Foundation is a trilogy of Isaac Asimov novels that was honored with a special Hugo award for “Best All-Time” series. It beat out some heavy hitters for the title, including Lord of the Rings. After reading the first book of the trilogy, I can understand the semantics that make this award relevant: it’s, like, the Best series about All Time, not the Best Series of All Time.
That’s a joke. See, Foundation takes place on a massive time scale, chronicling the rise of a civilization over the course of centuries. No characters are around for long, as the story outlives them all.
The premise: a great psycho-historian named Hari Seldon uses a mixture of statistics and sociology to predict the fall of the Galactic empire. To prevent the inevitable eons of barbarism between this drama and the rise of the next great civilization, he sets up a couple of insurance policies for humanity: two isolated planet-colonies stocked with all the available knowledge of art, science, and technology. The primary colony, Terminus, is destined to become the seat of the next empire, and Seldon plots out its entire political future on a long-distance time scale peppered with so-called Seldon Crises, moments at which necessary and unavoidable political actions change the course of history.
The first book in the ludicrously expansive Foundation series takes us from the time of Hari Seldon to about 200 years of Terminus’ history, beginning with scientists and encyclopedists, and finishing with merchant-princes and traders. It heralds the beginning of its own empire, the profitable novel series, which spawned some nine sequels and prequels, not all penned by Asimov, over the course of half a century. The books are evidently much-beloved, and I would be loath to dismiss them, particularly as there isn’t anything especially offensive about them. I generally love books that span such huge time scales; Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, obviously an influence here, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, which probably cribs a little from Foundation, both come to mind. Still, there is something remiss about this one: Asimov’s style is so dry and concise that it lacks, to me, the pathos of such a generational story. Knowing the premise, I expected the sweat and tears of an entire race to parade before me, to witness the triumph of knowledge over savagery, some really epic, opening-ceremony-of-the-Olympics sort of stuff. Instead, it’s men making plans, men making deals with other men, just another oligarchy in outer space.
Am I the only person to be disappointed by this? Given the freeing lack of constraints presented by science fiction, I was surprised to find intergalactic rulers in a universe millennia in the future doing business as usual, screwing each other out of resources and comparing the sizes of their atomic weapons like it’s the Cold War. I think Foundation is supposed to be uplifting — humanity, so strong, rebuilding itself through science — but it comes off as a dry extrapolation of the present on a bigger scale. It’s a novel about political machinations that wouldn’t be out of place in United Nations back rooms, but seem pedestrian and silly in the context of a galactic empire.
Hence this joke, an alternate title for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: White Men Make Up History.
NEXT BOOK: EITHER BOOK TWO OF FOUNDATION OR ROBERT A. HEINLEIN’S STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.