Foundation – Isaac Asimov (1951)
‘The time is a future century, in the days of the Julactic Empire – a society of millions of worlds throughout the Milky Way. The Old Empire is crumbling into barbarism and Hari Seldon and his band of psychologists see before them only the despair of thousands of years of anarchy, unless they can create a new force – the Foundation – dedicated to art, science and technology – the nucleus of a new empire.. ‘
Blurb from the 1975 Panther edition.
Originally serialised in John W Campbell’s ‘Astounding’, this trilogy became Asimov’s most famous (if not his best) work. Allegedly, Campbell refused to accept stories in which aliens were superior to humans in any fashion so Asimov decided that his Galactic Empire would have no aliens at all.
It is set against a background of a Galactic Empire, comprised of millions of worlds, all improbably controlled from the governmental central world of Trantor.
The Empire has lasted for thousands of years and has become a stagnant society.
Scientist and psychologist Hari Seldon has developed the statistical science of Psychohistory which, by examining the interactions of billions of people, can predict future trends to a high degree of accuracy and has foreseen the fall of the Empire within five hundred years.
‘Foundation’ is the story of his plan of damage limitation.
He cannot prevent the fall of The Empire but he can set forces in motion which will reduce the intervening period of barbarism and set the foundation for a new better Empire.
Two Foundations are established at ‘either end’ of the Galaxy ostensibly as a base for the production of the Encyclopaedia Galactica. From these, Seldon predicts, an inevitable process of cause and effect will engender a renaissance across a galaxy slowly falling into barbarism.
Although he is dead by the time the narrative gets into its stride, Asimov is able to bring Seldon back through the neat device of the Foundation Time-Vault in which Seldon has left holographic messages which are set running at the projected times of crises for the community.
Thus, although we move forward through time in leaps and bounds of fifty to a hundred years, Seldon provides a linking device throughout the narrative.
One could argue that these tales are merely a series of puzzles, problems to be solved by the reader before Seldon’s prophecies fulfil themselves.
Social and political forces, according to Seldon’s predictions, will collide until the Foundation reaches a crisis and can only move in one direction.
The book contains some obvious absurdities and anachronisms by today’s standards, and some appalling characterisation such the Scarlet Pimpernel figure of the Imperial Ambassador, Lord Dorwin. Planets on the edge of the galaxy break away from central Imperial control and revert to ‘Kingdoms’ but Asimov never considers that the process may fracture further into warring nations upon individual worlds. Each planet (or group of planets) has one ‘king’ and remains a unified society.
As the Foundation was settled on a metal-scarce planet by a population of academics and scientists, they have the advantage of retaining knowledge and engineering skills which is being lost to the rest of the Galaxy. By wily political trickery the Foundation begins to extend its control over the nearby ‘barbarian’ systems, employing Mayor Hardin’s trademark pacifist phrase ‘Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.’
The crumbling Empire itself employs the Roman Empire as a model. A central controlling government, its resources overstretched, has grown stagnant and decadent, lacking development and innovation while at the edges the barbarians creep in.
The Foundationists are forced by circumstances to innovate. With metal being a vital resource, they are compelled to refine and miniaturise machinery and processes, and manage to retain a monopoly over atomic power in a region of space where other worlds have reverted to using coal and oil.
A scientific ‘priesthood‘ is set up into which the brightest minds of the barbarian worlds are inducted ensuring that although they are restoring civilisation to nearby worlds, their loyalty lies with the ‘Holy’ Foundation.
There’s a case for arguing that this is hardly SF at all. The one SF element is Psychohistory and Seldon has ensured that none of the people on Terminus are psychohistorians (although in subsequent books we discover they have been there all along) and though there are space-ships and forcefields these amount to no more than background colour.
The beauty of ‘Foundation’ lies in its clever plotting which somehow overcomes the shortcomings of the books. There are virtually no female characters at all. Cigars are surprisingly popular and the very notion of an Emperor of a Galaxy stretches one’s belief.
What is most lacking is any sense of scale. We never really get any attempt from Asimov to portray the sheer size of the Galaxy, or even of the area of space which this book deals with. Asimov’s Galaxy is remarkably claustrophobic, and he makes it seem like a cosy local neighbourhood.
On the other hand, that very cosiness makes it very endearing, and sixty years on from its first publication in 1942 it still reads as clever and exciting and surprising.
Later novels in which Asimov attempted to conflate all his work into one Galactic history are best avoided. A trilogy of posthumous sequels by Brin, Bear and Benford have recently been published.
See also: ‘Foundation’s Fear’: Benford