Foundation is one of those books/series that is constantly mentioned as being Very Important. I dimly remember trying, and failing, to read it when I was a teenager, and decided to give it another whirl.
In the far future, humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way and is ruled by a great empire. A scientist within that empire, one Hari Seldon, invents the science of psychohistory, which uses the laws of mass action to predict, in a very general way, the future. Psychohistory apparently only works on vast numbers of people, and it becomes less and less accurate as the number of people declines. Seldon forecasts that the fall of the empire is nigh and will be followed by 30,000 years of barbarism and anarchy before a new empire arises. Seldon and his acolytes – the “Foundation” of the title – attempt to set into motion a great plan that will jump-start the process and bring about the Second Empire after a mere millennium.
The book is broken up into a number of short-story length chapters, each of which chronicles the growth of the Foundation and the crises it faces in the first centuries of its existence.
Although the concept is fascinating, I had several problems with this book. The first is that, at no point, does the reader ever feel that the Foundation is in any real danger. Seldon himself, in the form of holographic recordings, even pops up from time to time to reassure the Foundation’s members that he has foreseen what they’re going through and that they’ll be okay if they just hang in there. This lack of suspense killed a lot of my motivation to keep reading, and I found myself skimming some passages of the book because it just wasn’t grabbing me.
Asimov, in interviews later in his life, admitted that Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a major influence and that bits and pieces of the plot were due to his “cribbin’ from Gibbon.” I am reading Gibbon myself right now, and this connection was at times a little too obvious. Because I’m that kind of nerd, I often found myself saying, “Oh, look. This guy is clearly supposed to be General X and the emperor is So-and-So. Isn’t that cute?” Once again, this did not lead me to become particularly invested in the story. If you’re basing stuff on actual history, for god’s sake change it up a little. Otherwise some wise-ass shutin will see your plot points coming a mile away.
Asimov – like many of the classic sci-fi writers – also has some serious shortcomings when it comes to, you know, people and stuff. His characters have little to no depth, serving instead to just recite their lines, make sure we all know what point we’re being hit over the head with, and then go away. I could have let this go up to a point, but the conversations his characters do manage to have with one another are so wooden that I wonder if Asimov had ever actually talked to another human being. Finally, the whole book is pretty much a total sausage party: I don’t remember a single female character.
I wanted to like this book, I really did. I adore sci-fi. This just didn’t do it for me. That said, I’ll likely continue with at least the next several entries. I bought the first three in the series at a recent library book sale, and I hate leaving books unread, but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about it. I give it high marks for ideas, but find the poor execution to be nearly crippling.