Friday 20 January 2012

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) is acknowledged one of the "greats" of SF, a hugely productive multi-award-winning writer of novels and short stories as well as a science professor and non-fiction writer. His most productive fiction period was in the 1950s although new work was still being published into the 1990s. He is perhaps best known for the "Three Laws of Robotics" featured in his robot stories, but his most famous fictional work is probably the 1950s 'Foundation' trilogy: Foundation, Foundation & Empire, and Second Foundation (based on short stories from the early 1940s). I first read these in the 1960s but the last time I opened their pages was in the 1970s, so I was interested to see how these classic works stood up.

The time is the far future, with humanity spread over a vast galaxy-wide empire which had been ruled for thousands of years from the Imperial capitol at its heart, Trantor - a planet completely covered with buildings. But the huge spectacle of power presented by the Empire covers a gradual internal disintegration, with regional governors breaking free and creating their own kingdoms. Few people realise the inevitability of the decline, but among them is the famous psychohistorian, Hari Seldon. Psychohistory is the mathematical analysis of trends in society to predict the broad sweep of future social history. Seldon recognises that the disintegration is inevitable but aims to reduce the resulting "dark age" from a predicted 30,000 years to just 1,000 by setting up two Foundations, on planets at opposite ends of the galaxy, with the purpose of preserving human knowledge and skills.


In the first volume, Seldon manages to obtain imperial permission to set up his Foundations, and the remainder of the book follows the fortunes of the First Foundation on the remote planet Terminus. The ostensible purpose is the creation of a vast Encyclopedia Galactica of all knowledge, and steady progress is made until the break-up of the Empire creates a crisis for the Foundation. A recorded image of the long-dead Seldon then appears, accurately predicting the crisis, and Salvor Hardin, the mayor, takes control from the academics and solves the problem, beginning a line of powerful mayors. They apply practical politics to managing their local area of the galactic fringe, controlling other planets by providing the high technology they have lost, wrapped up in the guise of an invented religion. These are in turn replaced by the traders, who ultimately develop into merchant princes, notably Hober Mallow, who are no less devious in their commitment to controlling their markets.

So far the first Foundation has been successful in following the path foreseen by Seldon, and confirmed by the occasional appearances of his recorded messages at moments of crisis. The Foundation has survived, maintaining its scientific knowledge and technology (and in some cases surpassing the achievements of the Empire, especially with miniature atomic power), and establishing a commercial empire in their small part of the galaxy. But the story is a long way from being over…

Foundation & Empire

The episodic nature of the first book, skipping generations at a time to focus on particular periods of crisis, is continued in the second but slows down somewhat, with only two parts this time. The first concerns the last attempt by a fading Empire to use its still powerful fleet, under the command of energetic Bel Riose, to crush the Foundation. The second and much longer part marks an intriguing side-step from the Seldon plan, when a mysterious new individual, never seen in public and known only as the Mule, seizes power in one system after another with astonishing ease, threatening the Foundation itself. This had not been foreseen by Seldon, and prompts a desperate journey to the heart of the old Empire in order to seek help from the legendary Second Foundation. Interestingly for the period in which it is written, this part features a heroine, Bayta, who is much more competent and impressive than her husband.

Second Foundation

The final part of the story continues with the search for the mysterious Second Foundation, concerning which there is only the briefest of references in the records, with no indication as to its nature or location. This is also in two parts, the first following on from the previous volume in covering the attempt by the Mule to locate and destroy the Second Foundation, the second a couple of generations later when growing tensions between the First and Second Foundations threaten to destroy Seldon's plan. This final part also features a strong female character, the precocious teenager Arcadia Darell (Arkady), Bayta's granddaughter.

To sum up, I greatly admire Asimov, not just for his landmark contributions to SF but also for his work in popularising science. The Foundation trilogy is a bold conception, a coherent and well-structured story covering four centuries and postulating a different kind of human civilisation based on developing mind skills rather than technological power. However, I have to say that despite his status in the genre, I find his fiction lacks something which keeps it out of the very front rank. While I enjoyed re-reading the Foundation trilogy it isn't as gripping as the very best fiction. There is a certain lack of excitement, of that "sense of wonder" which makes the best classic SF so compelling; instead, there's a flavour of didactic lesson about it. The episodic nature of the story, spread out over centuries with each episode featuring its own characters, also makes reader engagement more difficult to sustain.

Having said that, it's still an impressive achievement, especially for the 1940s. There are some nice touches: each part begins with an extract from the future Encyclopedia Galactica providing a brief introduction to the period (a neat way of inserting a useful little "info dump" to plug the gaps, copied by Herbert in Dune). The story also gets better as it goes along, as the longer episodes provide more time to focus on the key characters. In particular, Arkady is a marvellous creation, an observant and amusing portrayal of teenage dreams and angst. She gives the lie to the assumption that the early SF writers couldn't develop characters and must surely have been based on a girl or girls Asimov knew well.

In conclusion, the trilogy not only should be on the "must read" list of every SF fan who has any interest in the history of the genre, it is still worth reading in its own right.


JJackson said...

I have to say I enjoyed the Foundation series and find it has been a great inspiration for me.
James Jackson

The Gray Monk said...

Still among my favourites ...

Bill Garthright said...

I loved the Foundation trilogy when I first read it, but that was a long time ago. I doubt that it would hold up so well now.

But I was wowed by the whole idea of psychohistory. And I wasn't alone in that. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says that he became an economist because it was the closest he could get to becoming a psychohistorian.