Monday, November 26, 2012

Review of "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov

The books of the Foundation series are among Isaac Asimov’s most famous works.  The first, called simply Foundation, is actually a fix-up of five short stories/novellas and introduces the highly original concept of ‘psychohistory’, defined on Wikipedia as “a field of science and psychology that equates all possibilities in large societies to mathematics, allowing for the prediction of future events”.  Asimov’s prose pedestrian and his characters cardboard cut-outs of each other, the book is nevertheless a quality example of Golden Age science fiction which scratches at something deeper in the evolution and behavior of humanity.

Set innumerable years in the future with mankind inhabiting the stars, the premise of Foundation is that intergalactic government has grown internally weak without its knowledge and faces a Dark Age of 30,000 years, that is, if the ramblings of the professor Harry Seldon are to be believed.  A psychohistorian, Seldon seeks to create an Encyclopaedia Galactica to preserve knowledge and thus significantly reduce the number of “dark” years to come.  After unsuccessfully defending himself at trial, Seldon goes into exile on the distant planet Terminus where he and other Encyclopedists are left free to put his ideas into action.  How civilization in the galaxy evolves from there is anybody’s guess—or is it?

Like Clarke, Asimov was a firm proponent of the altruistic value of science to society and used his stories as a vehicle for asserting these beliefs.  (One of the quotes from the novel is: "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.")  As such, each short story/novella included in Foundation relies on the same contrast of themes to create conflict: universal knowledge vs. stagnant tradition.  Gorov’s attempts at trade, for example, are initially thwarted by a society’s beliefs in the taboo, but eventually see the light of day thanks to the objective application of knowledge.   

Pure knowledge faceless, unfortunately so too are the characters (always male) who personify it in Foundation.  Their characterization in fact wooden, Hardin, Gorov, Mallow, and the other protagonists who represent the Foundation behave like photo-static copies of one another despite the decades that pass between their individual storylines.  And their dialogue, though it gets information across effectively, is equally bland, and not a point of recommendation.

So what is to recommend about the book?  Simply put, Asimov shows a deft hand with plot implementing the idea of psychohistory into story format.  Though at times straying a little too far from “estimated prediction” and encroaching on “prophecy” or “destiny”, the manner in which each sub-story is played out is affective due to Asimov’s storytelling skills.  The way Mallow outfoxes the Korelli, for example, is particularly satisfying given the corner he was seemingly backed into—not a single deus ex machina to the rescue.  Each section of the book well structured, the plots develop at a pace that keeps the reader motivated toward discovering how the Foundation gets out of the particular situation they find themselves in, as well as upholding the values of their founder, Seldon.  Making this all the more interesting is the clever, non-violent manner in which Asimov resolves the sub-conflicts, proving the pen is mightier than the sword—at least fictionally.

In the end Foundation, with its altruistic views of science and “mathematicians” as heroes, is an obvious product of its times.  However, given the strength of the psychohistory premise and plotting to illustrate the point, the book, more than most of the pulp was published in the mid 20th century, stands a chance of surviving the test of time.   Like Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust, the fix-up’s paean to science and knowledge is overt, but tied to solid storytelling, making the book at least recommendable.  


  1. It's been years since I read the first two or three Foundation titles soon after their dramatisation on BBC Radio, but I read the prequel Foreward the Foundation recently (ironically, or maybe not ironically, his last novel before he died) and resolved to give them another go.

    Like you, I was more impressed with plotting and ideas than characterisation, and I'm glad my memories largely chime with your views. Still, I'm sufficiently inspired to re-read them, but I'll have to search through second-hand shops as I've long since re-cycled them. So thanks for the review!

    1. Ordinarily I am far from being an inspirational influence. Good luck combing the second-hand bins!