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Good Way to Start Your SF Education
on March 13, 2004
Foundation owes its genesis to young Asimov reading Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As the author explains, he started thinking, what would happen if he described the fall of a GALACTIC Empire? Armed with a "science" of history known as psychohistory, Asimov and his editor John W. Campbell set about trying to describe the fall and rebirth of that mythic Empire. While the trilogy (and even the subsequent sequels) did not finish the 1,000-year cycle, enough was described to bring about some rather intriguing fiction.
Asimov, of course, is fond of puzzles involving logic. While logic is rather hazy regarding human behavior (the "Laws of Psychohistory" are deliberately kept off-stage), the characters are nevertheless able to make guesses that fall within the expectations of said logic.
The prime element in the resurrection of the Empire is, of course, Hari Seldon, the greatest psychohistorian in history. Seeing through his equations that the galaxy is about to fall into ruin, Seldon strives to create a "Foundation" which will preserve the wisdom of the old empire when the collapse comes. This Foundation will ensure that, instead of thousands of years of barbarism following the collapse, only 1,000 years will ensue. The Foundation begins harmlessly enough, as a scientific organization, designed to write the "Encyclopedia Galactica," a repository for all the galaxy's knowledge. However, as the Empire falls and the scientists of the Foundation are isolated by the barbarism on the galactic periphery (in a series of "Seldon Crises"), it becomes much more. That is the basic context of the first book in the series.
Seldon also creates a "Second Foundation." The purpose of this organization, located at "Star's End," is to monitor the Seldon plan and make sure the First Foundation comes to no harm in its slow quest to restore the Empire.
If some of this sounds vaguely like Star Wars, you wouldn't be far wrong. Much of that trilogy owes its existence to Asimov's work. The most blatant example is the planet Coruscant, which echoes Asimov's Trantor, the capital world of the Empire, which is an entire world-city.
My favorite book in the Foundation series is Foundation and Empire, because they offer the most opportunity for action and challenge for the Foundation. As the series originally appeared as a series of short stories and novellas in Campbell's Astounding, the "novel" is really two stories. In the first story, the Foundation finds itself facing its first real threat--a strong Empire at the galactic core, with a strong general capable of defeating the Foundation. In the next contest, the Foundation comes up against a telepathic enemy known as "The Mule," who starts mucking about with the Foundation's path toward eventual Empire.
The third book, Second Foundation, describes a search for the "Second Foundation." This search comes in earnest, after the setbacks the First Foundation faced in the second book. Asimov manages to end the stories well, and Asimov manages to keep the reader guessing.
I really enjoyed the series when I read it in high school. The stories were great exercises in logic and managed to provide some sense of adventure. Looking back, I can see some "primitive" technological aspects of Asimov's "Future History," but that takes little away from the story. One innovation for this series was the invention of the pocket calculator (the stories appeared in the early '40s). Asimov took reluctant credit for the invention since, like Heinlein's water bed, he never thought of patenting it.
This is actually an excellent, kid-friendly introduction to science fiction, as it presents a lot of mental puzzles and very little violence. Given the time it was written and Asimov's own literary tastes, it is rather free from violence, sex, or other "adult situations." There have been grander epics, but this is one of the first to appear in science fiction form. Read from the master, and learn.