Foundation, Isaac Asimov (Avon, 1966)

(Science Fiction)

Grade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre. 

In brief:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov is one of the great classics of the Science Fiction genre.  Set in the far future, it depicts the creation of a new society based on fundamentals of a futuristic social science. To that end, it chronicles the trials and tribulations of a culture designed to rule the galaxy. Readers should be aware, however, that it is more a collection of short fiction with a shared over-arc than a single narrative following a given set of characters. Even so,[1] Foundation is a fun, interesting and influential novel which is a must read for all science fiction fans, and probably an interesting read for anyone who doesn’t dislike Sci Fi.

Setting:

Far Future in the Milky Way Galaxy, mostly set in a remote corner on the edge of an outer spiral ring.

In Depth:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov is one of the great classics of the Science Fiction genre. As Sci Fi Novels go, it is about as famous as they get.  As series go, it is one of those that set the bar by which other series are measured.[2]  To that end, any real Science Fiction aficionado should read this book.  Even those who just want a fascinating tale should strongly consider it; it is a classic for a reason.  Reader beware, however, for this is not a single tale about a single set of characters.  It is a ‘future history’ style collection that chronicles the birth and growth of a society.  To that end, some readers find that without deeply developed characters they are not as quickly drawn in to the narrative.  I, however, found Foundation and it’s two sequels interesting and imaginative.[3]

Interestingly, despite Asimov’s impressive scientific background, Foundation is real Space Opera stuff.  It includes Faster than Light Travel (whose existence seriously limits the use of the word Hard in any description of Science Fiction in my book), hints at psionics[4] and introduces the concept of Psychohistory, an idea which is as fantastic to the study of humans as FTL is to physics.  Yet both are key to the plot and, assuming you can put your disbelief in hold about them, create a fascinating story.

What is Psychohistory you ask?  Well effectively, in the story, psychohistorians are supposed to be able to use an unspecified variety of social sciences to look at a large numbers of human subjects, and by adding some handwavium mathematic, come up with a reliable predictor of human behaviour.  What is more, using the same principles, they can manipulate group behavior as well. Mind you, it doesn’t work for individuals, but only for large groups such as societies or humanity as a whole.  Thus, in essence it is a pretty cool concept, only… well….while being an optimist I don’t totally rule out the possibility that one day such a science will develop, but to be blunt, its probability is about the same as coming up with an FTL.  In other words, don’t hold your breath.

Still, for a story, fine.  No problem.  I write Mil Fic with FTL and social behavioural controls, and read novels where people an turn into animals and shoot lightning out of wands, so I can happily suspend my disbelief for this.  Besides, it does set up a pretty interesting story.

Foundation opens by introducing us to Hari Seldon, the greatest known psychohistorian, as he reveals to the Galactic Emperor the impending collapse of the Galaxy wide civilization. The collapse that he predicts will create a massive dark age, lasting thirty thousand years or more, unless he and a set of brilliant minds are allowed to intervene by creating the Foundation.[5]  This organization will consist of two groups: The First Foundation set up on the remote world of Terminus, located at the distal end of one of the Milky Ways outer spiral arms.  The Second Foundation is created as a contingency plan, and set at the opposite end of the Galaxy.

From this set up, the book and subsequent series follow the growth of the First Foundation as it grows from a backwater outpost manned by academicians, to a power of its own.  It is fun and fascinating, and a great concept exploration book.  I suppose in hindsight it shows some clear elements of the period in which it was written,[6] but that is to be expected of any novel.

In the end, it remains a good read even after forty-six years and that is quite remarkable.  A must read to any fan or scholar of the genre, it would probably serve as an enjoyable light read to most anyone who does not dislike Science Fiction. 


[1] Or perhaps even because of this.

[2] Other such series include Dune and the Hainish Cycle among others.

[3] Actually, there are a number of sequels, but the original trilogy was… well a trilogy and stands on its own. I may get on to reviewing the numerous subsequent novels eventually, but I feel they are tag-ons rather than part of the core series.

[4] which comes to fruition in the sequels.

[5] In which case the dark age will last only about one millennia…

[6] As with SO MANY Science fiction novels of the 1960’s to 1980’s, it is, in effect, a post-apocalypse book in the sense that chronicles the survival of humanity after a cataclysmic event.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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5 Responses to Foundation, Isaac Asimov (Avon, 1966)

  1. Jessica Burde says:

    I read Foundation in college, and god it frustrated me – and ten years later you’ve put your finger on precisely why.
    Psychohistory and characters.
    I am very much a social science buff. The ‘hard’ sciences are fun and interesting, but the social sciences are things I can really sink my teeth into. So I’ve always found the existence of FTL in sci-fi unrealistic, but not belief-breaking, as long as the author made an effort to come up with some semi-cohent sounding explanation. But psychohistory just made me cringe (rather the way some hard SF fans I know cringe at any mention of FTL!) I love seeing SF explore imaginary societies and the psychology of aliens the way mil-fic fans love bullet-porn. I swear, psychohistory killed a piece of my soul.
    Add in the characters – character make a story for me! I am a character oriented reader and a character driven writer. I had just really gotten sucked into Seldon’s story (in spite of the psychohistory nonsense) when suddenly we jump a couple hundred years and Seldon is dead and gone! It was my first introduction to this kind of sequential novel and my reaction was very much WTF!
    Many thanks for a good write up – I haven’t thought about Foundation in years. It’s rather nice to be able to look back with a decade more self-knowledge and finally understand WHY I can’t stand a classic in my favorite genre. (And for anyone else reading this – it is a classic and worth reading just for the glimpse into the development of SF given how influential it is. Still. Cringe.)

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Thanks! I’m glad I was able to help shed light on what you found wrong with it. Funny thing that, isn’t it? How one can overlook one set of totally made up rules, but not overlook others?

      For me, a story usually fails if the characters’ don’t hold up. Thus, my complaints of “Island in the Sea of Time” and any number of other books. In this one, the characters were never explored enough to have them fail. Maybe a saving grace. Did you read the sequels by any chance?

      • Jessica Burde says:

        Nope, barely made it through the first one. Always meant to go back and pick up the sequels, because he did have a fascinating plot, but it always seemed to much like work.

        Re: made up rules, I guess we all have our own criteria for what matters. To the tech buffs, tech matters and should be real, and other stuff is fun but not a huge deal. To a social buff (and isn’t that a strange thing for an introvert to be?) the tech is fun, but what matters is the people and society.

        I’ll probably avoid ‘Island in the Sea of Time’ – characters that don’t hold up is probably the only worse than unexplored characters for my reading enjoyment.

        TL;DR: To each their own. There’s plenty to go around!

      • Thomas Evans says:

        Oh to be fair to IST, some of the characters are really very good… it’s just how the author dismissed the bulk of modern archaeology with one line that I don’t believe a professional historian would make. Other than that some of the characters are very well fleshed out. Still, it’s really a Mil Fic book in disguise.

        I must agree with your assessment of people and society mattering, and to that end don’t recommend you pick up the others. They do, however, introduce some characters that stick around for a while, so that might help.

        Also, as an aside, I think that an introvert is exactly the kind of person who would care about accurate portrayal of people and how society works. After all, if an introvert is going to spend time with other people, they want to be sure they are the kind of people they enjoy. To that end, they are often more attuned to social interactions. My two cents’ anyway.

      • Jessica Burde says:

        An interesting thought. Growing up I found social interactions so overwhelming that the idea I might be attuned to them is kind of mind boggling. But I have always felt good at understanding individual people. Its trying to keep up with them in large groups that is overwhelming, so in that sense you may be right.

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