Science Fiction Classic Books, Foundation and Battlefield Earth
Guest blogger John Carey
L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series are stories that check all the boxes for classic science fiction must-reads.
With the new Apple TV adaption of the Foundation coming out, I decided to dig into what makes these two stories stand out at the top of my favorites.
The most enduring element of classic science fiction boils down to everyday people struggling through huge, life-affecting situations while doing everything within their power to succeed against the forces of evil. The heroes may be braver and stronger than I am, but they have the same fears, the same desires, and the same insecurities under it all. These heroes aren’t super-humans; these are people I aspire to be … people I could be under the right circumstances.
Of course, to transform these stories into classics of science fiction, they must include future technology and world-building, along with the ultimate survival of the race. And so well-written that you feel like you are in the story. Both Battlefield Earth and Foundation are at the top of the classic must-read list. If you have not yet read Battlefield Earth, you can read the first 13 chapters or listen to the first hour of the audiobook for free.
Science fiction is a view of our future (or the long-gone past). What cool pieces of technology will exist to make our lives easier, better, or allow us to experience something that we can’t even conceive of doing today? And what problems will this same technology bring about?
The future technology created by Asimov in the Foundation has spacecraft that can cover light-years in a short jump. This contributes to individual citizens, traders, soldiers, and generals moving around the universe like you or I move around a city. It makes a civil war within a country seem like nothing when the Foundation and a handful of nearby planets are threatened by the Empire—which, even while dying, controls three-fourths of the population of the known universe.
The spaceships use a navigational device called a galactic lens, which displays a three-dimensional view of the galaxy and tells the spaceship exactly where it is amongst the vastness of the millions of stars of space.
In Battlefield Earth, the ruling planet Psychlo operates transshipment rigs that can teleport beings and material quickly across expanses of space. The Psychlos inhabiting Earth use it to ferry large quantities of ore back to their home planet.
“At exactly the same time of the day, exactly every fifth day, there would be a humming. The material on the platform would glow briefly. Then there would be a roar like a low thunderclap. And the material would vanish!” —Battlefield Earth
Getting people and valuable resources across the vastness of space is the first problem to solve to open communication and commerce between different peoples.
Written in the ’40s and ’50s, the first three books of the Foundation book series sometimes have an antiquated view of the future that we have passed long ago (a sci-fi subgenre with retro-futuristic technology). Messages are shot through hyper-space between people and arrive in capsules, from which the message pops out for reading and then quickly self-destructs if the message is top-secret. One of the young heroes, ArkadyDarell, doesn’t have a smartphone but does have a device she can speak into, which prints her words with perfect spelling. This “future technology” prediction is still being perfected (I can’t wait—the voice to text function and auto-correct feature definitely have room for improvement!).
As the Empire dies and technology is lost and forgotten, the First Foundation gets established on Terminus, at the far end of the Galaxy. The hero, Hari Seldon, has directed that Terminus be settled with scientists who work compiling all of human knowledge into the Encyclopedia Galactica so it won’t be lost as the Empire dies in the centuries to come.
Long after the other planets have reverted to lesser technologies, the men on Terminus can still operate, repair, and create devices using nuclear energy. The small nuclear household devices they create to make life easier are then used for trading with other planets and become the basis for their political power. These devices prevent Terminus from being taken over by stronger military forces. They even develop a small handheld tool that can generate a protective force-field around a person.
In Battlefield Earth, the gas-attack drone is a futuristic weapon the Psychlos used on Earth after learning of its location from the gold disc on the Voyager probe they intercepted. The decimation of most native life only left small tribes of humans in remote areas, living at a subsistence level.
Another weapon, the Planetbuster, is small, yet setting it off in the vicinity of a heavenly body completely destroys it. When government emissaries from other planets descend upon Earth to discuss treaties and intergalactic law, some are less than honorable, forcing JonnieGoodboy Tyler to illustrate that Earth is not to be bullied. He teleports this tiny weapon to a Tolnep moon, secretly used by the greedy race as a hidden military base. The moon soon frazzles into dust-sized particles, slowly disintegrating in front of everyone’s eyes. A spacecraft trying to leave the disintegrating moon is also caught up in the destruction, “Before the fixated eyes of the delegates, the vast space vessel was eaten up from tail to nose, its massive metal turned to gases.”
Other futuristic technology includes flying platforms used for mining that can navigate regardless of the winds and hover ground cars that use an engine that moves space itself.
As part of getting to the Second Empire more quickly, Hari Seldon sets up a Second Foundation of psychologists, who develop and train themselves to subtly influence other beings. This Foundation is hidden, and citizens debate and argue its existence, often mentally pushed into their disbelief of it directly by their members using mind-tricks.
But the most powerful sci-fi technology in the Foundation series is the mathematics of Psychohistory as developed by Hari Seldon. This math can’t predict individual behavior but can accurately predict the actions of mobs numbering in the billions. Utilizing this, Seldon foretells that the Empire, stretching across the Milky Way Galaxy, will fail, creating 30,000 years of economic ruin and personal struggle before the Second Empire will rise. While he saw it was too late to prevent the Empire from dying, they could shorten the time leading to the Second Empire to 1,000 years through specific actions. So, he sets in motion the plan to bring this about.
Using futuristic “mental” technology in Battlefield Earth, the Psychlos implanted metal circuits into the heads of all their babies. The implants function as fuses that short-circuit the brain anytime someone questioned a Psychlo about their mathematics. (Scary when you think of what Nuerolink and companies creating human chips are doing right now.)
Thesebrain implants prevented any other race from learning how to build or run the teleportation rigs or other devices and motors they manufactured. And it especially frustrated Jonnie when trying to crack their codes to provide a basis of commerce and protection for his planet.
Future technology, especially when used for good purposes, gives us hope that hover ground-cars and teleporters will be in the world of real science soon!
In world-building, the author creates a place completely different than any we have ever known. They invite us in to see, to live, and to breathe in this new foreign place.
In Foundation, we are quickly introduced to the home planet of Trantor, which rules the entire Empire. Huge metal skyscrapers extend both underground and above, which block out the sky. And another building begins where the first ends. Everyone on the planet works in some way to run, administer, and control all the planets of this colossal Empire.
“There was no living object on its surface but man, his pets, and his parasites. No blade of grass or fragment of uncovered soil could be found outside the hundred square miles of the Imperial Palace….” —Foundation
As the Galactic Empire loses power, the border planets revert back to local rule by rebel warlords and independent kings. The setting is built so well, you can feel the desire to be part of a large empire yet being so far away from it that your voice is never heard, and thus supporting a rule by someone closer to your own needs.
Terminus is a barren planet devoid of any natural resources, but that is where Hari Seldon determines to establish the First Foundation. The initial inhabitants are scientists whose job is to record all current knowledge for the future while set far out on the rim of the Empire so that it might accomplish its tasks while being left alone.
There is some world-building throughout the three novels concerning the “Second Foundation.” At times, it is considered not to exist at all and simply be a rumor. And the actual location remains a mystery until the very end. So, the majority of the world-building makes the reader question whether it exists or not.
In Battlefield Earth, we are first introduced to the Earth of the year 3000, controlled by aliens who mine the planet for mineral resources and hunt humans for sport. There are decayed cities, and in the more remote and harsh places of Earth, small groups of humans live at a subsistence level, with the death rate outpacing the birth rate. It’s a world we easily imagine brought to life remarkably by L. Ron Hubbard. This vivid post-apocalyptic landscape contrasts with the futuristic domes and equipment of advanced alien technology.
It is a blend of larger-than-life landscapes and high-tech sci-fi technology, a real space western.
In the second half of the book, scores of other alien races, politicians, and envoys representing 5,000 planets arrive, all with different clothing, customs, and food requirements. This begins a battle for Earth on an entirely new and unexpected scale.
There is even a part of Battlefield Earth of world re-building, with alien construction crews restoring former cities of glory.
In our everyday world, where you live possibly hasn’t changed much in the past ten years. You might even feel that you could drive to work with your eyes closed (please don’t try it!). But through sci-fi world-building, authors transport us to someplace magical, someplace scary, or someplace exciting. That’s one of my favorite experiences when reading a great novel—you escape into their world.
Hari Seldon, who barely appears as a living character in the first few pages of the first Foundation book, is the true hero running throughout the entire series. His science and predictions plot the lives of many other heroes and the masses, giving them hope that it will all turn out as planned.
In its fledgling state, the First Foundation is ruled by a mayor, Salvor Hardin. Other nearby planets want the Foundation’s nuclear technology and contemplate a military overthrow, which they would not be able to stop.
Salvor Hardin counters this by playing one ruler off another, keeping them all in balance, preventing them from attacking. He even embeds religion and superstition into the nuclear technology, so the citizens of these planets wouldn’t dare attack a “sacred” man of the Foundation.
Hober Mallow, the first of the Foundation’s Merchant Prince leaders, was the hero who led the Foundation through the troubling time when the dying Empire pushed the Republic of Korell to go to war with them. Using economic warfare and no longer providing citizens with the small nuclear gadgets the Foundation produced played a critical role.
Force for the sake of force was avoided by the Foundation heroes. They understood the greater importance of their mission to the survival of humanity and worked to out-smart and out-maneuver those who sought to crush them. They were men of integrity. This is one of my favorite Isaac Asimov quotes:
“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”―Isaac Asimov, Foundation
Two heroes were required to battle and defeat the Mule, a mutant villain who could emotionally control his enemies, even instilling complete loyalty within former enemy generals. The Mule quickly takes over the remaining Empire and then wins against the First Foundation.
He then secretly ensconces himself within a small group of loyalists trying to find the Second Foundation. They know that the Seldon Plan is entirely off track since it couldn’t account for a mutant with powers. They have several adventures and close scrapes and just barely escape, and finally, as the librarian within their group is about to reveal the true home of the Second Foundation, Bayta shoots him. She has finally deduced that the court jester they have been protecting is also the Mule. If he had gained the location of the Second Foundation, it would have ruined any chance of making the Seldon Plan work.
Battlefield Earth starts with Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, living in the mountains of Colorado, and his tribe is dying. He scoffs at the tribal superstitions and travels outside their boundaries to find better land. However, he is soon caught by the Psychlo Chief of Security for Earth, Terl. The sadistic Terl has a plan of his own: to train one human and use him to recruit slaves for a dangerous project. But Jonnie isn’t an ordinary captive and watches and learns everything he can.
He is driven not to just escape but to free his entire planet of the domination of this evil alien race. No matter the indignations and hardships Terl enforces on him, such as feeding him rats or giving him impossible tasks, Jonnie bides his time while making his plans. His perseverance and integrity set him apart—he is a strong character with more than just muscle.
The Scotts are the first group of survivors that Jonnie visits. They listen to his story and are quick to volunteer the soldiers he needs for his plans. Robert the Fox takes charge of organizing them and getting them trained. He becomes Jonnie’s right hand. Both Prince Dunneldeen and Stam Stavenger ‘Stormalong’ play critical roles throughout, not the least of which is saving Jonnie’s life. Download the character booklet with 50 character profiles.
Even after Jonnie succeeds in a critical battle, he learns that a much larger threat is looming: Earth is actually owned by the Intergalactic Bank that is trying to foreclose. Now he must battle against groups of politicians and money-men. These men are more evil in their own way because they hide their true intentions with handshakes, smiles, and quick words.
Jonnie doesn’t like this mode of battle, but he must rise to the occasion because he has no choice—the loss of the planet he calls home is at stake. And as the scope of the threat escalates, the Scotts add banking and other knowledge sorely needed.
A descendent of the Chinese dynasty provides Jonnie with courtly prowess, vital for a battle in the conference room—how to walk in the world of powerful men along with teaching him to dress and act appropriately.
As a combined, diverse group of men all seeking freedom, they must work together to achieve the goal.
The true message of both grand stories is that honorable men working together—truly heroic characters—reaching for the stars, can achieve their mission and make this world a better place for all.
“Science fiction points a direction because it does advocate a future. It is about Man and his Future.…
“The main point is that there is something about the human spirit that, when tapped, is greater than any technology or adversity. It is just more evident on an interstellar scale.”
—L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth Interview
Ultimate Survival of the Race
The story of the Foundation by Isaac Asimov is that the colossal Empire is dying and decaying from bureaucratic malaise. The Seldon Plan intends to shorten the predicted 30,000 years of barbarismto 1,000 years before the rise of the Second Empire. While not a problem of any single race (or planet), it encompasses the survival of all of humanity. It is the story of the heroes and villains who try to forward the Seldon Plan or try to forward their own selfish means. Additionally, a fraction of the men of the First Foundation fear the mind-control powers of the Second Foundation and actively work to find and destroy them, believing that to be in their best interest.
Battlefield Earth is truly a fight for the ultimate survival of humankind (and beyond). After the decimating impact from the Psychlo gas drones, few humans remain. And many of the survivors are isolated and in hiding from the Psychlos who hunt them for sport. And when it finally looks like there is hope, a greater threat is revealed—on an intergalactic level.
Classic Science Fiction and Satire
While Battlefield Earth is most known for being an epic space opera, adventure science fiction, alien invasion science fiction, and often referred to as one of the early post-apocalyptic stories, it is also satire.
“Battlefield Earth is a terrific story! The carefully underplayed comedy I found delicious. A masterpiece.” —Robert A. Heinlein
There are examples of the political blackmail; the “over-confidence” of a small-minded villain who can’t see the consequences of his actions (even to himself); the folly of humans fighting one another, when they can only secure the survival of humanity as a united effort, etc.
There comes a point where Earth is the collateral on an Intergalactic Bank debt, and if Earth can’t pay it off, the planet will be sold to the highest bidder, who can exterminate the survivors or sell them off as slaves. Compare that to Earth’s current banking and how they fuel the war-based economies.
The Foundation book series, while an epic intergalactic science-fiction story, is also a satire.
“Isaac Asimov was indulging in extensive political and character satire in his famous Galactic SF epic.” —Russell Hess, Science Fiction Critic
Seeing humanity and the destructive impulses of those with power mirrors many of the problems which plague our culture today.
I believe all the great science fiction novels have this element in common—using the platform of science fiction to persuade people to take another look at the things we take for granted while inspiring efforts to fix the problems.
Both the Foundation series and Battlefield Earth are excellent models of classic sci-fi books: great heroes fighting against overwhelming odds, futuristic technology, and worlds we can sense and feel from the author’s words. All set amongst battles that mean life or death, not just of the people involved but for all people of their kind.
And both tales include heroes from everyday life—not superheroes (no men of steel born with superpowers so popular these days). REAL men and women who use their own determinism and mental abilities to pull off true epic adventures, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against them! These are the books that make reading so worthwhile!
John Carey has degrees in Chemical Engineering and Computer Science from Texas A&M University which paid the bills while he crafted his writing skills at nights and weekends. Of all of his writing, John’s non-fiction articles on the overmedication of children have been the most circulated. John has just published his second book, Not Worthy of the Air you Breathe set in the future where nations have taken a cue from the business world and terminate their low performing citizens at the end of each year.
Other articles and resources that may be of interest: