Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Foundation - Isaac Asimov

I while ago I asked what would be a good place to start reading Asimov. Normally I can figure out a good place to start but this man's output is enormous, even if you don't take all the non-fiction into account. I ended up with Foundation (1951), probably his best known novel and one of the earlier ones. I'm calling it a novel but that is probably not accurate. Foundation itself is a collection of five shorter pieces, four of which appeared in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1944. A fifth was added when Foundation appeared in book form. Although the Foundation series was originally a trilogy, Asimov wrote several more books in this setting later in his career and at some point tied up his Robot and Empire series as well, creating a series of more than a dozen novels. A whole bunch more have been added by other authors, creating a vast future history in which, chronologically, Foundation is one of the later books. Having only read one, it all seems like an unholy mess to me. So for now I am just going to stick to this novel.

In de distant future one huge galactic empire rules the planets settled by humanity. For over twelve millennia this empire has brought peace and prosperity to the galaxy but now it has grown old and tired. A brilliant mathematician named Hari Seldon, working in the field of psychohistory, develops a technique to predict large scale sociological and economic events. He soon realizes that the empire is doomed. He considers the empire to be in a spiral of decline that cannot be stopped or slowed and so he sets his mind to the time after the empire's collapse. A time when the empire will be fragmented, incapable of maintaining its scientific and technological infrastructure. A time of violence and barbarism is inevitable but Seldon sees ways to radically shorten this new dark age. He creates the Foundation.

I guess it is very much a Golden Age novel. It's short and to the point, there is not a woman in sight, lots of people seem to be addicted to tobacco and the writing is not the main attraction of the novel. That last point in particular struck me when I read the first pages. His prose has been called functional, sparse or unadorned, in some places those are very generous descriptions. To me it feels like he did one round of quick editing and that was it. Especially the relatively rare scenes that do not rely on dialogue are often rambling. On the other hand it is this reliance on dialogue that made the book age more gracefully than some of its contemporaries. There are very few descriptions of what the future actually looks like, and therefore few things that appear dated to us. Given the fact that the first story of this collection is almost seventy years old, that is quite an achievement.

Asimov is known as one of the big three of hard science fiction and this novel shows why. There is no doubt in Seldon's mind that his mathematical descriptions of society are accurate and that the predictions, very scientifically always expressed in percentages, as reliable as the math indicates. The Foundation is run as a scientific experiment, in which the participants are carefully kept ignorant to avoid influencing the outcome. Asimov even mentions a second Foundation on the other end of the galaxy. I wonder if we'll find out what happens if these two meet, later on in the series.

Science dominates the Foundation to the point where it turns into a religion. I was struck by the similarities between Frank Herbert's Dune series, in which an organisation known as the Bene Gesserit designs religions for specific purposes. It doesn't stop there. Paul Artreides and his son Leto II also have detailed knowledge of the future (acquired through a different mechanism but no less reliable) and try to force humanity on a path that will be the least costly in terms of human suffering. Interesting enough Herbert's final conclusion is that we shouldn't keep all our eggs in one basket but in Asimov's book the dream is to once again unite humanity and create a second empire.

Part of the novel is inspired by Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first published between 1776 and 1789), one of the first modern historic studies on the subject. In this book Gibbons states that the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians because it's citizens were no longer willing to do the civic duties necessary to maintain the empire. Which I suppose is what happens to the Galactic Empire, even if it does not have to deal with outside stresses such as barbarian invasions. The Empire frays at the edges, its influence every receding towards the centre. At the end of the 175 years covered in the book it is still mentioned as being around, far away from the Foundation and it's home at the fringe of the galaxy.

I finished this novel two days ago and I still haven't quite decided if I actually like it. It was not a boring read by any means but Asimov's style is awfully direct. On top of the general bad habits of Golden Age writers Asimov leaves absolutely no room whatsoever for ambiguity or doubt. He tells you what happens, as long as you follow his reasoning, there is very little room for any input by the reader in the form of interpretation. The most you can do is disagree with him. I guess I wouldn't have minded if Asimov had made the reader work a little harder. The idea is wonderful, I can even see why it stands out among its contemporaries, but to say it is a great novel... no, I wouldn't go that far. Still, I have decided to read the other two books in the original trilogy as well. Let's see if Foundation and Empire requires more effort on my part.

Book Details
Title: Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 244
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80371-6
First published: 1951


  1. I never read Asimov as a teenager because the Signet PB editions were so ugly and looked difficult to read. He is some one I feel almost a duty to go back to, but this kind of review keeps moving him down a notch on the list. He may be the first major SF writer to be of academic interest only.

  2. I mostly read him because I am exploring some of the classics of SF. Asimov is a giant in the genre so not easily ignored. On the other hand I have found out that SF, for me at least, doesn't become really interesting until the new wave stuff starts appearing. I don't regret reading this, I don't even rule out picking up something else by Asimov, but by today's standards, it is just a great concept in an otherwise poorly written novel. Not enough to really live up to it's reputation.