“Foundation” Isaac Asimov

This isn’t one of the Asimov books we own – we’ve got the next two in the trilogy and I’ve had to get this out of the library so I could read it first. J bought the other two, in a second hand bookshop somewhere many many years ago. I did think about buying this one but as I’m just about to put the rest in a box it seemed silly to buy something only to box it up.

I believe Foundation started off life as a series of short stories, and this makes the novel very episodic. But this isn’t a flaw, as a structure it works for the story Asimov is telling. The first section is set just before the fall of the Galactic Empire after about 12,000 years of stability. Hari Seldon has perfected the science of psychohistory which makes statistical predictions about the future behaviour of people. He predicts the fall of the Empire and sets up two Foundations “at opposite ends of the galaxy” to reduce the period & depth of anarchy that would follow & hasten the setting up of a new galaxy spanning society. The following sections follow the fate of the first Foundation on the planet Terminus across about 150 years & each details a crisis point that they face & overcome. These crises were all predicted by Seldon & he left time-locked recordings for the future.

I’m not sure if it’s just because I’ve been reading about China recently or if the resonance is intentional on Asimov’s part. The old Empire feels like a China analogue, and the crumbling into Kingdoms round the periphery makes me think of one of the various bits of Chinese history where the Empire shrank back to a core leaving autonomous territories at the outskirts. That resonance serves to highlight the oddities of timescale in the novel, however. 12,000 years of stability is an incomprehensible amount of time. When I think of long lived civilisations on Earth China & Ancient Egypt spring to mind, but both of them have been periods of stability lasting a few centuries punctuated by periods of breakdown of the central government. So the Galactic Empire has lasted unimaginably longer than these, yet within 50 years the planets at the periphery have lost significant amounts of vital scientific knowledge. That’s within the lifetimes of the people who previously ran this tech! And by 150 years even the centre of the old Empire has lost a lot of knowledge (that’s a plot point in the last section of the book). And that just feels too quick. It’s like suggesting that during the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian civilisation they all forgot how to irrigate their fields because the central governmental structure had broken down. And the Galactic Empire was a literate educated society, surely instruction manuals would survive and other educational materials. Of course there’s other manipulation going on via the Second Foundation, and I can’t remember if that explains some of this – I’ll find out when I get there in the series.

It’s interesting how much of this book was about religion and the power of religion to manipulate. Terminus is weak compared to its neighbouring kingdoms but they manage to turn their scientific knowledge to their advantage. Instead of teaching their neighbours how things work they train them as priests who follow ritual procedures to operate the atomic generators etc. And they dress it all up with talk of the Galactic Spirit & so on. The priests can only learn by coming to Terminus, and the High Priests on each planet are actually Foundation diplomats. It’s a religion entirely designed to deceive and manipulate people. And it has its parallels in the over-arching plot of the novel. Hari Seldon sets up the Foundation on Terminus, but lies to them about their purpose initially. Then he appears at critical moments and effectively bestows his blessing on them. In fairly generic terms, saying things like “the solution is of course obvious”. The only thing that makes it clear he’s not a charlatan is that he appears at the right time, but even that isn’t much – it was only a Seldon Crisis if Seldon appeared, obviously if there’s no recording then it didn’t meet the criteria. The other parallel is that the Foundation is deliberately not educated in psychohistory because it would affect their actions and spoil the predictions.

Overall the book feels like “an interesting idea for a novel, now he just needs to flesh it out a bit” 😉 The characters feel a bit thin & like they’re only there to allow Asimov to write out the cerebral exercise of the plot. In some ways it’s more like reading thinly fictionalised history than reading a story, which is (I think) a stylistic choice by Asimov for this story. But it means that for me it’s not aging well.