Fiction Reviews


(1951/2021) Isaac Asimov, HarperVoyager, £8.99 / US$21.99, pbk, 240pp, ISBN 978-0-008-52003-8


Returning to a Beloved Classic from the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction’ when it’s been fifty years since I last read it, definitely creates a certain amount of trepidation. Has scientific and technological progress diverged too far from what the author imagined? Will the characters be too wooden or stereotyped to stomach? Are the ideas rich or interesting enough to sustain the narrative? Above all, how well does it stand up against all the great science-fiction novels that have appeared since?

When it comes to the first book in Asimov’s 'Foundation' series, the answer to that last question is a qualified ‘pretty well, overall’. Not surprisingly, the science of the future as Asimov envisaged it is very different from what we’d now extrapolate: most strikingly, although there are force-fields and spy-beams a-plenty there are no computers and so, of course, no equivalent of the internet, or mobile phones, or Alexa …! What there is instead are a lot of atomic devices – not just atomic power stations and nuclear space-ships but ubiquitous ‘atomic blasters’, as if the inherent dangers of people putting miniature reactors in their pockets hadn’t occurred to Asimov despite his having a pretty decent science background (having said that, not long after the book was published, the US Atomic Energy Commission initiated ‘Project Plowshare’ whose aim was to explore the use of atomic explosives for industrial applications).

Also strikingly, from today’s perspective, what there is not a lot of in the book are female characters. In fact, there are only two: a young girl who is brought on just to exemplify how all women will fall for a bit of bling and frippery (in this case, a belt and necklace that create shimmering waves of colour around the wearer) and the wife of a planetary governor whose nagging and contempt provokes him into taking unwise action. Just as stereotypical, however, are the men, who strut and pontificate and, also alarmingly from today’s perspective perhaps, smoke a lot of cigars. It may be dismaying to realise - given that the central device of the book is the creation of the science of ‘psycho-history’, able to project the nature of society across hundreds of years - that Asimov’s galaxy-spanning future looks very much like a projection of 1950s America!

But what about that device? Can it bear the weight of the narrative? Yes, I think it can. The core idea is to model mass human behaviour in the same way as statistical mechanics treats the thermodynamics of gases; that is, basically, by averaging out the effects of individual collisions and deriving functions that describe shifts in the relevant large-scale quantities as conditions change. Just as statistical mechanics can’t predict the trajectories of particular gas atoms, so psycho-history can’t predict the behaviour of individual people. But what it can do is extrapolate from the social conditions in place at the start of the story to the inevitable downfall of the Galactic Empire, leaving humanity with the only option of doing what it can to shorten the dark ages to come.

All this is explained by Hari Seldon, the chief architect of psycho-history, at the very beginning of the book, as he stands trial for sedition. This constitutes the first of the challenges that drive the narrative as Seldon manages to escape execution and is promptly exiled to the planet ‘Terminus’, at the edge of the galaxy - an outcome he had anticipated of course. It is on Terminus that ‘Encyclopaedia Foundation Number One’ is established with the express purpose of cataloguing all scientific work of the previous millennium. And it is here, jumping ahead fifty years, that the next ‘Seldon Crisis’ erupts as a neighbouring planet secedes from the Empire, threatening the trade routes that Terminus depends on. Cometh the hour, cometh the man … in this case Salvor Hardin, the Mayor of Terminus City who berates the academics for merely recording past scientific achievements instead of advancing scientific progress themselves – there’s a wonderful interlude in which he meets an aristocratic dilettante who believes scientific controversies are to be decided by weighing the arguments given in different books rather than through observation and experiment – and who saves the day through the application of symbolic logic (no, really!) on the one hand and a good old-fashioned coup d’etat on the other. Here he is helped by the dramatic re-appearance of Seldon, in holographic form, who tells the assembled librarians that their great Encyclopaedia Foundation is nothing but a fraud and that the solution to the crisis they all face is obvious. Which is to play the newly independent neighbouring planets off against each other using the secrets of atomic power, with Terminus as the temple of the new scientific priesthood assigned as the guardians of those secrets.

But of course, turning science into a ‘Spiritual Power’ will only work for so long, as word spreads of the grip held by Terminus and worlds on the galactic Periphery close their doors to those priests of the Foundation. Eventually nationalistic forces conspire to create yet another crisis, which is resolved this time through the power of Trade. With Asimov cleaving to the Great Man approach to history, the hero this time is Hober Mallow, master Trader and first of the Merchant Princes, a ‘Foundation man’ by education but an ‘Outsider’ by birth. Advocating a shift to a strategy of ‘sincere friendship through trade’, he outwits both the leaders of the Foundation and the rulers of the peripheral planets and after being exonerated at a trial that bookends the novel, he too becomes Mayor of Terminus. With trade now completely dependent on the atomic techniques that only Terminus can supply, and without the need for the scientific ‘priests’, Mallow sets out his vision of the vast battle between the Empire and the Foundation: to seize control of a world, the Empire can only threaten with their immense spaceships that lack all economic significance whereas the Foundation can ‘bribe with little things, useless in war, but vital to prosperity and profits.’ And as he goes on to say, it’s the little things that count, with no ruler able to stand against the economic depression that would result from Terminus withholding its products. At that point, the book ends, with religious forces supplanted by economic power and Mallow anticipating that there will be further crises as predicted by Seldon, which will result in financial clout in turn being replaced, just as religious power has been.

With that cliff-hanger the reader is left curious to know what the future will hold and of course, running throughout the story are hints of a Second Foundation, established at the ‘other end of the Galaxy’, thereby setting things up nicely for the sequels. The ending also reflects the style of the book as a whole, with the reader wondering how the challenges will be met each time and how the arrogant and the corrupt, the short-sighted and small-minded politicians and planetary overlords will be subverted and defeated. Much of the narrative is taken up with political machinations and so there is overall, more talk than action, although Asimov smoothly interleaves the discursive passages with trips to other planets or, in one brief but memorable interlude, a description of a small Foundation ship faced with an Empire star cruiser. And if at times that dialogue is a little wooden (“Great Galloping Galaxies” indeed!), it’s the arguments that pull you in, fiercely made as they are on both sides, with the very existence of galactic civilization at stake. In the end, despite the stereotypes and implicit misogyny, you can’t help but marvel at the way that Asimov deftly juggles the Big Ideas and provokes expansive questions about human behaviour, the role of science and the nature of politics at the galactic scale. For all those reasons, Foundation is deservedly a Classic.

Steven French


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