Tuesday, February 20, 2007

'Foundation' by Isaac Asimov (1951)

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.


sanity index said...

Only the 4th Dune novel? Almost everything in "Foundation" reminded me of "Dune," and I could see where Herbert must have gotten his inspirations.

I enjoyed the entire "Foundation" series (except one - can't remember which now - which I haven't read because I couldn't get my hands on it), but for some reason "Dune" struck me a bit more...though both series tend to suffer the same, uh, syndrome towards the end. Can't wait to hear how you enjoy them. :)

Antimatter said...

The thing that reminded me of God Emperor was the concept of a long term (millennia spanning) plan that involved mankind being reduced to barbarism after a period of prosperity (although the decline is more extreme in Foundation).

I can see the thematic similarities between Dune and Foundation - both series deal with politics, religion, and economics and their role in controlling and shaping societies. But apart from that they feel so different - Dune was a lot more concerned with the role of individuals and families, and it also focused a lot on other concepts like prescience, ecology, and 'messianic' influence. But yeah, I see what you mean by this being an inspiration!

Also, Dune went into way more depth than Foundation does - it lays out cultures, religions, technologies, economies, etc... in considerable detail. Foundation is written much more broadly (which is not a criticism, just an ovservation). Having said that, I have to read the rest of the Foundation series to make a fair comparison!

I enjoyed Dune more as well because of how immersive it was, and because I felt it had a more engaging story and characters. I don't think the Dune sequels are nearly as good as the first one, esepcially after Children of Dune. It felt like Herbert got caught up in his ideas to such an extent that he sacrificed narrative for repetitive speeches and convoluted plots.

It's too bad the Foundation series gets derailed as well. What about the books written by other authors, are they any good?

sanity index said...

I couldn't help but notice many similarities, probably because I read the Foundation series soon after the Dune series. Yes, I agree with your assessment that Dune was more in-depth...the fact that the books are longer/denser probably helped. Foundation felt more "sci-fi-y" than Dune, which turned on the humanistic/philosophical, hence more compelling/accessible. At least to me, since I was only starting to get into science fiction.

Dune was engrossing but started to lose me around the 4th book. I finished them anyway despite that weird sense of disconnect. The only thing the latter books had in common with the earlier ones was Arrakis, the sandworms, and the attenuated mythos. The Bene Gesserit were awful people and I just didn't care about the characters anymore, heh.

Foundation, however, wasn't as bad, IIRC...my memory of those is a bit fuzzier than with Dune, but they were still engaging. If they veered off a bit, it was likely due to the fact Asimov wrote the them decades later and under pressure from fans.

As for related books by other authors (if that was what you meant), I didn't bother reading them. (Kinda like how I boycott certain celebrities. :D ) I don't particularly care for books that the original authors didn't write themselves. No matter how good they may imitate the styles or continue the stories, they're just not the same. Hence, I never read the "Second Foundation" series, or any of the "House of ___" books that Brian Herbert wrote.

I mean, after 5-6 books and their developments, the ideas kinda start to run dry, and the original authors probably meant for that to already...

Antimatter said...

Yeah, Foundation was definitely more in the traditional 'sci-fi' vein than Dune! :)

Yep, my thoughts exactly on everything after God Emperor. There was just no humanity to the Bene Gesserit, and their superiority complex wore thin very quickly. The ideas were still interesting in these books, but the way they were presented was tedious!

I'm glad to hear Foundation doesn't go off the rails as much as Dune does! :D

Yeah, I meant related (i.e. Foundation) books. Well, I'll read them and let you know how they go! 8) In any case, unlike the Dune books, the Second Foundation books are written by well reputed sci-fi authors.

I'll probably be reading the rest of the Foundation books with the Dune comparison in mind now! Heh heh :D