Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Many early science fiction “space operas” were simple narratives of good vs. evil, with clean-cut heroes, dastardly villains, and no more ambition than seeing the hero fly off to another adventure at the end. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, with its sprawling narrative, morally ambiguous characters, and realistic interpretation of both social and mathematical science, changed the course of science fiction forever. Asimov’s masterpiece presents an intriguing story of the fall of civilization, and the many people from varying walks of life who attempt to restore it. With Asimov’s meticulous attention to detail and a vibrant, chaotic universe, this novel will satisfy any fan of thoughtful, socially-aware science fiction.
Foundation is the story of the planet Terminus, a resource-poor planet at the edge of the galaxy that becomes the seed of a movement to save civilization after the fall of the Galactic Empire. The novel begins as the renowned “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon, having developed a mathematical model for the behavior of human beings on a mass scale, has foreseen the doom of the Empire and gathers up a group of scholars to create an encyclopedia of knowledge to aid humanity in the coming Dark Age.
The novel then details the early settlement and political organization of the planet and the dangers and conflicts it faces from its planetary neighbors. The rise of Terminus’ political influence and the beginning of its age of prosperity are detailed in the last chapters of the novel. Foundation takes place across many decades and has not one protagonist but many. The primary characters are as varied as a mayor struggling to save the imperiled planet from a devastating war to a ruthless trader seeking to exploit lucrative new markets. Seeing Asimov’s universe from so many points of view makes the novel a truly epic work and allows the reader to explore the many facets of galactic civilization in a time of turmoil and rapid change.
Asimov’s talent as a writer is marked by his two greatest gifts: a brilliant understanding of social history and human behavior--and a dry wit. Passages detailing the decay of the outer Galactic Empire into barbarism and endless war between splinter kingdoms seem all too real, and even the protagonists must weave a tangled web of political manipulation and double crosses to achieve their goals. My favorite character in the novel was Salvor Hardin, the crafty first mayor of Terminus City, who manages to overcome all his political opposition and save his planet through an elaborate combination of statecraft and religion by creating a cult centered on the “lost” Imperial technology. Although the novel was written in 1942, at the close of World War II, the scheming and trickery of its characters has not lost any of its brilliance over time, and perhaps seems even more gripping in a time as unnerving and paranoid as today’s world.
The worlds of Foundation are just as interesting and varied as the human characters. The early chapters are dominated by Trantor, the grim home world of the Galactic Empire, which is so overpopulated and dominated by cubicle dwellers that its population cannot stand to be outside its buildings. Later worlds described include Anacreon, a world mired in primitive feudal government, and Korell, a rival power to the Foundation steeped in paranoia reminiscent of the Cold War. Asimov would never lose his fascination with creating diverse new worlds for his imaginary universe, going on to write another six novels in the Foundation series: Foundation and Empire; Second Foundation; Foundation’s Edge, Foundation and Earth; Prelude to the Foundation; and Forward the Foundation.
Foundation was a massive influence on many later science fiction universes. Its concept of a Galactic Empire where technology recedes into myth was a huge influence on Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which also takes place across many worlds and explores many aspects of the social and historical development of its universe. A number of Foundation’s worlds were used as templates by George Lucas for the Star Wars series. The world-city of Trantor strongly resembles Coruscant, the Imperial homeworld in Star Wars, both universes utilize variants of the name “Korell” for a planet, and a planet “farthest from the center of the universe” is integral to both stories. But the true positive impact of Foundation lies not in plot or place names, but in its creativity and attention to detailing its universe. Thanks to Asimov, science fiction has become a field for grand narratives and speculative vision, and the world is much richer for it.