Review Of Foundation,
by Isaac Asimov
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/18/05
A couple of months ago I picked up a leather-bound book that had six Isaac Asimov novels in it. It contains the Foundation and Robot trilogies, consisting of Foundation, Foundation And Empire, Second Foundation, The Stars, Like Dust, The Naked Sun, and I, Robot. The Foundation trilogy won a Hugo Award in 1965 for Best All-Time Series, beating such war horses as JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, and if the other two books are as good I can see why. I will be reading each novel over the course of coming months, and reviewing each. The first of the novels I’ve read is Foundation. But, before I get into it I need to preface that I was always aware of Asimov’s place, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, as one of the trinity of Golden Age sci fi masters, as well as having written and/or edited nearly five hundred books in his half a century career. This was the group of sci fi writers that came after the early pioneers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and what might be called Silver Age titans like Burroughs and A.E. Van Vogt. My familiarity with Asimov, though, was limited to his non-fictive texts, books on science or literature, and I found him to be an ameliorative presence, somewhat above your standard Cliffs Notes. A few months ago, I had picked up a huge hardback of Science Fiction Masterpieces, selected by Asimov and found them wanting. I’d also been very disappointed by the Collected Stories Of Arthur C. Clarke, and a few other sci fi anthologies I’d read. I’d come to the conclusion that, at least for sci fi, short stories are a very inadequate form. This is because sci fi usually is based upon gimmicks, rather than character development. In the probably six hundred plus sci fi stories I’ve read since the beginning of the year, from the late 19th Century to the early 21st Century, I can honestly say less than a dozen moved me, and none of them to the degree of the best short stories by a Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, nor Reynolds Price - ‘serious’ fictionists.
That said, I was still open to the idea that sci fi could rise above its mostly cheesy filmic ideals in the novel form. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles has always stuck with me, as has Clarke’s 2001 book series, and I found much to appreciate in other of his long fiction like Childhood’s End, Songs Of Distant Earth, and The Light Of Other Days. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, is a masterpiece, and when I recently read Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land (the uncut version) I found it to be still cogent, and a far more compelling presentation of social philosophy than dozens of bland and formalized philosophical tracts I’ve read. So, I held out hope that, like Clarke, Asimov would excel far better in long than short prose, even though I realized that Clarke was a ‘big picture guy’, whose characterizations were wan, and Heinlein had a tendency to ramble and repeat himself in Stranger.
Thankfully, my worries were for naught. Foundation is a masterpiece, bar none. It is not only great science fiction, but great fiction. Asimov does a truly wondrous job of painting a large picture, much in the way that the Hudson School of painting did in the 19th Century, while also giving compelling characterization, like a Rembrandt, and selecting the ‘right’ moments that the reader can zoom in on, in this compelling account of future history. Asimov leaves Clarke in the dust in terms of characterization, and most of this is achieved via dialogue, while still painting a big picture. Asimov wrote wonderful dialogue, and one can read the tenor of a character’s soul simply by how they react in words to other characters. That said, I am very surprised that Asimov did not take issue with George Lucas’s Star Wars films, because without Foundation there would simply not be Star Wars. Everything is there to be plumbed and looted- a galactic Empire, rebels, space jumps to circumvent the speed of light, the Galactic Spirit (aka The Force), and so on. Even Star Trek took a heavy load of its mythos from this book, as the human dominated Federation and human-looking and human-derived aliens that dominate most of the Star Trek universe have much akin with the Empire that rules Foundation at novel’s start.
The first book of the novel, The Psychohistorians, opens at some time in the far-flung future of mankind. Some have claimed it is fifty thousand years in the future, but that fact is never directly stated in the book. What is known is that humans have effectively conquered the galaxy and settled millions of worlds with a population reaching the quintillions, all the while forgetting that they originated on a planet circling the star Sol. This ‘Owigin Question’- as noted by a speech impedimented Empire bureaucrat named Lord Dorwin- in Chapter Four of Book Two, is one of the highlights of that hilarious chapter, and Dorwin is one of the great characters that populates the novel, as he tries to apply ‘formal logic’ to the query, yet is an abjectly lazy thinker and dilettante. This point also has ties to the whole Battlestar: Galactica mythos that is currently renascent. If there are or were any natal aliens, or intelligent species, what became of them is not known, although it could be surmised that they were effectively ‘conquered’. This Empire, as it is known, has been in place for at least twelve thousand years, and its capital, and center of power is a planet near the center of the galaxy called Trantor- a world that is virtually a totally artificial planet, with nary an acre of natural arable land left. It is a neverending mass of buildings and technological things, where its citizens spend literally years underground without seeing their star, and this planet houses billions of bureaucrats and paperpushers. From orbit, only the royal residence bares any green. The whole planet is the ultimate urban area. Yet, like so many other empires before, this one is rotting away and one man, Hari Seldon, a noted Psychohistorian, is on record predicting its doom within five hundred years, due to its top-heavy bureaucracy. The tale opens with a tyro Psychohistoran, Gaal Dornick, seeking out the great man, who has made plans to take a hundred thousand of his best people to not ward off the coming end, but to make sure that the interregnum between Empire and a Second Empire, which will be more just and benevolent, is not a Dark Age of thirty thousand years, as his science of Psychohistory- looking at statistical trends and probabilities of large groups of people via the prism of the human psyche, and making reasonable predictions- predicts, but only a single millennium, by recording all of human knowledge in an Encyclopedia Galactica. Of course, this makes him a marked man, and he is eventually put on trial for treason and sedition- but it is a show trial, and he is forced to accept banishment to a barren planet, devoid of metals, called Terminus, on the galaxy’s edge, where he will be granted his Foundation, with a rival Foundation set up on the opposite end of the galaxy, called Stars-End, although its location and aims are none to no one but Seldon. This is done by the real power behind the Imperial throne, not the actual Emperor. Yet, Seldon has naturally predicted all this, and it was his plan all along to have his Foundation as far away from Trantor, and the imploding Empire, as possible. The Encyclopedia Galactica was just a ruse, although only he and a few intimates were aware of that fact.
The next book of the novel, The Encyclopedists, is set fifty years in the future, when Seldon is dead, and there is a political struggle on Terminus over how to deal with threats from four breakaway provinces of the Empire, which have declared themselves kingdoms and each wanting to possess the advanced science and atomic power the Foundation possesses so it can dominate the others. The most dangerous is Anacreon, run by a dimwitted child, Lepold, who is the puppet of his Rasputinian uncle, Wienis. Salvor Hardin emerges as the political player on Terminus, its first Mayor, a political position apart from the making of the Encyclopedia Galactica, and is a man loath to stumble into things, instead content to play the four kingdoms off each other by making them all dependent upon the goods and services Terminus and the Foundation can provide. His motto is, ‘Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.’ He knows not to act until there is only one avenue left- that is when something is truly a crises- when only one option is left. This balancing act consists of basically establishing a priesthood of science (a wonderful inversion of current paradigms) that dispenses wisdom gradually and only via select members chosen from each kingdom- people whose allegiances are to the Foundation first, not their kingdoms. The Foundation survives this first ‘Seldon Crisis’ and when a holographic video of Seldon appears at the predicted date of this first crisis, it merely cements his place as a prophet, as well letting it be known that the Encyclopedia project was only a ruse.
Foundation was first published in novel form in 1951, but consisted of a number of short stories published throughout the 1940s in magazines like John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. Book One, The Psychohistorians, was written specifically as an opening for the novel; Book Two, The Encyclopedists was published as Foundation; Book Three, The Mayors, was published as Bridle And Saddle; Book Four, The Traders was published as The Wedge; and Book Five, The Merchant Princes, was published as The Big And The Little. Each of the Books within the novel functions almost as an autonomus story, much the way Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio do. Yet, it all ties together, and though it has always had a reputation as a space opera, even if the ultimate or original space opera, it transcends that label. Yet, those sorts of labels can be offputting to casual readers of a genre, like I am. For I am not a sci fi nut by any means, yet I sense that many people have avoided this book because like, say, reading a Rilke poem or watching Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, they have felt that something so overpraised and hyped is bound to be a letdown. It’s not. It earns its praise and labels, like epic, for, even though the book is less than 150 pages long in my version, probably 250-300 pages in paperback, it is certainly epic- the timescales and range of the Empire demand nothing less. And although that term is grossly overused, in this case it is spot on. The very title of the book has, in the decades since its first appearance, taken on another connotation, though- that of not only referring to the Foundation within the tale, but its place as the Foundation upon which modern outer space sci fi is based upon.
This is not to deny the books flaws, which are there. But, given that most of them have to do with technological things, they are not truly literary flaws, merely those of the nature of the sci fi genre. Among them are anachronisms such as typical hausfrau-like portrayals of women, who apparently still worry over household domestic products, an addiction to nicotine, an over-reliance on atomic power, the use of parsecs rather than light years as a unit of distance, the galactic Empire being at the center of the galaxy where we now know only a supermassive black hole exists and makes life as we know it untenable due to radiation, and other minor points. Other flaws are less anachronistic than what in film would be called continuity errors, such as being able to transcend the speed of light, but recording information in actual books, and on microfilm, rather than digitally, or quantumly, yet being able to teleport that information; the Empire possessing holographic technology, yet it all being powered by vacuum tubes; or civilizations possessing interstellar ships but having economies dependent on fossil fuels- which means that dinosaurs and the like must have appeared on millions of the other worlds. Then there are just the plain odd things, such as Asimov’s faith in capitalism being the solution to the galactic ills, even though in his universe it’s what ails all the worlds. The idea that even were an Empire to arise and dominate a galaxy that such a massive thing could ever stagnate, seems odd. Diversity argues against that, but this shows Asimov’s pessimism regarding the human ability to evolve. That these future men also have life spans akin to ours, smoke, and suffer cancer, bespeaking there seems to have been little in the way of medical breakthroughs (this was pre DNA discovery), also seems a bit of an imaginative lack.
But, perhaps the greatest flaw of the book is Asimov’s love affair with the Freudian Psychohistory (although I’m told in later books Asimov redacted the mythos to reveal it all a fraud), which reeks of determinism, exalts psychology to a ‘hard’ science, damns free will, plays to the Fallacy Of Uninterrupted Trends, and has been totally demolished in the wake of chaos theory. Still, even though Psychohistory fails as science, it’s still far easier for a writer to predict human nature than scientific advances.
But, again, these are mere quibbles, relatively speaking. Let me look at the pro side of the ledger. The very Psychohistory that, in reality, is specious, allows for the very drama of the tale to exist. While poor science it makes for excellent drama. To watch the various Foundation leaders grapple with their own will versus their faith in Seldon is the essence of existentialism. Asimov’s use off offstage action is not just a condensing device, but clues the reader in to what is really important- the human moments and confrontations, not the comic book like blowing up of great interstellar vessels. A third device that works well is the use of select epigraphs throughout the story, culled from the fictive Encyclopedia Galactica. They unify the tale, lend it grandeur, and ground this future history as if it were already in the reader’s past, much as Edward Gibbons’ real and influential The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire did, and which Asimov acknowledged as his main source of ideas. Wisely, there is not too much technobabble, which helps date a work more than anything else. Also, as stated before, the book is rife with humor and sparkling dialogue, as well as plausible catchphrases like ‘Galaxy knows’ or ‘By galaxy!’ It is also worth re-stressing that the book’s focus is not on scientific progress but social progress, and this predicates a number of major existential queries, such as what is progress? How does progress reconcile with human nature? Is progress ever expanding, cyclical, or helical? What is knowledge? How do the two square? Should knowledge be commoditized? Should knowledge be mysticized? What is free will and ethical agency? But most of all, how can all these subjects and ideas be best related?
Yet, most of all, despite the ideas and the narrative, is the wonderful fact that Asimov is just flat-out a damned good writer. His prose is sometimes muscular, sometimes poetic, but always lucid and clear. His plots are not overly Byzantine, yet quite complex, his sentence and paragraph structure not ornate, but subtly seductive. How Hollywood has never optioned this book for a film is beyond me. Wait, no it’s not. Why would they want to do compelling, human-based science fiction when they can pump out the pseudo-intellectualism of a Philip K. Dick, or the vapid ür-mythography of Star Wars, and make a fortune? Perhaps Asimov might be re-thinking his faith in Adam Smith’s invisible hand in the great beyond?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
Return to Bylines