Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Review - The Foundation Trilogy

Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation
by Isaac Asimov
1966 Hugo Winner for Best All-Time Series

Since I'm reviewing Foundation's Edge tomorrow I thought now would be a good time to go back and look at the original three. Written as a series of short stories and novellas over several years they were published in book form before the Hugo Awards began (eventually one novella section, "The Mule", would be awarded a "retro-Hugo", an award handed out for works written decades before). And before I get too far into this let's take a brief look at the nominees.

Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy - Our eventual winner, the culmination of the golden age of science fiction and a work that paved the way for the change in focus of science fiction in the 50's.

Robert Heinlein's Future History - A more loosely collected set of stories and books from the man who was on top of science fiction at that moment.

Doc E. E. Smith's Lensman series - The high point of early space opera and packed with a real sense of wonder.

Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom Series - You can make a good argument that almost all of the pulp science fiction sprung from this source.

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - One of the most well-read, well-regarded, and influential books of the twentieth century and the only one which fifty years on was still having a major and direct impact on culture.

One of those doesn't belong; can you tell which?

Actually this says quite a bit about the changing nature of fandom. The Hugo award is chosen by the vote of science fiction fans at that year's Worldcon and in 1966 fantasy didn't have the dominating following that it does today. So they picked the one that they knew.

The premise of the stories is that in the distant future mankind has filled the galaxy. It has been united for thousands of years by an empire that covers millions of worlds. Harry Seldon is a psycho-historian, a branch of science that attempts to chart the course of history by determining the paths that entire societies will take. He realizes that social forces are in motion that will cause the Empire to collapse and result in a dark age lasting thirty thousand years. To counter this he establishes two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy with the intention of them reducing that dark age to just one thousand years.

The books start with a series of short stories illustrating the challenges that the first foundation faces in maintaining civilization. Typically this focuses on a crisis moment where they are threatened but the forces of sociology defend them. A real kink in the plan occurs when a mutant is born who through that one person's actions can overturn the progression of history.

When the Foundation series was written history and sociology were not sciences that were generally considered acceptable subjects to theorize about for science fiction. That impression started changing with it, developed more fully in the fifties, and finally was well accepted by the 1960's. Asimov also overturns the roll of the traditional pulp adventurers and villains because as the book progresses their roll is less important than they would like to think.

Asimov used his own knowledge of history to fine effect in the books. The collapse of the Galactic Empire parallels the fall of Rome and Asimov used the hindsight of history to set up some of the scenarios that the Foundation faces.

Unfortunately the prose in The Foundation Trilogy simply does not hold up. It's very pulpy right down to the people spitting large blocks of exposition that they already know at each other. If you don't mind pulp in your writing then it isn't so bad but it will turn off some modern readers.

The science of psycho-history is a real stumbling block as well. The idea is that while individual actions cannot be predicted the paths that societies in general will take can be. It is, in essence, the opposite of the "great man" theory of history where events are shaped by having one person in the right place at the right time. Psycho-history works so well, we are lead to believe, that it can predict down to the day when problems will occur. The books do eventually go on to fill in that plot hole somewhat but the concept doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny.

The concepts that Asimov uses in The Foundation Trilogy are interesting; the collapse of one civilization while another arises in its ashes makes for a tale that can be very absorbing. Despite my objections I still enjoyed the concepts over all so I'd give it a very hesitant recommendation. If you'd like it depends entirely on your tolerance for golden age science fiction.