Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1702

The theme of decay is important in this complex book. At its outset, society seems to be in good shape. The people who maintain Trantor do their jobs well and usually without fuss. All Hari Seldon needs to worry about are the various duties that come with chairing the mathematics department of Streeling University. As events unfold, decay becomes more and more evident. At first, Seldon can merely suspect, based on psychohistory, that decay will be progressive. By the book's end, the decay is obvious and pervasive.

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In "Cleon I," the Joranumites are able to create public unrest by disrupting various government services in different regions of the planet. People are outraged by the disruptions, threatening the government. This markedly contrasts with the attitudes in "Wanda Seldon." In this last novella, people accept severe disruptions in services. Seldon notes that social problems that once would have inspired petitions to the emperor, or even revolt, now are accepted as part of everyday life. Society is falling apart partly because people let it fall. The physical decay of Trantor is therefore representative of social decay. The barbarians are taking over the streets, just as barbarianism will soon take over the empire. This theme of decay is further enriched by the parallel Asimov draws in Seldon's personal life.

Eto Demerzel is the last of the great First Ministers. He has helped rule the Galactic Empire for a generation. When he leaves, the burdens he bore fall on Seldon. When Amaryl dies, the burden to push the day-to-day work forward falls on Seldon. When Dors dies, the burden to protect the family falls on Seldon. When his son and daughter-in-law leave, the care for their daughter Wanda falls on Seldon. Seldon never feels up to carrying these burdens, but through hard work, he manages. Each of these losses in Seldon's personal life parallels the decay of society at large, and Seldon increasingly bears the burdens of society as he strives to build on Amaryl's idea of creating a Foundation that will not only preserve civilized knowledge but will pull the galaxy out of barbarism thousands of years early. The tying of the social decay to Seldon's personal life adds a hopeful note to the sad tone of Forward the Foundation.

Wanda eventually takes up Amaryl's old burdens, relieving Seldon of them. When she leaves for the Second Foundation, she shows every likelihood of expanding upon her grandfather's work: Through her, Seldon's efforts will live on; through her and the others at the Second Foundation, society may recover and blossom anew. She represents a positive, optimistic point of view. When she leaves, Seldon's life once again darkens, but her leaving suggests that Seldon's labors were not in vain, and that the future he has tried to shape will come to pass.

The Galactic Empire is based on the ancient Roman Empire. The slow disintegration of authority and services roughly parallels that of the historical empire. Forward the Foundation differs somewhat from the earliest Foundation stories in the details it presents of the Galactic Empire's collapse. Asimov describes some conditions that are reminiscent of modern America — the failure to pick up one's own trash, littering, and the failure to care for one's neighbor and community — each remind the reader of modern news accounts. The gradual breakdown of Trantor's infrastructure and services seems to parallel the breakdown of America's own infrastructure. Seldon is saddened by Trantorians accepting ever worsening services as a fact of life — something not even to be noticed. This could parallel experiences in many American communities. For instance, in the United States, the mail was once delivered twice a day; now mail services cost more, are unreliable, and the Postal Service often suggests eliminating Saturday deliveries. Another example would be America's water supply: In the 1950s, the purity of America's drinking water and its superiority to any other nation's water was a source of pride to Americans. Now the pollution and often foul taste of America's drinking water seems to be an accepted part of everyday life. Further, Seldon notes the increase in criminality in Trantorian society, coupled with the desire of Trantorians to avoid involvement, avoiding helping anyone in need. In addition, not only are the police often not available when needed, but the Trantorian criminal justice system often blames and punishes victims for the crimes inflicted upon them. Although some people point out the injustices, they are either ignored or, like Seldon, resented.

Asimov often said that he liked to use science fiction to comment on society. He is best known for his efforts to show how changing technology could change society. In Forward the Foundation, he seems to offer a melancholy assessment of where America is headed. The book implies that civilization falls when people cease to care about their society, and where criminality is tolerated as a fact of life. The final fourth of Forward the Foundation has a sad tone partly because of its implication that Asimov saw modern America as an example of a failing society. One should take care to try to avoid reading too much into Forward the Foundation; it is easy to picture the aging Seldon as the aging Asimov, each feeling age weakening him, and each looking back over a life of lost loves and lost friends, and Asimov significantly said that "I could not have written this book forty — or thirty, twenty, or even ten — years ago. That is because, piece by piece, over the years, I have been working back to foundation's source: Hari Seldon . . . You see, over time, Hari Seldon has evolved into my alter ego." Even so, Seldon is a fictional creation, and not everything he says should be taken as exactly what Asimov thinks. Still, the picture Asimov gives is of a man and a society worn out and in failing health.

Only those aware of Asimov's outspoken atheism will take much note of religion in Forward the Foundation. Seldon seems to believe that anything can be explained by science. His entire psychohistory is predicated on the idea that even human events are subject to discoverable scientific principles. When religion is mentioned, it is noted that most people in the Galactic Empire have some sort of religious belief. One character even argues that there is evidence of some sort of divine providence at work.

Additional Commentary

The Galactic Empire is based on the ancient Roman Empire. The slow disintegration of authority and services roughly parallels that of the historical empire. Forward the Foundation differs somewhat from the earliest Foundation stories in the details it presents of the Galactic Empire's collapse. Asimov describes some conditions that are reminiscent of modern America. The failure to pick up one's own trash, littering, the failure to care for one's neighbor and community, each remind us of modern news accounts. The gradual breakdown of Trantor's infrastructure and services seems to parallel the breakdown of America's own infrastructure. Seldon is saddened by Trantorians accepting ever worsening services as a fact of life—something not even to be noticed. This could parallel experiences in many American communities. For instance, in the United States, the mail was once delivered twice a day; now mail services cost more, are unreliable, and the Postal Service has suggested eliminating Saturday deliveries. Another example is America's water supply: In the 1950s, the purity of America's drinking water and its superiority to any other nation's water was a source of pride to Americans. Now the pollution and often foul taste of America's drinking water seems to be an accepted part of everyday life. It should not be difficult for any reader to find similar reductions in services and quality—often coupled with hikes in fees. Further, Seldon notes the increase in criminality in Trantorian society, coupled with the desire of Trantorians to avoid involvement, avoiding helping anyone in need. In addition, not only are the police often not available when needed, but the Trantorian criminal justice system often blames and punishes victims for the crimes inflicted upon them. Although some people point out the injustices, they are either ignored or, like Seldon, resented. No one who keeps up with current events should have any trouble linking Trantor's troubles with those of modern America.

Asimov often said that he liked to use science fiction to comment on society. He is best known for his efforts to show how changing technology could change society. In Forward the Foundation, he seems to offer a melancholy assessment of where America is headed. The book implies that civilization falls when people cease to care about their society, and where criminality is tolerated as a fact of life. The final fourth of Forward the Foundation has a very sad tone partly because of its implication that Asimov saw modern America as an example of a failing society. One should take care to try to avoid reading too much into Forward the Foundation; it is easy to picture the aging Seldon as the aging Asimov, each feeling age weakening him, and each looking back over a life of lost loves and lost friends, and Asimov significantly said that "I could not have written this book forty—or thirty, twenty, or even ten—years ago. That is because, piece by piece, over the years, I have been working back to Foundation's source: Hari Seldon . . . You see, over time, Hari Seldon has evolved into my alter ego." Even so, Seldon is a fictional creation, and not everything he says should taken as exactly what Asimov thinks. Still, the picture Asimov gives is of a man and a society worn out and in failing health.

Only those aware of Asimov's outspoken atheism will take much note of religion in Forward the Foundation. Seldon seems to believe that anything can be explained by science. His entire psychohistory is predicated on the idea that even human events are subject to discoverable scientific principles. When religion is mentioned, it is noted that most people in the Galactic Empire have some sort of religious belief. One character even argues that there is evidence of some sort of divine providence at work. In sum, there is nothing in Forward the Foundation that is likely to offend anyone's religious beliefs.

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