Retro Review: “The Big and the Little” a.k.a. “The Merchant Princes” by Isaac Asimov

Astounding Science Fiction August 1944“The Big and the Little” is a novelette by Isaac Asimov, which was first published in the August 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 Merchant Princes”, which is how it appeared in Foundation, the first book of the eponymous trilogy.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

I already recapitulated the Foundation series so far in my review of “The Wedge”, the story which directly precedes this one. So rather than repeat everything again, I’ll just direct you over there.

“The Big and the Little” takes place approximately thirty years after the events in “The Wedge” and also focusses on the traders, who peddle the Foundation’s atomic powered gadgets and spread its influence along the galactic periphery. One of those traders is Hober Mallow, the protagonist of “The Big and the Little”.

Like Limmar Ponyets from “The Wedge”, Hober Mallow is also something of an outsider on the margins of Foundation society. Like Ponyets, he was born in one of the four kingdoms the Foundation controls via its fake religion and was later given a lay education. But even though Mallow has enjoyed the benefits of a Foundation education, he is still not considered a true Foundation citizen, because he was not born on Terminus. Asimov rarely bothers to give us physical descriptions of his characters, but what little he tells us about Mallow’s appearance suggests that he also looks different than other Foundation citizens. For starters, he still dresses in the style of his homeworld Smyrno. And in one scene, while Mallow is hanging out naked (!) with a male friend in his private sun room in what is surely just a harmless discussion about politics, his skin is described as brown. So it’s at least possible that Hober Mallow is a man of colour. It is also possible that he is not straight, because the homoerotic vibes in that sun room scene are very strong (at one point, Mallow’s friend places a phallic object – a cigar – in Mallow’s mouth), even though this went completely over my head when I first read the story as a teen.

At the beginning of the story, Mallow is approached by Foundation politician Jorane Sutt, who worries that a Seldon crisis – one of the flashpoints in Foundation history where Hari Seldon’s hologram shows up to prove the protagonist right – is approaching. Now Sutt wants Mallow to head to the Korellian Republic – the Star Wars associations of the name were not lost on my teen self – to investigate the disappearance of three Foundation trading ships in Korellian space. Because the Foundation are the only ones who are supposed to have atomic power on the galactic periphery, attacking and destroying Foundation ships should be impossible. Unless the Korellian Republic also has atomic power, that is. And if the Korellian Republic really has atomic power, the question is how they got it. Sutt fears that there may be a traitor in the ranks of the Foundation, maybe one of the traders who aren’t “real citizens” anyway. Maybe even Mallow himself.

So Mallow sets out for the Korellian Republic with his ship, the Far Star, a politically ambitious trader named Jaim Twer in tow. Mallow rightly suspects that Twer may be a spy for Sutt, but takes him along anyway. The Korellian Republic is a republic in name only, but has been ruled by members of the same family for generations now. The latest leader, Commdor Asper Argo calls himself “the well-beloved”, but resides in a fortress-like estate and surrounds himself with bodyguards.

Even though Mallow is an official envoy of the Foundation, the well-beloved Asper Argo keeps him waiting. One day, a man claiming to be a Foundation priest shows up on the landing field, begging for help. For while the Korellian Republic tolerates Foundation traders, they forbid Foundation missionaries from entering their territory on the penalty of death, since the fate of the four kingdoms and Askone, the world from “The Wedge”, has made all other polities on the galactic periphery wary of the Foundation’s fake religion. Mallow’s crew lets the wounded priest aboard – against Mallow’s explicit orders. Mallow now finds himself in a similar situation to Limmar Ponyets from “The Wedge” – he has to deal with a Foundation citizen who wilfully flaunts the laws of other worlds. Unlike Ponyets, however, Mallow makes no attempt to save the priest. Instead, he delivers him to the mob baying for his blood outside the ship, to the horror of both Jaim Twer and his crew.

I had completely forgotten the episode with the priest. Upon rereading the story, I was stunned by Mallow casually abandoning the man to certain death. Of course, the priests of the Foundation’s sham religion are not particularly likeable, but that doesn’t mean that you want to see one of them get lynched. Mallow justifies his actions by telling Twer that he believes that the episode with the priest was a deliberate trap. After all, the Far Star has landed in a largely deserted area. So where did the priest and the mob pursuing him suddenly come from? All these are good questions, if there had been any hint regarding these facts, before Mallow brings them up. In the end, Mallow is proven right, too. But even though the plot is rigged in Mallow’s favour, the casual cruelty with which he throws the priest to mob still left a bad taste in my mouth. Not to mention that Mallow seem to believe in the “rum, sodomy and the lash” school of captaincy, pulls a blaster on his own crew and even remarks at one point that while he may be a democrat at home, aboard the Far Star he is a dictator. All of the protagonists of the early Foundation stories are jerks, but Hober Mallow is more open about it than either Salvor Hardin or Limmar Ponyets.

Soon after the episode with the priest, Mallow is suddenly given an audience with the Commdor, which he takes as further proof that his instincts were correct. During that meeting, Mallow assures the well-beloved Asper Argo that he has zero interest in spreading the Foundation’s religion, all he wants is to sell his wares for mutual benefit. Mallow’s dislike for the Foundation’s fake religion seems genuine, most likely because as someone born in the four kingdoms he was once on the receiving end of that religion.

The one scene in the story that I clearly remember some thirty years after I first read it also occurs during this meeting, when Mallow demonstrates one of his products, a necklace and belt combination that glows thanks to the miracles of atomic power, on an unnamed female servant in the Commdor’s household. This female servant is one of only two female characters in this story (and the entire first Foundation book, for that matter), the other being the Commdor’s wife, who is married to him in a political union. The Commdor’s wife even gets a few lines – mostly nagging her admittedly awful husband – while the female servant only gets to model pretty glowing jewellery. I remember this scene so clearly thirty years on, because a) this set of glowing jewellery sounded awesome and I would have loved to have one, and b) wearing a belt with a miniature nuclear reactor in the buckle also sounded incredibly dangerous and like a recipe for cancer. However, if someone had managed to make the glowing jewellery without the nuclear reactor, I would have been so there. I clearly wasn’t the only person who was fascinated by that scene, because William Timmins’ cover illustration shows a hand, presumably Mallow’s, holding the glowing necklace aloft.

But Mallow doesn’t only have nuclear powered trinkets for sale, he also has more practical wares, which he’d be only too happy to demonstrate to the Commdor, provided he could be given access to a steelwork. The idea behind this is that if the Korellians have atomic power, an industrial facility like a steelwork would be the place to find it, though don’t ask me why Mallow expects to find evidence of nuclear power at a steelwork. The Commdor agrees quickly, too quickly, and so Mallow gives his demonstration. He also finds evidence of atomic power, though not in the way he had expected. For the Commdor’s bodyguards are armed with atomic blasters bearing the crest of the Galactic Empire.

Foundation

Cover of the Gnome Press edition of Foundation.

Once Mallow knows where the Korellians got atomic weapons from, he sets out to investigate further, heading for a world called Siwenna that was once the capital of an Imperial province. But all he finds is an impoverished world under the thumb of a cruel Imperial viceroy who has ambitions to become Emperor himself. Failing that, the viceroy is planning to build up an empire of his own on the periphery and has already married off his daughter to Commdor Asper Argo of the Korellian Republic.

Mallow learns all that from an impoverished and disgraced Imperial patrician who just happens to be the first person he encounters on Siwenna. But contrived as this encounter seems, the story the old man tells about a succession of increasingly weak emperors and ambitious viceroys, about rebellions, counter-rebellions, massacres and genocide is powerful, even if all the action once more happens off stage, as is common with Asimov’s work.

But Mallow not only learns that the Galactic Empire, while still existing, is in dire straits, he also learns that the Foundation’s technology is more advanced than the Empire’s, that most of the Empire’s technology are legacy systems which the maintenance techs can’t even repair, should they break down, and that the Foundation are believed to be a semi-mythical group of space magicians this far from their sphere of influence. Viewed from the POV of our current information society, where every bit of news travels around the world in seconds and it is possible to have a conversation on Twitter with participants on four different continents, the complete breakdown of communication between the remnants of the Empire and the Foundation as well as the mutual ignorance of each other (Mallow is surprised that the Empire still exists) seems unlikely. I suspect it would have seemed unlikely even in 1944, where Asimov himself had a map in his office at the Navy Yard marking frontlines and troop movements on the other side of the world. If anything, the mutual ignorance of the Empire and the Foundation of each other reminded me of the tendency in the Star Wars universe to treat events that occurred only a few decades ago as ancient and quasi-mythical history.

Armed with this knowledge, Mallow returns to Terminus to build factories to fulfil the lucrative trade contracts he brought back from his trip to the Korellian Republic, accumulate wealth and run for office. But Mallow’s political ambitions anger Jorane Sutt, who then brings up the death of the priest in the Korellian Republic to have Mallow arrested and tried for murder.

Now the story takes a sharp turn into courtroom drama territory with the murder trial of Hober Mallow. Mallow takes the stand and proceeds to tear the case apart. First, he presents a hitherto unknown recording of the incident with the priest, which conveniently reveals that the supposed priest has a black light tattoo (something I for one did not know already was a thing in 1944) marking him as an agent of the Korellian secret police. Mallow further reveals that Jorane Sutt was trying to set him up and is planning to use the Foundation’s fake religion and the associated church to topple the secular government. Finally, Mallow reveals that his travelling companion Jaim Twer was a spy for Sutt all along and is not a trader, but a Foundation priest. As for how Mallow knew that Twer had to be a priest, in a conversation early in the story, Twer did not know what a Seldon crisis was and Mallow had to explain it to him, even though anybody who’d enjoyed a Foundation lay education would have known about Seldon crisises.

Like many golden age authors, Isaac Asimov wrote in more than one genre and was also a mystery writer. Now Asimov would not start writing straight mysteries until the 1970s and his 1953 science fiction crime novel The Caves of Steel is generally considered his first foray into the mystery genre. Nonetheless, many of Asimov’s early science fiction stories are structured like mysteries, even if the puzzle to be solved is “Why does this robot misbehave?” rather than a classic whodunnit. “The Big and the Little” is a good example, especially since there actually is a crime to be solved here.

But even if “The Big and the Little” is a science fiction mystery, it’s not a very good one. For even though Mallow’s deductions are all logical and make sense, the reader is not given the chance to make the same deductions, because they are not given the same information. Mallow might wonder how an escaped priest and an enraged mob come to show up at the largely deserted landing place of the Far Star, but the reader never learns that the area is deserted until Mallow tells us. Nor does Asimov ever mention that the fake priest’s robes are uncommonly new and clean, until Mallow decides to let us know. The incriminating tattoo comes completely out of nowhere as well. And the initial mystery of the vanished trader ships is resolved almost as an afterthought with a single line: “It was the Korellians using Imperial technology. Who else could it have been?” However, I do have to applaud Asimov for turning the incredibly awkward “As you know, Bob…” dialogue to explain what a Seldon crisis is into a vital clue to the central mystery.

Mallow is acquitted, since no crime was committed, and also elected mayor, since his political rival Jorane Sutt was revealed to have been plotting treason all along. However, there still is that pesky Seldon crisis to deal with, which finally arrives two years later, when the Korellian Republic declares war on the Foundation by attacking its trading ships with the much larger and more powerful Imperial dreadnoughts that Asper Argo, the well-beloved, managed to inveigle out of his father-in-law, the ambitious Imperial viceroy. If you’ve been hoping for a big space battle, you’ll be disappointed though, because once more Asimov keeps the action off stage and only gives us a short scene of a crewmen aboard a doomed trading ship getting his first glimpse of a gigantic Imperial warship.

Hober Mallow responds to the Korellians’ attack not by launching a counterattack, because this will only put the Foundation into the crosshairs of the Empire (which is what happens in the following story “Dead Hand”) and the Foundation is not yet strong enough to deal with the Empire. Instead, Mallow declares a trade embargo against the Korellian Republic. Then he sits back and waits until first the nuclear powered gadgets he sold to the Korellians break down and then the larger, industrial systems as well. And since Mallow knows that the Empire, though allied with the Korellians, does not have the technology to repair or replace the broken Foundation tech, he need only wait until the Korellian economy fails and the populace revolts.

“The Big and the Little” is the story which introduced me to the concept of economic embargos and the logic behind it. And as explained by Mallow, it all makes sense and neatly works out, too. There is no shooting and no bombing, the Korellians back down eventually and hardly anybody is hurt. Of course, reality is never quite so simple, but then the plot of the Foundation stories is always rigged in favour of the Foundation –until it isn’t.

Even though there is a Seldon crisis in “The Big and the Little”, Hari Seldon himself does not appear in this story. I assume that Seldon’s hologram does appear at some point to explain why Hober Mallow is right and Jorane Sutt is wrong, but for some reason we never get to see this moment. Instead, Mallow himself explains to his old enemy Sutt and his friend, sounding board and occasional nude sunbathing partner Ankor Twael that the Foundation will henceforth move away from conquest and domination via religion towards conquest and domination via trade. Sutt, a steadfast adherent to the old ways, is outraged, while Twael worries what will happen during the next Seldon crisis, when domination and expansion via trade stops being effective. Mallow agrees that his tactics will eventually cease working, but since it’s not likely that there will be another Seldon crisis in his lifetime (though Salvor Hardin got two), that’s a problem for someone else to worry about.

Foundation 1983 Panther edition

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

Upon rereading this story, I realised that I remembered very little about it apart from the scene with the glowing necklace and that this was the story with the economic embargo. Part of the reason for this may be that “The Big and the Little” (the title refers to the big but lumbering Empire and the small but nimble Foundation) is something of a mess. The story is long – at the upper edge of the novelette range – and somewhat disjointed. It almost feels as if Asimov – who was after all only twenty-four, when he wrote this story – bit off more than he could chew with “The Big and the Little”. Asimov juggles lots of plot strands – there is the central mystery of where the Korellians are getting their weapons from and what they’re up to, the political manoeuvring and backstabbing between the various fractions in the Foundation, the Seldon crisis and the shift in Foundation policy as well as setting up the conflict with the Empire, which will come to a head in the next story “Dead Hand” – so it’s no surprise that he doesn’t tie up all of those many plot strands in a satisfying manner. What is more, the four stories that make up the first book in the Foundation trilogy are mainly set up. The truly memorable Foundation stories – “The Mule”, “Now You See It…”, “…And Now You Don’t” – all come later in volumes two and three. If Asimov had never written another Foundation story after “The Big and the Little”, I doubt that the series would be remembered as fondly as it is today.

Isaac Asimov has always stated that the Foundation series was inspired by The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon and the parallels are certainly notable, particularly in the latter story “Dead Hand”. However, the Foundation series also bears strong parallels to the course of European imperialism and colonialism, which began with sending missionaries (though unlike the Foundation’s fake religion, the Catholic missionaries sent out by the Spanish and Portuguese empires were absolutely sincere) and eventually came to focus on trade. Like the Foundation, Europe’s colonial powers also exported trinkets and imported the raw materials they lacked. And just like Hober Mallow, people from the colonised countries were never quite viewed as real citizens, even if they had been educated in the colonising country. Finally, the tactics used by the Foundation are also eerily reminiscent of American postwar policy, where the US tried to dominate its sphere of influence both via trade and also via exporting its political, if not religious beliefs (and occasionally those, too, or how else did South Korea come to have a sizeable number of evangelical Christians?).

In fact, the thing that most struck me upon rereading the Foundation stories was how political the series is and how very much it is about imperialism, particularly the American variety thereof. Not that my younger self did not realise that the Foundation series was political, but I mostly viewed it as a blueprint for preventing/reversing social and technological decline (and I was very worried about this at the time, viewing every empty shop and every broken neon sign as a symptom for decline, because Hari Seldon points out broken neon signs as symptom for the decline of the Empire in Prelude to Foundation) and bringing about a better future. And indeed, there is something very seductive about the idea of the Foundation using its superior technology as well as every trick in the book to make the universe a better place and bring about a political aim that none of the characters will ever see.

This is the reason that so many politically interested people – figures as different as Paul Krugman, Newt Gingrich and Osama Bin Laden have all cited the Foundation series as an influence – have been inspired by the Foundation series, when they read it at a young age. I don’t even exclude myself there. My love for the Foundation series was the reason why I picked sociology as my secondary subject at university, because I wanted to do what Hari Seldon did, predict the future and find a way to make it better. Of course, I quickly figured out that it doesn’t work that way in reality and that psychohistory is far more fiction than science.

The Foundation series will always remain a classic of political science fiction. However – and this is something my younger self missed – the vision of politics the series presents is not necessarily a good one and the Foundation is not necessarily right.

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