I really liked this book, in the way that I always enjoy thoughtful science fiction. Every once in a while, I enjoy a book designed solely to make you grapple with a question, and think, “what if?” The focus here isn’t on Asimov’s characters (though it DOES have actual characters in it, unlike the work of some 1950s sf authors). It’s actually impossible for this to be a character-centric book due the premise. Instead, the arc is on the Foundation itself, on tracing the decline and fall of an empire, and the struggle to preserve human knowledge in the face of societal collapse.
Basic plot: The Galactic Empire is falling, and the only person who knows it is Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian. This is a field of science that supposedly involves complicated mathematics, used to predict the future of large social systems and groups of people. Using this science, Seldon has determined that the 11,000 year old empire will fall in less than 300 years, and the galaxy will enter a sort of barbaric dark ages, not emerging for 30,000 years. But Seldon also thinks he’s figured out a way to reduce that 30,000 to a mere millennium, and he deploys all kinds of tricksiness in order to insure the most favorable outcome. He pushes for the creation of the Foundation, ostensibly a group of scientists bent on preserving all human knowledge in the form of the Encylopedia Galactica, but in reality the purpose of the Foundation is very different (spoilers).
So the book is actually split up into five smaller novellas that follow a sort of throughline. Each one takes place further into the future. Intellectually, I was intrigued to see the sort of puzzlebox of plot Asimov had unwoven, not just in each novella, but in the ways the novellas hung together. But it wasn’t as compelling emotionally speaking. Rather, the emotions I felt (intellectual satisfaction, curiosity) are not the ones that I usually deploy when reading, but it felt nice to read something like this for a change. And it was very readable! Thick ideas, but easy words.
One of my favorite things about reading or watching old sf is seeing how the artist extrapolated the future, what things they think will survive, and what won’t. Asimov was apparently convinced that newspapers and tobacco (and vegan tobacco, at that) would make the trip, as well as nuclear power being the Most Important Thing. The almost complete absence of women in the story indicates other subconscious biases as well, I think.
All in all, glad I finally read this. Been meaning to pick it up for over a decade. Not sure when I’ll get to the second two books in the original trilogy, but I already own them, and they’re short reads like this one, so I imagine it won’t be too far off.
[3.5 stars, rounded up]
Read Harder Challenge 2018: A classic of genre fiction.