Foundation by Isaac Asimov (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2010; originally published in 1951. 199 pp)
Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific writers and editors of modern times, with approximately five hundred books in his bibliography. He died in 1992.
Foundation is the first novel in Asimov’s larger Foundation Trilogy. Though the series was later expanded into a work of five novels total, but most consider the original trilogy to be the true series. Foundation was written in multiple stages as publications in Astounding Magazine, the first part of the book was written the last. Later, Asimov wrote two sequel novels and two prequels.
Foundation’s story is relatively simple. A group of scientists are seeking to preserve knowledge as the civilizations of the larger Galactic Empire regress. The novel is broken up into five sections, The Psychohistorians (published in 1951), The Encylopedists (published in May of 1942), The Mayors (Published in June of 1942), The Traders (Published in October 1944), and The Merchant Princes (Published in August 1944).
The story begins on Trantor, which is the capital planet (think Coruscant from Star Wars) of the Galactic Empire. The Empire, being 12,000 years old, has endured for quite a long time, but is imperceptibly declining. Hari Seldon is the only one to recognize this, as a mathematician who predicts future events by extrapolating from historic trends. He predicts that Trantor will be destroyed within 300 years, causing the fall of the Galactic Empire. This will lead to a 30,000 year period of anarchy before another empire is established. To preserve knowledge he brings scientists and scholars to a planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for the future. His planet is called the Foundation.
Fifty years later, the first of the Seldon Crises begin, as four of the nearby provinces of the Empire are rebelling, forming independent kingdoms. The fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of warlords rising in the wake of the newly formed kingdoms. The question becomes whether mankind will take a stand for freedom or live as slaves to the new warlords.
Andrew: There are many themes present with the novel, I thought it would be a good idea to talk through them, rather than ruminating on plot. What are some themes you’ve noticed?
Donovan: Asimov presents environmental degradation and its influence on the fall of nations as a clear theme throughout Foundation. The capital world of the Galaxy, Trantor, provides the most precise illustration of this point. It’s a world city—not as in world influencing city—literally a city whose limits span the entire planet.
Thus, Trantor imports all of its resources. What might seem impressive from a human creation perspective, is ultimately a perilous existence:
“He sighed noisily, and realized finally that he was on Trantor at last; on the planet which was the center of all the Galaxy and the kernel of the human race. He was none of its weaknesses. He was no ships of food landing. He was not aware of a jugular vein delicately connecting the forty billion of Trantor with the rest of the Galaxy. He was conscious only of the mightiest deed of man; the complete and almost contemptuously final conquest of a world” (14).
Not only in Trantor, but also in the succeeding epochs, the need for a groundswell group of reformers is necessary for the survival of the human race. Asimov includes prose that would seemingly fit with any grassroots campaign:
“A: The psychohistoric trend of a planet-full of people contains huge inertia. To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia. Either as many people must be concerned, or if the number of people be relatively small, enormous time for change must be allowed” (26).
Foundation, then, provides a setting that seems straight out of a Malthusian nightmare.
Donovan: What about you, Andrew? Any themes you came across that piqued your interest?
Andrew: The first of the books (The Psychohistorians) was my favorite. The idea that a man would be able to predict the downfall of mankind and a period of anarchy isn’t anything new, though. Historically, every empire that rises also falls.
“The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity—a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop” (37).
It’s interesting to see what Asimov considers to be the fall of mankind, but what I think is the most poignant is the fact he considers the fall of mankind to be something “majestic”. By falling, we display grandeur and exhibit stateliness. His view is one that should be taken into consideration, that with every rise, there must be a fall, and both are equally as important. The fall of the Galactic Empire makes way for a second Empire, one which is better in many ways.
Andrew: Any other themes?
Donovan: Interestingly, Asimov uses religion as a foundational mover in his overarching 1,000-year plan. The Foundation, as a last bastion of nuclear power within the Periphery, utilizes religion as a controlling agent keeping much more populous and brutish worlds at bay:
“We have the science of the great Hari Seldon to prove that upon us depends the future empire of the Galaxy, and from the course that leads to that Imperium was cannot return. The religion we have is our all-important instrument toward that end. With it we have brought the Four Kingdoms under our control, even at the moment when they would have crushed us. It is the most potent device known with which to control men and worlds” (179).
Ultimately, Asimov’s view of religion seems to correspond with a Marxist understanding of power and control. The belief factor is only as important as it is able to move chess pieces and keep people in check. The second religions loses its power, it must be discarded.
Donovan: Any final thoughts?
Andrew: I rather enjoyed Foundation, but I’m a sucker for science fiction. I’ll admit however, without the other novels, it’s not the same. I went on and read the other two in the trilogy just because the story felt incomplete, so as a whole trilogy, Foundation is fantastic.
Donovan: I enjoyed reading Foundation, but I also found it incomplete. It is difficult to assess Foundation outside of the context of the whole trilogy. On its own, the book skips generations making it difficult to stick with a titular character. Likewise, Asimov spends much time building the premise and conflict of the book without truly pointing to a resolution. Presumably, the payoff of Foundation emerges later in the trilogy.
I look forward to continuing the series and would recommend reading Foundation because it feels groundbreaking for its genre. But my opinion might change—for better or worse—with the rest of the series.
Donovan’s Verdict: 3 out of 5
Andrew’s Verdict: 4 out of 5