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The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov

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As mentioned in an earlier post, there were quite a few books from NPR’s list of Top 100 SF & Fantasy Books that I wanted to get around to reading. I’ve always liked Asimov as an author but have never read any of the Foundation books, so the original trilogy seemed like a natural place to start. Unfortunately, despite being a classic, almost foundational series in the genre (see what I did there!), I found it to be a little disappointing.

The first book, Foundation, was engaging and I liked the premise: the galactic empire is on the decline and mathematician Hari Seldon has developed the science of psychohistory, which¬†claims to be able to predict the coarse-grained future based on societal trends. Based on these predictions, Seldon believes the period of chaos following the inevitable collapse of the empire can be minimized to no more than 1000 years. To help shepherd the galaxy through this period, he establishes two Foundations at “the opposite ends of the galaxy”. Their nominal missions are to carry on the work of Seldon and hasten the end of the post-imperial period of disorder.

Foundation goes on to describe the series of events following Seldon’s death and focuses on the efforts of the first Foundation. The plot skips ahead in generations, each of which has to deal with a particular “Seldon Crisis” that threatens the planed transition to a stable future within the 1000 year timeline. Overall, a fun read.

The second book, Foundation and Empire, was a terrible slog for me. Its plot revolved around an unpredictable character called “The Mule”, whose very existence threatened the Seldon Plan. The first 80% of the book seemed to be aimless hand-wringing around this point, but the last bit picks up some as all the threads are drawn together and a resolution is reached.

The final book in the original trilogy, Second Foundation, shifts focus to the nature of the mysterious Second Foundation. It regains a bit of the pace of the first book and progresses the overall plot in a satisfying and intriguing fashion. However, we still haven’t made our way out of the post-imperial phase, though I’m not planning on reading the remaining Foundation books to see what happens.

There were a few things that stood out for me while reading these books:

  • The fact that Asimov started writing the original Foundation stories when he was 22 seems pretty impressive. While nominally SF books, they’re really just about politics and intrigue (as is much SF or general story telling, under the covers). For being relatively young, he does a good job of spinning a credible tale of long-term political maneuvering.
  • The miracle technology that the empire is built upon, and which differentiates the strength of various factions, is nuclear. This pretty clearly reflects the post-WWII cultural fascination with nuclear technology, but comes across as a bit dated.
  • And speaking of period-specific cultural fascinations, everyone in the galaxy is constantly smoking! I’m sure this is just a reflection of the societal norms of 40’s-50’s America, but the extent to which people are smoking in all sorts of situations is even more jarring than the thought of handheld, nuclear-powered can openers.

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