Book Review: Foundation

The foundation on this one has not settled well.

The Foundation Trilogy is one of the seminal classics of science-fiction literature. Its influence is felt across many of the books, films, and television shows that followed. So, on a boring afternoon, I decided to crack open the cover and get down to reading this book. It has been in my queue long enough.

Imagine my disappointment when I kept falling asleep while reading this. The plot is dull, the characters are unimaginative, and the setting is forgettable. Perhaps the ideas put forth by this book were new and exciting when it was published back in the forties but this is not a book that has aged well.

The basic plot involves a galaxy-spanning empire governed by an imperial monarchy that has existed for some ten thousand years. An old coot named Hari Seldon predicts that the empire will completely collapse within five hundred years and that another thirty thousand years of barbarism will follow in place of the civilization that exists. He supposedly knows this because he invents a pseudoscience called psychohistory. Just like it sounds, it is a combination of psychology and history, only with a lot of mathematics involved. From what the book says, psychohistory takes past events and models them as mathematic formulas for the purposes of predicting the future.

I have to believe that this must have been a way cooler idea in the forties when psychology was still in its infancy as a field of study. I can imagine modern psychologists rolling their eyes at this premise. The very concept of psychohistory sounds a lot more like sociology than psychology. I am not certain if Asimov even knew that the word sociology existed. Asimov does not show much knowledge of psychology, either. None of this psychohistory mumbo jumbo is ever explained in detail.

The plot kicks off when Seldon is arrested with the charge of sowing dissent in the empire by predicting it doom. One would think that if he were a real psychologist, then Seldon would have known how to present his predictions in a way that would appeal to others. Instead, the best he can do is to engineer events to the extent that he and his followers are exiled to a remote planet at the ass-edge galaxy called Terminus.

Seldon dies of advanced age not long after his exile but he leaves behind instructions for his followers, those of the Foundation, to uphold civilization given the few resources that they have. The book concerns some two hundred odd years of history in which the members of the Foundation deal with events that Seldon predicted.

And that is the real crux of this book. The story is separated into five different parts that are stretched across a two hundred year timeline. And the main characters are all human with lifespans that appear on par with modern humans. Each story introduces more characters and most of them are not heard of again after that story is through. Some of the characters cross over from one story to another but none appear in more than two. I can see this working better when the book was initially published as a series of novellas in the forties. The narrative is coherent but it is hardly engaging.

Each story deals with some problem that the Foundation faces when dealing with the changing political landscape around them. The story involves them creating a religion to manipulate the populace. Another once focuses on economic control. Nuclear deterrence is brought up in one story.

The book never really hangs around one character long enough for the reader to truly get a feel for them. The plot is too concerned with the overall picture that it fails to flesh out smaller details. I never quite got an idea of what culture in the galaxy is like. How exactly does a monarchy last for thousands of years in a more technologically advanced setting?

These ideas must have been new and exciting to read about half a century ago. That was when fantasy and science fiction were more focused on adventure stories. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and John Carter were swashbuckling heroes on personal adventures throughout space. Foundation was one of the first science-fiction books to focus on larger events like the wellbeing of a huge nation as opposed to whether or not a space cadent would hook up with a princess from Mars.

One can see a seed of an idea in Foundation that would go on to inspire later stories. Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars all take inspiration from Foundation. And those all had similar stories, but were pulled off much better. Foundation has not aged well at all.

There are also technological ideas that are seriously dated. Nuclear fission is still treated as a rare and exciting source of power much like it was back in the forties and fifties. People also still read newspapers, suggesting that computers are not widespread. Oh, and the ostensible reason for the Foundation’s existence is to compile an encyclopedia to preserve the galaxy’s knowledge. This suggests that there is no information network to allow people to easily share knowledge and create wikis and whatnot. I know that it would have been difficult for Asimov to predict how technology would advance but that does not prevent the book from dating itself.

I do not want to say Foundation is terrible, but it feels much more like a museum piece than an actual enjoyable story. I have not read the sequels at this point. Maybe their stories are better told. But I will get to those later.

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