I read the Foundation novels when I was younger, probably around the same time that I began getting into science fiction and fantasy in grades 7 and 8. I read a lot of Asimov, both because there was a lot of him in my suspiciously well-stocked public library and because … well, he wrote a lot of books. I read about the Foundation, psychohistory, his Three Laws of Robotics … everything and anything Asimov, if I could check it out with that brilliant plastic card, I would devour it. I can’t remember if this is my second or third time reading Foundation, but when I saw this well-preserved copy at a used bookstore, I decided now was a good time to revisit.
My reading tastes haven’t changed all that much since I was twelve, but the way I read and critique what I read obviously has. To twelve-year-old me, Foundation was a fascinating and amazing story about how psychohistory—which is like psychology on steroids—can be used to manipulate the fate of human society in the far, far future. On re-reading it, I realize that Foundation probably resonated quite a bit with Dune, the first real seminal SF book I read as a child. More on that later though.
To twenty-three-year-old-me, Foundation is a fascinating but not necessarily impressive story about how psychohistory can be used to manipulate the fate of human society in the far, far future. There is no question in my mind that this book or its successors deserve their status as classics and juggernauts in the field of science fiction. However, as stories, and particularly when it comes to Asimov’s writing, they are just not that great. I’m going to attempt to reconcile this disparity.
This is a slim volume, and I read it over the course of a single night. Foundation is very easy to read. Firstly, as a collection of short stories more than an actual novel, with each story featuring a completely different cast and plot, it breaks into easy chunks that are independent of each other. I could have read each one as a bedtime story over the course of a week if I had the patience (and a bedtime). Secondly, none of the stories feature much in the way of action or description; if you look carefully, they are almost entirely dialogue. Asimov is fond of didactic conversations between various ideologically different characters, over the course of which he reveals both exposition and plot. It only works precisely because each story is self-contained, but it works, and it means I don’t have to pay much attention as my eyes move down the page.
So we have five short stories that are mostly dialogue. With very little description or narration, Asimov doesn’t create much of a physical presence of the Foundation universe. I say this as someone who routinely doesn’t visualize images—but I do rely on descriptions to give me a sense of physicality. The characters in these stories are, for me, even less well-defined talking heads than usual.
There is one exception: Asimov creates a strong physical presence for Trantor in “The Psychohistorians”. (It is notable that this is the only story not originally published with the rest but rather written for inclusion in this volume as a kind of preface to the others.) Gaal Dornick’s amusing country bumpkin awe at the scope and mechanization of Trantor is both evident and edifying:
He could not see the ground. It was lost in the ever-increasing complexities of man-made structures. He could see no horizon other than that of metal against sky, stretching out to almost uniform greyness, and he knew it was so over all the land-surface of the planet. There was scarcely any motion to be seen—a few pleasure-craft lazed against the sky—but all the busy traffic of billions of men were going on, he knew, beneath the metal skin of the world.
There was no green to be seen; no green, no soil, no life other than man. Somewhere on the world, he realized vaguely, was the Emperor’s palace, set amid one hundred square miles of natural soil, green with trees, rainbowed with flowers. It was a small island amid an ocean of steel, but it wasn’t visible from where he stood. It might be ten thousand miles away. He did not know.
These are perhaps the most verbose, in terms of description, and most effective two paragraphs in the entire book. With it, Asimov establishes the nature of this empire of which Trantor is the centre. This is a vision of a humanity that has replaced nature with machinery at every opportunity. Trantor is so urbanized, so built-up, that it has layers upon layers descending deep beneath the surface. Most of its inhabitants are frightened by the notion of a sky. (Notice, too, how Asimov mentions “the busy traffic of billions of men”. It’s almost too easy to take shots at Foundation for the complete absence of female characters. Nevertheless, the latent sexism in the language of the time creates an unintended, almost dystopian effect for more modern readers. It’s not just a neglect or sexist portrayal of women; it implies a complete negation of women!)
So, Trantor is the bloated, corpulent symbol of human civilization in this great and bountiful empire. It is the Rome of the galaxy, and as Foundation opens, it is in the midst of its own decline and fall. The parallels between Trantor and Rome are unmistakable. Asimov has translated Rome’s decline from Earth to a galaxy-spanning empire. Trantor loses control of the provinces, which fracture into their own kingdoms. The stories themselves are told from the perspective of Foundation members in those provincial territories, with only the barest hints that the Empire itself remains intact, albeit ailing, at the centre of the galaxy.
Asimov’s doomed empire is a reminder of the impermanence of things, particularly of those instituations who have reached the point of senesensce where they no longer believe they are vulnerable. But Hari Seldon, a psychologist and mathematician, can see the decline happening, can predict the timeline of the fall, and has developed a revolutionary science he wants to use to shorten the subsequent chaos and get humanity back on its feet as quickly as possible. To this end, he manipulates the Empire into setting up the eponymous Foundation with the nominal goal of creating a vast encyclopedia of knowledge that it will preserve during the Dark Ages.
The science that lets Hari get this done is psychohistory. It is a way of predicting the future by using pyschology to anticipate the behaviour of large groups. It’s not as crazy as it sounds—large systems often behave more predictably than smaller, individual components within those systems. On the other hand, it’s crazy to believe that a single person can develop some kind of mathematical way of predicting what will happen centuries hence. Psychohistory would suffer from the same flaw as any other attempt at futurism: there is no way to account for the unknowable. Seldon starts from a set of initial conditions and works forward along deterministic and probabilistic paths … but how can he account for external forces—the sudden discovery of aliens, or an intense gamma ray burst destroying Terminus, or something of a similarly unforeseen magnitude?
Yet science fiction is all about saying what if? What if we had faster-than-light travel? What if aliens visited us and gave us telepathic cheese graters? So, in that grand tradition of what if, let us just ask what would happen if we could predict the future to that degree of accuracy. Let us assume we could manipulate the rise of a new Empire, as Seldon has orchestrated, from the ashes of the old one. It helps that, in this book, all the stories take place relatively close to the end of Seldon’s life (all about within two centuries). I believe the later books are set much further into the future, which is where serious deviation from Seldon’s plot would occur. Indeed, if I remember correctly from my blurry memories of the sequels, Seldon anticipated that and came up with a kind of monumental “reset” to compensate for such drift. Asimov is a cheeky but clever fellow, isn’t he?
I’m also intrigued by the parallels between Foundation and Dune, which was published after this book. Dune and its subsequent novels really a lot on the prescience of Paul Atreides and his descendants. Paul becomes obsessed with leading humanity down the “Golden Path” that will prevent its stagnation, and his son takes up that quest in a rather extreme way. Prescience in Dune bears many similarities to psychohistory—namely, it doesn’t work as well if people are aware of the predicted future, and it creates a sense of hopelessness, of being manipulated: “to know the future is to become trapped by it”. Whereas Frank Herbert confines prescience to the bailiwick of a small group of people, at least during the first few books, Asimov establishes that psychohistory is useless when applied to individuals. So I find it interesting that, in every story, it is an individual character who drives the plot towards its successful Seldonian resolution.
Each story, with the exception of the introduction, follows the same mould. The protagonist realizes a Seldon crisis approaches and begins plotting how best to steer the Foundation through it successfully. He has several conversations with people who doubt there is a crisis, or who criticize the protagonist’s inaction, insisting that the Foundation should be more aggressive. Finally, the protagonist reveals how, by doing nothing, their options have dwindled to a single course of action that somehow makes everything OK.
True, the resolution is a consequence of Seldon successfully predicting the way various galactic factions would behave. But because of the perspective Asimov takes here—a lone mayor on Terminus, a self-satisfied trader on a mission, etc.—it feels like the resolutions owe more to a single individual. So, what gives? Is Seldon lying about psychohistory’s utility for individuals? Is Asimov just clumsy here? Or am I reading into it too much?
Also, at no point does Asimov really examine whether Seldon’s vision for the future is the correct or moral one. During the early days of the Foundation, seen in “The Encyclopedists”, there are certainly calls to abandon the idea that the Foundation is being protected by the Emperor back on Trantor. Later, younger generations who don’t really respect the caché of Seldon’s legacy argue that the Foundation should use its knowledge to become the dominant power in that part of the galaxy—screw the current or future Empire! The protagonist at the time, Salvor Hardin, gives those characters the equivalent of a ruffling of the hair and a, “Oh, you kids and your silly imperialistic dreams!” before proceeding to navigate through the next Seldon crisis. Never does he seriously engage in a dialogue about whether Seldon is right. Why should there be another empire—why not a democracy? Why have a centralized civilization for humanity at all? Who is Hari Seldon to say what should become of humanity after the Fall?
I’m disappointed by Asimov’s lack of engagement with these deeper issues of the future of humanity. He certainly doesn’t lack for vision; these stories prove what a magnificent sense of scope he has for thinking about the future of our species. It just seems, however, that he is more interested in showing off the nifty concept of psychohistory than he is in looking at the political or sociological ramifications of the societies he portrays. This is what separates Foundation from being a truly great book, in my opinion.
If Foundation doesn’t make the grade, then why is it still a classic? All sorts of reasons—timing, publishing bias, the phase of the moon and the sun spot cycle and the baseball trading card racket…. I don’t know why it’s a classic, but I agree with that status. Foundation showcases how science fiction, given a single fascinating concept like psychohistory, can start asking questions about the trajectory of human civilization. It starts raising questions about self-determination, of individuals and of the species. And it makes for some interesting conversations between characters who are being manipulated by a man several decades deceased.
So, I’m giving Foundation three stars. The quality of its writing, its weak characterization and description, and my reservations about the depth of its philosophy would ordinarily result in a paltry two-star rating. Nevertheless, I can’t shake the fact that there is something resilient about this book, something that allows it to bear the psychic weight of being a cornerstone in science-fiction’s canon. For that reason, it deserves recognition.