Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Predicting the future…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the far distant future, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, inhabiting countless planets. All are ruled from Trantor, the administrative centre of the Galactic Empire. Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian on Trantor. He has calculated that the Empire will collapse in 500 years time, resulting in millennia of chaos and barbarism. But he has a plan to shorten this to 1000 years, ostensibly by gathering all scientific knowledge into one massive Encyclopaedia Galactica. The Empire sees Seldon’s predictions as a threat but nevertheless they agree that a Foundation to prepare the Encyclopaedia should be set up, based on two uninhabited planets on opposite edges of the galaxy. Published in 1951, this, the first volume in what was to become an extensive series of Foundation books, tells the story of one of these settlements, on the planet Terminus, and gradually reveals that Seldon’s plan is more drastic than he let on…

The Foundation series is considered one of the great classics of science fiction and, as with much of Asimov’s work, its influence can be seen on many later books, films and TV series. I loved the early books in the series as a teenager many years ago, though I didn’t like the way Asimov developed it in later years, when he was more or less driven to write more by his fans. It’s several decades since I last read this one and I came away from this re-read with mixed feelings.

The basic idea is interesting. Psychohistory is a bit like what we now call social science – the study of how society in the mass shapes and reacts to events. In this time period, the science is so well developed that these things are precisely measurable and can therefore be used as a method to predict the future. It must, I think, have been one of the earliest science fiction novels to be looking at the mass of people as the driving force of history, rather than at princes, presidents, warriors or even specific scientists as “heroes”. However, Asimov doesn’t carry this idea forward too well – at various points along the way, there are what are known as “Seldon crises” – moments predicted by Seldon (now long dead) where a particular path must be chosen. In each of these crises, a leader arises who drives and determines the outcome. So Asimov, having made the argument that progress is driven by mass historical movements, quietly drops that idea and brings out one far-sighted individual – a hero, in all but name – as required. He gets round this by suggesting that Seldon’s plan is so detailed he was able to predict and manipulate the future so that the right person would be available to deal with each crisis, but it all seems too pat to be credible.

Hari Seldon, long after he’s dead…

The spreading out of the story over hundreds of years also means that each crisis requires an entirely new cast of characters. Apparently the book was originally developed as a series of short stories, and that’s how it feels – episodic. The result is that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters – they appear, play their brief part, then are long dead before the next chapter begins. It’s really more about the ideas that Asimov plays with at each episode, many of which are quite interesting, but this reader needs more of a human angle to feel truly involved. Again because of the format, sometimes things happen too quickly to be credible – for example, at one point a new religion manages to convert billions of followers within a period of a decade or so.

One of the more amusing aspects of reading this kind of future-of-humanity science fiction is seeing how the predictions sound sixty-six years on. Poor Asimov couldn’t guess at the internet or Wikipedia – the idea of people working for hundreds of years to collect all human knowledge seems odd to us, used as we are to Googling anything we want to know from how to make an exciting cheese sandwich to how to build an atomic bomb. However, he did foresee the development of the automatic washing machine – an invention that personally I think ranks as at least as important as the internet.

Isaac Asimov

Asimov never made much effort to see how people’s habits and attitudes might change in the future, so what you always get are a bunch of mid-twentieth century people doing mid-twentieth century things set in the far future. In this one, his characters all smoke incessantly, while talking in that instantly recognisable American language of the 1950s where everything is “tremendous”, etc. It’s a wonderful throwback which always makes me chuckle. His attitudes to women are usually strictly mid-twentieth century too – closer to neanderthal than new man. He treats them with 1950s respect, as valued pretty pets, for the most part. However, that’s not so noticeable in this one since he just doesn’t bother having any women characters at all! (Slight exaggeration – two minor female characters make brief appearances: one a maid, naturally bedazzled by shiny jewellery, and the other a harridan of a wife.) Sad news, sisters – apparently even in the distant future all scientists, politicians and even criminals will be men. Still, at least we have automatic washing machines…

So a mixed bag, but some of the ideas are original and interesting, Asimov’s writing style is always effortless and entertaining, there’s some welcome humour, and a mystery surrounding what Seldon’s real plan is and how it will play out. Add the book’s influential status and this is one that, despite feeling somewhat out-dated, is still well worth reading.

Book 17 of 90

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26 thoughts on “Foundation by Isaac Asimov

  1. I have been wondering whether to read this – I read the Robot novels and liked the first one very much, but find that Asimov’s work becomes worse the more female characters he introduces (I vividly recall that two quite important female characters in the third Robot novel were physically indistinguishable from one another, except that one had slightly larger breasts, which he kept mentioning). If there aren’t too many female characters in this, I might well give it a go. I always felt that he was better at world development than individual character development, and it sounds like Foundations is the same. Great review.

    • Thank you! 😀 Ha! Yes, I don’t think female characters were really his strength! Actually the best female character of his I can think of was the female alien in The Gods Themselves (which I loved, BTW, if you haven’t yet read it – probably my favourite of his books). But I do think this one is worth reading – you can see the influence it has had on so many of the big space opera type of books – the whole Galactic Empire thing. I’m trying to remember if the other books in the series felt less episodic than this one – I suspect I may have to read the next one to find out…

  2. Asmov really was such a creative thinker, even if there are a lot of things he didn’t imagine, FictionFan. My husband resident Asimov expert loves the Foundations series, despite the limitations you’ve so rightly pointed out. His view is that Asimov was a product of his time, albeit a brilliant one. So was his work. Still, the series is a classic one, I think, despite its weaknesses.

    • Indeed he was and it’s always intriguing to see just how much influence he has had on so much later SF, in books and film. It’s so long since I read the Foundation books, but I do remember loving the series – I’m wondering if maybe the later books didn’t have the episodic feel of this one. Perhaps he wrote them as novels rather than cobbling together pre-existing short stories. I may have to read the next one to remind myself… 🙂

    • I wouldn’t want to put you off – I’m not as big a fan of SF as I was when I was in my teens and twenties, which may be affecting how I felt about it. There’s still lots to admire in this and you can really see how it’s been a huge influence on so much later SF, but I did find it felt more dated than some of his others books somehow… finding it hard to put my finger on exactly why though…

    • I was as a teenager and there are still some of the books I love, but a lot of them are feeling quite dated now. Not so much in terms of the ideas, but the language and society aspects. I don’t think I’ll read many more – I’d rather keep the memory of enjoying them.

  3. As a teenager I read a lot of science fiction but somehow never got around to Asimov. I’ve often wondered if I should return to my reading roots and go back and explore his works but your review suggests that I may have instinctively avoided a series that wouldn’t have appealed to me then and, after reading this, definitely doesn’t appeal to me now.

    • My big sci-fi era was my teens and early twenties and I enjoyed Asimov a lot back then. I still do but there’s no doubt they feel a bit dated now. However for anyone who wants to see how sci-fi developed over the years, he’s an essential read.

    • Certainly, the fact that I still remember it decades later shows that it had an impact on me at the time. He’s had such an influence on the genre that his books are still well worth reading, even if they do feel a bit dated now. 🙂

    • The thing about Asimov is that he’s always enjoyable for the ideas even if there are aspects that have dated, and it’s fun recognising all the stuff that later generations have re-used…

    • Ha! In general, I enjoyed science fiction much more before I grew up! But I loved The Martian – a great old-fashioned adventure story set in space! And the book is much better than the film… 😀

  4. Asimov was probably my most significant American influence as a teenager starting on non-British SF, and I loved the Foundation series, but I have no urge to reread it. I still read his non-series short stories occasionally, and I agree The Gods Themselves was probably his best book. I love his mysteries too.

    • I read a lot of Asimov back in the day – probably more than any other sci-fi writer – and I do still enjoy them in a nostalgic way. This one felt more dated than most, though. But I still always enjoy playing spot the influence on so many later books, TV shows, films, etc…

  5. ha! I think your reviews are getting funnier and funnier. We don’t make much of an appearance in the future, but thank god for automatic washing machines!

    I’ve never read a single book by this author, and for some reason (Embarassingly) I believed him to be a scientist or something, I didn’t realize he wrote fiction! shows you how much I know about the genre as a whole…

    • Hahaha – frankly, if I had to choose between feminism and automatic washing machines, it would be a difficult decision! 😉

      I can quite easily see why you would get that impression – his books are quite science-based, though not accurately, but a lot of scientists were inspired by him and have tried to replicate the things he created in his fiction – especially in the field of robotics. So he’s been influential even beyond sci-fi… 😀

  6. I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep a few years ago for many reasons, one of them being that I LOVE sheep, and the other one (which was actually more important) because a Spanish woman writer wrote a book that was loosely based on Asimov’s and I wanted to get all the references. In short: I didn’t like it. The noir part of the story was OK, too old school for me, but it was the female characters what really disturbed me. Same in Blade Runner 2049. I guess things for women haven’t changed that much in sci-fi…

    • Yes, sci-fi in particular tended to be a very male preserve back then. I haven’t read much modern sci-fi, but I’d have hoped it might be better now. Maybe now that women scientists are taken seriously at last (they are, aren’t they??) things will finally improve. I re-read Do Androids recently, and really I think it’s pretty flawed in a lot of ways, though still quite fun to read…

  7. My first instinct is why can’t he imagine people thinking differently in the future? Why would everyone be 1950s in the future? But then I realize what I’m asking the author to do: imagine changes not in only dress but in speech, thought, religion, technology, how to raise kids, etc. Basically, I think it should be easy to imagine the future then remember it’s hard. On the hand, that was his job!

    • Ha! I think he was more interested in predicting science stuff than people stuff, but I also think Americans of that era thought they’d pretty much achieved the perfect society already – white, male Americans, that is! 😉

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