My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My Foundation books have sat on my shelves since I was young, read long ago, but awaiting a re-read along with many other classics. A discussion with my daughter’s boyfriend a couple of years ago who was a big sci-fi fan (and Asimov in particular) drove me to dig out the books and read again, this time in chronological order of the story-telling. The length of reading long outlasted the boyfriend, I have to say (which was not a bad thing).
Asimov is, without doubt, in the very top pantheon of influential sci-fi writers. So brilliant were his Robot stories that the ‘Rules of Robotics’ have ceased to have any ‘copyright’ value and are more or less considered obligatory to follow for anyone writing fiction involving robots (assuming Terminator-style killer robots are left out of the picture). And as we have reached the cusp of AI genuinely becoming sentient and talks of legal rights for such robots are now being held seriously by both technology companies and governments, Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ are very likely to be the ground on which ethical AI will be built in decades to come.
But Asimov didn’t just write Robot stories. There are his ‘Galactic Empire’ novels including classics like ‘The Martian Way’, his non-sci-fi detective stories of ‘The Black Widowers’ and – arguably his rival to the Robot stories in terms of fame and adulation – the Foundation books.
Originally, Asimov wrote a trilogy looking at the end of the Galactic Empire where a lone mathematician, Hari Seldon, creates the Foundation, designed on a mathematical theory ‘Psychohistory’ which predicts how mass movements of people will behave and so how the human race will fall and rise again over thousands of years.
The books were relatively slim volumes and more like interconnected short stories rather than novels. They were also written in the early 1950s, just after both the end of WWII and the very clear collapse of the British Empire, although the very first story appeared in the fan-mag ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ in 1942, right in the thick of war. It must have all been a very scary time to be living. If there’s one thing that sci-fi does, it is allows us to imagine our behaviours and responses to very real issues without frightening us. The original Star Trek TV series, for instance, is more or less entirely based around racism, xenophobia and other prejudices. There’s a reason we see a black woman, a Russian and an Oriental on the deck of the Enterprise. Later series have continued the vein with ‘enemies’ almost always becoming allies eventually. Peace and reconciliation while breaking down prejudice is the main thrust of the Star Trek universe. These are just the kind of tensions and concerns we have today. In Asimov’s time, it was the collapse of Empire and the struggle for control, which must have felt so terrifying at the time.
The final novel of the trilogy was published in 1957 and the books became canon for all sci-fi lovers. But Asimov was persuaded to return to the series in 1982. The world had changed since then and so had writing styles. Asimov would write a further four books (two prequels and two sequels), all twice the length of any of the original three and now with a much grander scheme. Knowing, perhaps, that he wasn’t going to live for very much longer (Asimov died in 1992), he want to consolidate his sci-fi books together into one universe. Hence, for better or for worse, one could say that the Foundation series as a whole is now the melding of the Robot and Galactic Empire stories together and all the books are, in fact, one series.
It’s a great idea and it almost works although my feeling is that, by the end of the last book, we’ve somewhat lost the whole idea of the Foundation itself. I came away with something of the feeling that the whole Hari Seldon thing was pointless. Nevertheless, for me, aging as I am, it was a delight to go back over these old, neglected friends and, this time, do them in the proper chronological order (I read the original trilogy in the 70s, long before Asimov was persuaded back). It was fascinating to do so.
The first two books (‘Prelude to Foundation’ and ‘Forward The Foundation’) give us the man himself – Hari Seldon – and read really well as a cross between action adventure and mystery solving. Indeed, mystery was really Asimov’s key strength. All his stories contain some aspect of unknown or impossible situation which has to be solved.
The next three ( ‘Foundation’, ‘Foundation and Empire’ and ‘Second Foundation’) are the original stories dealing with just the first 500 years or so after Seldon and the collapse of the Empire. They read like a strange mix of connected short stories and longer parts which make up a novella – particularly the storyline of ‘The Mule’. This is a bit all over the place, starting halfway through the second book, after some short stories, but not concluding until a third of the way through the third book – which then continues with short stories. Despite the historical importance of these novels, they are the ones which have aged the most and are least satisfying.
The last two books (‘Foundation’s Edge’ and ‘Foundation and Earth’) deal entirely with one storyline circling around Golan Trevize and his companions as he seeks to find the mythical planet of origin – Earth – and find out who’s really pulling the strings of the universe, including both Foundations. If you’ve read all the previous books, you will almost certainly figure out what’s coming, but it is still quite delightful. Again, these latter books are better written than the originals, but not as well as the two preludes which were, perversely, the last Asimov wrote of the series.
Overall, Asimov is Asimov, and he should be respect as such as a brilliant mind and enjoyable writer. Like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne et al, the stories have aged and preoccupations then are not necessarily preoccupations now. Nevertheless, this is intelligent fiction which is for the likes of those who enjoy conundrums – Sherlock Holmes in space, in some ways – without getting too bogged down in deep philosophical efforts. The Foundation series is certainly a must-read for sci-fi fans, but it isn’t necessarily going to be life-changing today the way it was for me in the 70s and was for most readers in the 50s.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.