”His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times on the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.”
– Opening of Foundation
Psychohistorian Hari Seldon has become so advanced in the field of predicting the development of societies that he has foreseen the unthinkable: the fall of the Galactic Empire and thirty thousand years of suffering to follow. Initially tried for treason, he manages to convince the empire that, while the collapse is unavoidable, he can reduce the time of suffering to a single millennium through the establishment of a foundation tasked with the creation of a massive encyclopedia to preserve all human knowledge. The government really just wants to send his team into exile on a distant planet. He secretly wants exactly this. He’s calculated out all of the statistical probabilities. He knows how these people will grow and develop over generations, forming a civilization that can restore peace and prosperity to the galaxy. But only if they can find the same solutions he did for a series of increasingly complex crises. Crises that will bring the entire civilization to ruin if the people do not choose correctly.
Of all the classic science fiction I’ve read, this is the one that most reflects the sort of complex logic that I love to work through when computer programming. It’s a book that demands to be read slowly, allowing your brain to absorb all the factors at play and marvel at the characters’ solutions. The world building is fantastic in terms of sociology, and the technology portrayed works in a way that’s also entirely logical and often very clever. The city of Trantor, where the book begins, is awesome to see because the author really went deep on the question of how a planet composed entirely of one enormous city would function and how the people living on it would behave.
The plot also takes a completely refreshing approach, in that none of the problems are solved by violence. Hari Seldon and those who lead after his death win not by attacking their enemies but by outsmarting them, and in doing so achieve fantastic results. In fact, I find it impossible to imagine any other solutions that would have achieved so much with so few negative side effects. Personally speaking, I love a quote that’s often repeated by one of the major characters: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
Due to the fact that the plot circles around the development of a civilization, it is not focused on a single character, of course. The perspective is omniscient and the book is separated into parts, each of which jumps forward in time. Because of this and because most of the sections begin with a fresh set of characters and a fresh new conflict, I would recommend reading the book itself in pieces with breaks in between. This can also give your brain a much needed break!
If you’re looking for a quick read you can zip through in a day or if you’re hoping to become deeply familiar with one central character, this isn’t the book for you. If, on the other hand, you love logic puzzles, are intrigued by the idea of a plot that follows the growth of a civilization rather than an individual, or are just looking to read something different, I would definitely recommend you give this one a try.
The caveat, however, is that as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, hints of sexism are definitely present. All the most important characters are male, the only prominent female character is depicted as a nagging wife who at one point is briefly won over by her husband giving her a device that creates an illusion like a beautiful piece of clothing for her to wear, and there are mentions of boys and men engaging in war while mentions of women are in connection to devices for cooking and doing laundry. It’s definitely a product of its time, and this dampened my enjoyment a bit.
Personally, I chose to imagine many of the male characters as female since the roles they play matter so much more than their individual characteristics. Given that the plot is so much about groups of people rather than individuals, I also like to imagine a great deal of diversity in leadership and other important positions in society that are not shown on the page. In my head, that’s what the future looks like, and I’m not going to let a few old-fashioned attitudes ruin my experience of an otherwise awesome book. The decision, though, is for each person to make according to their own preferences. If I ever find an Asimov-inspired book that scratches the same itch without the drawbacks, I’ll be sure to post a review of that for you to try. If all else fails, I’ll have you know that reading this book has inspired a few scenes in the book I’m writing, and I’m determined that it will be published someday. Keep your eyes open, and in the meantime, enjoy this one if it has caught your eye!