Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
Isaac Asimov is considered one of the most important contributors to the genre of science fiction - he's cited as one of the 'big three' sci-fi writers of his era (the other two being Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein). The Foundation Series is his most famous and acclaimed creation, a series composed of ten interconnected books. Foundation is the first book published in the series (though it isn't the first chronologically) and is the first part of the original three books that comprise the 'Foundation Trilogy'.
The book is made up of a collection of five short stories that span a time period of around 200 years. The premise of the story is that the millennia old Galactic Empire has become decadent and is on the verge of entering a new Dark Age. A group of scientists led by a man named Hari Seldon comes up with a plan to minimize the time period of the impending Dark Age from 30,000 years to 1000 years. Seldon and his team are psychohistorians, experts in a new branch of science that can, within some degree of accuracy, predict future events at a broad, societal level. The psychohistorians are treated with suspicion and contempt by the government and their findings are suppressed, but they are allowed to carry out their project on a remote planet at the edge of the galaxy. Thus the Foundation is formed on the planet Terminus, its function ostensibly being to create an 'Encyclopedia Galactica' that will furnish future generations with the knowledge to facilitate mankind's rise from a period of barbarism.
That's essentially a summary of the first short story. The four stories that follow deal with the development of the Foundation as it unwittingly carries out the 1000 year 'Seldon Plan' (unwittingly because the plan itself is secret, and knowledge of the plan would effectively invalidate it). The Foundation was set up in such a way that, as modeled by psychohistory, it would become the heart of a new Galactic Empire a thousand years in the future. The Foundation starts off as small and defenseless, and as predicted by the Seldon Plan, must deal with intermittent 'Seldon Crises' that threaten its survival. These crises typically bring about fundamental changes in the way the Foundation operates and interacts with the other 'barbaric' neighboring worlds; they force societal changes that allow the Foundation to expand its sphere of influence.
The concept reminds me somewhat of the fourth Dune novel, God Emperor of Dune, in which an all powerful ruler who has seen possible futures attempts to ensure the survival of mankind by carrying out a millennia spanning long term plan. Foundation is a bit more direct in dealing with its themes and plays in a far less complex sandbox, but it is also far more enjoyable to read. The stories deal with decadence, suppression of science, psychology, religion, trade, and politics; they are about the nature of these things and the part they play in the development of civilizations. Although all of these themes are universally relevant, the suppression of science angle seems particularly so. A group of scientists warn of an impending long term disaster that can't be averted, but whose harmful effects may be minimized if the problem is acknowledged and appropriate actions taken. The people in charge refuse to accept this and attempt to avoid taking direct action that might upset the status quo. Hmmm... sounds familiar.
As with a lot of sci-fi, the book is heavy on events and ideas and light on character. Characterization is virtually non-existent, with most characters existing as devices to propagate the story and act as key players in the Seldon Plan (presumably the individual isn't important in the grand scheme of things - psychohistory suggests that the right kind of people will end up in the right place at the right time). There's also very little descriptive text in the book - people and places are hardly ever described, resulting in very little atmosphere and sense of place. Most of the text is either dialogue or broad descriptions of events. I suppose this is partly as a result of the book being assembled from short stories, where the length of the story (given the nature of the story) doesn't lend itself to characterization and detail. It's a stylistic choice and it works well, although I have to admit I would have preferred more fleshed out characters.
Foundation is an excellent, compelling, and thought provoking book that is well worth reading. It's an intriguing concept that presents infinite storytelling possibilities. I look forward to reading the rest of the books in the series. Hopefully the universe will be expanded and given more detail, and characters given a bit more depth. Next up, Foundation and Empire.