Retro Review: “The Wedge” a.k.a. “The Traders” by Isaac Asimov

Astounding Science Fiction October 1944“The Wedge” is a short story by Isaac Asimov, which was first published in the October 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review is also crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Most readers will probably know the story under its alternate title “The Traders”, which is how it appeared in Foundation, the first book of the eponymous trilogy.

Since “The Wedge” is one of the stories that make up the Foundation trilogy, perhaps a recap is in order, though Asimov, whose 100th birthday we are currently celebrating by remembering his accomplishments and personal faults, never gives us one, neither in the magazine nor in the book version. Still, for anyone who needs a reminder, here is the story so far:

Warning: Spoilers!

The Foundation started out as a group of scientists sent to the planet Terminus on the galactic periphery to compile an encyclopaedia and preserve knowledge at a time when the Galactic Empire was falling apart. However, the true purpose of the Foundation, revealed by psychohistorian Hari Seldon or rather his hologram, is to guide humanity through the dark age following the fall of the Galactic Empire, to reduce the length of that dark age from thirty thousand to a mere thousand years and to establish a second Galactic Empire, all following Seldon’s master plan.

Alas, the Foundation is still just a group of encyclopaedists on a small and poor planet, surrounded by aggressive neighbours who have declared themselves independent from the Empire. However, Terminus has atomic power (Asimov’s word choice) and its neighbours do not. And so Salvor Hardin, mayor of Terminus, creates an artificial religion called Scientism to bring and keep the neighbouring four kingdoms under the control of the Foundation.

Foundation

Cover of the Gnome Press edition of Foundation.

All this happened in the first two stories of what would eventually become the Foundation series, published in Astounding some two years prior in 1942. “The Wedge” is chronologically the third and by publication order the fourth Foundation story. It is set some fifty years after the previous story “Bridle and Saddle”. The four kingdoms are now fully under Foundation control thanks to the fake religion, but other planets have caught on to what the Foundation is doing and understandably want nothing to do with them. So the Foundation tries to spread its influence via traders who peddle atomic powered gadgets along the galactic periphery.

One of these traders of Limmar Ponyets (named Lathan Devers in the magazine version, but I will stick with the name most readers will be familiar with in this review) who has a hold full of unsold wares and problems making his quota. A call reaches him in the shower (literally) and a ship pulls alongside to deliver an important message that self-destructs upon reading – twenty-two years before Mission Impossible.

A trader named Eskel Gorov has been arrested on the planet Askone for attempting to sell atomic gadgets there, even though Askone has banned all Foundation traders and gadgets, because using atomic power is against their religious beliefs. Gorov is facing the death penalty for sacrilege and Ponyets is supposed to get him out. An additional complication is that Gorov is not a trader at all, but an agent of the Foundation whose mission it is to introduce atomic powered gadgets to Askone to soften up the local government to Foundation control.

Ponyets has a quite interesting backstory. It is implied that he was not born on Terminus, but in the four kingdoms and initially trained as a priest (and indeed a later story explains that most traders actually hail from the four kingdoms). But representatives of the Foundation recognised his intelligence and brought him to Terminus to be educated there. So, unlike most citizens of Terminus, Ponyets is actually familiar with the scripture and rituals of the Foundation’s fake religion. This knowledge will come in handy on his mission.

Fake religions, which are science in disguise, were a popular trope during the so-called golden age of science fiction. And since fake religion stories predominantly appeared in Astounding, I suspect this was one of Campbell’s pet subjects which he foisted on his writers. The early Foundation stories are probably the best known examples of this trope, but the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist Gather, Darkness by Fritz Leiber is another science as religion story and a most excellent one, too. Now Fritz Leiber actually did train as an Episcopalian priest and left, because he did not feel the vocation, even though the church wanted to keep him. These experiences influenced Gather, Darkness and Leiber’s hilarious 1959 story “Lean Times in Lankhmar”. And in fact I wonder if Leiber, whom Asimov must have known, wasn’t an inspiration for Limmar Ponyets, the failed priest turned Foundation trader.

On Askone, Ponyets meets with the local elders who imply that Gorov may be released, if Ponyets is willing to pay for his freedom. However, the Askonians have no interest in Ponyets’ wares. Instead, they want gold.

Ponyets has no gold – the Foundation had no particular interest in precious metals for their own sake. However, he uses his superior scientific knowledge to rig up a matter transmutator to turn iron into gold, which he demonstrates to the Askonian elders with great theatrical flair. The Askonians may hate atomic power and science in general, but they really love gold, so they are willing to turn a blind eye to where it came from.

Ponyets also exploits tensions inside the council of elders by setting up a private meeting with an ambitious council member named Pherl. Ponyets offers to sell the transmutator to Pherl, so he will have enough gold to finance his rise to power. Pherl knows that the religious taboos of his world are just superstition “for the masses”, but he has to pretend to adhere to them to avoid the gas chamber. Ponyets assures him that no one need ever know that he has the transmutator.

Pherl finally agrees. He purchases the transmutator and Gorov is freed. However, Ponyets has tricked Pherl and installed a camera in the transmutator. He then proceeds to blackmail Pherl by threatening to broadcast footage of Pherl using forbidden technology to the superstitious masses of Askone. This would mean certain death for Pherl, so he is forced to purchase Ponyets’ entire inventory. And so Ponyets not only makes his quota, but has also fulfilled both Gorov’s mission and his own by installing a Foundation friendly leader on Askone.

I first read the Foundation series as a teenager and was blown away by the sheer scale, the twists particularly in the later volumes and also by how the Foundation usually triumphs by using brain over brawn.

Foundation 1983 Panther edition

The 1980s Panther edition of “Foundation”, wherein I first encountered this story.

My memories of “The Wedge” were vague – I mainly remembered it as “the one with the gas chamber”, because several characters are threatened with execution by gas chamber, which disturbed my younger self a lot. Upon rereading, the gas chamber references are not nearly as prominent as I remembered. It also turned out that a vivid scene of Gorov being taken to the gas chamber, only seconds from execution, only existed in my mind. This occasionally happens for me with stories I first read as a teen – scenes I remember very clearly don’t exist, because my vivid imagination supplies the details.

As I reread the story, I also remembered Ponyets’ transmutation parlour trick and how much it impressed my younger self. Because I’d learned in chemistry class that it was indeed possible to turn mercury or lead into gold, but that it took a whole lot of power and the resulting gold was unfortunately radioactive (the Foundation has solved the latter problem, but not the former). In fact, radioactive gold was first synthesized from mercury in 1941 in an experiment that Asimov as a graduate student of chemistry would have been familiar with and that may well have inspired this story. The Foundation series is often called hard science fiction, largely because the stories originally appeared in Astounding, even though there is very little in the way of hard science in the series. The transmutation parlour trick in “The Wedge” is probably as close as the Foundation stories come to actual hard science fiction. And my younger self was very pleased to see something I’d heard about in chemistry class pop up in a science fiction story (so pleased that I even told my chemistry teacher about it) and used in such a clever way to trick a bunch of idiots.

The cleverness that pleased my teen self so much is still evident in the story when I reread it as an adult, because Limmar Ponyets is a very clever man who comes up with a very clever scheme to trick the Askonians. There is just one problem. Ponyets may be clever, but he’s also an arsehole and even admits it. After all, he quotes a saying attributed to Salvor Hardin, mayor of Terminus and hero of the first two Foundation stories, “Never let a sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”

It’s a great line, which also serves as the epigraph of the magazine version of the story. But is what Ponyets and the Foundation are doing truly right? My teen self would probably have said yes. After all, the Foundation are the good guys here. They are trying to preserve civilisation and stave off the dark ages, even if I’d have preferred it is the ultimate aim of the Foundation was the creation of a Galactic Republic or Federation rather than an Empire. Still, if the Foundation has to use subterfuge and dirty tricks to fulfil that purpose, then so be it. Never mind that it is hard to feel sorry for the Askonians, because at least the ones we meet are all greedy and pompous idiots. And besides, the Askonians have gas chambers and obviously like to use them. As a matter of fact, Askone would probably be better off under Foundation control. After all, the Foundation has better technology, they are smart and they don’t have gas chambers.

Adult me can see that the Foundation is in the wrong here. Yes, the Askonians may be pompous, greedy and superstitious idiots, but they have made it very clear that they want nothing to do with the Foundation as is their good right (though I still disagree with the gas chamber threats. Just send Gorov back to where he came from and blast him out of the sky, if he comes back). It’s the Foundation which keeps violating the Askonians’ sovereignty and which clearly wants to take over Askone as it took over the four kingdoms. At least with the four kingdoms, the Foundation had the excuse of self-defence, since the four kingdoms were threatening Terminus. With the Askonians, they have no such excuse, because the Askonians are no threat.

No matter how noble the intentions of the Foundation are (and they only are noble, if you believe that Hari Seldon was right. Otherwise, the Foundation becomes a bunch of fanatics taking orders from a hologram), their methods of coercing other planets are wrong. Adult me also cannot ignore how strong the undercurrents of imperialism and colonialism are in the Foundation stories. Because the Foundation uses religion, trade (silly gadgets against various resources they lack) and force to take over other worlds – for their own good, of course – just like any real world coloniser. And just like the USA post-WWII in the real world, the Foundation has absolutely no qualms about meddling with the governments of sovereign nations. There are golden age stories which are critical of colonialism and imperialism – the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist “The Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett is one example – but “The Wedge” is not one of them. The Foundation is always right, at least in the early stories (They are disastrously wrong in “The Mule”), and the narrative doesn’t invite us to question them or their motives.

But it’s not just the uncritical endorsement of imperialism that makes “The Wedge” and the other early Foundation stories feel dated. In fact, these stories were already dated when I first read them as a teen in the late 1980s. And so you’ll find people nonchalantly smoking aboard spaceships and a total lack of women. All five named characters are male and no women appear at all, not even as walk-ons.

But the most glaring issue to me was the uncritical veneration (in the most literal sense of the word) of atomic power in the early Foundation stories. Because when I first read those stories a few years after Chernobyl, nuclear power was viewed as a failed and extremely dangerous technology that needed to be phased out as soon as possible (By 2022, Germany will finally get there). Literally everybody in Germany who wasn’t either completely stupid or a rightwing politician (which was pretty much the same thing) was opposed to nuclear power, so seeing an organisation as smart as the Foundation endorsing it was jarring to say the least.

However, I had developed the habit of checking copyright dates by that point and could see that the Foundation stories were very old and had been published before the first atomic bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I decided to give Asimov a pass, because he couldn’t have known how dangerous nuclear power was. Of course, the dangers of radioactivity were well known even in 1944 – the radium girls lawsuit took place in 1927/28 – and as a graduate student of chemistry, Asimov would certainly have known about the dangers. And to his credit, Asimov made a sharp turn away from nuclear optimism after Hiroshima. Nuclear power is barely mentioned in the post-1945 Foundation stories and by the Galactic Empire stories of the 1950s, Asimov frequently described Earth as a radioactive wasteland.

“The Wedge” is one of the less memorable Foundation stories and coincidentally also the only one where Hari Seldon’s hologram does not appear, since a Foundation agent nearly getting himself killed trying to undermine the society of a neighbouring world apparently does not qualify as a Seldon crisis. “The Wedge” also displays several of Asimov’s trademark weaknesses such as bland characters and clumsy dialogue, though the latter isn’t as noticeable here, because the Askonian elders are supposed to be pompous. This story also shares the unfortunate tendency of Isaac Asimov to let his climactic scenes happen off stage. And so instead of showing us Ponyets confronting Pherl with filmic evidence of the latter committing sacrilege, Asimov just tells us about it by having Ponyets recount the events to Gorov after the fact.

In spite of the story’s obvious weaknesses, the plot of “The Wedge” still holds up seventy-five years later and I enjoyed the story upon rereading. “The Wedge” is still a clever science fiction story – albeit one that comes with a generous helping of the unexamined imperialism and colonialism that afflicts the entire Foundation series.

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