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  • Galactic Milton:Angelic Robots and the Fall into Barbarism in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series
  • Ryan Hackenbracht

If you read John Milton's Paradise Lost you will find that his Heaven is described as an eternal sing-along of praise to God. It is no wonder that one-third of the angels rebelled. When they were cast down into Hell, they then engaged in intellectual exercises . . . and I believe that, Hell or not, they were better off. When I read it, I sympathized strongly with Milton's Satan and considered him the hero of the epic, whether Milton intended that or not.

—Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994)

In 1974, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published an annotated edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost, which he titled Asimov's Annotated "Paradise Lost": An Original Interpretation of Milton's Epic Poem.1 What happens when science fiction meets Renaissance poetry, and the author of humanity's epic interstellar future meets the author of its epic biblical past? An "original interpretation," to be sure, and one that offers fascinating [End Page 293] (and entertaining) insight into Milton's influence on the grand master of science fiction.2 For instance, when God the Father sends the archangel Raphael to warn Adam and Eve about Satan, Asimov points out that it would have taken Raphael one hour and 19 minutes to travel from Saturn to Earth—assuming, he says, that angels travel at the speed of light.3 When Satan and his rebel angels consider the journey from hell to Earth, Asimov praises them as astronauts who were braving "interplanetary travel across space."4 In another instance, Asimov seems to respond to the premise of Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost," which had appeared in print a few years earlier.5 Declaring himself an "unregenerate reader," Asimov attempts to sway other readers toward a diabolic interpretation of Milton's text and suggests that "there is something wrong with Milton's Heaven."6 "There is no question but that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Paradise Lost," he says in Empsonian fashion, and he claims we sympathize with the archangel because we "admire the underdog who doesn't know when he's beaten and who won't give up."7

Despite the combativeness of these annotations and in part because of them, Asimov's fascination with Paradise Lost raises important questions about Milton's influence on Asimov's Foundation series, which sold millions of copies worldwide. In a 2005 essay in the Guardian, Margaret Atwood asserted that "science fiction as a form is where theological narrative went after Paradise Lost" and that "extraterrestrials have taken the place of angels" in our cultural imagination.8 Atwood's statement can serve as a heuristic for imagining the relationship between Milton and science fiction, and it encourages us to ask if Asimov's superhuman robots bear comparison to Raphael and his superhuman brethren, whose extraterrestrial descent dazzles Adam's eyes like "another Morn / Ris'n on mid-noon"?9 When Asimov rewrites the biblical Fall in his seven Foundation novels, is he also rewriting Milton? If we consider the Foundation series as epic science fiction, how does Asimov engage his predecessors Milton, Virgil, and Homer?10 When Asimov offers us visions of a wondrous world to come, can we hear in his narrative the whispers of Satan and his [End Page 294] infernal crew, warning us that "long is the way / And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light" (PL 2.432–33)?

Those whispers are indeed audible, and by charting Milton's influence on Asimov and science fiction, I hope to further the conversation on Milton and popular culture begun by Laura L. Knoppers and Gregory Colón Semenza, who show how the appropriation of Miltonic ideas "give[s] new currency to Milton, making his works a vital, living part of contemporary culture."11 Scholars continue to uncover new instances of Milton's presence in modern society. Noting that "reading Milton in light of pressing political and intellectual concerns is a practice as old as reading Milton," Feisal Mohamed demonstrates Milton's relevance to crises...


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