Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Road to Foundation

with 5 comments

As I’ve recounted here before, on August 1, 1941, Isaac Asimov was riding the subway to John W. Campbell’s office in New York when the history of science fiction changed forever. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, recalls the moment at which he first conceived of what became the Foundation series:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

For reasons that I’ll discuss below, I’m reasonably sure that the illustration that Asimov describes is the one reproduced above, which was drawn by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert himself. And what strikes me the most about this anecdote now is the fact that Asimov looked at this particular picture, ignored the Fairy Queen entirely, and turned it into a series in which no women of any consequence would appear for years. To make a slightly facetious comparison, if I were a therapist giving Asimov the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is asked to look at a picture and make up a story about it, this is the point at which I would sit up slightly in my chair.

Recently, it occurred to me to try to figure out which book Asimov was carrying on the train that day, if only because it’s interesting to dig into what a writer might have been reading at a given moment. The great model here is John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, which obsessively connects the imagery of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the travel narratives that Samuel Coleridge was studying at the time. Asimov, it’s worth noting, was skeptical of Lowes’s approach:

I tried reading the book in my youth, but gave up. It could only interest another Coleridge scholar. Besides, I saw no point to it. Granted that the phrases already existed scattered through a dozen books, they existed for everybody. It was only Coleridge who thought of putting them together, with the necessary modifications, to form one of the great poems of the English language. Coleridge might not have been a hundred percent original but he was original enough to make the poem a work of genius.

But this kind of search can be diverting in itself, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that Asimov’s book was likely to have been Plays and Poems of W.S. Gilbert, which was published by Random House in 1932. As far as I can tell, it’s one of only two books available at the time that included both the lyrics to Iolanthe and the illustrations by Gilbert, and it would have been easy to find. (The other is a book titled Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, which was published a few years later to coincide with a tour by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it doesn’t look like something that Asimov would have brought on the subway.)

The edition, as it happens, is available online for free, and it can be amusing to left through it while keeping the young Asimov in mind. This isn’t literary criticism, exactly, but a kind of scholarly reverie, and it’s valuable primarily for the chain of associations that it evokes. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Deems Taylor, a music critic and occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table, and I’d like to think that Asimov would have seen aspects of himself in it. For example, here’s Taylor on Gilbert’s early years as a writer:

For a time, his writings, although voluminous, attracted no attention whatsoever. He tried everything—reporting, dramatic criticism, editorials, weekly news letters to provincial papers, political polemics, essays—all the forms of quotidian literature that flow from the pen of any young person who vaguely “wants to write” (a sentence that, appropriately, has no object). The results were financially negligible. Nor did he have the meagre satisfaction of knowing that there were those who were watching him, believing in him. Nobody was watching a young journalistic hack who was no different from scores of his fellows except that he combined a gift for saying cutting things with a complete inability to refrain from saying them.

This sounds a lot like Asimov in the days when he was trying to break into Astounding, and as I thought more about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, who brought out the best in each other, I saw them for the first time as shadows of Asimov and Campbell in the thirties, of whose partnership the former once wrote: “Campbell and I, in those first three years of my writing career—the crucial and formative ones—were a symbiotic organism.”

But the section that intrigues me the most comes near the end of the introduction. Speaking fondly of the characters of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and all the rest, Taylor writes:

As this gay, silly, endearing crew skip upon the stage, the sum of all that they say is always the same thing; and it is a romantic thing: That the light of pure reason casts grotesque shadows; that a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct, is, in the last account, a ridiculous one. Looking at their world, in which there is everything but the truth that lies beyond logic, we perceive that it is, in more ways than one, an impossible world.

It’s hard for me to read this now without reflecting that Asimov was just moments away, as he rode the train to Campbell’s office, from conceiving nothing less than “a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct,” which would end up dominating much of the rest of his life. And while I’m no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan, viewing the Foundation series through that lens seems like a promising approach. Asimov, as I’ve noted elsewhere, never seems to have been particularly interested in psychohistory, which was mostly Campbell’s invention, and he was more conscious of its limitations than many of its fans are. (In The End of Eternity, Asimov describes a similar group of scientists as a collection of “psychopaths.”) And what Taylor writes of these operettas applies just as well to many of the stories that they inspired: “The sky has cleared, the problems solve themselves, and everything has suddenly turned out all right. Every fundamental axiom of human motive and conduct has been outraged, and we are delighted.”

5 Responses

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  1. This was incredibly interesting. I love both of the Coleridge poems you mentioned, and teach them to my high schoolers often. I also love the Foundation books. I never imagined there was a connection between the two though!

    Jeff

    March 21, 2018 at 9:25 am

  2. The mental world that Asimov subscribed to was closer to that of W.S. Gilbert, rather than that of Harry Seldon; Asimov’s robot- story lampooning rigid logic, “Reason,” could have been written by Gilbert, and psychohistory in the Foundation series is shown to be flawed. Asimov was a liberal pragmatist, not a logical positivist. So you’re right about the connection between him and Gilbert and Sullivan, only the connection between them goes in a slightly different direction than you indicate.

    Michael

    March 21, 2018 at 12:04 pm

  3. @Michael: Asimov’s skepticism toward the whole idea of psychohistory—as opposed to Campbell’s enthusiasm for it—is one of the most interesting subtexts in the Foundation series. If I ever end up writing about it further, Gilbert and Sullivan might provide a nice entry point.

    nevalalee

    March 21, 2018 at 3:34 pm

  4. As I said after your Si Newhouse-Campbell blog post, I’d like to think that some of these interpretational grace notes of yours are being slipped into the final draft of ASTOUNDING.

    A little bit of this sort of thing, IMNSHO, provides the seasoning that lifts the whole meal out of being merely mundane. That ‘kill your darlings’ thing only goes so far.

    Mark Pontin

    March 21, 2018 at 10:16 pm

  5. @Mark Pontin: I think you’ll like the result. And don’t skip the endnotes.

    nevalalee

    March 21, 2018 at 11:09 pm


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