-spoilers for the entire Foundation universe-
Genre: Social SF
Series: Foundation (#1)
Publication Date: 1953
The end of the Galactic Empire is nigh. After millennia of stability, the Galaxy is slowly declining into a new age of barbarity. One man, Hari Seldon, has aplan to preserve civilisation. This is not his story. This is the story of those who come after him . . .
So here it is. The big one. An absolute classic of the genre and one of the first SF books I ever read. There’s next to no chance of this review being in any way objective, I raise my hands to that. But then, is any review objective? Probably not. With that in mind, on we go.
Foundation has just about everything I love about science fiction, particularly science fiction from the so-called Golden Age. First up, we have the sense of scale. Foundation doesn’t just cover an entire sector of the Galaxy, it tells a story that takes the best part of a century. One of the chief characters, Salvor Hardin, is born, reigns, and dies during the scope of the novel. Not all of it on the page, but the length of the narrative is far greater than the short page count would suggest. Part of this is of course due to the fix-up nature of the story. it’s not really a novel, but a collection of short stories packaged together. In a way, there is no central narrative beyond ‘this is the story of the Foundation.’ There is no main character, no complex plot. It’s nothing more than a series of events which happen to a group of planets. And it is brilliant.
Let’s consider the worldbuilding. The fall of the Galactic Empire is explicitly based on the decline of the Roman Empire. In that regard there are no surprises. The inevitability of the new dark age carries a real narrative weight, however, and the sense of decline is palpable. Terminus, Trantor, Anacreon. The names of planets are simple yet evocative. This isn’t a cut-and-paste Galaxy with the swamp world, the desert world and so on. Trantor is a single city, but that is dealt with realistically. Each planet retains its own distinct identity, even when the descriptions are quick and light. Much of the heavy lifting is done by quotes pulled from the Encyclopedia Galactica, offering not only facts about the worlds, but opinions on them too. It’s a simple tool, but it works brilliantly.
Asimov’s prose gets a lot of criticism. To be honest, yes. Yes it is dated. There’s no flourishing, no beautiful metaphors or linguistic trickery. What it does deliver, howveer, is a clear image. And that’s an art that is in short display these days. The clarity, not to emntion the brevity, with which Asimov writes has an elegance all of its own. There’s not a word wasted, and everything serves to further the story. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is to mine. There are a few passages written in dialect which are a little harder to read, and whether they are intended to be dramatic or comedic is difficult to tell. The dialogue in general is not very naturalistic to a modern speaker, but it never feels out of place. In twenty thousand years, maybe we’ll all be speaking like that. Who’s to say?
With it’s lack of plot, exposition-heavy dialogue and near total absence of female characters, Foundation certainly shows its age. It’s entirely possible you’ll hate it, and you’re certainly under no obligation to give it a try. But if, like me, you find it in a used bookstore, there are far worse books to pick up. Who knows? It could be the start of a whole new adventure.