I don’t read much sci-fi but from time-to-time I enjoy reading some, especially if it is by Isaac Asimov. I have just finished his Foundation Trilogy which I enjoyed and would recommend.
The trilogy was originally written as a series of shorter stories, but they were then combined into this trilogy. This means you don’t get the unity you might expect in a single book, but you do get a quick-paced writing style, which doesn’t have time to get stuck into superfluous detail. I find this style of writing a refreshing change.
The setting of the Trilogy is a futuristic galaxy, having been ruled by an empire for a long period. The first book starts with one man, Hari Seldon using “psychohistory” to foresee that the empire will fall and disorder will follow for many thousand years. He cannot prevent this, but sets up two Foundations which will help shorten this period to one thousand years only and then a new empire will be established.
The first two books follow one Foundation from inception as it faces a number of crisis which it must get through for Seldon’s plan to succeed.
Given the one thousand year period , it means we only see each generation for a short period of time, before moving onto the next generation’s challenge. On the one hand this means we can meet quite a range of characters and see a variety of events happening, but on the other hand it also means that for characters we enjoy reading about, we unfortunately have to say goodbye to them sooner than we’d like.
The first book particularly sees a broad range of stories, while the second is more focused on one storyline, with the main enemy, The Mule. The Third one then introduces us to more new characters and the Second Foundation.
Asimov is very creative in these range of stories, as while they largely feature war, they involve a great range of solutions, including religious, economic and political. This keeps the trilogy interesting over the many different storylines.
In the galaxy that Asimov has created he imagines atomic power as the main energy source, and the differentiating factor between weak and strong planets as to who has atomic power. He also imagines that atomic power can be minuterised, so we could, for example, have our own personal force fields. Other technology includes being able to transmute elements.
But the main scientific advance, where the main interest lies, is in the mental realm, where the future can be analysed probabilistically, and influenced by changing events in the present. Further a few people have great mental ability to influence others directly, without their being aware.
The premise of the trilogy is that physical scientific or technological progress can not lead to an enduring civilisation. The empire at the start of the trilogy is decaying, being overwhelmed with bureaucracy and with innovation and creativity stifled. When Seldon reveals his plan for a new empire to replace this crumbling one, we wonder in the back of our mind, why would this one be any different, and avoid the same problems?
We find out much later that this is because those with the enhanced mental ability are meant to be benevolent rulers over this new empire, and additionally using their skills to predict the possible future trajectories would presumably keep it on course. It almost feels like Plato’s idea of the need for a philosopher king, given the problems that all other forms of government will eventually face. I’m glad that Asimov sees that something more than purely scientific advance is required for the success of a society.
The trilogy ends just five hundred years through the one thousand years period, so we do not find out what empire is established or whether Seldon’s grand plan succeeds. But it has been a very interesting journey to get this far.
There are now 7 books in the Foundation series, with Asimov having written a further four at a much later date than the original trilogy. These seem to have mixed reviews, but I’m satisfied for now with the conclusion to this trilogy and no plan to read any further.