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In Asimov's Foundation, immediately following the exile of the encyclopedists, the envoy of Anacreon is tricked into disclosing critical information. The mayor at Terminus asks whether they could supply plutonium. The envoy is unaware that apparently, heavier or other elements are used in nuclear fission plants. They conclude that Anacreon and other stellar kingdoms are running on "oil and coal". They also say nuclear power is 50,000 years old, presumably this intergalactic future may be 50,000 years ahead of our present era.

Coal and oil on our present Earth is the result of millions of years of sedimentation of organic matter. Does that mean that either Earth continues to produce these resources, that they can be synthesized, or that alien life exists? If the latter, why are there so far no other alien species of mention?

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    IIRC The conceit was that there were plenty of Earthlike habitable planets but no other intelligent life forms, later retconned as the product of universe-tweaking by the robots.
    – Spencer
    Nov 3, 2022 at 20:04
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    I seem to recall that there is a discussion that some worlds were found having unique species,indicating the life had evolved independently across the galaxy, but they are a very low order life (probably just plants) and Earth is the only world where intelligent life evolved, accelerated by Earth's unique radioactivity.
    – HorusKol
    Nov 3, 2022 at 23:03
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    It seems pretty obvious that Asimov just assumed all habitable planets would have fossil fuels. Oxygen atmospheres also come from life, and there is no talk of importing the atmosphere for the other planets. Nov 4, 2022 at 13:58
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    @OrganicMarble this is a legitimate concern which I share. While it's not hard scifi, you don't just colonize a galaxy willynilly. In a similar vein, proximity and distance seem to be important (Terminus being 'at the edge of the galaxy cluster') whereas they seem to have achieved faster-than-light travel.
    – AdamO
    Nov 4, 2022 at 15:19
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    It may be worth noting that on earth the coal age was plants on land forming vast mats because no fungus had evolved the enzymes to break down cellulose. So what got buried became coal. The main thing that could return carbon back to the cycle was fire and it seems the atmosphere can get very close to points where there is so little carbon dioxide plants will suffocate. Earth seems to have dodged this but alien worlds may poison themselves. Similarly Earths first major extinction was due to oxygen poisoning because no life had the chemistry to use it. Nov 5, 2022 at 19:48

2 Answers 2

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According to Golan Trevize, the various planets that have been settled by humans often have 'indigenous' plants and animals at the time of their discovery, albeit supplanted by more aggressive Earth-originating imports. These original lifeforms would have been what was compressed and shaped into fossil fuels.

He said, “The plant life seems strange. Do you suppose any of it is indigenous?”

“I doubt it,” said Trevize absently. He was studying the map and attempting to adjust the programming of the car’s computer. “There’s not much in the way of indigenous life on any human planet. Settlers always imported their own plants and animals—either at the time of settling or not too long afterward.”

“It seems strange, though.”

“You don’t expect the same varieties from world to world, Janov. I was once told that the Encyclopedia Galactica people put out an atlas of varieties which ran to eighty-seven fat computer-discs and was incomplete even so—and outdated anyway, by the time it was finished.”

Foundation's Edge

and

“The conclusion is that one world in the Galaxy—one world—is different from the rest. Tens of millions of worlds in the Galaxy—no one knows exactly how many—have developed life. It was simple life, sparse life, feeble life—not very variegated, not easily maintained, and not easily spread.

and

When Terminus was first occupied by human beings in the days of the Encyclopedists, the highest form of plant life it produced was a moss-like growth on rocks; the highest forms of animal life were small coral-like growths in the ocean and insectlike flying organisms on land. We just about wiped them out and stocked sea and land with fish and rabbits and goats and grass and grain and trees and so on. We have nothing left of the indigenous life, except for what exists in zoos and aquaria.”

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No part of Asimov's Foundation series takes place on an inhabited Earth 50,000 years after the present, so the question of whether Earth still has coal and oil in that time frame is not relevant. As to alien species, Asimov does make it clear later in his Foundation series that alien life is widespread in the galaxy on Earthlike planets, but evolution never produced anything more advanced than plants and insects on any planet but Earth, and it tends to be replaced by Earth life during terraforming (as, for instance, on Aurora). Earth is special because its relatively high natural radioactivity leads to a greater mutation rate, and hence more rapid evolution, than elsewhere. It is also special because hidden robots, programmed to act in humanity's best interest, have traveled back in time to select a galaxy in which no intelligent species except for humanity had a chance to develop. (That this chronological genocide is glossed over by the Good Doctor without even a hint of rationalization is something that has always disturbed me. But that's a question for another day.)

So, how likely is it that a planet with primitive plants will become stocked with coal and oil over a few billion years? To judge from Earth's own history, very. Coal has formed from all kinds of plants, even from algae, at most periods during the Earth's last half billion years. And terrestrial oil is mostly derived from algae. Coal and oil production are concentrated particularly in a few time frames and in a few basins, but I think we can presume that alien plant life would yield at least some fossil fuels.

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    Where does time travel happen in the Foundation series?
    – HorusKol
    Nov 4, 2022 at 1:16
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    @HorusKol -- As I recall, Danieel, the human looking like robot all the way back from the Caves of Steel is still around -- and the 'End of Eternity' novel is between his origin and Foundation; originally mankind made it to the stars and found it full of aliens -- Danieel sped up our progression to get us out there early enough that we basically become the dominant life form and squeezed everything else out. There's a lot more to it (for example, how he gained telepathy, the Zeroth law, and some of his other experiments), but that's the basics.
    – K-H-W
    Nov 4, 2022 at 1:38
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    @HorusKol In-universe, it happens much later in the Foundation series, just as K-H-W says. Out-of-universe, Isaac Asimov wanted to interweave his End of Eternity universe with the Robot and Foundation series. It was either masterful or a grandiose mistake, depending on who you talk to. Nov 4, 2022 at 2:48
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    While I am personally fond of combining End of Eternity with Foundation...time travel and time traveling robots are not the same thing and I'm skeptical that that was ever proposed specifically. As I recall time traveling End of Eternity style humans would have been the excuse for why humanity is alone in the galaxy in Foundation. Though despite the flack Asimov got for that it probably is more realistic. I'm convinced getting out of hunting gathering and agrarian civilization is as hard as evolving in the first place. Nov 4, 2022 at 4:09
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    Also (slight correction to my previous comment) in End of Eternity the timeline without time travel has humanity beating all the Aliens to the stars. So while Foundation itself seems more strongly alien free than that implies...it seems there's a short story called Blind Alley that acts like it is in Foundation universe (at least an early conception of it) and it does have intelligent Aliens just not as advanced. Of course with time travel it's fairly easy to make all stories part of a multiverse. Nov 4, 2022 at 4:25

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