As a writer, it's very difficult to think about the hows and whys of Issac Asimov. A prolific writer, the man was one of the fathers of modern Science Fiction for a very good reason. He understood the nature of fiction and its ability to scratch a very peculiar itch.
I read Foundation around six years ago and I remember being astounded by how much it resembled Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - in fact, I suspected at the time that he'd read that book and based his work upon it (Which, surprise surprise, turned out to be true Maybe great minds do think alike!). That was a momentous thought. Surely no writer would be bold enough to pick up something so obvious and just, well, plagiarise it? The very thought was blasphemy!
In hindsight, that's a naive thought. Writers have "borrowed", as it may be, from their predecessors liberally in the past; there's no reason to think that practice has changed simply because of copyright laws. If the Bard of Avon could borrow from Plutarch, what's the harm in Asimov borrowing from Gibbon? As illogical as this entire thought sequence was, it brought me to another obvious, yet startling revelation. Gibbon did no more than recount the waning years of a glorious empire: one which Europe identifies with even today. If Constantinople was the second Rome, Moscow the third and Washington D.C. the fourth, could Trantor City not be the fifth? A Rome with its own version of the Forbidden City? The thought was gripping. And if that is true, could an analogous decline not happen in Space, far away from modern civilization and Earth?
These thoughts have, perhaps, occurred in a million different minds after reading Foundation. Asimov's genius has a way of inspiring thought which most other books of fiction sorely lack. Rowling tried, I believe, with her subtle references to HIV+ people in Remus Lupin, racial divides and the KKK in Hermione Granger and the Death Eaters respectively, and a nearly broken, divided society in the Wizarding World; yet her books never managed to spark the kind of thoughts within me that Foundation managed to.
As an aside, I discovered the concept of fanfiction after having read Harry Potter, but I digress.
Foundation covers the crumbling of civilization in an abstract manner. What would a group of sane, rational human beings do when confronted with the collapse of society as they know it? Possibly what Hari Seldon did and try to engineer a rebirth for his descendants in the best way possible. It seemed beautiful, amazing and very... unbelievable. The culmination of Foundation in Galaxia was, to be honest, a most unsatisfying end to what I thought was a lovely series. Yet the journey to get there sparked a kind of fire within me. That is how something like that ought to go, I reflected. A path of self-discovery and growth.
And then I let it go. Foundation and its ideas languished within my brain for a long time, hidden behind layers and layers of other, more pressing things which demanded my attention at that time. Until I came to the Robot series.
The Robot Series
I was struck by the relatability I felt to The Caves of Steel. It is eminently relevant to modern day problems. At the end of the day, the greatest fear people have is of their jobs. If you have a job, a whole new world is unlocked for you. Yet people are losing their jobs to cheap labour in developing countries in the same way as people are losing their jobs to robots in the NYC of Caves of Steel. And losing their jobs in Asimov's world is more than just a loss of prestige. Since his world is a post-money world, the loss of prestige is accompanied by a loss of privileges to make the story resonate with readers.
While the people of Asimov's world were not slaves to their desires and to consumerism as people in the real world are, the response to a loss of livelihood is similar. Violence and a certain resistance to change. Longing for an imaginary and glorified past. The only thing Asimov doesn't depict is the rise of populism, which, in fact, he does in one of the Foundation books which deals with this very aspect of empirical collapse.
Elijah Bayley represents an everyman of sorts. The kind of person you wouldn't expect to get mixed up in the kinds of things he does. Yet, extraordinary times call for extraordinary men. He steps out of the shadow of his preconceived notions, his mistrust of altruistic robots, and comes together with R. Daneel Olivaw to move towards a Brave New World. Asimov, through Bayley, expresses his desire for reform to come from within. If humans are to move forward, we must all collectively go there: there is no point of being led there by some sort of tyrant who can arbitrarily force progress.
When he's led to Solaria, the youngest Spacer world, we see a different side of him. We also see a different conception of the world. We get to see a world where people are afraid of meeting each other: a world where people regard touching each other to be repulsive and sex is a taboo topic. Asimov once again comes through with his understanding of human nature and reveals to us how much is lost when people lose contact with each other. The parallels with today's world of Instagram and Twitter can scarcely be better articulated.
And finally, we come to Aurora. The first ever Spacer world once known as "New Earth". It's said to be the world where the speed of decay is the slowest. The people living there haven't yet become as bad as those living in Solaria, but the signs are there for those who know what to look for. Aurorans are comfortable around robots, but their lives are so comfortable they wish to see no change. No progress, no regression. There is no conflict anywhere. Their strategies for colonizing other worlds are staid and would create no progress but merely mirror their world in as many planets as possible. In other words, a world of ultimate stability
It is, in fact, quite astounding how much he managed to put into his books without knowing about today and how much he got right. Maybe the future does flow from the past, and perhaps Asimov was the man to have understood it best. He knew that the fount of innovation and progress is conflict. Not bloodbaths, but dissatisfaction. He knew, in his heart, that stability is the heart of failure. A hunger for change is what leads to progress.