Review: Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)

img_0711 Foundation is the first of a now famous trilogy of sci-fi novels. It’s a compilation of five short stories, four of which had already been published separately, developing the initial story of the ‘Foundation’; a scientific institute founded on the edge of the inhabited galactic empire to preserve scientific knowledge and capability in the predicted event of imperial decline and collapse.
Let me first say that I really enjoyed this novel and intend to read at least the other two in the trilogy. (Asimov later expanded to a series including another four books).  The series has aged, and I enjoyed the classic feel of the novel, with a Galactic Empire and renegade planets, a focus on atomic power, and so on.   One of the early plot elements is the development of an Encyclopedia Galactica by a small team of specialists, which immediately brings one back in time to pre-Hitchhiker’s Guide sci-fi (let alone a pre-Wikipedia world).
It is perhaps the age of the novel that also gives rise to the most irritating aspect to me.  The plot is driven by the concept of ‘psycho-history’, a sort of all-encompassing mathematical sociology that allows its foremost exponent, Hari Seldon, to predict the future, albeit with something of a broad brush. This felt to me to reflect the hopes for positivist sociology of the 1940s and 1950s. This is a less charming period element (and is irritating to me in and of itself), as it causes some problems for the logic of the plot, in which the agent-structure problem remains unresolved.  It is often mentioned that this science cannot handle individuals, just aggregates, while at the same time determining the future course of events.  While this is logically fine, most of the plot across the five stories is then about individuals positioning themselves to gain political power and thus effective agency.
This dominant activity in the book of individuals struggling to position themselves politically also indicates another weakness.  The characters are like chess pieces, there to make tactical and strategic moves in the great chess game of the overarching plot that unifies the five stories.  I read the book over the course of four days, but still found when I picked it up I had to remind myself who was who as the characters are so minimally developed.
This all sounds very negative.  However I enjoyed the huge spatial and temporal scope of the book, and found the plot entertaining and intellectually stimulating.  Foundation is worth reading on its own account, as well as being an interesting period piece.

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