Thursday, February 9, 2017

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Isaac Asimov's Foundation, the first novel in a series of seven, is a feat of great imagination and intellectual power.

Foundation is the first in a series of novels by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Although described as a novel, the book is in actual fact comprised of five short stories, written between 1942 and 1951. The first story that opens Foundation, “The Psychohistorians”, was actually written last, while the others follow their publishing sequence. Asimov would go on to write another six novels in the series, including two prequels.

Hari Seldon is a mathematician working on planet Trantor, the capital of the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire. Through the science of psychohistory, a statistical method that models the behavior of the masses, Hari is able to confidently predict the end of the Galactic Empire. It is destined to decay from within. When Hari Seldon takes his findings to an aristocratic council, he incurs their wrath. A committee tries him, but decides against his execution as this would make him a martyr. Instead a compromise is struck. Hari Seldon is allowed to start up a community of like-minded scientists and psychologists on the planet Terminus, at the very outer reaches of the Galactic Empire.

That is the first story that opens Foundation. The next four stories chart the history of this founding community on Terminus, concentrating on the power plays of the four powerful kingdoms that surround the planet. In the background of all this action looms the shadow of the great Galactic Empire. This galactic history (it's difficult to really describe Foundation as having a novelistic-like plot) covers a period of about 155 years.

Reading Foundation it's hard to shake the image of George Lucas's Star Wars series. The scope, design, philosophical breadth and political structure are so similar. Asimov himself based Foundation on Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Despite Foundation's short length (200 pages), the book has great sweep and majesty. It's a work of fiction that deals with ideas and theories about human behaviour, politics, science, religion, psychology and economics. It's serious stuff, written in an appealingly neat, clipped prose. The characters, however, are not particularly three dimensional: they are more composites of a particular scientific or political view, rather than individuals grappling with personal dramas. There's no Shakespearean inwardness in Asimov's characters. The great planets, like Terminus and Trantor, are more the stars of the show.

Nonetheless it all works marvellously well together to create an absorbing and immensely thought provoking galactic saga. For Asimov fans, the good news is that six of the seven Foundation novels have been published by the Voyager imprint.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. Published by Voyager. ISBN: 9780008117498 RRP: $22.99

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