Isaac Asimov is a legend; his books are on all the lists of classic sci-fi and are mandatory reading in the genre. That being said, I have never read any of his books; why you may ask? I don’t really know. I’ve always been a big fan of science fiction and specifically of the kind Asimov wrote a lot of but my sci-fi resume has weird caps in it. I chose Foundation primarily because it interested me the most. I plan on reading the whole trilogy, but more on that later. Lets begin.
The idea that humanity can conquer the starts, settle the known galaxy, is an intriguing idea that science fiction has tackled many times. That simple idea, combined with a galactic empire that has persisted for unknown thousands of years and you have the setting for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the first of his classic trilogy about the death of human civilization and those who struggle in the dark to bring the light of science and culture back to a galaxy that has largely forgotten such things.
The Galactic Empire is rotting. Nobody knows it except for Hari Sheldon, a mathematician and psychologist who develops a new kind of science that allows him to mathematically predict the actions of large societies, in this case the entire Empire, which seems to stretch throughout the known galaxy. His math says that the empire is dying, therefor it is. He successfully gets imperial permission to set up a secluded base of operations for his group of followers so that they can cut the predicted thirty thousand years of darkness to just a mere thousand years before a second Empire grows and rekindles human civilization. This Foundation, as it becomes known, remains a bastion of human development and science, while the rest of the galaxy seemingly forgets many of the advancements that were common during the Empire.
Most of the book is divided into four parts: the Encyclopedists, the Majors, the Traders, and the Merchant Princes. Each section deals with a Sheldon Crisis, or what is perceived to be one, that the rulers and members of the Foundation must deal with. Each section’s name also reflects a change and evolution within the Foundation. One of Asimov’s points seems to be that it’s not important how the Foundation survives, so long as it does. Therefore, it doesn’t matter whom or what is ruling it; a board of supervisors is just as valid as an elected major, which is just as valid as a despot. The later sections of the book are the strongest; the Foundation has established itself by this time and has made more choices and taken action that feel bigger and more important then what happens earlier in the book. We still know where the Foundation is headed, but how it’s going to get there gets more muddy and uncertain, which provides for better mystery.
Concern with the big picture and not relatively minor details, such has who or how the Foundation is ruled and operates or even who opposes them, is a recurring them throughout the whole book and is the very bedrock upon which psychohistory is built. Psychohistory is an interesting and fun concept. The idea that large numbers of people’s actions can be predicted to a high level of accuracy is not so farfetched that the book ever becomes unbelievable. As the story progresses, we encounter people who believe Sheldon and those who don’t and how their actions play out provides some of the best conversations of the book. Some characters give Sheldon and his equations an almost supernatural or religious reverence while others claim not to care about them at all. The book pulls off a neat trick; at no point does the course of the book rely on the actions of the few or an individual (at least according to itself and it’s own internal logic) but at the same time, without the actions of Salvor Hardin or Hober Mallow, just to name two, the Foundation would crumble and wither away. I the reader began to rely on Sheldon quite a bit throughout the book; I never really doubted the outcome of any crisis, partly because I know there are two more books but also because this volume does such an excellent job of showing the certainty of both Sheldon and his heirs.
Asimov’s style is extremely reader friendly. It’s mostly characters talking to each other and since they are often explaining things to each other, the reader gets to piggy-back on that so that the universe he is creating never seems to big or overwhelming. The book is almost all conversation in fact, with little direct action. Action happens, there are space fleet encounters and a palace coup for example, but they all happen elsewhere from the reader and characters POV. Normally this would be a strong mark agains the book, telling is so often less powerful then showing, but Asimov’s conversations are as entertaining as any space battle.
Next book: Foundation and Empire
Next movie: Big Eyes