Imagine you were a Yankee and had to visit your family who are in the South. One day during your visit, you were told about a great town which is said to be the heart of the South. After hearing so much praise you were like, “Hey, this town I keep hearing about is just a few miles away from my old folk’s place. I’ve got time, I’ll go check it out.” Then you finally see it with your own eyes. You explored it and met its inhabitants for like two hours. and it was…okay. The people were cool, the food was tasty and some of the landmarks looked great but it was not what you thought it was. And that’s how I manifest my feelings over the Foundation.
The book is set in the Galactic Empire in the very very VERY far future. Hari Seldon, a man who made a new field in science called psychohistory, predicts the empire is in decay, and will collapse in a few hundred years, ushering in a dark age.
The aristocracy are hostile and skeptical of his statements but they send him and others to the planet Terminus to create the battlestar- I mean Encyclopedia-Galactica that will hopefully reduce the number of years of this dark age.
A few pages in and I figured out all of the metaphors and symbolism in this book. It’s the fall of Rome, the invasion of barbaric tribes, the rise of the Church and the beginnings of the dark age. I even see some parallels to the French Revolution. It’s not subtle, but I don’t think the book is trying to be subtle. Unlike the last book I read, Foundation is overt about it’s real world parallels and is not ashamed to show it, and I like it. It’s practically a fictional retelling of history.
It’s very fascinating, this book, especially when you think about when it came out. It was released in 1951, just 6 years after World War 2, the Cold War was young and the Korean War was on going. So here comes this book about a galactic empire coming to an end.
The book’s also mature enough to have no political agenda…actually scratch that, it does have an agenda.
Later on in the book (spoilers ahead)…
Members of the Foundation visit galactic kingdoms populated by barbaric people and the people think the scientists are magicians, resulting in the creation of a new religion. Scientists become clergyman, medicine becomes holy water, scientific theories become dogma, and the scientific community becomes a hierarchy with the higher ups wearing red robes.
Hmm? So what’s the agenda?
Is the book saying religion is for stupid superstitious people? Is it saying stupid superstitious people are ruining religion? Is it saying the scientific community is becoming a religion? Or am I over interpreting this? What do you think? Comments welcome.
The writing is crisp and good. The dialogue is some of the best dialogue of any book I ever read. It’s smart, realistic and most importantly, easy to follow. Even though I wish the book took time for some world building, the world it created is good. The book also contains cool science mumbo jumbo.
So overall, I think the writing of the Foundation is very well done…except for one thing, which is my only major issue with the book.
What characters? The characters are boring, two dimensional and…oh yeah forgettable. There’s barely any personality and practically no one to care about. I can only remember like three characters and even they were boring.
And…That’s about it.
I haven’t read the sequels yet and to be honest I’m not interested in reading them anytime soon. Maybe one day I will. Foundation was a very good book. It didn’t really impact me with mind blowing writing or a deep world changing message, and I don’t consider it to be a groundbreaking SF, but I enjoyed it.
Okay Foundation did impact me with one message and it’s a message that a lot of people must know.
Empires and society don’t last forever. They change, they thrive and they die like human beings and we have to move on.
7 out of 10
Asimov defined religion as blind belief and lack of intellectual curiosity.
As do many non-believers.
It’s a stupid strawman; the laziest of pretend counter-arguments.
I found Foundation (and the rest of the trilogy) readable as a teenager.
Mods: feel free to delete the previous comment of mine, since it’s not on topic.
I never cared much for Asimov as a novelist. I always enjoyed his short stories, but his novels always left me cold. I just tried to read the Foundation series earlier this year and discovered that the eponymous first book was basically a series of short stories strung together. Perhaps if I had read it in my youth I might have enjoyed it more. I found that I didn’t care for it – like his other novels I’ve read (Caves of Steel & Naked Sun). As you mentioned, his characters are pretty forgettable. I wasn’t able to finish the series due to a lack of interest. I can’t put my finger on what his novels lack (from my perspective), but they don’t pull me into the story and as a result, I find them boring.
I’m kind of curious of what the pulp revival crowd think of Asimov’s more action/adventure centric novels, like Lucky Starr. (Or the Norby books, although from what I understand, they were all Janet’s, with her husband’s name slapped on them to get them to sell better)
As for the review, with a few exceptions, Asimov’s major weakness was characters. From Foundation, the only character I remember based personality was the lazy trader that manipulates politics by doing nothing, but even then I can’t remember his name, so that forwards ‘forgettable’ argument.
I grew up on Norby, so I’m a little bit afraid to take an adult look at them since Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth aged so poorly.
I did review the Boys’ Life comic adaptation of the first Norby book here. Its weakness was its characters, and its plot and its setting and everything else, though I’m not sure how much it suffered from adaptation syndrome (the Bank Street Classics adaptations that ran around the same time were far better).
Lucky Starr struck me as pulp written by someone who despised pulp. His hero met the Forerunners in the first book, and they gifted him with something halfway to a Power Ring. Made him–a SPACE RANGER!
He used it once, locked it in his suitcase, and didn’t touch it again until the last book–when he used its life-support functions to survive a close approach to the Sun while he was making a high-acceleration transit between two planets in opposition.
After all, it was his *intelligence* that made him the Science Council’s most important agent.
Usually, the high point of the book was when the bad guys did something egregrious. Whereupon Bigman Jones (all five feet of him) would say “You cobbers!” And pull out his Exotic Weapon of the Book.
A good review?
Excellent! Very fair and articulate review. I agree on almost all points.
As it happens, I recently re-read the original Foundation trilogy. When I was in my teens it was one of my favorites, but now I can see some of the flaws.
First, the Foundation is a secular stand-in for the medieval Church, preserving knowledge as civilization falls around it. I think Asimov deliberately wanted to show that the Church’s role could have been filled by a non-religious movement (although he has to fudge it a bit by having the Foundation work through a fake religion for a while).
Second, Asimov (at the time, anyway) had no understanding of how a trade empire worked. The merchant spacers act like salesmen, with quotas and assigned territories. On the other hand, that model was probably a lot more familiar to most of his readers than the mechanics of the East India Company.
Third, it’s a shining example of science fiction’s original sin: its contempt for mere democracy. Asimov takes it for granted that the worlds of the Galaxy must be ruled by some new imperial power. The conflict in the books is over who will wield that power. Elections, on the rare occasions when we hear about them, are New York political machine affairs, and that is shown as right and good.
Fourth, Campbell’s damned psionics keep getting into everything. The Foundation, originally a bastion of rationality and knowledge, winds up playing second banana, first to a psychic mutant and then to a whole rival Foundation of woo-woo psychics.
Still a fun series, though. It’s a damned shame nobody has filmed it.
“Third, it’s a shining example of science fiction’s original sin: its contempt for mere democracy. Asimov takes it for granted that the worlds of the Galaxy must be ruled by some new imperial power.”
Since he said his idea was merely, having read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to put it in space, I think this idea is overthinking things.
“Empires and society don’t last forever. They change, they thrive and they die like human beings and we have to move on.”
Like Spengler but with religion excised from it.
Which is very very weird.
Another weird thing is how anti-progressive the notion of one very smart man coming up with a very smart idea that resets history itself.
I think i might have read a story or two of Foundation a few years ago and i have no plans of going back to it but I am interested in if and how Asimov resolved these incongruities. Particularly the religiousless Spenglerian view of history.
Like where the heck does a civilization get law, community, ethos, science and about a million other things that make a civilization a civilization without a religion to spark and guide it?
Does Asimov even take a stab at that? Or is all just hand waving with the math equation of psychohistory?
Oh, he takes a stab at it. It’s one of the best stories in the book.
Reviews like this are why extreme Asimov bashing frustrates me. Like, yeah, dude was flawed. But to say he wasn’t a good writer just isn’t true.
This isn’t really rwlated to your comment, just expressing general frustration.
I wonder if marksmen admire John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo like you do Asimov?
“It’s one of the best stories in the book.”
“This isn’t really rwlated to your comment”
Is this some misery loves company stratagem?
Frustration loves company too?
Ha, sure. Mostly when the subject comes up it irks me.
But yes, the book does tackle that subject. It is indeed one of the book’s better stories.
Believe it or not, I never loved Fouqndation. But it’s certainly not *bad*.
“God, Robot” can be looked at as a superversive take on Asimov.
(Though, come to think of it…you mention marksmen, but any Roman who doesn’t admire Hannibal is a fool.)
The Foundation trilogy, like much of Asimov’s science fiction, is really a series of puzzle/detective stories put in a SF setting. There are some interesting themes and concepts — empires fall and that fall can’t be stopped but may be predicted, large groups of people are more predictable than small ones — but the stories aren’t really about those. They’re about, “Here’s a situation that seems intractable. How will our hero (or the author) solve it?”
His robot stories are the same way. He wasn’t really trying to say anything profound about robots, so much as he was writing interesting puzzle stories based on the Three Laws — usually having to do with a robot having done something the Three Laws shouldn’t have allowed it to do, or a mystery like that.
As science fiction, they’re nothing special, especially if you prefer your SF pulpy. As detective stories of their type, they’re pretty good.
Oh, and don’t bother with the sequels and prequels beyond the trilogy. They decline quickly and become more preachy and more deus ex machina-laden.
“Elaborate word problems disguised as SF” is how I like to describe them.
Your classic detective stories can be described in somewhat the same way. HOWEVER, Holmes and Marple solve their puzzles in thoroughly human settings. That is not the case in most SF puzzle-stories and that little bit of lost humanity makes a lot of difference. It goes double for Azzy because of his penchant for wooden characters.
True. That’s why I prefer his Elijah Baley books. They’re more overtly detective novels, and Baley is a real human character with some depth, not just a placeholder for the puzzle solver.
It was released in 1951, just 6 years after World War 2, the Cold War was young and the Korean War was on going.
If you think that was impressive, remember that only the first section was written in the 1950s. The other four were first published (two each) in 1942 and 1944 — in the middle of WWII.
Also, Asimov (born in 1920) was only in his early twenties when those four were published in ASTOUNDING.
H Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History was better series than Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series, in that the sweep of history Piper laid out had a ring of truth/reality to it, where Asimov’s felt flat and off.
Totally concur. No supposedly-so-necessary Secret Gamma Nerd Kings running the show behind the curtain, either.
‘H. Beam Piper was better than Asimov’
I agree. I much preferred Piper’s vision to Asimov’s.
“As it happens, I recently re-read the original Foundation trilogy. When I was in my teens it was one of my favorites, but now I can see some of the flaws.
First, the Foundation is a secular stand-in for the medieval Church, preserving knowledge as civilization falls around it.
Second, Asimov (at the time, anyway) had no understanding of how a trade empire worked.
Third, it’s a shining example of science fiction’s original sin: its contempt for mere democracy.
Fourth, Campbell’s damned psionics keep getting into everything.”
That’s a LOT of flaws.
#5: Wooden, uninteresting characters.
So, is the source of awesomeness in the Foundation books the junk science? Or the fact that Super Secret Gamma Nerd Kings eventually rule the universe?
You don’t know about the Secret Gamma Nerd Kings until later in the trilogy, and the earlier stories were popular right from the start. That could be one reason they’re remembered so fondly in hindsight, though.
SPOILERS: That could even be a Gamma test: when you find out that “psychohistorical inevitability” was almost kind of a scam, and there’s really a cabal of mind-controlling nerds guiding everything, does that send you running for the sequels, or does it pretty much end your interest in the story?
But as for why the Foundation stories were popular in the first place, it’s probably simple. For what they are — I like your description of “elaborate word problems disguised as SF” — they’re quite good. They’re easy to read and understand, with enough SF for flavor without being scary or confusing. Probably perfect for quick digestion when they were coming out serially in magazines. If you like that kind of thing, where it’s about the puzzle and the characters are incidental, they’re pretty enjoyable.
Pretty sharp review, Alex. I largely agree.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Asimov were being critical of religion, but that wasn’t my takeaway when I read this years back. I saw it as a criticism of blind belief and lack of intellectual curiosity. If a bunch of dudes came from the sky and tried to sell you a bill of goods, and you took it all at face value without any skepticism…well, you’d deserve to me taken in. Religion (especially Christianity) isn’t about blind faith at all. Faith isn’t about a lack of thought or skepticism – it’s about belief in something despite not having clear-cut evidence. If one truly believed he had disproven God or Christ, he’d be a fool to believe. But there is no such proof.
The whole theme of the book, as you say, is the rise and fall of civilizations. They fall when they get lazy, complacent, greedy, and stupid.