So I finished reading Foundation, the twelfth book on my list.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is the first book in his Foundation Trilogy, but not the first chronologically in the series as a whole. It’s like Star Wars. The original trilogy consists of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. But later on, due to the success of the books, Asimov wrote two prequels and two sequels. As such, the entire series in narrative/chronological order is as follows:
Prelude to Foundation
Forward the Foundation
Foundation and Empire
Foundation and Earth
These books were originally based on short stories that Asimov wrote for Astounding Magazine.
I’m not sure if I’ll read the entire series as I’m excited to keep going with my list. And I’m not sure if I’ll even read the rest of the original trilogy, though I do feel that I should because these stories are quite pivotal to science fiction.
Plot & Narration
Foundation details the fall of the Galactic Empire and Hari Seldon’s aim to preserve all of mankind’s knowledge through the creation of the Foundation, located on a planet quite on the periphery of the empire. But of course as the empire crumbles, so too does the Foundation’s future become uncertain.
The story is told in five parts, each of which takes place further into the future than the last and introduces a new set of characters. (I’ll come back to this in a bit.)
Preservation of Knowledge
Foundation is about themes and ideas. Due to the novel’s structure, we don’t really get any character development, but I suspect that’s not what Asimov was going for anyway.
The main theme is the preservation of knowledge. This is why Hari Seldon creates the Foundation in the first place. (This is not entirely correct, but I won’t go into that here. You must read it for yourself!)
But in a way it is correct because Seldon, the father of psychohistory, wants to prevent the collapsing empire from falling into a dark age, during which all knowledge would be lost. Using his psychohistorical predictions, Seldon sets a series of events in motion that he hopes will preserve mankind’s knowledge.
I probably don’t even need to expound on this any further! The importance of knowledge preservation is self-evident, I think.
In the book, psychohistory is a fictional branch of mathematics mixed with sociology that can predict how large groups of people will act. As I mentioned, Seldon uses it to make predictions at the macro level. But what’s interesting is that his plan seems to hinge on individuals taking advantage of certain societal circumstances and situations, even though he states that he cannot predict how individuals will act. Psychohistory is really about mob behaviour and how society at large will function. It is at the core of the Foundation and the series of events that Seldon sets in motion.
Through these events, we are witness to the big ideas regarding culture, society and civilization. The give and take of diplomacy. Power struggles. Politics and opportunism and more. This is where Foundation really shines.
Without giving too much away, I can say that religion plays a big part in the Foundation as a means of protecting it and preserving its supremacy. This is a really interesting idea that plays out throughout the novel and of course we can see the parallels of it in reality. I think this quotation from the book says it all:
“It [religion] is the most potent device known with which to control men and worlds.”
Ain’t that the truth!
Strengths & Weaknesses
Foundation‘s main strength is in its world-building. Asimov creates an entire empire consisting of almost 25 million planets! Though the action only takes place on a few of the planets, we have no problem imagining the entire empire and feeling the scope of dealing with it as each section details various political struggles.
Asimov also is skilled at showing us the various cultures on some of the planets, which only adds to the texture of the empire and the richness of the story.
Weakness: Character Development
My main issue with Foundation is the lack of character development. But again, I suspect that’s not really what Asimov was going for. I think he wanted to tell the story of the Foundation, which is what he did. At the same time, I don’t really have a burning desire to continue with the trilogy because I don’t really care about what happens.
Okay, I care a little. It’s an interesting story and it would be nice to know what happens to the Foundation, but there are no characters who’ve pulled me in and about whom I care enough to continue reading.
This is something that I’ve noticed in myself lately, so take it with a grain of salt. I’m finding that I don’t really enjoy shows, movies, or books that lack good character development. A lot can happen in a story plot-wise, but if there’s no character development, it can actually feel like not that much has happened at all. In these cases, the story always seems to lack that extra oomph. That hand that grips your heart and makes you desperate to find out what happens. When the characters are the same from start to finish, or, as in the case of Foundation, we don’t get to know them well enough, the story lacks that thing that makes me care. So while I am a little bit interested in finding out what happens with the Foundation, I’m not overwhelmed by that desire.
To be honest, I’ve already starting reading 1984, the next book on my list. So I’m not sure if I’ll get back to the trilogy, though I probably should because it’s such a seminal work.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Foundation with this criticism. It’s well-written, creative, and thought-provoking, absolutely! But I just didn’t find it terribly gripping.
At the same time, I’m a believer in judging a work against the creator’s intention. So if Asimov’s intention was to tell a grand story about the Foundation, then he certainly succeeded. I don’t think his intention was to get into character development, because if it was then he would have structured the book differently.
All in all, I think Foundation is an interesting read and definitely a must on any sci-fi lover’s list. There’s plot, action, interesting ideas, and it will keep you turning the page, but keep in mind that it’s really about the Foundation and that we don’t get to know any given character too much.
Up next, 1984!
Author: Isaac Asimov
Published: 1951. Originally 1942.
Publisher: Gnome Press. Originally published in Astounding Magazine.
Quotations: Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Bantam Spectra, 2004.