Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” – A Reread Review

In 1941, in a meeting with John W. Campbell, Jr., Isaac Asimov outlined his idea for a set of science fiction stories inspired by the six volume work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. At that meeting, Asimov and Campbell worked out what would become a series of connected stories that would eventually become The Foundation Trilogy as we know it today.

Author of Foundation, Isaac Asimov.
Author of Foundation, Isaac Asimov.

It has been nearly forty years since I first read Foundation and that was forty years after the first story, “The Encyclopedists”, was first published in the May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. By the time I first read Foundation it had already been given the Hugo Award for the best series of all time, it was that highly regarded.

Now that Apple+ TV is planning to air their adaptation of Foundation in 2021, I thought it was time that I reread these classic stories again. I have fond memories of them and I wondered if I would enjoy them once more or would I my view of them be altered by time and experience?

As a reader I don’t tend to dispose of books so I went to my collection and pulled out the copy of Foundation that I first read all those years ago and dove straight in. There are five stories in this book, “The Psychohistorians”, “The Encyclopedists”, “The Mayors”, “The Traders” and “The Merchant Princes”. These five stories cover roughly the first two hundred years of the eponymous Foundation.

My forty-year-old copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation.
My forty-year-old copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

In the first story, “The Psychohistorians”, Dr. Hari Seldon reveals that the Galactic Empire will collapse shortly and that humanity will be plunged into a Dark Age lasting 35,000 years. Nothing can be done to prevent the collapse, but he has worked out a way to shorten the Dark Age to a mere 1,000 years by setting up a Foundation to preserve and expand all of human knowledge. This will be published in multiple volumes to make up the Encyclopedia Galactica. By the end of the story Hari Seldon is allowed to set up two Foundations at either end of the galaxy.

“The Encyclopedists” opens fifty years later on Foundation planet Terminus. The space surrounding Terminus has broken away from the Galactic Empire and set up four independent kingdoms, each presenting a threat to the Foundation colony. The colony, while ostensibly a democracy, is actually run by the Foundation Board of Directors, men who helped set up the Foundation on Terminus. The mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, sees what is about to happen and has a plan to protect Terminus and the Foundation, but the Board is reticent to try anything new.

It isn’t until a message recorded by Hari Seldon is played from the Foundation vault that the Board understands their error. This is the first of the Seldon crises the Foundation must navigate in order to help humanity through the upcoming age.

By the time of the third story, “The Mayors”, the Salvor Hardin and the Foundation has turned their scientific knowledge into a religion in the Four Kingdoms. While the Foundation doesn’t believe in their religion they have used it effectively to maintain a balance of power between themselves and the Four Kingdoms.

However, not everyone believes in the religion and are preparing to take Termius and the Foundation by force. The now old Hardin still has some ideas and puts them to effect to prevent war.

Years later, in “The Traders”, specially sanctioned merchants are using low level Foundation technology to expand their influence in the periphery. However, on Askone, advanced atomic technology is taboo. Eskel Gorov has been arrested and sentenced to death for attempting to trade in such items.

The Foundation sends Trader Linmar Ponyets to attempt to get Gorov released. After meeting with the Askone Elders, Ponyets quickly understands what is happening. One man, Pherl, wants power and can be bought. Fortunately Foundation technology allows for easy manipulation of matter, so it is a simple matter for Ponyets to trap Pherl into a deal, while mutually beneficial, forces the release of Gorov and gives the Foundation yet more influence in Askone.

Lastly, in “The Merchant Princes”, the Foundation’s use of religion to control the Four Kingdom’s area of space is beginning to wane. Three atomic ships have been lost in the Korellian area, something that should not be possible. Master Trader Hober Mallow is sent to investigate the disappearance.

Mallow is being set up, but he’s smart enough to realise this quickly. On Korell, Mallow skilfully diverts a threat to his ship, using this as a way to get a meeting with Commdor Asper Argo. He rapidly makes a deal to trade in cheap luxury items that will make him a huge profit. This is only the thin edge of the wedge however. Within a few years Foundation technology has become part of the lives of every citizen on Korell. So when Korell decides to declare war on the Foundation, Mallow’s plan is put into action.

All trade to Korell is halted and within a year all the technology Korell has come to rely on is useless. The war is over without a shot fired and the Foundation has effectively become a Plutocracy.

I was a little apprehensive about reading Foundation again after so long. There has been much criticism of Asimov’s writing in recent years and I was afraid that such criticism might colour my long held rosy view of the book. Well, I needn’t have been. Foundation is still a highly engaging and entertaining work.

Foundation is primarily a set of action stories. Asimov gives the readers enough background and descriptive material to colour the broad strokes of the Foundation universe, leaving us to fill in the gaps as we see fit. The action is revealed through the conflict and resolution of ideas and ideals of the characters. Written at a time when two-fisted space action was the norm for science fiction, the direction that Foundation takes is completely new direction.

The stories are quite gripping and while there are threats of violence, there is very little real violence shown. This is one of the aspects of the Apple+ TV adaptation trailer that bothered me initially. The trailer seemed to have many more guns than I remembered. I did say Foundation is an action oriented story, but it’s not laser bolts and sword strokes, but fencing of minds and wills.

The criticism of Asimov I have heard most often is his lack of characterisation. It is true that he doesn’t go into great detail about the thoughts and motivations of his characters in asides or descriptive text, you do learn what you need to through their actions and dialogue. I found that by the end of each story I knew the characters well enough to understand why they do what they do. No other text is needed.

This isn’t to say that there are no faults in the stories, but they are mostly ones of time. Written at a time when atomic energy was seen as a great hope for humanity it seems odd that we could miniaturise nuclear reactors in what amounts to cold fusion, but we never eliminate things like diabetes. Also, the fact that everyone seems to smoke is a bit quaint now. However, these sorts of things can be overlooked as the main crux of the stories remain fully intact. Namely, how can a small group of people survive to help humanity to a better future?

It is also true that there are no female characters of any consequence in these stories, so I won’t bother making the usual excuses for Asimov. You make of it what you will.

In the end I found Foundation just as good as I remember it. Fast paced, interesting ideas and quite frankly, difficult to put down once I started reading. Asimov managed to write stories that avoid the use of heavy violence to resolve problems, but still makes them so interesting that you can’t help wanting to know what happens next.

Foundation fully deserves its veneration as a classic piece of science fiction. I expect the second instalment, Foundation and Empire, to be equal to the memories I have of it as well. I’ll let you know.

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