Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is often cited as one of the top books/series people say they have read, but actually haven’t. Typically reserved for hardcore science fiction buffs, this series is becoming more and more relevant every day. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have expounded on the work’s inspiration in their endeavors. Apple is even making a TV show out of it (which I’ll get to more later). So what’s the big deal about Foundation? What’s it about and why should we care?
Foundation, the first novel in the Foundation series, is told in five parts, four of which appeared earlier in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1944. It was later added to and combined into the 1951 novel Foundation. Generally, it tells the story of psychohistorian Hari Seldon, his predictions for the fall of the galactic empire and later rebirth, and then the playing out of that prediction. The novel periodically jumps forward in time to show Seldon’s predictions come to pass in increasingly unforeseen ways. It’s stressed that Seldon cannot predict individual actions, but rather the broad strokes of the future.
Asimov is able to tell a few hundred years of history in the first book with incredible skill. While reading it I had to remind myself that most of the book was written during World War II, more than 75 years ago. That Asimov was able to create a work which largely stands the test of time is telling.
A recurring theme in Foundation is the idea that despite the ebb and flow of expansion, humanity’s destiny lay among the stars. This was before human beings had even reached low Earth orbit, let alone the moon. The novel and its sequels have inspired generations of scientists and entrepreneurs to, as Elon Musk’s company SpaceX declares, ‘Make Life Multiplanetary.’
When reading the book, one can’t help but consider our expansion throughout the galaxy as inevitable. However, in recent years several scientists have tried to bring this notion back to down to reality. Colonizing the moon, Mars, and possibly a few other moons in our solar system seem likely in this century and surely the next. These places could surely be colonized by humans to a certain degree. Many scientists, however, believe that much of the rest of the galaxy will eventually be explored by robots of our design. Dr. Michio Kaku discusses this possibility in his excellent book The Future of Humanity. Click here for my review.
Despite the stellar positives of Foundation, I do have a few gripes, some more relevant than others. First, the structure of the novel (five parts, most with a different cast of characters) makes it hard to get into each scene and understand the characters. Asimov is telling a sweeping tale which spans a great period of time, so it makes sense that characters would live to an old age and die. He does put entries from the Encyclopedia Galactica at the beginning of each of the five parts. This addition definitely helps, but doesn’t solve the problem entirely. Upon finishing the first book I felt I had a good idea of what transpired over the first couple hundred years of the Foundation, but I found it impossible to remember more than a couple of names.
Second, due to this structure, character development took a backseat. The reader never fully ‘gets’ the motivations or personalities of the characters. Rather, they get a taste of that character; a scene. If you were to look at each part as a short story and not as one cohesive novel you might be better off. It’s because of this that Apple’s TV series might have some trouble connecting. Are they going to focus on one time period? Will each season be a different cast of characters? I guess we’ll have to wait and see!
Finally, the Kindle version has been censored to make the language more PC. Even with this censorship there were a few terms I would consider crass or at least outdated. However, I can’t agree with censoring books, even if their language no longer resonates with a modern ear. Mark Twain’s novels are rife with slurs but stand as giants in 19th century literature nonetheless. His books are frequently banned for this even today. Our society has become so politically correct that we cannot bear the risk of being offended or allowing another to become offended. By leaving the language unchanged we can start a dialogue. This stands to benefit society far more than protecting people in their bubble of safety and ignorance.
You just can’t argue with how influential this book is for generations of people. Despite its flaws I think it’s an extremely worthwhile read. It’s only about 250 pages so there’s really no excuse. I have no doubt that within my lifetime humanity will create a permanent colony, be it on the moon, mars, or elsewhere. Doesn’t this just make the future more exciting?
Where do you think humans should settle first? Let me know in the comments below!
If you’re a fan of Foundation, check out one of these books:
The Future of Humanity by Dr. Michio Kaku
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams