Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Isaac Asimov has exerted a nearly incalculable influence on the genre of science-fiction with the publication of his Foundation series, still discussed to this very day. In the first novel, simply titled Foundation, we witness the start of humanity’s collapse into barbarism and intellectual devolution, and one man’s ambitious plan to restore it back on the right track and preserve its incredibly advanced scientific knowledge.
Table of contents
Isaac Asimov Begins the Great Collapse
For all the forward momentum humanity is gaining with its ever more wondrous scientific discoveries, it’s difficult (but mind you, not impossible) to imagine a scenario where we collectively start to move in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, this is exactly what our civilization is facing in Isaac Asimov‘s timeless pioneering novel of hard science-fiction, titled Foundation.
Marking the beginning of the Foundation series, the first novel sets the stage for the great struggle to come in the future. Humanity has advanced to the point of easy space travel, force fields, energy blasters, and all the rest such a level of technology entails. The galactic empire feels boundless and is seemingly incapable of failure.
However, one man sees the inevitable, and his name is Hari Seldon, founder of the science dubbed “Psychohistory”. Specializing in the mathematical calculation of human behaviour, especially in large masses, the science predicts an imminent collapse of the empire, followed by an age of darkness and barbarism set to last approximately thirty thousand years.
Seldon concocts a plan which won’t prevent the collapse, but will at least shorten the age of darkness to a thousand years instead of thirty. This plan consists of establishing two foundations of scientists at opposite points of the galaxy. Their goal is to guard the collective knowledge humanity has acquired until now, and spread it back into the world after the collapse.
Scientific truth is beyond loyalty and disloyalty.― Isaac Asimov, Foundation
The First Foundation, composed entirely of physical scientists and zero psychologists, is having a very rough start and is already under threat of being wiped out. With Hari Seldon long-dead at this stage, the time comes for new heroes to rise in a time which might end up never even being recorded.
The Mathematical Science of People in Foundation
To begin with, I feel the need to address a certain point about this book, and it’s the fact it was originally a series of short stories which were later glued together into one cohesive narrative. While it does feel apparent in certain parts (a bit more on this later), I would say on the whole the series benefits from this for the large amount of time it needs to cover.
In any case, with this being a hard science-fiction novel, I think it shouldn’t come as a surprise individual characters take a bit of a back-seat to the examination of technology and society on a bigger scale.
In regards to this aspect of the book, I found Isaac Asimov managed to stride the fine line between too much and too little technical detail. Pieces of fictional technology are more often than not portrayed with concepts and terminology stemming from real life, making them feel like natural extensions of the world they’re in.
Personally-speaking, what I found the most interesting was the exploration of social decay on a grand scale. Asimov very convincingly traces the route between total intergalactic despotism and its degeneration into a pre-nuclear age, drawing a rather frightening picture of how we might, one day, realistically be able to lose all we’ve learned.
Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.― Isaac Asimov, Foundation
While he doesn’t divulge the theoretical mathematical details behind his use of “psychohistory”, it is apparent Asimov has actually given a lot of profound thought to the subject and has come to many insightful conclusions about the behaviour of people in large masses. If nothing else, it truly made me believe his fictional science which calculates people could one day be turned into a real one.
The Incessant Fight Against Decay
As I mentioned it just now, this is a novel which tends to focus less on individual characters in favour of other elements, but by no means does it mean we have nobody to follow. There is, however, one quirk which you’ll have to get used to, and this is the part where this book having originally been a series of novels comes back into play.
Most of the main characters don’t appear for a very long time, generally serving as our anchoring points for whatever period of the Foundation we’re reading about. While they are quite well characterized both through regular descriptions, dialogue and their actions, it becomes a little difficult to form a bond with them when you know they’re really only passing through, from your perspective at least.
Any fool can tell a crisis when it arrives. The real service to the state is to detect it in embryo.― Isaac Asimov, Foundation
There are, however, two elements which alleviate this problem almost completely. The first one is the relative simplicity and general likeability of all the characters we are following. They’re good people trying to do their best for the sake of humanity and science, more often than not contending with overwhelming odds, which leads us to the second element.
The sense of struggle is omnipresent and colours not only this novel, but all the works in the series I believe. There is never a moment where the Foundation isn’t under some sort of lethal threat, whether it comes from within or from would-be conquerors from the outside. In other words, Asimov achieved a spectacular feat in creating a hard sci-fi novel which also feels action-packed and consistently moving.
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Watching how one generation after the next manages to outwit their enemies and deal with impossible challenges was an immense source of pleasure for me. I would compare it to watching a chess match of the highest level played to determine humanity’s survival and future… and though he hasn’t lived for a while, it seems Hari Seldon can still never lose.
The Final Verdict
Foundation by Isaac Asimov is an unforgettable beginning to a series which changed the landscape of science-fiction in its day, combining together constant movement, action-packed conflicts, a realm of amazing technologies described in detail, as well as profound psychological insights.
In my opinion, it’s a true pioneering novel of hard science-fiction, and it still very much holds up today as an essential read for anyone who is even remotely a fan of the genre.
(January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992)
Isaac Asimov was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University who was best-known for his pioneering works of science-fiction.
Most notably, the Foundation trilogy as well as the Robot series earned him the 1966 Hugo Award for the all-time best series of science fiction and fantasy novels.