Asimov's Foundation Trilogy: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Cowboy Heroes

By Kakela, Jari | Extrapolation, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Asimov's Foundation Trilogy: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Cowboy Heroes


Kakela, Jari, Extrapolation


Writing the Foundation trilogy, Asimov based the idea of a declining empire on Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789). Because of this the trilogy is often read as re-enacting the fall of the Roman Empire on a galactic scale. In this paper I contend that while the fall of the Roman Empire is the initial model, aspects of American expansionism come to dominate the narrative as soon as there is a need for something to replace the falling order. By following the development of the trilogy, and by drawing parallels to American ideological and political history, J will show how the novels are shaped by frontier thematics and the idea of manifest destiny. Because the trilogy portrays large swaths of future history through archetypal hero figures, my focus, too, will be on some of the main characters.

The prominence of frontier thematics in the trilogy, as well as the appearance of historical models other than the Roman Empire, have gone largely unnoticed because of Asimov's own explanations of using Gibbon's History (1) as a model (In Memory 311). Although the "harsh frontier existence of the Foundation" (DiTommaso 272) has occasionally been mentioned, what this notion really entails has yet to be explored. (2) Instead, the trilogy has often been studied from a more philosophical or ideological angle, giving rise to discussions on imperialism, determinism and utilitarianism (Candelaria, Moore, and Miller, respectively). Asimov himself was always quick to dismiss the possible American parallels in his work as uninteresting, and simply resulting from his American cultural background and exposure to pulp fiction (Wojtovicj, Ingersoll 73). It may be obvious that Asimov's work is a product of his cultural background, and even more importantly of the early 20th-century pulp magazines and John W. Campbell's editorship of Astounding Science Fiction (In Memory 201, Campbell Letters 20). Yet this background is more important than is generally acknowledged, in part because it reveals the American parallels on which the whole work is based.

The parallels also tie in with Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis," presented in his 1893 paper "The Significance of Frontier in American History," where he argues that the American national character had been shaped by the frontier experience (31-34). Turner's thesis was in part a reaction to the 1890 U.S. Census which announced that the frontier region no longer existed, and as a result westward migration would no longer be tabulated in the census. This proclamation was effectively the end of the American frontier era. While celebrating the frontier expansion as the source of American development, Turner's paper also expressed concern over what was to keep the nation vigorous in the future. Turner's thesis gained widespread popularity, and over time made the ideas of a purifying wilderness and the rejuvenation of civilization on the frontier a part of American popular rhetoric. This rhetoric also can be detected in the Foundation trilogy as it becomes combined with ideas of manifest destiny.

Frontier Thematics and Turnerism in Early Science Fiction and Space Opera

The Foundation trilogy is, of course, far from the only work of science fiction alluding to the history of American expansion. The heyday of the pulp magazines (1920s-40s) was a time when American popular culture was pervaded by images of Westward expansion and its associated heroes. In science fiction, space opera borrowed the Western's storylines and enlarged them on a galactic scale. Transplanting the familiar popular imagery of the Western into the future kept the narrative recognizable while opening new settings for the action (see also Westfahl 199).

The connection between science fiction and frontier elements began with the 19th-century boy inventor/backyard scientist frontier adventures (Wolfe 250), like the dime novel The Huge Hunter: or. …

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