Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Writing a review of this book presents something of a puzzle to me. Isaac Asimov is one of the holy trinity in science fiction, and Foundation has a universal acclaim attached to it as one of his best works. And I have really fond memories of it. But as I reread it recently (for ulterior purposes—more on that in a bit), I'm having trouble figuring out what the acclaim is for, or why I like it.

Part of the attraction is the premise of the entire series, that a galactic empire is going to end and through foresight and planning, the upcoming dark age can be held to only a thousand years rather than the 30000 years it would otherwise last. This is old school science fiction on steroids: inventing a brand new science with the power to predict the minutiae of the movement of a culture, and testing its possibilities against a galactic civilization. But as the book goes on, it gets further and further away from sociohistory, as the new science is named, and more and more into the collapse of civilization and the bastion of technology and knowledge that holds out. Such territory is just fodder for good fiction, and given that the story rises from the middle of the 20th century, when we believed science golden, they reflect the optimism of the pre-atomic age.

Another strength is the characterization of the protagonists of each of the segments that make up the book. Hari Seldon, Hober Mallow, and Salvor Hardin are powerful characters, forthright and bold, who given an entire book to themselves could become some of the seminal characters in science fiction. Instead they are condensed and then referred to as iconic in subsequent sections of the book, leaving a feeling of potential and a wish to see more of them.

This observation does lead me to the biggest weakness in the book for me—that it really is not a novel, but in many ways a collection of related short stories. Each segment of the Foundation is a short story that had been previously published elsewhere, and the book just puts them all together in one place. The result is a group of stories that are connected by their place in the history of the Foundation that Hari Seldon has set up, but the connection is sometimes very attenuated. The result is that each story follows the general rise and fall of short stories rather than the gradual rise that takes place over a book-length story. When I first read Foundation, lo these many years ago, this pacing seemed to propel the movement forward, but as I reread the book, I find that I would like to know more of the history of these characters. (In a backhanded way, this could be seen as a compliment to Asimov—I like the characters so much, I wish there were more information about them.)

Ultimately though, this is just a quibble. Foundation is breath-taking in its scope while dealing consistently with the foibles of individuals. Its commentary on the idiosyncrasies of individuals, both on the right and wrong side of the story, brings insight and humor into the human condition, which is apparently timeless in its sometime foolishness. Each segment is a delightful puzzle, posing a crisis to the Foundation and challenging them (and the reader) to resolve it.

I have to admit to also being somewhat biased, knowing as I do that Foundation is just the set-up for the other Foundation books, showing the pattern the way it is supposed to work before subsequent books throw it into chaos. Nonetheless, Foundation is a primer both in golden age science fiction and tight story-telling, and returning to it is a reason to celebrate.

As for my ulterior motives, word out of Hollywood is that Foundation has been optioned by notorious action-meister Roland Emmerich (he of 2012, Godzilla, The Day after Tomorrow, and Independence Day fame) in order for him to make a 3-D movie. On the one hand, I was rereading to see if there were segments that warranted being filmed with 3-D technology, and on the other, I was rereading to see if there was anything that got destroyed or blown up as is so often the case in Emmerich's movies. Given that nearly all of the books involve interaction between characters on an individual basis, with a few crowd scenes tossed in, I fear that any cinematic representation—especially in 3-D—is going to not really follow the plot. This is not to say that Foundation could not be made into an entertaining movie, but it strikes me that it would be more contemplative, along the lines of Up in the Air, than action-y. I'll try to reserve judgment until the movie is actually made, but I am pretty dubious at the moment.

I recommend reading the book before the movie becomes a reality, so that if you have read it before, you can reinforce your memories of it and if you have no read it, you will have the right memories to start with.

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