Science Fiction Brewed Fresh Daily

Review: Foundation

Another archived review from the prolific and opinionated JohnT….

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Let’s start with the standard info. Be warned that this book has been reprinted quite a number of times by different publishers:

Name: Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov
Published: 1951 in novel form, though the individual stories within were published in Astounding magazine in the proceeding decade.*
Publisher: Avon Books. Currently, Bantam books owns the publishing rights.

The scope of this discussion is the original novel.

Synopsis:

Foundation, and its two sequels Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation, tell the story of the collapse of the Galactic Empire and the efforts by a group of scientists to shorten the period of anarchy after the Fall. The novel starts by introducing us to the world of Hari Seldon, the founder of Psychohistory, a mathematical study of psychology which Seldon developed into a very powerful tool for predicting the general flow of history. Seldon is aware that the millennia-old Galactic Empire that he inhabits is in its last days, and while he can do nothing to prevent the crash, his studies in Psychohistory have made him aware of a plan of action that could, if successful, compress the resulting Dark Ages from 30,000 years to a “mere” 1,000. Foundation tells the story of the first 150 years of Seldon’s plan.

“The Psychohistorians”, the first chapter, introduces us to Hari Seldon and shows his efforts to have the two Foundations set up in time before the Empires collapse – we learn that one Foundation is to be placed on the planet “Terminus”, which is located on the periphery of the Empires rule, but we do not learn the location of the 2nd Foundation. Terminus is a metal-poor planet, and is one that is quite vulnerable to attack.

The second chapter, “The Encyclopedists” takes place 50 years after the end of Chapter 1 and introduces us to both Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Terminus City (meaning he is also the de facto ruler of the planet Terminus) and the “hero” of this and the next chapter, and, more importantly, the concept of the “Seldon Crisis” – a problem that Seldon considers to be so knotty there is an actual probability of the Plan breaking down. Because of the predictive power of Psychohistory, Seldon is able to record a number of speeches relating to the Seldon crisises and the lessons supposedly learned by future audiences, speeches that are usually viewed by the Foundations leaders after the crisis has been solved. In Chapter 2 the story really takes off as the Foundation turns from the passive collecting and codifying of knowledge towards a more pragmatic view of the Foundations role in the local sphere of space… and eventually, the Galaxy. Chapter 2 ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, with the reader being told that the solution to the problem that faces the Foundation is “Obvious as all Hell!” Unfortunately for the reader, we have to read Chapter 3 to find out what the solution actually was.

Chapter 3, “The Mayors”, continues the story of Salvor Hardin 30 years after the events in Chapter 2. Over the course of the chapter we learn that Hardin has established a “religion of science”, with a priesthood that is trained and inculcated on Terminus. The priests are the only ones capable of maintaining the technology (especially in the use of atomic power) needed to run an industrial society. By the end of the chapter, the Foundation uses this priesthood to effectively seize control of the nearest 4 planetary kingdoms (in the process the reader learns that a “Balance of Power” philosophy was used by the Foundation to keep the 4 kingdoms from invading her earlier), but Seldon notes that the use of the Priesthood is limited, as once the news gets out that the Foundation is using the priesthood to gain control the priests will be forbidden from proselytizing on new worlds.

In Chapter 4, “The Traders,” we find that Seldon was correct, and now the Foundation is beginning to use the power of economics to further expand its reach, even to the point of corrupting entire planetary governments. This theme is fully explored by the end of Chapter 5, “The Merchant Princes,” where the Foundation is fully set on the path of economic conquest and domination.

*Publishing History of the various chapters:

Chapter Name, Original Story Name, Date Published (all stories originally published in Astounding magazine)

The Psychohistorians, “Foundation”, May 1942.
The Encyclopedists, “Foundation”, May 1942.
The Mayors, “Bridle and Saddle”, June 1942.
The Traders, “The Wedge”, October 1944.
The Merchant Princes, “The Big and the Little”, August 1944.

Impact

It would be hard to overestimate the impact and influence of both Foundation and Asimov upon science fiction, especially in the fiction written before the advent of the “New Wave” of science fiction (in America, the New Wave is usually dated from the appearance of Harlan Ellison’s (ed.) Dangerous Visions anthology in 1967). Since I’m kind of a “listy” kind of guy, I’ll go to my favorite format to (hopefully) prove my point.

1. For starters, emotion and the existence of passion has ZERO impact on the events of the novel – as a matter of fact, every character that operates on motive(s) based upon emotion always loses to the more rational minded Foundation and its leaders. With few exceptions, this remains the standard rule in SF for about 30 years.

2. As far as I can tell, Foundation is the first series of novels in the history of science fiction with a connected storyline. Serials have been in existence long before Foundation of course (especially in the Western genre), but (for the most part) the actions in one book are independent of the story in another. Foundation differs from the standard serial format in that it takes three full-length novels to tell one story.

3. Foundation is also one of the earliest examples of “Space Opera”, a sub-genre of science fiction where strict scientific accuracy takes a backseat to the needs of building a Universe out of whole cloth. Space Operas do not concern themselves with principles of physics/chemistry/etc (ala Hal Clement and early Niven), but rather with less “scientific” disciplines such as sociology and economics. Many people look down upon Space Operas because of their lack of strict scientific accuracy, but they’re pretty much nobs in my opinion. ;)

4. Women? What women? Non-whites? What non-whites? I can’t really blame Foundation for the subsequent drought of female and non-Caucasian characters in science fiction, but Asimov wasn’t one to write a female character where a man could do. I do not think that there is a single female character of consequence in Foundation except for the Commdora in the last chapter.

5. Standard themes that would be continually explored in science fiction make some of their earliest appearance here: the use and impact of atomic weapons and power, the supremacy of rationalism and thought over emotion and passion, the ever-increasing stifling nature of bureaucracy and the tendency (in sci-fi at least) for authors to think in terms of a monolithic and monopolistic State.

6. Joseph Campbell and Astounding magazine, who almost single-handedly kept science fiction alive as a viable genre in the 1940s.

7. And, of course, the beginnings of the career of Isaac Asimov, possibly the most influential and widely-read writer in the history of the genre.

8. The Foundation series was voted “Best All-Time Series” by the Hugo awards in 1965. It would be interesting to see what a similar vote today would be (I think Dune or LOTR would win, btw).

Posted in Books & Authors February 26th, 2009 by Chip
5 comments

5 Comments

  1. Er, EE Doc Smith and Jack Williamson – among others – were writing space opera at least two decades before Asimov’s Foundation series even appeared in print.

    Comment by Ian Sales — February 26, 2009 @ 8:15 am

  2. Re: #6 …Joseph Campbell? Who dat?

    Comment by zyxt — February 26, 2009 @ 8:54 am

  3. >>Re: #6 …Joseph Campbell? Who dat?<<

    The semi-mythic SF prophet Joseph Campbell Jr. was directed by the angel Moronic to find the gold-foil pie-plates espousing the divine truths of slavery, psionics and Dianetics, under a pile of DC comics in young Forry Ackerman’s basement.

    And yeah, you could trip over the piles of space opera that littered the genre before the publication of Foundation. John Campbell, himself, was writing space opera in the ’40s.

    Comment by Shadow — February 26, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  4. Erm…substitute “’30s” for “’40s” in the previous comment.

    Comment by Shadow — February 26, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  5. Re #4. Those were the days when the cowboy Kissed his horse, waved goodbye to the Lady and then rode off into the Sun Set. ;)

    Comment by BLRWIZ — March 1, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

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