REVIEW: Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Author: Isaac Asimov

UK Publisher: HarperCollins (this edition – Panther Books)

Genre: Science fiction

The Foundation series is Isaac Asimov’s iconic masterpiece. Unfolding against the backdrop of a crumbling Galactic Empire, the story of Hari Seldon’s two Foundations is a lasting testament to an extraordinary imagination, one whose unprecedented scale shaped science fiction as we know it today.

The Galactic Empire has prospered for twelve thousand years. Nobody suspects that the heart of the thriving Empire is rotten, until psychohistorian Hari Seldon uses his new science to foresee its terrible fate.

Exiled to the desolate planet Terminus, Seldon establishes a colony of the greatest minds in the Empire, a Foundation which holds the key to changing the fate of the galaxy.

However, the death throes of the Empire breed hostile new enemies, and the young Foundation’s fate will be threatened first.

Asimov has become known as one of the greats of science fiction literature for decades. His catalogue is vast, and his awards collection equally so. He had a reputation for writing “hard” SFF, which always made me feel a little uneasy about starting his books, as someone who is not always super comfortable with hard SFF.

I was surprised how easy this was to get into. Aside from a brief conversation near the start where I got a little muddled in the technical jargon of mathematical and philosophical psychology, it’s actually really comfortable reading and didn’t cause me anywhere near the difficulties of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which actually included physics diagrams. 

It’s set in the far, far future – similar to Lord of Light in some ways – where humans have moved out and colonised the galaxy. A great Empire rules over the hundreds of planets, and there is a great age of prosperity. However, a psychohistorian, Salvor Hardin, has predicted that the Empire will crumble, and only certain planning can prevent the darkness after the fall and bring society back from savagery. If nothing is done, the dark ages will last 30,000 years. If Hardin is allowed to continue his work, it will only last 1000. The Empire believes even the idea of its fall is treasonous, but agrees to let Hardin continue his work so they appear proactive, albeit banishing him and his team to a remote planet on the very edge of the galaxy.

Thus begins the birth of the Encyclopedia Galactica.

You might recognise the name – I did and it was an unexpected bit of delight. It’s the book that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy outsells because it is slightly cheaper and has the words “don’t panic” on the cover in large, friendly letters. I had never realised the Encyclopedia Galactica was taken from another book, and that it’s taken from one of Asimov’s most famous works.

It’s a strange book, which makes more sense when you realise that it was written as a series of short stories over a number of years, and then collected into the books. Each section is between thirty and fifty years after the previous section, and there is only one character we actually see in more than one section. There’s no real opportunity to get to know the characters, or connect with them in any way. 

This isn’t a story about the characters though, the characters are merely a vehicle for the exploration of Asimov’s ideas of psychohistory. It’s pitched as this revolutionary idea that the future of humanity can be mathematically predicted with complete accuracy. This is further than just human nature being cyclical, it means that Hardin is able to leave messages that will appear after any significant crisis, knowing exactly what the crisis will be from hundreds of years in the past, and how it will play out. It’s not a story about singular people, it’s about the whole history of humanity, but as predicted from the past far into the future.

One main issue I have with the story – and this will probably be unsurprising given that it was written in the 1950s – is that there aren’t many women in it. Two, in fact. Only one gets a name and any lines. They come in towards the end, one is a servant girl, the other is her employer. She’s the daughter of a man of some power within the last dregs of the Empire, married to a small time despot on another planet for political gain. She hates her husband, she bullies and henpecks him, and is only bought off with pretty jewellery. Aside from that, women in general are reduced only to a mass entity of housewives, who only care about pretty trinkets and domestic goods. All things considered, I’d almost rather he had forgotten about women entirely. 

It’s frustrating that someone like Asimov can imagine humanity spread across the galaxy, travelling in space, and atomic powered wonders, but he cannot seem to imagine women being anything other than homemakers. I couldn’t speak to what he thinks of other races, because race isn’t mentioned at all, but I expect if it came up at all it probably wouldn’t be very good. But because Asimov is considered one of the greats of science fiction literature, and a decorated one at that, you begin to see why classic SFF has the reputation of being a bit of a boys’ club.

I’m very glad I read it and had some of my preconceptions challenged regarding how easy it would be to read, and how it influenced and reached out to other science fiction over the years. However, I was disappointed that in other ways it didn’t go beyond my assumptions.

Briefly:

  • A surprisingly accessible read for something advertised as “hard” science fiction, it follows a galaxy following the fall of the ruling empire, and how a single planet was set up to recover from it.
  • It isn’t a book for people who like character driven stories, as the characters are almost like chess pieces for the greater narrative. You only see one character in more than one section, and you are given no real insight into motivations or feelings. 
  • It’s also basically if the far future was still nearly entirely like the 1950s, as there are no women at all except in wifely or servant roles, or just generally cast aside as useless. At one point in the opening a character essentially says “There’s the women and children, but they don’t count.” Which. Yeah.

Rating: 3/5 – I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to read, but I suppose some reputations exist for a reason re: women in SFF.

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