Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review - Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Hari Seldon has predicted the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but he has a plan to make it less awful.

And the fall of the Empire
A plan to save all

Full review: It is hard to properly review Foundation, as it is so influential a work within the science fiction genre. It is also one of the first "serious" science fiction books I read years ago when I was barely in double digits in age, and I have read it more than once since. The book details the Foundation, established at the request of Hari Seldon, a mathematician who discovered how to accurately predict the behavior of humans in large numbers using mathematical formulas. Seldon predicts the collapse of the Galactic Empire, which is considered treason, and is put on trial. He makes a deal with the prosecution, and the Foundation is built on a planet named Terminus located on the edge of the galaxy.

The alleged reason for the Foundation's existence is to compile all human knowledge into a galactic encyclopedia which (Seldon asserts) will allow the period of anarchy following the collapse of the Empire to be reduced from thirty thousand years to a mere one thousand years. The structure of the book is a series of short stories that cover important developments in the Foundation's history. It turns out the encyclopedia is entirely a ruse, and Seldon, via a series of prerecorded holographic lectures, appears every so often and explains what he predicted would be happening (via psychohistory), and offers vague suggestions as to how to proceed in the future. Though mineral poor, Terminus leverages its wealth of knowledge to take over or dominate the surrounding areas with its superior technology.

The episodic format of the book works well by allowing for the Foundation's story to progress without long tedious periods being detailed. The books have been compared to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Asimov says influenced the work. The only thing I found to be silly was the concept that is introduced in one of the stories that one of the nearby "barbarian kingdoms" remains an interstellar power despite having "lost" atomic power (i.e. they don't have the know-how to produce atomic power). At the time Asimov wrote the books, atomic energy seems to have been something of a buzz word in science fiction, and losing it was clearly supposed to show how far the Foundation's rivals had fallen, but the depiction just brought to my mind the incredibly silly image of coal fired or gas-turbine starships. As usual for the era's science fiction, no one predicted the microchip revolution, and scientists are still using slide rules and computers are the size of buildings (or cities) while atomic generators are made the size of belt buckles.

Technology weirdness aside, this is one of the foundational (note the pun) works of science fiction. It is a must read for any science fiction fan.

Subsequent book in the series: Foundation and Empire

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  1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Very true. A noticeable chunk of subsequent science fiction is commentary on, or responses to, the Foundation series.