Updated on July 1, 2016
32. ‘Foundation’ by Isaac Asimov
I’ve been wanting to read Asimov’s iconic sci-fi series for just ages. In fact, I spent a few months looking for the first book, Foundation, in every bookshop I went into but I couldn’t find it anywhere (and I had a weekend in Hay-on-Wye!). Eventually my housemate bought it, completely coincidentally, and he very kindly leant it to me.
(Incidentally, my housemate writes a really good blog about video games and you should check it out.)
The novel opens on Trantor, a planet completely covered by one huge city, which lies at the heart of the ‘Empire’. Great psychohistorian Hari Seldon has predicted that the all-encompassing power of the Empire is crumbling and will soon collapse altogether, leading to a ‘dark age’ of anarchy, suffering and death that will last for 30,000 years. As a last resort, Seldon uses his psychohistorical predictive powers to set a plan in motion that will reduce this dark age to only 1,000 years. This plan involves establishing ‘Foundation’, a planet on the edges of the galaxy that will become the hub of a new, stable empire.
Because of the enormous span of this novel, the story jumps across great tracts of time, so it reads more like a collection of novellas. We leap forwards hundreds of years at a time to what Seldon has named times of ‘crisis’. It is up to the people alive in these times to overcome these crises, in such a way as to keep Seldon’s plan on track. At certain points a recorded hologram of the long deceased Seldon appears in the ‘Vault’ to explain the crisis the people are now facing and to give his predictions about the future. It is clear that Seldon’s predictions reach across the entire 1,000 year period, but he cannot reveal everything at the beginning. The only way his plan will work is if information is gradually revealed every time there is a crisis.
I just love the concept of this book and the execution is thoughtful and philosophical, as you might expect from Asimov. At first the people of Foundation are told to write a great Encyclopedia Galactica, to record all of the Empire’s knowledge, but during the first crisis the awesome Mayor Salvor Hardin realises that writing this book was never Seldon’s plan. He realises the need to turn this knowledge into a religion, monopolised by the Foundation; long after he is dead the plan changes again, from focusing on religion to commercial trade. At each significant point in time there are great characters who can see the complexities underlying Seldon’s plan, and every time they have to battle against more conservative forces who think the way they have always done things is the only way to continue. In that way, Foundation is an excellent piece of anti-conservatist satire.
Because of the core concept of Foundation, the story is more driven by ideas than characters. The people in this world are not hugely complex, and it is usually abundantly clear who we should be rooting for. There is always someone who is more badass than everybody else, almost unbelievably so. Still, I don’t think this really detracts from the novel, because the core ideas which drive the story are just so good. It’s like watching evolution on fast forward, as civilisations go from knowledge-worshipping to religious fanaticism to economy and commerce.
Of course, there are many more books in this series so the novel doesn’t end with the establishment of a new empire, but I am fascinated to see what Asimov comes up with next. For sci-fi rooted in deep philosophy, you probably can’t get better than Foundation.
“The whole war is a battle between those two systems; between the Empire and the Foundation; between the big and the little.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.
Read my review of the next two in the series, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation.