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Book Review – The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

I pulled this dusty relic off my shelves a few days ago because I needed something I knew I would like, and it had been several years since I last read it.

The three novels in this collection were written before I was born. I bought my first copies as paperbacks about fifteen years later. I no longer have them. All my childhood paperbacks were abandoned along with my common sense and virginity when I left home to try to make it on my own. The copy on my bookshelves is a replacement — for the books, that is. Common sense returned slowly on its own and the other thing is lost forever and not something I really wanted to hold onto anyway.

The edition I currently have was printed about thirty years after the original copyright date. It has now been about sixty years since the stories were first published, and they are still in print and available in several editions. That’s staying power for a science fiction story. It has survived when others in this genre have not. The reason for this is simple. It’s a damn good story.

You’re probably familiar with it. It is the story of the Foundation. Some may say it’s about Hari Seldon, but it’s not. Seldon is the psycho-historian who foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but the main character in these books is not a person. The main character is the organization that Seldon establishes to minimize the amount of time humanity will exist in a relative state of barbarism due to the decline and fall of the Empire. It is the Foundation that we care about when we read these books, and it is the Foundation that we hope will prevail.

There are spaceships and whiz-bang gadgets, but this is primarily a tale of human psychology and history, a story about human behavior, about humans being human in ways humans have always been human before. This means that, at the macro level, their behavior is theoretically predictable.

In the parlance of science fiction subgenres, this story would probably be considered ‘soft’ science fiction because the ‘hard’ sciences are not the focus of the ‘science’ part of the story except in how the ‘hard’ science of mathematics is applied to the ‘soft’ sciences of psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and history. This is the basis of psycho-history and it is a true science in that it provides highly accurate predictions when its theorems and formulas are applied to large populations. Asimov capably conveys how immensely complex such a science would be, how susceptible it must be to anomalous factors, but he makes it believable.

This is also a ‘classic’ science fiction story in that it is positive, hopeful, and optimistic about humanity’s ability to overcome setbacks and to progress in the long run. In this respect, there is genuineness about it that is consistent with actual history. Wars happen, empires fall, dark ages come, but humanity has always gotten past these things and gone on. That’s what people do. They suffer bouts of collective temporary insanity, but they get over it. This story takes that long view and allows us to appreciate it.

The story has aged well. It remains interesting and compelling. There are places where its age shows, of course, but they do not detract from the story. There are references to microfilms and other tech that was probably futuristic when Asimov wrote this. And, like in the 1950s, everyone smokes, and there are ashtrays everywhere, although those in the books instantly vaporize any bits of trash tossed in them. In some ways, things like these add some ineffable quality to the setting that makes it more colorful. Or maybe I just think so because I remember microfilm and tapes and ashtrays.

I’m going to put this book back on my shelf now. I’ll probably dust it off in another ten years or so if it and I are still around, read it again and think, ‘that’s a damn good story.’

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