Welcome to the second Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the pandemic, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll mostly be covering the Foundation series, in anticipation of the hopefully-as-good-as-it-looks television series coming out later in the year (which I will of course be reviewing). So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
You don't get an explanation for "KSP" until near the end
The Galactic Empire is dying. Despite the best efforts of its stewards to keep it alive, rot has seeped into the very core of galactic civilization in the forms of complacency, political corruption, and an unwillingness to change the patterns of history. One man, however, has made a science of those patterns and created an entirely new branch of human thought: psychohistory. This man, Hari Seldon, argues that he cannot stop the decline, but he can shorten the length of the ensuing dark ages. Seldon then sets out to enact a carefully designed plan that only he truly understands, leading to a better Galactic Empire a millenium in the future.
Thus is the stage set for Foundation, the first of a series of novels by Isaac Asimov that detail the challenges facing Hari Seldon's epic plan for the future. Originally written as short stories for John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, Foundation jumps through a handful of generations, spanning the first one-hundred-fifty years of Seldon's titular society. Each part of the novel--there are five in total--act as semi-autonomous stories about the struggle for power on the fringes of the galaxy as the Empire tears itself apart from the center.
Before I get into my thoughts on the novel, a disclaimer: I have read this book at least half a dozen times--probably more--as evidenced by my deteriorating hardback copy of the original trilogy. This--along with its first two sequels--is the Asimov I've contemplated the most, and it's been my constant companion for my entire adult life, informing my personal views on politics, society, religion, and philosophy. I'm happy to discuss the book's flaws, but at the end of the day, this might just be my favorite novel of all time.
Generic sci-fi cover No. 928
Foundation is certainly science-fiction just by virtue of its setting, but like the Empire series before it (chronologically), it is more fantasy than hard science. Sure, the crux of the plenary plot is the invention of "psychohistory," an enigmatic, mathematical means of predicting the future that, conceptually at least, isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Asimov is wise to avoid explaining it in detail, and most of the technology is also given hand-waving explanations, with numerous devices relying on the nebulous qualifier of "atomic." However, beyond that, the book is more concerned with timeless matters of human society on the macro scale than with technology or science.
Underscoring it all is a thematic focus on non-violent means of affecting positive change. Asimov borrows liberally from several real-world historical events, primarily the fall of the Roman Empire but also things like the Bronze Age Collapse and both World Wars (the second of which was still raging during some of the novel's writing). Though not all five parts of the book fit exactly into the formula, the basic outline of each is that a massive crisis--called a Seldon Crisis--is reaching its crecendo, but no matter how hopeless and extreme the situation seems, there is always a single way out, which is understood by one man.
This brings me to the first of Foundation's flaws: the characters. Hari Seldon himself is by far the most interesting of these, but he has precious few pages devoted to him in this book. The rest of the transient protagonists--Salvor Hardin, Linmar Ponyets, and Hober Mallow--are all basically the same. They are intelligent, cunning men with silver tongues and a knack for grasping subtlety. They turn the tables on their enemies with dramatic flourish but without ever having to rely on brute force. While it is fun to get to the final reveal in each story--which always takes advantage of Asimov's strengths as a crafter of mystery tales--it's pretty repetitive when they are read together as a single novel.
Looks more like The NeverEnding Story
The characters, in other words, lack any kind of diversity. Only one (barely) significant character is a woman, and she's terribly written as a charicature of what a 1940's man would expect from a woman. (There's also a lot of talk about housewives that borders on sexist, but as a reader of Heinlein, it's pretty tame to me.) Everybody else is either a militant bad guy, a fool standing in the way of the grand plan, or one of the aforementioned heroes. That really is it.
I'm also sure that some readers will find the novel dry, as there is a lot of dialogue and philosophizing. It's far more pithy than in, say, Frank Herbert's Dune series--which has so much in common with the Foundation series that I have a hard time believing Herbert wasn't deliberately plagiarizing Asimov--but if you're not too interested in how politics and religion intertwine or how the thirst for power can blind leaders to more pragmatic solutions to societal problems, there's not going to be enough in there to carry you between the more infrequent scenes of action and excitement.
I write these complaints as a way of playing the Devil's advocate, because even though I would love nothing more than to sing the novel's praises for nine paragraphs, I do want to give as close to an objective review as I can. Even with its flaws announced, though, there is no denying Foundation its legacy as one of the most important novels in all of sci-fi. The novel went a long way to bringing the genre to maturity in an age when it was still largely dismissed as pulp. As far as I'm concerned, Foundation is required reading for anybody who loves science-fiction.
-e. magill 6/10/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: