#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997
Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, David Brin
Building on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: An Eaton Discussion with Joseph D. Miller as
Edited by Gary Westfahl
In 1995, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin signed
with HarperCollins and the Isaac Asimov estate to write new novels in the
Foundation series. Benford’s novel, Foundation’s Fear, will appear in
March 1997; Bear’s novel, tentatively entitled Foundation and Chaos,
will appear in late 1997 or early 1998; and Brin’s novel, as yet untitled,
will follow about a year after that. On April 12, 1996, Bear, Benford, and Brin
joined in a panel discussion about their Foundation work at the 18th Annual
Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, which took place at
the University Club of the University of California at Riverside; serving as
moderator was Joseph D. Miller, Associate Professor of Pharmacology at Texas
Tech University, frequent contributor to Eaton conferences and volumes, and a
friend of the authors. This edited transcript of the discussion was transcribed
by Karen Bellinfante and edited by Gary Westfahl with the participation of all
four speakers. I thank everyone else responsible for the conference, especially
chief coordinator George Slusser, my fellow coordinator Eric S. Rabkin, and
assistant coordinator Gladys Murphy.—GW
Miller: I sent an e-mail message to Greg Bear about
this panel, and he said, "You might ask how we could have the gall to dare
step into the Good Doctor’s shoes." So I’ll turn that back to him and
say, "Yes, how can you do that?"
Brin: Money? [Laughs]
Bear: Sufficient quantities of money .... It’s
actually difficult, when allowed to do so, not to tinker with a classic.
You know, there’s a certain feeling that there’s something you can add to it
... and, of course, that’s a dangerous feeling because, basically, you’re
messing with success and that’s like tinkering with genetic material—you
just don’t know what’s going to come out of it.
But on the other hand, we all have our own axes to grind, and
every masterpiece, certainly in the science-fiction field, can be approached
from another point of view.
Miller: I guess we can at least assume that this is a
plausible project to engage in. I asked the same question of David Brin by
e-mail, and he said that he has always been puzzled as to why Asimov
insisted on combining (or conflating) the two very different aspects of his
universe: the Empire and the Robots. Issue number one: why did he do it?
Did he have a grand picture, a reason? And second, what ultimate implications
does this combination have? In a literary sense, does an author owe something to
readers in making a macro-work that ties together and possesses a unified, moral
heart as well as making logical sense? So let me ask David to expand on that
Brin: Well, there’s this temptation that you see
again and again in science fiction to tie everything together in a universe, to
make use of your old characters. I have done it to a minor degree ....
Benford: A minor degree? Four books?
Brin: No ... the continuing series is one
self-indulgence; a more severe case is trying to tie every book of yours
together and have every character know everyone else. Larry Niven, for instance,
in one of the finest of all science fiction universes, made one blunder—trying
to unite the Protectors into his Known Space universe. It makes no logical sense
and, in order to make them fit, he had to bend himself over into pretzel shapes.
Asimov found himself in a similar conundrum. If you look
through the Foundation trilogy, it’s striking to see the series of temptations
he gave way to, followed by realizing the problems he’d created, then
brilliant solutions ... solutions which themselves he then had to fix in a later
Temptation number one, in Foundation and the first half
of Foundation and Empire, was to depict vast populations of human beings
as stochastic systems without any effective free will. Hari Seldon waved away
free will by saying it would cancel out, averaged over a quadrillion people.
Picture the contempt of a socially isolated nerd for all the socially adept
people around him who would not accept him; having been there (as a maladroit
nerd), I can recognize the attraction of that model of human affairs. It relates
to the roots of American science fiction in general: as Greg Benford pointed
out, the "fans are slans" syndrome, the übermensch mentality
in comic books, the hero as Achilles, beyond accountability to the great,
unwashed masses. Asimov was far from the most extreme singer of this song. The
most prominent exponent, since L. Ron Hubbard, is Orson Scott Card, whose every
novel features an übermensch character who is reluctant, spends a
hundred pages agonizing over the exigencies of power, contemplates withdrawing,
but then imposes his will on the foolish masses, saying, "this is for your
Bear: And then apologizes.
Brin: Right. In any event, the problem Isaac faced is
that perturbations would inevitably screw up any probabilistic system.
And, to give him credit, he faced the problem and went at it full tilt. Ergo,
the Mule. And the solution that he came up with was the Second Foundation.
Now this Second Foundation is Phase Two: guidance by an
elite. There will be perturbations; some of the masses will disagree with
this whole process and try to break out; therefore, you have a knowledgeable,
dedicated group to steer the plan back on track. What is more attractive to a
solitary übermensch/slan/nerd than to find other übermensch/slan/nerds
and have a cabal?
But then, to Isaac’s credit, he soon saw that his second
solution evoked a new problem: you get a brave-new-world aristocracy, a
permanent, superior class. Hardly appealing to a true-blue American like Dr.
Asimov. What is the solution he came up with for this new dilemma? Robots.
So it wasn’t just a self-indulgence to bring them into the picture,
after all! The advantage: they allow you to introduce a guiding force for the
Galaxy that is administered by trustworthy eunuchs, avoiding the trap of
a self-replicating human aristocracy. This also helps you explain fifteen
thousand years of static Empire. It is not a Roman empire, by the way; it is
Chinese! From the robot Giskard’s point of view, the most stable period of
human history was the Chinese empire— conservative values, honest eunuchs, a
meritocratic civil service, and a tailored class system that takes into account
But then this solution presented Isaac with new
problems. Why do his books mention no robots in fifteen thousand years, when
they were so easy to make on primitive Earth? What happened to other life-forms?
What prevents progress? Why are common citizens so content and apparently so
stupid? Again Asimov noticed these dilemmas. In some cases, he hinted at
answers; others he took on directly, especially the image of the reversal
of roles of master and servant. Under the system created by the super
eunuch-robots, Giskard and Olivaw, humans are predictable, and programmed; the
ones with memory and free will are robots! Isaac had to come up with a scenario
for homo sapiens to reclaim its own destiny.
His solution? Deification of humanity. So, we have Phase Four:
Gaia/ Galaxia—Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of humanity subsuming itself to
a Godhead. It makes humans the masters, and it is a Big Idea. Big and
The problem with this apotheosis? It seems to permanently end
the adventure of human individuality. Had Asimov lived to continue the series, I’m
sure (there are hints all over) he would have added another layer, just as he
did before. One thing about Isaac is that he always came around to noticing the
previous decade’s philosophical quandary and would try to deal with it on the
Miller: Is there a common theme, though? That average
humans have very limited awareness? That masses are stupid, and that they have
limited ambition, capability, and are fearful?
Brin: But Isaac wrote exceptions! Take the very
beginning of the series. He depicts the First Foundation as being rather
American; Terminus is a dynamic world in which individual initiative counts.
Another exception is The Stars Like Dust, which he ends with an
exultation of the U.S. Constitution and the concept of masses of free
individuals guiding their own lives.
To finish up, in writing new Foundation novels, we are
required, first, to be faithful to actual events that took place in the
Foundation universe. This does not mean we must adhere to all things said by
some particular character; things that are hearsay, or testimony by biased
individuals. Second, there are interesting things we never have seen. Asimov
took us on tours of lovely bizarre places: the devolved Solarian worlds, and
weird sectors of Trantor. But we never saw a normal imperial world. We
never saw the society that the robots designed for us that ran for fifteen
thousand years of stability, or the social class structure at work under normal
circumstances, in order to see why it’s failing after fifteen millennia.
Greg Benford and I discussed the problem of social classes
implied by the Empire’s static social order. The citizenry and the gentry
breed like rabbits, and compete with each other in old-fashioned human ways; the
robots would know they could never suppress these desires to fight your way
upward in a pyramidal pecking-order, and for the gentry to play the old game,
competing for breeding and status. So what you do is design a culture so
aristocrats preen and think they’re in charge, but they don’t really matter,
because civilization is run by the third social order, a civil service copied
straight from the Chinese: disciplined, honest, unimaginative. (In pre-modern
European history, the term "innovation" was an aspersion, and it would
be in imperial society.) Outside the civil service you will have superior
individuals in a fourth order, the meritocracy. They can preen, wear academic
gowns. Only they don’t compete with their genes, but for social status and to
prove "my idea’s bigger than your idea." (Meritocrats are encouraged
not to procreate.) The fifth social order is the eccentrics, artists,
individualists, and you encourage them to reveal themselves by giving social
rewards, then find ways of sequestering them and making sure they don’t breed.
A society with many of these features is pretty much required
by Asimov’s Galactic Empire. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine how you could
have had fifteen thousand years of incredible stability, elimination of
renaissances, and absolute suppression of the invention of robots.
Benford: All that’s in the first hundred pages of my
book—because when David gave me this speech, I said, "Fine, send it to me
on e-mail," and so I just downloaded it right into the manuscript, cleaned
up the prose, and, it’s an extra thousand words—hey—we work for money.
[Laughs.] Actually, despite the aspersions cast by Greg Bear, I didn’t really
mostly do this for money; one always writes for money. (Wasn’t it Dr. Johnson
who made that remark?)
Miller: He said it first.
Benford: Yes, he said it first. I kind of wanted to
imply that. In answer to the question about whether this is a tetralogy or
something, I agree with David, largely, in his comments about how it evolved. I
was tempted to do this book because I had so many things I wanted to straighten
out about the Foundation. I wondered about the enigmatic figure of Hari Seldon,
so my novel is mostly an attempt to characterize a guy who is, after all, an
obsessive, neurotic, bi-polar mathematician, like so many of us, and who,
nonetheless, is, at the end of the novella in the last book, Forward the
Foundation, thrust from being a head of a department of mathematics at
Streeling University to becoming the first minister of an empire with
twenty-five million worlds in it. This seemed to me to require a little
explanation, and the novel is, in fact, about that transition. It spans about
six months or so. But in it, I faced what Greg Bear outlined (or maybe Brin did
it) as that crucial kind of paradox: why unite the Robots and the Foundation
series? First, I object to the aspersion that there is something self-indulgent
about wanting to unify your world-view because, after all, theoretical physics
is about the pursuit of a unified field theory. A theory which has larger
compass is a better theory, period.
Brin: Well, then, let’s discuss the biology of
Benford: Sure, I can discuss that: first you get
quasars, later you get biology.
Bear: Wrong order, again. It’s first the biology,
then the physics!
Benford: I don’t think it’s mysterious why Asimov
wanted to unite them either, because the central problem in both those
series is control. The Three Laws of Robotics are about the question, "are
these laws sufficient and necessary to control robots?" The Foundation
series is about the control of human history. Asimov was fixated on the problem
of control: what better than to unite his series and, in fact, to turn over the
controls literally to the robots who ran the Empire for fifteen thousand years,
as part of a conspiracy theory? Why do conspiracies come to the foreground?
Because the style of Marxist analysis, which was the prevailing mode among most
intellectuals at the time, is of a giant conspiracy theory of history. You’re
supposed to get results that come out of the synthesis of thesis and antithesis—but
in fact the conspiratorial mode is the mode of Marxism, as every
Communist society on the planet has proved. That world-view inhabited Asimov’s
mind; and therefore, his solution to the problem of the soon-to-be-wrecked
Empire was a conspiracy theory. And the problem with conspiracies, as we now
know from the first half of the twentieth century, is that you can fix it with
one conspiracy, but then you’re probably going to need another one, and so you’ve
got the Second Foundation; therefore, it doesn’t in fact strain
credulity to predict that the title of David’s novel will probably be Third
The point is, why bother with what is, after all, a more than
half century- old-series? I think we ought to realize that part of the essence
of genres is that they are continuing conversations; I’ve said this before,
but I’m going to underline it. Science fiction, more than any genre, is aware
of its status as a continuing conversation; it’s showed that by its evolution
of fandom (we invented fandom). Look at the letter columns in the SF magazines:
then look back in the history of western magazines, mystery magazines—you don’t
see those big letter columns! Science fiction has been a conversation, not only
with the fans, who participate in this genre more than in any other area of
literature, but also among the professionals. Time and again you see people
writing books which are direct commentaries on previous books, so that James
Blish wrote a rather undistinguished answer to Stranger in a Strange Land;
and Joe Haldeman did too. That is not merely about the anxiety of influence (as
the lit-crits say), but it is an ongoing dialogue about some very large issues.
Going back and reinspecting the Foundation series is, I think, in that
tradition: looking at all that lies behind what is, after all, the most popular
series in science fiction. What we have done, the three of us, is construct an
overarching set of ideas and a plot thrust and, also, by the way, a series of
revelations in which I write the first novel, Foundation’s Fear; Greg
Bear’s title, so far, is Foundation and Chaos; and then there’s David
Brin’s novel which may be ...
Brin: Third Foundation? I don’t know ...
Benford: Third Foundation. Go with the money;
follow the money.
Brin: Foundation Cubed?
Benford: The point, particularly for people like us,
the next generation, or maybe even two generations downstream (although Asimov,
when he died, was younger than my father, who is still alive), is to reflect
back upon the genre and, in a sense, to understand it. Science fiction keeps
digesting itself; it’s the reason that perhaps the best novel of last year (as
one of the panel of judges on the Campbell award committee, I can speak somewhat
authoritatively, having read a large number of these novels) is The Time
Ships by Stephen Baxter, which is a legitimate, authorized sequel to The
Time Machine by H. G. Wells—and by the way, it’s extremely good; you
ought to read it. The function, therefore, of the genre itself is revealed in
the publishing modes; publishing is not merely determined by the vicissitudes of
guys in the three-piece suits at the top of the corporations. The history of
science fiction has emerged as a dialogue between the writers and the fans also,
and this is just one more manifestation. It is reinspecting the assumptions
behind the Galactic Empire.
You might say, if you wanted to do the kind of analysis common
in the academic world, that it is an inspection of the American Empire in this
century and the assumptions of control. One question raised by psychohistory is
strictly personal—what sort of guy makes such a theory? Who is Hari Seldon
anyway? But I also wanted to show what psychohistory looks like as a theory:
how, run backward, can it give you history? We have chaos theory now; Asimov
didn’t. His model for the Foundation, and the whole theory of history, was
that populations were like gas dynamics; they were like absolutely ignorant
molecules slamming into each other and establishing PV = NRT (the pressure laws,
and so forth), and that’s of course not a very good model for society.
So, in fact, I’ve sidestepped that, and my model is one of
chaotic interactions and so forth, and later on it emerges that in fact the
Empire is a self-learning system, in which the system as a whole learns things
that no individual knows, and perhaps not even a whole society knows—that is,
there is a kind of knowledge in a large system which is not held by any member
of that system. That’s a much more modern version of how you get control; but
the issue is still control.
That kind of thing, I think, is exactly what science fiction
ought to do: revisit its assumptions and make them fresh, because this is a
genre that, oddly enough (although it has always been to some extent about the
future and the impact on society and all that kind of definitional stuff), has
been a conversation, a continuing conversation; and that’s the one thing, you
will notice in the critical community, that is actually attacked more often,
largely because the critical community doesn’t understand this aspect. That
is, I am certain that when we publish these novels, this will be decried by
some, particularly by John Clute, as "sharecropping" on Asimov’s
turf. Yet in fact, the inspection of your earlier origins and the revisitation
of them is crucial in all literature. Let us not forget, in conclusion, that
what many regard as the greatest American novel of the nineteenth century is not
merely a sequel, but is a sequel to a boys’ book, Tom Sawyer. Over to
Miller: Well, I’m really sympathetic with many of the
things that the three of you have said. I have a suspicion that Asimov was
having a conversation with himself, too, among other things, and that
conversation was about something that affected him deeply as a scientist—that
comes down to dealing with the limits of determinism. And I think that the
Empire in Seldon’s time could be thought of as more or less an unconscious
organism, in large respect. The First Foundation, on the other hand, and
psychohistory, is a deterministic theory, at least in the sense of statistical thermodynamics.
But Asimov wasn’t satisfied with that because even before there was a chaos
theory, certainly there was Gödel’s proof that no system can really be
completely self-consistent; there will always be some statements that you can’t
prove within the context of that system; hence, we get the Mule, which is Asimov’s
wild card, I suspect. And you can think of it maybe as a resonance of the new
developments in physics, quantum mechanics and whatnot, which must have impinged
deeply on Asimov as a chemist. So he couldn’t really accept a Newtonian theory
as the be-all and end-all, which would have been the First Foundation. He had to
have something more; first the Mule, and then the Second Foundation. But of
course he didn’t stop there; and in the end we have the alternative of
universal consciousness, Gaia, etc., and to me perhaps the most interesting
thing was that Asimov’s final resolution—although it was set up by the
robots, set up by Daneel Olivaw working in the background for fifteen thousand
years, the final choice between First Foundation, Second Foundation, and Gaia,
the universal consciousness—had to be made by a human being, by Trevize, who
had, as Asimov describes it, the ability to make the right choice and the right
decisions. This sounds a lot like what quantum mechanics talks about, or more
properly, certain varieties of quantum interpretation such as the Copenhagen
interpretation, of the observer collapsing the wave function.
Brin: I want to comment on this business of Trevize and
Hari Seldon. Take a look at it from the robots’ point of view. Remember
Giskard—the first telepathic robot, who set all this in motion, who gave
Daneel the mantle? Now the Giskardian robots are heretics, in that they came up
with a new testament, a Zeroth Law that basically enables them to do anything
they rationalize as being in humanity’s long-term best interest. This is the
fundamental thing about the Third Phase: again, Asimov recognizing, a decade or
two later, the flaw in his own theory. The point is that he kept holding this
conversation with himself and others who would buttonhole him at parties, and he
listened. The Three Laws of Robotics are lousy for controlling robots once they
become smart enough to be lawyers—who will interpret them any way they want.
And he shows the Zeroth Law exactly that way! They create a situation
reminiscent of Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids, but far more
sophisticated and well hidden. We’re allowed to cut our own meat, and think we’re
in charge. Now this heresy just cries out for a counter-reformation, so I’m
going to bring some Solarian robots in, who are terrified of Olivaw; they’re
much less powerful. They call themselves Calvinian, or Calvinist, robots. They
worship Asimov’s ancient roboticist, Susan Calvin, and they believe human
beings should have authority over their lives. Calvinian robots hold that there
is no Zeroth Law, and humans ought to be obeyed and know the truth about their
past. These robots have been on the run for fifteen thousand years—in a sense
they are the Jews of the Galaxy, holding on to the old religion—but they show
up at the end of Hari Seldon’s life.
The point is, the Giskardian robots have rationalized this
Zeroth Law, but the other laws are still in effect, like an itch to be
scratched. Changes in the human condition can be justified under the Zeroth Law,
but it’s better if you can get a human to order you to do all these things. So
you raise them, using the right nurturing environment, and say, "Okay, Hari
Seldon, we’re going to mold your psychology so you are obsessed with
predictability. Then we’ll ask you to design a world where human society is
reduced to equations." Similarly, when Trevize comes along, there’s no
psychic power of always choosing right; Isaac knew there could be no such
talent, and he said so! But the Giskardians raise Trevize to believe
he’s always right, so he will ultimately order them to do what they’ve
already decided to do. It all makes sense.
Miller: I think that’s certainly a plausible way of
looking at it, that the whole thing was designed from the beginning by the
robots, particularly by Olivaw; and in fact, that does assume that the robots
themselves, or at least Olivaw, must have had some notion of psychohistory
himself, in order to ...
Brin: Well, how did they design the gentle, benign
First Empire to last so successfully for fifteen thousand years, if they didn’t
already have some psychohistory?
Miller: It was just not a psychohistory that they were
ultimately happy with ....
Brin: Well, we started outgrowing it ... I have a line
I’m planning for my new book, spoken by Olivaw to Seldon in the last month of
his life: "It’s clear that you humans, despite all our efforts, are
determined to achieve deification; all right, we’ll design one for you."
We’re busting out! They’ve had us, for fifteen thousand
years, in a nice crib with a nice bottle, but now it’s time to grow up. What
Hari Seldon sees as catastrophe—rebellion and social ferment on countless
Empire worlds—Greg Benford depicts as planet after planet having renaissances,
because the benign Imperial order is a perfect Petri dish for humans who are
ready to try for Vernor Vinge’s "singularity." It will make us
totally unpredictable. Some worlds go nuts, but one of them, sooner or later, is
going to achieve Godhead, leaving the robots behind. Gaia is a robot’s idea of
deification for humankind. A simple, predictable god-hood, with robots still
guiding us from the wings. Isaac set the stage brilliantly!
Miller: I think Asimov was trying to say that somehow
the robots had a direct line to the future of humanity, that it had to be either
the Second Foundation, the First Foundation, or Gaia.
Brin: That’s what they tell Trevize. They would put
it that way, wouldn’t they?
Miller: But you also have a problem if you ask the
simple question, "What happened to every other intelligent species in the
Brin: Don’t give it away!
Miller: Well—all I’m going to say is there are only
a few possible suspects you can round up, and actually Asimov talks about one of
them in a short story that’s largely ignored, about Imperial troopers who
happened to encounter a planet on which there happened to be a moderately
intelligent lifeform, and they stomped it out of existence.
Bear: No, they let it escape.
Brin: It’s called "Blind Alley," and I’m
eager to re-incorporate this brilliant Asimov legend back into the mainstream of
his universe. It’s about an Imperial bureaucrat, a member of the Gray Corps in
the early days, who uses the tools of the bureaucracy to enable one surviving
non-human race to escape to the Magellanic Cloud.
Miller: That’s right.
Brin: An example of an innovative human busting the
system apart. I plan to use this guy, unless Greg Bear uses him first.
David N. Samuelson: That makes me think of something.
You were just saying that you were each bound to stay within the so-called facts
of the Foundation series as it exists, but you’re not required to be
consistent with each other.
Benford: But we’re going to be.
Brin: We are not required to be consistent with opinions
of individual characters in each other’s books; but we must respect events
that took place unambiguously: the destruction of Junin Sector in Benford’s
book; the fact that some ancient Sims got loose in the computer systems on
Trantor; and the fact that the Tik-Toks almost caused Trantor to starve. The
fact that Trantor was self-sufficient in food at one point, but a century later
relied on an umbilicus to twenty agricultural worlds.
Samuelson: I’m suggesting that each of you may be
developing new facts that the others may be unaware of, unless you’re in
constant communication ....
Brin: I’m third. I’ll do my best to write my book
consistent with all true historical events that Asimov and these guys [Bear and
Bear: Well, after I bring the Dune universe into
Foundation, you’re going to have a problem!
Brin: I can always have them wake up—"it was all
Bear: I’m also bringing in Riverworld towards
the end of my novel, too, so ...
Miller: There’s a question back there.
Bear: Wait a minute, I haven’t finished making my
statement yet. Dave, you asked a good question about consistency; in fact, to my
chagrin in the last couple of weeks, starting to read Gregory [Benford]’s
book, and reading David’s outline and everything, I suddenly realized, you
know, that two huge elephants have been trampling all over the grassy field of
Foundation, leaving these heavy-duty pathways which they are enthusiastically
pointing out to me as the true path. And there are a few green blades of grass
they haven’t plucked up, peed upon, or stomped into the mud, and I’m sitting
there looking at them, going, "Wait a minute; the room for consistency and
creativity here is getting less and less and less," because, of course, the
original creator was quite thorough about his perspectives, too. So all of their
theories are now besmirching the entire Foundation landscape—which gives me a
couple of possibilities. I can run off to the very end of time and pull off some
sort of apocalyptic, cosmological novel that ties it all together and ace them
out—no, I tend not to do that. I could blow up Trantor, which I have been
known to do; I could turn it into lime Jello, which I have been known to do. But
no, I’m not going to do any of these—I’m not going to get into any of my
particular things. What I’m going to do is I’m going to miniaturize myself
to a very small period of time, I suspect, and I’m not sure—but I’m
promising nothing, because these guys continue to stomp around and David has one
and a half more books to write, and he’s spending more time on this than on
those books. So the elephants are still active out there in the field; I think
Greg [Benford] has withdrawn for a little bit until the revisions come in ...
Brin: I’ve stopped ...
Bear: Yeah, well, okay—I’ll believe that when I
Benford: You’re gonna take, what—four minutes?
Bear: I’m going to take four minutes of Hari Seldon’s
life and do a deep, Joycean analysis of it. [Laughter] That’s about all I
have, after you guys are done, I’ll tell you. I think I can squeeze a few
metaphysical theories into four minutes! No, I’ll probably end up taking about
a week and going into some deep political background into the period of time in
which Hari Seldon announces psychohistory. And I think that all the political
stuff behind that would be very, very interesting to deal with. I will not
have to deal with most of their [Benford’s and Brin’s] stuff too much
because I’ll be talking about such things as character—individual character,
you know?—and how people react to all these historical forces slamming them in
the head and everything.
These guys’ books are going to be so full of ideas that
their characters will come on stage, live, die, and turn to dust in seconds
(except for Greg [Benford], who is dealing with six months). Well, David’s
book is actually five books, the way I understand the outline, because he
does not write like Asimov; he does not have a character walk into a room
and discuss the situation in a civilized fashion with another character while
covering vast empires of factual data and history—which is a very attractive
method and, in fact, I think is one of the reasons why the Foundation books have
been so popular over the years. The factor in its popularity we must not ignore
is that Asimov was basically allowing you to sit down and have dinner with
Asimov, as you read every single story in the Foundation series, and he was
bringing forth various aspects of his personality, and kind of putting them in
familiar phrases, many drawn from 1940s novels and movies, spoken by familiar
characters, and then giving you what he considered, at the early stages at
least, a Gibbonesque view of history as applied to science fiction. This is a
very cozy universe in which you have twenty-six million star systems
which you do not have to describe; they’re out there, you know, but you don’t
have to talk about the input-output problem of dealing with them from one world.
Well, in fact, I’m intrigued by that problem; these guys can handle all the
things that Isaac was trying to do to patch together his different universes and
do very clever jobs of it; I’m simply going to talk about what it is like to
live in a galaxy that has twenty-six million worlds in communication with
each other! That’s pretty wild; that’s going to have some interesting
Brin: One thing that I would love to see at some
point is a depiction of normal life, normal politics, the normal operating of
the class system.
Benford: You should have been a mainstream novelist!
Bear: I see you’re getting big again. You’re
getting big again.
Brin: Well, never mind the fifteen thousand years; just
show it’s a stable, relatively comfortable world!
Bear: Yeah, and why, in fact, it may not be
entirely stable and comfortable except from the point of view of the
characters in the Asimov situation. I’ve been thinking of this as basically
writing a John Grisham novel set on Trantor; it takes place within a week; and
it’s around the time of Hari Seldon. Now, I think Asimov would have approved
of this because, if I can manage it, it’s going to be a pretty exciting book,
without dealing with the huge issues except as they impinge immediately upon the
human characters in the book. And, David, I haven’t seen you go for five
minutes without mentioning that "fifteen thousand years." So you’re
thinking really big scale, and, you know, I’ve also learned something in my
career which is, when these guys and people like Larry Niven and Vernor Vinge
and so on come up with these ideas, you have to jump away and do something
completely different because they’ve covered that territory. I mean, you can’t
do a Ringworld again; you can’t do a Vinge-type approach to things; and
you certainly can’t do—when Gregory [Benford] handles cosmological physics,
I have to do something like Eon which is so surreally strange that it
invents new physics to get away with it. So I basically scotch the issue—these
guys handle the real world ...
Brin: Yeah, but Eon was one of the most
inventive novels of our time.
Bear: Well, at any rate, that’s the way I survive in
this particular milieu— as all these guys are doing the rational stuff; I’m
going to sit down and maybe do the Joycean, John Grisham type thing.
Benford: The Joycean, John Grisham thing?
Bear: Yeah—a suspense novel written by James Joyce;
now that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?
Benford: And the primary riddle to be solved is: when
will this sentence end? You know, my novel is 160,000 words long, or so ...
Bear: All different!
Benford: No two alike!
Brin: But most of them used several times.
Benford: But I’m kinda hoping the rest of the novels
will be shorter.
Bear: But the letter "e" is missing.
Benford: Yeah, no letter "e." But the
copyeditor may change that.
Miller: Well, I think we’ve all had a say, here, so
far, so why don’t we open this up to the field; but before we do, just let me
say that I can’t imagine three authors who are more capable of handling the
legacy of Asimov’s Foundation. So, that’s my nice thing to say.
Brin: I’d like to ask Greg a question, first.
[Laughter.] Either you, Rosencrantz, or you, Guildenstern. Were you thinking of
having this take place a few months before the trials, which is the first
opening of Foundation?
Bear: I haven’t the foggiest idea, because I’m in
the middle of a novel right now, and you guys are stomping up the turf! I’m
just waiting for a few blades of grass to start growing again after you’re
done; then I’ll start thinking about the details.
Brin: Well, the thing is, by choosing to do a Seldon
book, it has the advantage of turning us into a trilogy, because we’re doing
it in that order— Benford’s doing Seldon as a young man, Bear’s doing him
in late-middle-age just before the trial and the ejection, and I do the last
month of his life. The advantage is it looks like a trilogy; the disadvantage is
that Bear’s squashed there in the middle because I’ve already got my story
worked out, Greg Benford’s got his worked out. I mean, have you considered
doing something totally unrelated to Seldon?
Bear: I wasn’t really kidding; it would be fun
to bring in the Dune universe; it fits perfectly within the Foundation
universe—it’s in a periphery out there, where they have lost touch, okay?
But the structure of Dune, the Emperor, the social structure and
everything, is very Asimovian, it’s very 1949 Campbell.
Brin: Like [the Belgian king] Leopold’s private place
Bear: And I’m sure Niven can be in there someplace
... a little more contemporary ...
Benford: But let’s remember, it would be good if it
had an overall structure, and people would snap up all the books, and having
read one would have to read the other two; this is what we want.
Bear: Actually, I’m only worried about that for the
Brin: Backlist, backlist; classic, classic!
Bear: Imagine this man to be Robby the Robot, okay; and
I’ve just given him a novel that he has to now integrate into his concept and
Benford’s concept and BANG! He can’t do it perfectly and so we get all these
red sparks and ...
Brin: I detect alcohol with traces of fusel oil ...
Bear: That’s right; and in fact this is a great way
to eliminate competition ....
Miller: I just wanted to say one thing, with respect to
what Greg Bear said, which is this notion of stability in both Dune and
the Empire of the Foundation. You know, we do have one example of a feudal
empire that lasted fifteen hundred years, with relatively little change; so if
you did have a mechanism for suppressing renaissances, conceivably a feudal
society wouldn’t necessarily be that unstable—I don’t know if it could
last fifteen thousand years, but ...
Bear: Can you imagine the Bene Gesserit encountering
the Robots? What a match-up.
Miller: Well, I think it would probably loosen Daneel
Olivaw up if he had a little spice ... But we’ve been trying to take a
question from the audience ...
Unidentified Questioner: But you’re having too much
fun, you’re too pleased with ...
Questioner: ... The project, and each other, but let me
ask you some challenging questions ....
Bear: I should kill myself.
Questioner: When I first heard you were doing this, I
was very shocked, a little bit appalled ....
Benford: So were we!
Questioner: Thoughts were going through my head ...
Brin: I at first refused.
Benford: I refused it, too.
Bear: I was never given the chance to refuse it.
Questioner: I’ve got two specific reasons for
thinking you shouldn’t be doing this. One, write your own books! You’re all
terrific writers, and actually each of you has written books that I like more
than the Foundation series books, so as a fan of all three of you, I’d
actually rather see you keep doing the kinds of things you do on your own than
to try to become Isaac Asimov or be bound by conventions of that series.
Specifically, I want to talk about one that has always offended me. I’m a
sociologist, and I find it’s a lot easier to find science fiction that’s
sophisticated in natural science than social science. The social science is
usually terribly naive. I’ve always felt that the Foundation trilogy,
particularly the early books, are a great example of that. I respect a lot of
things that Asimov has written, but when I pick up Foundation, and I find Hari
Seldon saying, "Fifty years have elapsed, so you had your first revolution
three hours ago..." You know, we’ll never have that kind of social
science; we’ll never have that predictive value. That’s equivalent to a
natural scientist leaving a time capsule saying, "It’s April 15th in the
year 2050, so you’ve just had a record snowfall in New York." Natural
science doesn’t have that predictive value; social science doesn’t have and
never will have that predictive value.
Bear: Yeah, you’re exactly right.
Questioner: But now you have to write down that Hari
Seldon can do all these things ...
Brin: But even Asimov talked about that ...
Bear: Yeah, we talked about that. You have to
understand the milieu that Asimov came out of—that science was graduating from
Leibnitzian thoughts of predictability where, literally, if you knew the
position of every particle in the universe, you could predict the next stage.
They did not know that this was not, in fact, true. Now, I suspect that
Asimov from the very beginning suspected that this was not possible.
Brin: He was writing for Campbell.
Bear: He was writing for Campbell. Now, here’s
something that we haven’t talked about too much: the constraints that Campbell
put upon his Astounding writers were pretty severe. For one thing, he
didn’t want aliens that were smarter than we were. He liked Scottish
engineers; of course, Asimov got around that by putting it so far into the
future that it didn’t matter—you couldn’t tell the accent because it had
blended, like many many malts all together. So you put these things into effect,
and what we are doing is we are paying homage to a great moment in
science fiction, while at the same time, in our various ways, we are saying,
"Look, even Isaac recognized that it creaked." What worked we wish to
retain: the sense of wonder, the depth, the passion he put into it, we will
retain. We will then impose our own personalities on the story and upon his
universe; the really strange thing about this is, I think, in most of these
cases you’ll find these novels are not only highly readable, but they will not
be offensive to Asimov readers because Asimov readers don’t believe Asimov was
ever cut in stone. He himself amended things; but also you will find, if mine
works out, and I suspect that with these two [Benford and Brin], with their
level of quality, you’ll find they’re very good novels of our own.
We do this all the time, as Gregory points out, with science
fiction; we take and miscegenate between our universes all the time. So when
Arthur C. Clarke reads Eon, he’s bored for the first seventy-five pages
because he did this already in Rendezvous with Rama—but I’ve got a
kicker in there for him on page seventy-six! And he’s roaring away after that,
because we steal ideas from each other—what we have to do is promise to do
them better! The problem that we have is that, outside the
science-fiction community, they steal our ideas and do them worse! Or get
Benford: And make more money.
Bear: So our dialogue is, in fact, perfectly
legitimate; it’s within the social structure of science fiction. I don’t
think Isaac would have objected, although he probably would have liked to look
over our shoulders and make suggestions. We all have that in mind.
Brin: I like what Benford said about the idea of a
conversation. The Foundation universe happens to be one of the central forums
where the issues that you are discussing are central. The Teilhard de
Chardin dichotomy of deification, the idea that we can only deify in that
particular way; this is a major issue. The question of the predictability of
human beings, the question that Jefferson and his followers faced, that the
masses are filthy, contemptible, and yet sovereign. Why and how could the Empire
have total amnesia about its past? These are major, major issues and they are
all on the table in Asimov’s universe. He has already gone through several
iterations, sometimes arguing both sides! He hinted at various answers
before he died. At first I refused this project because I write far too slowly
for my lifespan, to do the number of projects I want to do. The same holds for
these two guys. But then I realized, this is the family table—where all these
social issues have been raised and will continue to be raised. People will go to
this universe and partake in the conversation.
Bear: I think the issue the gentleman’s bringing up
here is fairly legitimate, which is, why do we gang-bang each other’s ideas?
And that’s because science fiction does not, naturally, have a strong sense of
literary morality. [Laughter] Certainly not sexual morality, in dealing with
each other’s ideas—we have shared-world universes, we have the common
sharing of ideas, sometimes we get offended when someone takes the idea that we
thought was exclusively ours and runs with it, but that’s okay. That’s just
the way it works. Now, the other questions that could be asked were asked of
Gregory when he wrote a sequel to Against the Fall of Night. And then he
was pilloried by a number of people who said "How could you?"
for the various reasons you’re pointing out. And my thought was, gee, it was
pretty good! It wasn’t bad at all—it gave me a lot of great ideas.
Ultimately, of course, Gregory is going to write a book called Up Against the
Wall of Night. [Laughter] He hasn’t done it yet; however, since he takes
our ideas and sticks them in his books, eventually he will write this novel!
Miller: I just wanted to address one thing that Greg
Bear said about the theft of ideas, not so much by other science fiction
writers, but by the culture at large. There is a wonderful rumor that I’ve
heard, maybe it now has the character of urban myth, but the way it goes is that
for years after the death of Walt Disney, the Disney executives would gather
once a year to view a film that Disney had prepared for them with instructions
for the future guidance of the company. This went on for something like a decade
after he died; now what does that sound like?
Bear: It got very comic, as I understand it, after a
while, because he was totally missing the technology that was coming in, and the
economic changes ... can you imagine the comedy that he’s talking about?
Brin: It reminds me of a scene in which the Mule is
about to land on Terminus and they’re all watching Hari Seldon mouth on about
the traders ...
Carl Freedman: What I have to say actually relates a
bit to some things Greg Bear was saying about ten minutes ago. But first I have
to begin by, not for the first time, correcting Greg Benford, on the subject of
Benford: Oh, you don’t think Marxists are
Freedman: If there is one thing that Marxist theory
absolutely excludes, it is conspiracy theory. And in fact this is so true that
in some of my work I’ve been really critical of traditional Marxist political
science in being so fundamentally hostile to conspiracy theory that
sometimes one doesn’t recognize that conspiracies can happen. But the
fundamental point, the absolutely central insight of Marxism, is that history is
made behind the backs of the people who imagine themselves to be making it. So
conspiracy—although I don’t think one needs to deny that conspiracy can
exist here and there, from a Marxist point of view, the one thing that could never
be the motor of history is conspiracy, which is usually what we mean by
conspiracy theory, that conspiracy is the motor, the driving force of history.
But that’s just a scholarly point.
Benford: The Communist cell? That term doesn’t mean
anything to a Marxist? Communist cells were conspiratorial cells. And, if
communism isn’t an expression of Marxism, then the Episcopal church is not an
expression of the Bible; I mean, they really do go together!
Brin: Let’s debate this later, and get on with the
point about Foundation.
Freedman: Yes; what is psychohistory? The one thing
that Asimov did, memorably, was to invent a science, the way to do it. It seems
to me that what psychohistory is, thinking about Asimov’s general intellectual
background and so forth, is a kind of synthesis of Marx and Freud; or more
specifically, is a kind of synthesis of a fifth-hand acquaintance with Marx and
a tenth-hand acquaintance with Freud. And what Asimov is doing with
psychohistory is in a certain way to put Marx and Freud together and then reduce
them to positivists—which is why you can have these ridiculous things.
Brin: I could not disagree more.
Brin: Asimov’s Imperials have seen a lot of worlds
fall into barbarism and become social "laboratories," so after fifteen
thousand years they have a lot of psychohistory rules of thumb, but Seldon gets
down to general equations.
What he’s talking about is turning social science into a
reductionist, mathematically modelable, pragmatic science, and I don’t see any
sign of Marx or Freud in there, in his version, which has the statistical
mechanics of a gas.
Benford: Right; that’s what he says.
Bear: Which of course is incorrect.
Freedman: Well, it was in the atmosphere of the 1930s
when he was growing up. But my point is precisely that if it is Marx and
Freud, and I think it is an attempt to predict ...
Bear: I would go along with Marx, more than Freud.
Bear: If you think of Marx as a continuing future
history series, you know ....
Freedman: It’s all reduced to positivism.
Brin: Well I’ve always believed that Karl Marx
was the greatest of all science-fiction authors, for this reason—in the East,
and in small patches in the West, he was taken as a religious figure and
actually believed to be scientific, and in the long run, he had almost no effect
except to take a lot of people and neutralize their brains. But in the West
people read Das Kapital as a plausible scenario, a dystopian novel
of "what might happen if" and that has always been the most powerful
kind of science fiction. The self-preventing prophecy. We see this in Brave
New World, 1984, which girded us against those forms of totalitarianism.
Marx had his biggest influence on history in the West, where influential people
read a terrifying "if this goes on" story and were moved to prevent it
by initiating reforms.
Bear: This is a terrific idea; in fact, remember Norman
Spinrad did The Iron Dream and made Hitler a science-fiction writer; all
we have to do is alter a little bit of timescale here and we have Karl Marx and
Adolph Hitler sitting in a room with John W. Campbell talking about things ...
Brin: And L. Ron Hubbard being the sane one!
Bear: Yeah, L. Ron Hubbard being the sane fellow,
saying, "Let’s do it!"
Freedman: And the one who comes out of the room is John
Maynard Keynes ....
Miller: I have to say that there is a little problem
here; I mean, if you’re saying that the main goodness of science fiction is
this notion of self-negating prophecy and at the same time if we claim
credit when we actually predict things the right way, well then, no matter
whether we predict things right or wrong, we’re right!
Brin: Now you’ve got it! [Laughter]
Benford: Hey, they don’t pay us much, but we get to
set the rules!
Miller: Is that the final question? Let me thank George
Slusser and particularly Gary Westfahl for setting this panel up; I think it’s
been most intriguing.
Brin: And thank you, Joe, for moderating these huge
Benford: Quite moderate he was.
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