Foundation is the first in a series of novels by the esteemed Science Fiction Grand Master Isaac Asimov. It evolved from a series of short stories first published in Astounding Magazine beginning in 1942, under the direction of John W. Campbell. It reflects the very beginning of Asimov’s career as a writer and has been hailed as the beginning of one of the greatest space operas of all time. Indeed, the Foundation Trilogy was voted the Hugo Award in 1966 for “Best All-Time Series”.
The first book written in the series takes place many years in the future when the galaxy has been completely populated by humans due to faster than light speed travel. A Galactic Empire now rules the political spectrum and has ruled with an iron first for 12,000 years. However, much like the Roman Empire, the Galactic Empire has started to fall.
A mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon has created a new branch of science called psychohistory which combines statistical analysis with sociopolitical prediction. Seldon predicts the fall of empire and a dark age to last 30,000 years before a new galactic empire arises.
Naturally, the Emperor, on the home planet of Trantor, is disturbed by this prediction and arrests Seldon and some of his colleagues. Seldon believes that the length of time of dark ages can be reduced by creating an Encyclopedia Galactica that will allow mankind to pass on the civilization and scientific knowledge to future generations. In order to rid itself of Seldon, the Empire allows him and his followers to create their Foundation on a planet called Terminus circling a sun at the very edge of the galactic rim.
We later learn that Seldon actually manipulated the Empire into doing what he wanted them to do all along and that the Encyclopedia was merely a ploy for him to create a political body destined to eventually become the Second Empire. Manipulation itself becomes a major theme in the novel.
The book is divided into the following sections: The Psychohistorians, The Encyclopedists, The Mayors, The Traders and The Merchant Princes, following the development of the Foundation through a series of crises. These crises are invariably solved by a shrewd leader who generally uses the folly of their enemies against themselves. And every so often, Hari Seldon himself appears in the form of a hologram to give them hints as to where they are at and where they are going.
The book’s story is completely dedicated to political machinations and involves an inordinate amount of dialogue to serve the plot. The characters are sparsely drawn and serve specific functions in the development of the story.
The theme of the novel may be found in one of Mayor Salvor Hardin’s favorite slogans, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Throughout the novel, one character in each section must overcome the greed and arrogance of a Foundation adversary that is bent on taking over Terminus. In each case, the protagonist is able to manipulate the adversary into failure – and this is usually accomplished despite the wishes of most of the citizens of the Foundation. I see this as a flaw in the novel, in that psychohistory is based upon predicting the reactions of great masses of people over time. By having an individual outsmart the rest of the Foundation, it would seem that Seldon’s predictions are skewed completely by individual actions and that psychohistory is pure bunk. I can’t quite grasp how the actions of masses determine the future, yet one individual’s actions fuel the change. I don’t get that part.
The other problem I find with Foundation and with much of Asimov’s writing is his dependence on dialogue to tell a story. I was taught that a writer must show and never tell a story, yet Asimov’s characters constantly explain and argue back and forth for pages on end, with the only action being one character smoking a cigar or the other standing up and turning around. As a writer, I find this style highly problematic.
One of the basic issues with most science fiction writers is failing to see the future in any kind of creative way. Generally, the Masters and those others who have written very far in the past are given a pass because it would have been difficult for them to envision even the technology that we have today, let alone to envision it so many thousands of years in the future. I am inclined to grant that pass most of the time, but I also have some issues with Asimov’s future technology and society in Foundation.
I find it hard to believe that 20,000 years in the future people will still be reading newspapers, smoking cigars and watching “book-films”. I find it short-sighted to believe that atomic power would be propelling starships and running cities. Surely, something better would have been developed by then – and must have been. And I can’t really see a future in which leadership structures resemble that of the middle-ages. Even in 1942, even with Hitler and Mussolini, it should have been fairly obvious that mankind just wouldn’t continue with kings and dukes. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I see it essentially as a failure of imagination.
Ultimately, I don’t find Foundation to be among the very best of science fiction novels. Perhaps it has other, more historical accomplishments to recommend it. But I find the novel to be slow, bogged down in way too much dialogue, shallow in characterization and short on imagination.