Foundation: A seminal work in the history of science fiction

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFoundation by Isaac Asimov science fiction book reviewsFoundation by Isaac Asimov

I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation probably sometime around 1970. I’ve also owned several copies in my life. It is the first book of the famed FOUNDATION trilogy, later known as the FOUNDATION series after various sequels and then prequels were published. I actually read the second book of the trilogy Foundation and Empire before this, sometime in the late 60’s.

I just recently re-read this slim volume for about the fifth or sixth time, although this was probably the first time I’ve gone back to this volume in over a decade or even two. Asimov still holds up for me, though I can’t say how much of that is due to nostalgia on my part. Certainly early on in his career as an author, Asimov could sometimes be a bit wordy and plodding. He wasn’t much on action or character development in these first Foundation stories, and there’s not a female character anywhere in sight in this book, compiled of four stories written in the 1940’s and one more story written specifically for the book when it first came out in 1951.

There were a couple of premises behind this book and indeed, the entire series that made it revolutionary in the field. The first is that in the distant future humanity has spread out from Earth to eventually form a huge all-powerful “Galactic Empire.” In the stories this empire lasted for 12,000 years of relative peace and order, but at the time chronicled in the book the empire is beginning to decline and start in the direction of an inevitable fall, which will plunge the entire galaxy into a period of barbarism and war, with much of the technological knowledge of the current empire lost. Anyone noticing parallels between Asimov’s future empire’s rise and fall and that of the historical decline and fall of the Roman Empire will not be surprised to learn that Asimov credited his reading of Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the inspiration for the stories. Asimov also credited a discussion with Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell for fleshing out the ideas of the series.

The other premise behind the FOUNDATION series was that as the Galactic Empire began to wane, a scientist named Hari Seldon developed a mathematical model of predicting behavior for large groups of human beings, known as “psychohistory.” Selden determines that the Galactic Empire has passed the point of no return in its descent towards the fall, but that the period of barbarism that will follow can be shortened if certain steps are taken. Basically, the barbarian interregnum will last 30,000 years unless steps are taken via the prescriptions of pyschohistory. If such steps are taken then the “dark age” will only last 1,000 years.

In the first story in Foundation, entitled “The Psychohistorians” (written especially for the book) we are introduced to Hari Seldon and the concepts of the Galactic Empire and psychohistory. Seldon is a typical Asimov hero, a man of thought and intellect who prefers to outwit rather than fight his opponents. In this story Seldon does just that with his Empirical opponents and causes the installation of the “First Foundation,” ostensibly a research facility set up to produce an “Encyclopedia Galactica” as a means of fighting against the fall of the empire. The place chosen is for this is a small planet on the outer edge of the Galaxy known as Terminus.

“The Encyclopedists” (first published as “Foundation” in Astounding Science Fiction in May 1942) is the second story in the book. It takes place fifty years after the establishment of the Foundation, and the main character is one Salvor Hardin, Mayor of Terminus City, the only major settlement on the distant, resource poor planet. Terminus and the Foundation are being threatened by stronger, more aggressive neighboring planets, but the Board of Trustees of the Encyclopedia Galactica Foundation, unaware of the true mission of the Foundation, refuse to listen to Hardin’s warnings. This story introduces the plot device of a time vault being opened at intermittent periods that show recordings of the late Hari Seldon on video, explaining the true purpose of the foundation and the historical forces that the Foundation is confronted with.

“The Mayors” (first published as “Bridle and Saddle” in Astounding Science Fiction, June 1942) takes place three decades after the events of “The Encyclopedists.” Salvor Hardin is still Mayor. While a younger group of politicians want to wrest power from Hardin, he is the real ruler of the Foundation and Terminus. The Foundation has become technologically much more advanced than its neighbors, and exerts control over them by virtue of importing its “religion” known as Scientism, with Foundation trained “Priests” installed on the other planets. As the other worlds become more used to the technological advantages that the Foundation traders and Priests bring, their rulers find that the Foundation exerts more sway among their native populations than do their hereditary rulers.

“The Traders” (first published as “The Wedge” in Astounding Science Fiction, October 1944) takes place approximately 135 years after the founding of the Foundation. The Foundation’s technology has superseded that of the old empire by this point, especially in the area of nuclear science and miniaturization. The pragmatic traders use their guile and technology to continue to expand the reach of the Foundation, and in this story Asimov has a character utter a trademark maxim of former Mayor Salvor Hardin: “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!”

“The Merchant Princes” (first published as “The Big and the Little” in Astounding Science Fiction, August 1944) is the final story. It takes place approximately 155 years after the founding of the Foundation, and introduces Hober Mallow, a trader who discovers that the Galactic Empire is still very much alive and is in fact trying to re-expand back into the neighboring planets in the area of Terminus.

This first published book (although there would be several written later that in a sense became prequels) in the FOUNDATION series is some of Asimov’s earliest work, and as such it isn’t as good as his later writing. The main points of these stories are the ideas, although some of the characters, such as Hardin and Mallow, are better drawn than others.

The original FOUNDATION trilogy is a seminal work in the history of science fiction, and as such has influenced many writers and even people as diverse as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman and psychologist Martin Seligman. While Asimov’s style isn’t for everyone, this book is recommended to all serious science fiction fans, as one the historical “must-reads” of the genre.

~Steven Harbin

Foundation by Isaac Asimov science fiction book reviewsI love Isaac Asimov’s ideas, but I just couldn’t suspend disbelief for the plot of this famous novel. The premise is that Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian, has calculated the course of history and made preparations for preserving humanity on a distant planet. I think it’s the psychologist in me that just can’t get past this premise. There’s no way that history can be predicted — there are just too many factors. Another issue I have with Asimov, and it’s so blatantly displayed here, is that though he could imagine all sorts of futuristic technology and possible histories, he didn’t seem to be able to imagine that someday women might find their way out of their kitchens and bedrooms.

~Kat Hooper

Foundation — (1951-1993) Publisher: When the Galactic Empire began dying, the great psychohist orian Hari Seldon set up the Foundation to preserve human culture & shorten 30,000 yrs. of chaotic barbarism to a mere millennium. Located on a bleak world at the ede of the galaxy, it seemed helpless before the greed of neighboring warlords. But somehow, by science & wit, it had survived & even gained control of a small federation of planets. Yet it was still small. And against it stood the great est power of all — the huge power of the Empire, mighty even in decay. When an ambitious general turned an Imperial fleet toward the Foundation, the only hope lay in the prophecies of Hari Seldon. But even Hari Seldon could not predict the birth & mutant talent of the Mule — one small man w/power greater than a dozen battlefleets. Between big & little, the Foundation seemed doomed.

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Guest reviewer STEVEN HARBIN is an educator who is currently a counselor at an alternative school. He was formerly a world history and literature teacher. He lives with several cats and dogs, two children, a loyal saint of a spouse, and a large number of books scattered all about his house. He discovered science fiction and fantasy in the 1960′s when his school librarian suggested he read the works of Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I think there is one woman who shows up briefly to nag her husband. You’d think that Asimov might have foreseen that thousands of years in the future women might have progressed beyond nagging housewives. Hardin and other characters meet with many people but not a single woman is shown in any other role.

    But my main problem with Foundation is the psychohistory. There is no way that Selden could anticipate all the potential values of all of the variables involved. This couldn’t be done even for a year of history, much less thousands of years. I could not get past this. Probably the psychologist in me.

    But in general I like Asimov. Just not this story.

  2. I loved this as a kid and have always wanted to go back and see how it holds up. Even then, as you say, always hard to separate nostalgia from the actual reading experience. I know it isn’t “good” in a writing sense; I think even my younger self knew my Asimov, Heinlein, etc. wasn’t all that great in craft/style, but the stories were. And it does still stick in my memory–that line you quoted, another about violence as the last refuge/resort (can’t recall exactly) of the incompetnet (don’t even know if that was original to Asimov but it seemed profound to my pre-teen self), the Mule, the mystery of the Second Foundation, etc. As I kept reading the Foundation series, their lack of craft and feeling that they were dragging out too much and the sometimes clunky connecting to the robot series began to weigh heavily on the older reader I’d become by then. Someday I’ll sit down and read them through again.

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