Book review: The Foundation Trilogy: “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” and “Second Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Sleibowitz and daybreakome of the enthusiasms of youth travel well. Others don’t.

When it comes to books, I can point to some I read in my teens and early twenties that still resonate with me today.

For example, in science fiction, there are Walter M. Miller Jr.’s elliptical, transcendent A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Andre Norton’s coming-into-manhood adventure Daybreak: 2250 A.D. (1952), originally titled Star Man’s Son. Both describe a post-apocalyptic world a relative short time after the bombs dropped.

Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation Trilogy is something else again.

The story told in three books — Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) — first saw the light of day in a string of short stories and novelettes published between 1942 and 1951.


30,000 years of chaos?

As the first book opens, the entire Galaxy is under the control of the Empire, headquartered on Trantor, but the brilliant mathematician Hari Seldon, creator of the field of psychohistory, has determined that, even at this moment of the Empire’s greatness, it is rotten with decay. (At this point, humans have no cultural memory of the name or location of the planet from which the species started.)

Seldon tells the powers-that-be that, through psychohistory — the science of studying the actions and decisions of large groups of humans — he is able to see that the rot is irreversible and that the Galaxy faces 30,000 years of chaos before the rise of a Second Empire.

But he has a plan that would cut that to just 1,000 years, and it involves setting up a Foundation on Terminus at the far edge of the Periphery where scientists can preserve humankind’s knowledge and skills relatively undisturbed, and a second one at the opposite end of the Galaxy, at “star’s end.”

Seldon is given the go-ahead, and the books tells how, for a time, his detailed predictions are borne out by events and then how, out of the blue, they get thrown for a loop by a mutant known as the Mule.

Read in a single day

I read the trilogy in the 1970s and zipped through them — one, two, three — maybe in a single day. At least, that’s how I remember it.

So I was excited, a few months ago, to realize that the three novels had been collected and re-published in 2010 under the prestigious Everyman’s Library imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, with an introduction by literary critic Michael Dirda. It seemed like a stamp of approval.

Disappointment awaited me, however. This time around, I found that Asimov’s story dragged, and I needed more than two weeks to finish it.

“Forgive its weaknesses”

Part of this may have been that I remembered in a vague but definite way a couple major plot surprises. In my twenties, I was pulled along, anxious to find out the answers to those puzzles. This time, I was pretty sure I knew what was coming, and it turned out I was right.

There’s more, though, as Dirda himself, in an otherwise laudatory essay about the book, explains:

To appreciate and enjoy the Foundation Trilogy, a modern adult reader must be willing to forgive its weaknesses. These include loose, episodic construction, comic-book dialogue (“Not all the might of the Empire could avail to crush this pygmy world!”), embarrassingly dated slang (“Great Galloping Galaxies!”), stereotypical characters (the wise old man, the spunky girl), the over-frequent recapitulation of the Seldon Plan (due to serial publication), and high-tech objects that are already outmoded, such as microfilm….Instead of adventure science fiction’s typical focus on slam-bang action, Asimov substitutes talking heads, sometimes almost literally when people are identified as simply “First Speaker” and “the Student.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Unlike Dirda, though, I wasn’t “willing to forgive its weaknesses,” especially when I had a good idea how the story was going to twist and turn.

The breadth of history

It’s probably significant that, after four decades, I still remembered those plot twists. Asimov certainly did something right, at least for me as a reader of the books for the first time.

I also suspect that his sweeping view of history during the time of the Seldon Plan had a deep impact on my own sense of the grandeur and breadth of the story of human beings. I think I already had some idea of this, some tendency to see history this way, but I was strengthened in this perspective by his science fiction version of that panorama.

Commentators in the 1970s remarked how Asimov had recast the story of Rome, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance into his space yarn. I didn’t know enough of the details of Western civilization history to see this fully, but I could recognize the broad outlines.

Reading the books this time around, I did wonder if my multi-layered sense of events and forces — the simultaneous interaction of politics, the military, trade, profit, social movements and other forces — began with the trilogy. Certainly, the realization of that interconnection has enlivened my reading of history throughout life and, not incidentally, my long career as a newspaper reporter covering urban affairs.

Without a doubt, the books were exciting and formative for me back then, if not terribly interesting now.

An intellectual game of chicken

This time around, I was much more aware of the intellectual game of chicken that Asimov plays with the reader, and I didn’t much like it.

Seldon’s psychohistory is able to predict with amazing specificity events that will take place in a certain month in a certain year a century or more down the line. It’s all about social forces — the unthinking twists and turns of the mob of humanity.

Yet, in telling these early stories, Asimov focuses on individuals who, because of their extraordinary insight and drive, make the events that Seldon has predicted happen.

Asimov tries to have it both ways. He’s cheating.

Ultimately, it is an individual — the Mule — who throws everything out of whack.

Yes, he is a mutant. But, really, that’s just another way of saying he comes out of left field. Abraham Lincoln came out of left field, so did Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Lee Harvey Oswald, and Adolf Hitler, and Jesus of Nazareth.

Social forces and the individual

My own view is that both individual actions and the blunt movements of a variety of social forces result in what happens in human history. Not one without the other. Also, especially after a career of covering politicians, power-brokers and all sorts of large and small groups of people, I can’t see how any mathematical program could ever hope to be able to predict what will happen tomorrow, much less in two centuries.

The closest we have to this is the prediction of how an election will turn out. Yet, this sort of prediction is based on the very spongy art of polling, and the results are constantly shifting during the period before the vote. And, most times, most of the predictions are off by a bit or a lot.

The best predictor I’ve ever seen was Nate Silver of the New York Times. His numbers for the 2008 presidential election were pretty much spot on. Yet, those numbers were arrived at less than 24 hours before the opening of the polls.

And they were aimed at answering the simplest of questions: Would voters go for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? A one-or-the-other issue. Anything more complex than that would be totally hit and miss.

An elite

I was also chagrined — my 64-year-old self — to realize that Asimov, at the end of these novels, seems to be longing for an intellectual elite who, either in front of or behind the scenes, can run the world to the benefit of everyone, rather than leaving decisions to the ignorant masses.

How was he able to write this after watching the world torn asunder by the Nazis? Tens of millions died, in World War II and in death camps, because the Nazi elite had decided they needed to die.

Any student of history knows that elites never rule to the benefit of everyone. They rule for their own benefit.

Yes, Asimov posits a group of people who might be seen as further evolved that homo sapiens. That thinking is dangerous.

Hitler said, in effect, that Gentile Germans were further evolved than Jewish Germans. I own an extremely ugly pamphlet from those times in which the Nazis portray Jews with photos and drawings that are meant to prove them subhuman.

I say: Beware of anyone who thinks, acts and/or says they are above things such as greed and self-interest.

A cautionary tale

Science fiction, for the most part, isn’t really about what will happen in the future. The Foundation Trilogy is an example. It’s really a commentary on the human past and present.

Often, a science fiction story such as A Brave New World or 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 will be a not-so-veiled comment on what is going on in the world and society of the present moment. It’s a cautionary tale.

So it’s unfair to criticize Asimov’s trilogy for failing to predict, for instance, computers and Facebook and the abandonment or avoidance of smoking by most of the population or the replacement newspapers by the Internet.

Another cautionary tale

So I’ll just observe that the story in the trilogy is about men in power, men making decisions, men running the show.

In a couple cases, one woman (a wife) and one girl (a preadolescent daughter) affect the way the story develops. But they are doing this from the margins. They are doing this because — Surprise of surprises! Against all odds! — they are wild cards in the system. They do the unexpected because, well, they’re women.

In a real way, they have an impact like the Mule because, like the Mule, they are kind of mutant.

I don’t hold it against Asimov that he failed to guess the rise of women in society — failed to envision Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher and female CEOs, police officers, firefighters, soldiers, mayors, highway workers and on and on.

But, in this way, the Foundation Trilogy is a cautionary tale for the writers of science fiction.

How much more amazing a story would these three books have been if, in the 1940s, Asimov had focused more on guessing the social make-up of a future society than positing a nuclear incinerator as an ashtray?

Patrick T. Reardon

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