DATE: Fri 15 Oct 2021 19:01 By:

The opening line. (Foundation)

There are two opening lines in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. The first is the extract from the Encyclopedia Galactica (the fictional book that chronicles the universe. Asimov uses it to fill in the gaps for the reader) and then the actual first “in universe” line.

It feels a little like cheating that Asimov gets two cracks at an opening line but we have to consider that Asimov is one of the greatest science fiction story tellers of all time; he’s not cheating here, he’s just smarter than us.

The Extract line.

“Hari Seldon… Born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era: Died 12,069.”

The line gives us a name, the first word in the story is a name so, imagine how important that name must be. All that follows falls under it’s shadow.

Then we have a date that is literal nonsense without any context. Then follows the context. On its own 11988 is not a date, but once we know that it’s a measurement of years since the founding of the galactic empire we know that even if the empire is founded tomorrow then its 11988 years in the future, but we don’t know when it’s founded do we? We do know is that its WAY in the future from the readers ‘now’.

I like this line, mostly because it doesn’t run the risk of dating the work. I hate reading sci-fi that’s set in real-life past. This is a fictional calendar that fixes its self to start after a galactic empire is founded. Even it’s enjoyed in a million years time, the date will still be in the the future.

We know that Hari died. If we are good at maths we know he was 81 when he did. If were not, we see the date cross a major increment and assume he was quite old. The choice of date implies age even to someone who is bad at counting, which is considerate of Asimov.

Because the line is a different font to the rest of the page we cant help but glance down to see its an extract from ‘The Encyclopedia Galactica’ (look at Aimov being smarter than us, again).

We know this person Hari, whoever he was, is important enough that he is an historical figure, documented in an encyclopedia. We assume the encyclopedia is written years after this Hari died, as is the way of these things. History remembers his man, for some reason.

We know how time is measured. We know there is history being kept and at least one and encyclopedia. We assume an educated refined universe.

And that’s the “cheat” opening, whats he going to do with his REAL opening?

The first real line

“His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.”

Who is Gaal? Is Gaal as important as this Hari? Gaal is an exotic sounding name, it’s soft and friendly sounding. But Dornick is punchy and sharp; does this reflect the two sides of his personality or is it just a name. Is a name ever just a name in fiction?

It says hes a country boy but this is a galactic empire, does this mean he’s from a distant, less advanced planet? Or are we seeing this story on a single planet. Its unlikely that we are talking about countries, this is a galactic empire after all. Would the writer work on such a small scale once he has made such a large place to play in? Its planets were talking in for sure.

The words ‘country boy’ are a linguistic short cut to impart the impression desired, why use a space aged sentence when you can use a familiar phrase?

The next part is this word Trantor. Its got an upper case ‘T’ so it is a name, of a place we can presume. We assume a planet for the above reasons.

He has never seen Trantor. The place is new to him. He is a stranger here. We are still assuming, because of the implication of that Galactic Empire, that Trantor is a planet, and a planet of note. If it wasn’t a note worthy place it woudn’t be, err, noted upon. Let’s assume from the very little context we have that this country boy is here in an impressive, important place because he has reason and purpose. What is he doing here?

And so…

Our subconscious is better than us at putting these things together. By the time we get to the next line we know that this is a story in the future about historically relevant people, it’s starting with someone new to the events and places that we are about explore. We know teh character is ill equipped to be navigating the impressive place they have just arrived in. What mission, what purpose, what adventure awaits them?

And for this reason we keep reading.

Isaac Asimov is a master of story telling, from the first line he tells us more than most writers do in a chapter. It seems lethargic and without purpose but in fact, this opening is a sharpened well crafted razor like wielding of words in the way only Asimov can forge.

If I live to be a hundred and write as many books, I’ll never be half the story teller that Asimov is. Now, go and read Foundation (and maybe skip that strange unrelated TV show of the same name.)