Friday, May 20, 2022

Book Review: "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (Ballantine, 1983)

I’ve been reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror for about as long as I’ve been able to read—since before kindergarten. And I’ve never, ever read Foundation. I’ve long known that it’s a classic, that it’s one of the best sf series ever. In fact, in 1966, it received a Hugo for Best All-Time Series, beating out no less than Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. (I bet that inspired some lively conversations among fen.) But I’ve never, ever read it.

Why? It was supposed to be daunting, convoluted, complicated. It took place over the course of something like 30,000 years and was therefore way multigenerational. As a preteen, I’d fizzled out reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series midway through Heretics of Dune when I realized that I didn’t really know who anyone was anymore. (Having reread Dune during the pandemic, I intend to take another stab at it; who knows whether that experience will hold.) And I was put off by the idea of a series focusing primarily on conversation, psychology, and politics—with characters who don’t stick around. So I’ve avoided and neglected it despite reading and enjoying much other Asimov.

When the television show came out, I returned to the idea, wanting to read at least the first novel before watching the Apple TV+ program, and last month, I finally turned to it. But even the TV show wasn’t the real reason why. You see, I learned that Foundation is a fix-up.

Yes, though a novel, Foundation is in fact the melding together of several short stories. The book, originally published in 1951, contains the stories “Foundation” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1942), “Bridle and Saddle” (Astounding, June 1942), “The Big and the Little” (Astounding, August 1944), and “The Wedge” (Astounding, October 1944). They are reprinted in the novel as the sections “The Encyclopedists,” “The Mayors,” “The Merchant Princes,” and “The Traders.” And the first section of the novel, “The Psychohistorians,” was written last as an introductory section to the first Gnome Press edition of the book in order to help it begin less abruptly.

Despite the long time frame, the multiple characters, and the wide-ranging aspect of the series, the series of novels is in fact quite manageable because it was written and originally published in pieces and parts. The same is true for the next two novels in the series. Foundation and Empire combines “Dead Hand” (Astounding, April 1945) and “The Mule” (Astounding, November-December 1945), and Second Foundation incorporates “Now You See It…” (Astounding, January 1948 and June 1949) and “...And Now You Don’t” (Astounding, November 1949 to January 1950). That means that not only can you take breaks while reading the books if you need to, the books are designed for readers to do so in a logical and story- —or stories- —serving manner.

So I finally read Foundation. And it was grand. Asimov’s introductory remarks, “The Story Behind the ‘Foundation,’” goes far to detail the history of the book and series, as well as situate it in the writer’s life and career. “[T]o make sure that [John] Campbell really meant what he said about a series, I ended ‘Foundation’ on a cliff-hanger,” Asimov wrote. He even writes about the popularity of the series and how he kept getting called back to it to write more even though he’d moved on to other projects. An interesting background story.

And the novel itself? Even if read in several sittings rather than as its pieces and parts? Excellent. Foundation effectively tells the tale of a society as it falls and struggles to rise again, as various parts of society—different social functions and groups—pass the baton to rebuild. The psychohistorians give way to the encyclopedists, who hand things over not entirely willingly to the mayors, who pave the ground needed by the traders and merchant princes to emerge. The book is still largely political and the narrative predominantly conversational, but it’s an interesting look at social forces at work—even religion. Not sure how I would’ve taken to it as a younger man, but at my current age, I loved it.

So I started reading Foundation and Empire immediately after finishing Foundation. I don’t always do that with series. I’ll take a break and read other books before picking up Larry Niven’s The Ringworld Engineers (having recently read Ringworld), which I’ll probably read before returning to Jack L. Chalker’s Well World and Exiles at the Well of Souls. Wanting to remain immersed in a series’ world is a good sign that I’m enjoying a book. Sometimes you just don’t want the book to end.

I’ve also watched the first few episodes of Foundation on TV. I recommend you read at least “The Psychohistorians” before doing so yourself, but already the program is different enough from the book that I don’t think Asimov’s characterizations or narrative will suffer dipping into both. Personally, I’m glad the show was produced. It helped pull me back to a series I’ve too long neglected. A series I need to now read to completion.

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