Book Review: Foundation, by Isaac Asimov #VintageSciFi

I’ve been meaning to read Foundation for years. When I was a kid, my dad and my Nonny had these science fiction magazines, the kind that looked more like a mass market paperback than what we think of as magazines today. I don’t remember the titles of them — there were a couple different ones — but I remember them having a lot of Isaac Asimov stories in them, and I loved those stories. I read through all of those magazines, but kind of forgot about Asimov when I didn’t have more of his stuff to read. I’ve thought on and off about reading some of Asimov’s books as an adult, but never got around to it. When I found out about Vintage Science Fiction Month, I knew that Foundation needed to be on my reading list.

Foundation is written in five parts, and is set in some future time when numerous planets in the Milky Way are inhabited by us and the whole system is overseen by the Galactic Empire. The story opens with a mathematician moving to the planet Trantor to work for Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian who uses math to predict future events. Unfortunately, almost as soon as the mathematician arrives, he is picked up by the Galactic Empire’s security force and finds out that Seldon is about to be put on trial for treason because he has predicted the fall of the Empire and a return to barbarism. Seldon has put together a group to save civilization after the fall, and the result of the trial is that he and his group are exiled to a remote planet at the edge of the Empire, where they set up the Foundation.

When the Galactic Empire began to die at the edges, and when the ends of the Galaxy reverted to barbarism and dropped away, Hari Seldon and his band of psychologists planted a colony, the Foundation, out here in the middle of the mess, so that we could incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire.

The future course of the Foundation was plotted according to the science of psychohistory, then highly developed, and conditions arranged so as to bring about a series of crises that will force us most rapidly along the route to future Empire. Each crisis, each Seldon crisis, marks an epoch in our history.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov

The next four parts of the book are set in different (future) times after the exile, and those parts take place on Terminus, the planet the Foundation was built on. We watch the Foundation grow and advance while the Empire declines.

I was maybe into the third section of the book when I realized that this felt like a collection of connected short stories, so I did some research. Foundation was indeed, originally, four short stories published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine between 1942 and 1944. A fifth, introductory story was written when the first four stories were collected for the novel, which was published in 1951. I wonder if some of the science fiction magazines I read as a kid were Astounding Science Fiction, and I wonder if I read these stories and just don’t remember them.

What I found most interesting about Foundation are Asimov’s ideas about how a civilization basically starts from scratch and ends up in a place of technological advancement, relying on history to show them the way. It is an interesting progression.

I also found it interesting to see how the society on Terminus dealt with the fatalism of Seldon’s predictions. It’s one of those “we know that this thing is the right thing to do, but if we do this thing, then what Seldon predicted won’t come to pass, and civilization will end, so we need to do this instead, even if it feels like the wrong thing now.” It doesn’t leave much room for morality or critical thinking, which brings up questions about individualism vs. mob mentality.

I think Foundation (the novel) holds up well even though the first short story was published almost 80 years ago. Ideas and questions about leadership, economics, religion, individualism, and morality will always be relevant. The only thing that kind of disappointed me was that because each section takes place a number of years after the previous section, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with that section’s characters. I really wanted more of the mathematician’s story from the first section, but he’s there and gone so quickly. After I realized this was going to continue happening, I was able to prepare myself for it, but I still want some of the characters’ backstories (and future stories).

I plan to read the rest of the series, or at least the original trilogy, at some point this year. I’m interested to see where Seldon’s predictions continue to take the Foundation and how society continues to advance (or not). I foresee things getting worse before they get better.