Review of Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Forward the Foundation
by Isaac Asimov
Maybe it’s because this is Asimov’s last Foundation novel, published shortly after his death. Maybe it’s because it’s the last Asimov novel I am likely to read, now that I have completed my re-read of this entire series. Whatever the reason, I am inclined more favourably towards Forward the Foundation than I have been to the other books. Now, I will still pan Asimov’s writing skills and the general plot of the book. Nevertheless, this book is certainly not the worst in the series.
Picking up ten years after Prelude to Foundation, this book continues to follow Hari Seldon and his associates on Trantor. Seldon is still working on making psychohistory viable, but it is a lifetime of work. He is aware of his age—he’s forty at the start of the book, oh my God! As decades pass, Asimov tells us the story broken up into shorter novellas like he did with the first book (which might be one of the reasons this one feels more coherent?). In the end, we arrive at the founding of the Foundations that made the rest of the series possible. Full circle. Loop closed. Good night, sweet science fiction author: your work here is done.
Asimov’s intentness upon Seldon’s discomfort around his age jumps out immediately and feels so uncomfortable to me, a 31-year-old reader. Is this Asimov projecting his own advanced age and frailties onto his character of Seldon? Forty is not that old, my dude. Even when Seldon reaches the age of 60, I’m not sure he would be as “infirm” as you make him out to be. Then again, one might also interpret this as a microcosm for the wider decay of the Galactic Empire, which is the principal theme Asimov spins out over the course of this novel: the Empire’s last days are here, and only Seldon can provide the guidance (through psychohistory) that might mitigate the darkness ahead.
We’ve heard this before, of course. It turns out that watching the Foundations being built is not nearly as exciting as watching them existing and doing things. That being said, I’ll give Asimov credit for having plenty of action in this book—both physical and mental battles abound. There is plenty of tension, plenty of reversals, and lots of characters beyond Seldon get their time in the limelight. Shocked as I am to admit it … this book might actually have good pacing and an all right plot structure.
Ultimately, it is clear that Asimov wanted to tie up all the loose ends and fully explain the origins of the Foundations—and in particular, the psychic powers of the Second Foundationers. He even ties in another novel of his, Nemesis (which I don’t plan to read) that is only loosely related. This is the double-edged sword of long-lived and prolific authors: it can be a joy to see them revisit their oeuvre and continue to expand upon their earlier works. Yet that temptation, taken once too often, can become treacherous (I feel this way with Terry Brooks and the Shannara series as well). I’ll give Asimov credit for largely avoiding too much retconning or other such changes that could undermine what he accomplished with his earlier works.
Overall, the Foundation series is obviously a classic science fiction series, and I won’t argue otherwise. But if you have read my reviews of the other books here, then you’ll know that I don’t think it’s a particularly good set of classics. Asimov is not a great writer in the most technical sense of the word, nor is he a particularly grand storyteller, and his attitudes towards women leave a lot to be desired. Yes, some of his big ideas are interesting and commendable, yet I will argue that many of them are not particularly thought-provoking or so original that someone else wouldn’t have come along and done something similar.
So my verdict: if you are interested in the history of science fiction as a genre, reading this series (or at least the first few books) is a good idea. Asimov’s role in that history is indisputable even if his reputation is up for debate. If, however, you are a fan of science fiction but not particularly interested in its older, sexist iterations like this series, then give this a miss. You aren’t missing out.
I am fairly certain now that I have closed the chapter on my reading of Asimov. I have no desire to dig into his robot novels or any other works. I will hang on to these books in my library for a while, and then perhaps one day I will trade them in or pass them on to the next people who are interested in this slice of sci-fi history. It was an interesting experience, but it is also one I am happy to leave behind.