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Foundation by Isaac AsimovMichael Whelan cover4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIsaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of those books that has become such a historical tentpole of the genre that it is easy to dismiss and take for granted, much in the same way young moviegoers today might find it hard to figure out all the fuss about Citizen Kane. But Foundation is not a book that’s “great” simply because critics tell you it is. It really is a smartly crafted, entertaining piece of sociopolitical SF combined with good old space opera, even if everything about it that is dated — stilted dialogue, and the absence of female characters — is impossible to ignore. Consider Asimov’s blessedly clear prose. He is often derided today as a poor wordsmith. But when you consider over the years how much SF has become overburdened by either vain style or cumbersome plotting masquerading as epic legendry, Asimov’s concise writing is a true breath of fresh air. Asimov knew perhaps better than anyone in this genre that writing is about communicating. He wrote clearly, but not laconically. There is more than enough wit to go around. Most impressively, Asimov’s plots could be intricate while keeping his readers’ heads free of confusion and frustration.

Approximately 13,000 years in the future, humanity has colonized space so thoroughly that most people have forgotten about Earth. Foundation opens as the Galactic Empire is in its final years, having reigned over the galaxy for over ten millennia. One man on the capital planet of Trantor (a world which, incidentally, George Lucas unabashedly swiped as Coruscant in The Phantom Menace) dares to stand up and tell the moribund Empire that its decline and fall is inevitable. Hari Seldon has perfected the science of psychohistory, which aims to predict the behavior of large populations over vast periods of time. Seldon has predicted not only the collapse of the Empire, but that a whopping 30,000 years of barbarism will follow, unless his organization, the Encyclopedia Foundation, is able to finish its immense task of cataloging and preserving millennia of accumulated human knowledge and history. Then, perhaps, the 30,000 years can be shaved to a mere millennium.

Banished by the Empire to the remote world of Terminus at the edge of the galaxy (a move actually foreseen by Seldon’s psychohistory), the Foundation begins its work... but not only to assemble the Encyclopedia as announced. Seldon’s real intent has been to set the wheels in motion so that, if his predictions of future trends indeed prove correct, this little world, and another just like it at the far end of the galaxy which Seldon has already set up, will be the true foundation of an all-new and more benevolent Second Empire.

The novel then covers about 200 years, during which Seldon’s psychohistoric predictions prove accurate and the outer rims of the galaxy begin breaking away from the Empire and forging a number of little independent kingdoms. Asimov details the way in which the Foundation manages to maintain not only its independence in this tumultuous environment, but manipulates itself into a position of dominance by casting itself as a center of, of all things, religious faith. (This offers the book’s most entertaining sequence, as Foundation leader Salvor Hardin outmaneuvers an attempted invasion of Terminus by the belligerent kingdom of Anacreon.) Later on, as the Foundation’s sole possession of the secrets of nuclear power helps keep it at the top of the political food chain, a merchant economy develops, and along with it a talent for waging economic warfare that none can defend against. (Less thrilling as storytelling, honestly.)

For a story that is primarily propelled by dialogue, it’s impressive how fun the book still is to read. Despite its nature as a fix-up novel, pulling several previously published short stories together into book form (again, common at the time), it reads briskly, with its unavoidably episodic structure presenting less of a problem for narrative flow than you might expect. Granted, in the 21st century, readers who look for richer character development will find Asimov’s approach to character woefully inadequate. Not only is there but a single (very minor) female character — it remains a particularly absurd aspect of classic SF that while its most revered writers could imagine vast future histories, they often had trouble imagining women playing any meaningful role in those futures — but the characters who are here are developed only to the degree that Asimov needs them to convey his ideas and carry his plot. This is par for the course in a lot of early SF, contrasted with the greater emphasis on the human element in contemporary SF.

Also, Foundation curiously falls short in one rather important regard, if one approaches it with the expectations of hard SF: psychohistory is never adequately explained as a credible scientific discipline. In an opening epigram quoting the series’ Encyclopedia Galactica, we are told that Hari Seldon discovered psychohistory as nothing but a collection of loose axioms, and “left it a profound statistical science.” But Asimov never gets into the nuts and bolts of it. We learn nothing of Hari Seldon’s methodologies, nothing of how he formulated his experiments to reach his empire-shattering conclusions and startlingly accurate far-future predictions. Mostly, Asimov dramatizes it as a kind of “handwavium.” Seldon is shown doing a bit of math to his callow young recruit Gaal Dornick, who nods in sudden understanding of the great man’s insights. But they’re insights into which we are given no insight. The story is much more believable — inspired by Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire — discussing the collapse of great civilizations in terms of stagnation and inertia.

Though much of Foundation’s original impact has faded — particularly after decades of SF that came in its wake, refining, improving and building upon what Asimov innovated — its influence is still considerable (just look at Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire). It remains both an enjoyable read and vital to science fiction’s early development as a literature of ideas. It’s a tale that built a very real foundation indeed.

Followed by Foundation and Empire.