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of the Month

December 15
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Illustrated Corner,
Odds & Ends and
Voices From the Past

December 1, 2022
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Foundation #1
by Isaac Asimov
Doubleday, 225pp
Published: 1951

The eagle-eyed among you might have figured out why I'm reviewing 'Foundation' right now. My next Hugo winning novel, which took that award in 1983, is 'Foundation's Edge', a long-awaited fourth book to extend one of the most revered science fiction trilogies ever. It had already won a special Hugo, for Best All-Time Series, in 1966, the only time that award had been given. It's not surprising that a fourth volume won a Hugo of its own, purely on the basis that it was so anticipated and didn't suck.

It's a Hugo winner that I've previously read but not in the last couple of decades. I read Isaac Asimov early, the Lije Baley duology, as it was then, was part of my introduction to the genre when I was only eleven. I followed up with the 'Foundation' series, as it was being extended, and read the later Robot books as they came out too. I remember preferring the Lije Baley books, but I got a real kick from the 'Foundation' novels too.

The original trilogy, as it was, dates back to the early fifties, though the stories that comprise it were even older. There were eight of them, each published in 'Astounding' in the forties; the first four were fixed up into this first novel and the other four, in pairs, became the second and third. It's easy to tell, reading the novel, where those four stories came from because the book is broken up into sections of time, with each of those periods given a clear start and a finish. All we have to know in advance is that the opening section was new to the book and kicks the whole thing off.

It's called 'The Psychohistorians' and it introduces us to Hari Seldon and his great plan. We're in a city that is also a planet, named Trantor, and it's the capital of the Galactic Empire, which has ruled for an impressive amount of time, twelve thousand years. However, it's on the downturn and Hari Seldon is utterly convinced that it's going to fall, not quite yet but soon enough that it can't be stopped. He has this assurance because he's invented a science called psychohistory, a means of applying mathematics to the history of worlds. The Empire will be gone within three hundred years, he says, to be succeeded by a dark age that will last for thirty thousand years.

What he brings to the table of the Committee of Public Safety, the folk who run the Empire, is a plan not to save it, because it's already far too late for that, but to reduce that dark age to a millennium, a single millennium instead of thirty. As we know well from our own world, nobody wants to think about solving problems that don't exist yet. Just look at climate change. We've kicked it down the kerb for a while and we're still doing it, though we may have passed a point of no return. Our leaders have done what they've done like the Committee rather than like Hari Seldon.

This section ends with the revelation by Seldon to a young psychohistorian named Gaal Dornick, who's only just arrived on Trantor at his invitation, that his prompt exile to a distant planet called Terminus isn't the end of his plan but the beginning of it, because he'd manipulated them into doing that. It's a palpable way to kick everything off and have buy us into Seldon's ability to manipulate the future. It's fair to say that, if he couldn't get the Committee to do what he wanted, what chance would he have to persuade other people who haven't been born yet or bodies that haven't even been founded yet to do what he wants them to do ten, a hundred or a thousand years hence.

And so we go. Each of the four sections covers a different period of time, in chronological order, and is told by different voices, though some people do live long enough to appear in more than one of them, like Salvor Hardin, the key person in the first two, though his role in them changes considerably. He's a thorn in the side of authority in 50 F.E. (Foundation Era) but the long established mayor of Terminus thirty years later. He's replaced as the key figure in the third by Eskel Gorov, because he's dead by 135 F.E. and Gorov is succeeded by Hober Mallow in the fourth, which is set in 155 F.E. Even though they're different people doing different jobs, they share obvious similarities: all are highly sharp minds with the ability to think outside the box.

Of course, Seldon couldn't predict them individually, but he was able to predict that a person with the abilities needed would be in the right place at the right time to make the right decision and keep his plan in motion. At some of these key moments, he also shows up in the form of a recording, to confirm that what was just done was the right thing and so settle everyone else down for a while. We also see that he set his plan in motion on Terminus to ensure the fewest variables possible and therefore the highest probability that things will go how he expects them to. For instance, Terminus has no mineral resources worth speaking of, which means everything has to be imported, a detail that continues to resonate throughout the century and a half that this first book covers.

It's fascinating to see Seldon's hand at work throughout this novel, given that he dies off pretty early, at least for what we have to see as the lead character. Salvor Hardin's genius was to rebel against the dogmatic approach of the Encyclopedists, who were put in place by Seldon himself with the stated aim of compiling an Encyclopedia Galactica. It's Hardin who mounts a coup to take over Terminus City but, only a day later, Seldon appears to point out that the Encylopedia was a front and his whole point was to sow the seeds of the future empire on Terminus.

I won't spoil the other sections, but each comes at a similarly crucial point of change, what are quickly called Seldon Crises, and each has a solution that someone has to figure out and then implement. The first section is the only one truly different because it's the only one where nobody living was aware of the concept of Seldon Crises. The benefit, and the curse, of those who came along after the first Crisis is that, every time things look really bad, maybe that's because they're the next Seldon Crisis and the solution to it is waiting to be found by whoever thinks in the right direction.

For a novel written in 1951 from stories published as early as 1942, this holds up surprisingly well. The most obvious flaw stems from a problem that plagues any science fiction author who plays with future timeframes but especially one who writes a book built on the idea of being able to predict the future. This is about one man who successfully predicts 135 years of mass human behaviour but it was written by a man who didn't foresee digital technology.

The Encyclopedists are publishing a paper book and entire industries are built around the analogue technologies Asimov knew, from microfilm records to monetary trading. It's a little hard to take the grand sweep seriously when such a crucial little detail is so obviously wrong. It reminded me of how accurately futuristic William Gibson's cyberpunk world in 'Neuromancer' was but he built key scenes around payphones because he didn't foresee widespread cellular communication.

So, this isn't without flaws and I'm sure there will seem to be a lot more of them when someone reads 'Foundation' in another seventy years time. However, it's still a masterful work of fiction and a wildly ambitious one, enough so that, like all the pivotal pieces of published writing in history, it'll likely still be available as the next century approaches.

Next up for me is book two, 'Foundation and Empire', which I'll tackle next month. Then it'll be 'Second Foundation' in October and then I can get back on track with my Hugo Award winners in November. It's tough when the fourth book in a series is the first to win the Hugo! ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Isaac Asimov click here

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