to wipe out their enemies from the Empire, but Schwartz uses his mental powers to stop them.

The title “Procurator” is a clue to what is going on here, because that is the title given to the Roman governor of Judea, and this whole story is an allegory of the Jews vs. the Romans. As we can see from this and the other novels, Asimov frequently relied on historical models for his stories. Foundation itself came from Edward Gibbons’ The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Currents of Space from the antebellum American South in the time of slavery, and now this one. I think in this case the lesson is that the rebellion of the Jews only resulted in the destruction of Judea, and that the rebellion of the Earth people, had they released the virus, would only have resulted in the destruction of Earth.

Also note that in all three of the Empire novels the idea of a radioactive surface of much of the Earth is postulated. When they were first written Asimov was clearly fearing a possible nuclear war. But in the next novel we discuss he changes this, possible because it was written later when the fears of nuclear war had largely receded.

Robots and Empire (1985)

This last novel is not part of the Empire novel group, but it is where Asimov finished connecting his Robot series to his Foundation series. The action takes place on Aurora, Solaria, and Earth, the three planets that featured in the previous robot novels, and many of the previous characters have returned. Not Elijah Bailey, though. This novel takes place 200 years after his death. But the Spacers are much longer lived, so people like Gladia Delmarre, who was at the center of The Naked Sun and then appeared in The Robots of Dawn makes her third appearance, and several others from The Robots of Dawn appear again, both human and robot.

The two main robots are R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov, who have been given to Gladia by their deceased owner in his will. Giskard has apparently developed a form of telepathy that includes the ability to manipulate minds. And he and Daneel have decided that there is a zeroth law that supersedes the Three Laws of Robotics, which places humanity as a whole in the primary position. This allows them to harm individual humans if it is for the good of all humanity, but only with great difficulty because the First Law is so strong.

At the time of this novel, some elements of the Earth population, including descendants of Elijah Bailey, have overcome their agoraphobia and started to move out to the stars. But they are not Spacers. They call themselves Settlers, and they do not have any robots because they have seen how that corrupted the Spacers. Some of the Spacers, though they have become decadent and stopped settling any worlds after Solaria, see the Settlers as a threat and want to wipe them out. They organize a plot using a device called the “nuclear intensifier” which will turn the surface of the Earth radioactive. Giskard and Daneel stop one of them, but this involves harming a person. Giskard can do it using the Zeroth Law, but the stress of this ultimately causes his demise. But the other Spacer intended to set the “nuclear intensifier” to a lower setting that would take longer to turn the surface radioactive, and the two robots decide that actually this would force the vigorous Earth inhabitants to leave and settle the Galaxy, so they let him do it. And Giskard, before he stops functioning completely, transfers to Daneel the secret of his telepathy/mind manipulation power.

With this novel, Asimov now has a new explanation for the radioactivity of the surface that avoids nuclear war. And he explains how he got from having robots to a Galactic Empire without them. Daneel will be very long lived, and some 20,000 years later will appear as the behind-the-scenes power guiding events in Prelude to Foundation, Foundation’s Edge, and Foundation and Earth.

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