Asimov’s heroes looked and acted like sci-fi’s readership

Monday, December 20th, 2021

Zachary D. Carter notes that Edward Gibbon was writing from a moment of disillusion with the British project:

The first volume of his magnum opus was published in 1776, and the American Revolution had made clear to Gibbon that his nation was just as capable of decadent violence as ancient Rome had been. Throughout his four-volume masterpiece, Gibbon interrogates the roles of what we would now call structural forces in Roman society — religion, class, trade, technology, military and administrative capacity, ideology — each of which Asimov gives its own treatment as the dominant theme of a separate Foundation story. But Asimov was not writing amid an embarrassing American military defeat. He was writing instead as a Jewish immigrant enthusiastic about America’s belated entrance into the fight against fascism. Asimov’s Foundation stories are battles between good and evil, but the Galactic Empire is largely absent from them. Once Seldon has predicted its demise, the empire is of little use in Asimov’s narrative. Instead, he moves on to explore state formation, economic expansion, and outworlder alliances, in which the Foundation supplies the good guys and the bad guys want to destroy the Foundation. Asimov’s heroes are witty, clever, and forward-thinking; his villains are angry, violent, and beholden to tradition. Everything is a contest between reason and ignorance. Only the smartest people at the best university in the galaxy can get humanity out of its mess, using the best technology and the most sophisticated mathematics, which of course will eventually come to fruition as a new, benevolent, galaxy-spanning empire of reason.

This break with Gibbon’s history — which was fundamentally an examination of the follies of empire — turned out to be a stroke of commercial genius. Asimov’s themes were perfectly attuned to the technocratic American exceptionalism of the postwar years, when Americans enjoyed the fruits of a new empire while denying that their government’s political hegemony could be considered an empire at all. Asimov’s heroes looked and acted more like sci-fi’s readership than the square-jawed space cowboys of Thrilling Wonder Stories did. Asimov’s heroes were nerds, and reading his stories would eventually become a rite of passage for generations of freaks and geeks.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    And he was a really good writer, too, some 300 or so books on various topics, and not one bad work or sex scene in any of it.

    Once he discovered there was more money to be had as a sci-fi writer, he more or less gave up being an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Boston University.

    I find it interesting that two of my favorite writers, Asimov and Robert Parker, were faculty in neighboring universities, Boston University and Northeastern University (my alma mater).

  2. Bert says:

    Hari Seldon wasn’t gung-ho about the Empire. He made it clear that it was just better than the alternative.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I had to look up Robert Parker. He wrote the Spenser novels, which inspired Spenser for Hire:

    Parker received a PhD in English literature from Boston University in 1971. His dissertation, titled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality,” discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.

    I then had to look up Ross Macdonald. He wrote the Lew Archer novels.

  4. Bert says:

    Bob Sykes,

    He wrote well in that he wrote in no particular style. (Someone claimed that writing in no particular style is a style of writing.) I get the impression that both he and Clarke tried to be more literary in their later works, but it felt pasted on. Literary writing is very good if you get it right, but they were both plot-driven authors; they should have stuck to that.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Chandler hated MacDonald. Me, I like them both.

    I also like Asimov’s Foundation stuff, for entirely different reasons.

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