Building on Foundations
by Greg Benford
It is one thing to be an sf fan, another to become a professional, and still more to find oneself walking the hallowed halls of a literary monument, adding a wing to citadels where once you had tread with hushed whispers.
Asimov's Foundation series began in World War II, as America arced toward its zenith as a world power. The series played out over decades as the United States dominated the world's matters in a fashion no other nation ever had. Yet the Foundation is about imperium and decline. Did this betray an anxiety, born even in the moment of approaching glory?
I had always wondered if this was so. Part of me itched to explore the issues which lace the series.
The idea of writing further novels in the Foundation universe came from Janet Asimov and the Asimov estate's representative, Ralph Vicinanza. Approached by them, I at first declined, being busy with physics and my own novels. But my subconscious, once aroused, refused to let go the notion.
After half a year of struggling with ideas plainly made for the Foundation, persistently demanding expression, I finally called up Ralph Vicinanza and began putting together a plan to construct a fittingly complex curve of action and meaning, to be revealed in several novels. Though we spoke to several authors about this project, the best suited seemed two hard sf writers broadly influenced by Asimov and of unchallenged technical ability: Greg Bear and David Brin.
Bear, Brin and I have kept in close touch while I wrote the first volume, for we intend to create three stand-alone novels which none the less carry forward an overarching mystery to its end. Elements of this make their first appearance here, to amplify further through Greg Bear's Foundation and Chaos, finding completion in Brin's Third Foundation. (These are preliminary titles.) I have planted in the narrative prefiguring details and key elements which shall bear later fruit.
Genres are constrained conversations. Constraint is essential, defining the rules and assumptions open to an author. If hard sf occupies the center of science fiction, that is probably because hardness gives the firmest boundary. Science itself yields crisp confines.
Genres are also like immense discussions, with ideas developed, traded, mutated, their variations spun down through time. Players ring changes on each other--more like a steppin'-out jazz band than a solo concert in a plush auditorium. Contrast "serious" fiction (more accurately described, in my eyes, as merely self-consciously solemn). It has canonical classics that supposedly stand outside of time, deserving awe, looming great and intact by themselves.
Much of the pleasure of mysteries, of espionage novels or sf, lies in the interaction of writers with each other and, particularly in sf's invention of fandom, with the readers as well. This isn't a defect; it's the essential nature of popular culture, which the United States has dominated in our age, with the invention of jazz, rock, the musical, and written genres such as the western, the hardboiled detective, modern fantasy and other rich areas. Many kinds of sf (hard; utopian; military; satirical) share assumptions, code words, lines of argument, narrative voices. Fond remembrance of golden age Astounding and its letter column, of the New Wave, of Horace Gold's Galaxy -- these are echoes of distant conversations earnestly carried out.
Genre pleasures are many, but this quality of shared values within an on-going discussion may be the most powerful, enlisting lifelong devotion in its fans. In contrast to the Grand Canon view of great works standing like monoliths in a deserted landscape, genre reading satisfactions are a striking facet of modern democratic (pop) culture, a shared movement.
There are questions about how writers deal with what some call the "anxiety of influence" but which I'd prefer to term more mildly: the digestion of tradition.
I'm reminded of John Berger's definition of hack work, describing oil painting in Ways of Seeing, as ". . . not the result of either clumsiness or provincialism; it is the result of the market making more insistent demands than the art." Fair enough; but this can happen in any context. Working in a known region of concept-space does not necessarily imply that the territory has been mined out. Nor is fresh ground always fertile.
Surely we should notice that a novel Hemingway thought the best in American literature is a sequel -- indeed, following on a boy's book, Tom Sawyer?
Sharing common ground isn't only a literary tradition. Are we thrown into moral confusion when we hear Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini? Do we indignantly march from the concert hall when assaulted by Variations on a Theme by Haydn? Sharecropping by The Greats? Shocking!
Reinspecting the assumptions and methods of classical works can yield new fruit. Fresh narrative can both strike out into new territory while reflecting on the landscape of the past. Recall that "Hamlet" drew from several earlier plays about the same plot.
Isaac himself revisited the Foundation, taking different angles of attack each time. In the beginning, psychohistory equated the movements of people as a whole with the motions of molecules. The Second Foundation looked at perturbations to such deterministic laws (the Mule) and implied that only a superhuman elite could manage instabilities. Later, robots emerged as the elite, better than humans at dispassionate government. Beyond robots came Gaia . . . and so on.
In this three-book series we three "Killer Bs" who stand in the shadow of Asimov and his generation shall reinspect the role of robots, and what psychohistory might look like as a theory. More riffs upon the basic tune.
So I set out to walk the sacrosanct lyceum where once as a boy I had stood in awed wonder. As I'll detail next time, there were oddities and surprises galore.
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