Vintage Science Fiction Month Book Review: “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov (1951)

One of the things that gets much discussion in the writing community are so-called “rules of writing” that go around on social media. Like Moses bringing the tablets from Mount Sinai, people are all the time posting quotes from famous writers like Stephen King or Elmore Leonard, telling writers to do or not do various things.

Foundation is the greatest rebuttal to this I’ve ever seen. You’ve been told that a book shouldn’t have too many points-of-view? Foundation has at least five; more like ten. You’ve heard that books need to have description? Foundation has next to none. And above all, you must have heard that you’re supposed to show, not tell. Foundation laughs in your face. The whole book is nothing except telling.

Whether Foundation might have been better had it followed these rules can be debated. But Isaac Asimov was the Vice President of Mensa and Foundation is a classic of science-fiction. It at least proves rule-following is not essential to success.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book begins with Hari Seldon, a scholar in the field of psychohistory, which is a science that makes sweeping predictions about the fate of civilizations over the course of millennia. Seldon foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire he lives in, and has made a plan to manipulate events such that a Second Empire can be restored in a thousand years, give or take.

The later parts of the book follow various political figures, religious leaders, merchants and scientists, many of whom are carrying out the pseudo-religious duties laid down by Seldon’s foundation. Periodically, a “Seldon Crisis” will occur; that is, a major inflection point in the re-development of civilization that Seldon foresaw in his detailed models of how the future would play out.

The book is actually a series of short stories compiled together, and in some ways, that shows. None of the different characters are around long enough for them to be really fleshed out, but the dilemmas they face are interesting, as are their ways of resolving them. In a way, it feels to me like a forerunner of the original Star Trek, in that each situation presents some moral or ethical situation for the characters to work through. (Another reason this book is perfect for Vintage Science Fiction Month!)

The book does have a detached, maybe even downright cynical view of history. And of course, it’s materialist through and through. Don’t look for larger-than-life heroes here. It’s really more like science fiction as conceived by the Hanseatic League.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said that what first interested him in the field of Economics was that it was the closest thing to Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”: a science that tries to synthesize knowledge about how populations behave and use it to make predictions about the future. This concept appeals to me as well. I have a Bachelor’s in Economics.

Of course, not many people look for excuses to talk about economics when they’re reading escapist fiction. They call it “the dismal science” for a reason, after all. Partly, this is due to an early association with the work of Thomas Malthus. Malthus was the Hari Seldon of the 19th century, in that he too tried to use models to predict the fate of civilization. Unfortunately, his model wasn’t quite right.

And thus, the fundamental problem with economics: models are never perfect. As Paul Samuelson once remarked, “the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions.” And so, the question nags at me: would this work? Given sufficient computing power, could you actually predict events the way Seldon does? It seems theoretically possible, I think. Or does it? Because after all, we don’t know what we don’t know. You may think you have accounted for every possible variable, but there are always other variables you didn’t even know were variables.

One of the frequent assumptions made in simple economics models is perfect information, meaning everyone in the market knows everything about the relevant market at all times. Of course, this is never, ever true, which means the models themselves are not in fact accurate; just approximations of what “should” happen.

If someone actually had perfect information, they would be, effectively, a god. I think that’s actually Asimov’s point in Foundation, since Seldon’s plan becomes essentially a religion after a certain amount of time. “If God did not exist…” etc. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” also applies.

The problem with trying to map out the future like this is much the same as the problem with laying down rules of writing like those I mentioned at the beginning of the post: it leaves no room for things that organically just work, even though by all accounts they shouldn’t.

So, what is my final verdict on Foundation? Er, well, sorry to disappoint you, but… I haven’t got one. H.R.R. Gorman has convinced me that I need to read more of the series before I form an opinion. All I’ll say is this: the book was interesting enough that I’m going to read more.

12 Comments

  1. I think it’s on record somewhere that my early to mid teens I was an avid reader of American SF which seemed more innovative and ‘lively’ than UK styles.
    After your post on Dune, I was hoping we’d get around to Foundation.
    The concept of ‘Foundation’ was one which captivated me from the onset. Galactic Empire and psychohistory were fascinating notions . I admit to being irritated by the regular arrival of the innovative fast talking preachy wise guy (Looking at you Mayor Hardin & Trader Gorov) and was to be later saddened by the link ups with the I Robot series which suggested the whole thing was managed by one robot. That off my chest, the first Foundation Trilogy never grows old (I have an audio dramatized version made by the BBC in the early 1970s).
    The interesting aspect, leaving aside economics is that when Hari Seldon’s views are placed in conjunction with those of the school of political thought ‘International Realism’ which basically suggests there are certain cycles in political dynamics you do get some interesting resonances and parallels.
    As for breaking the rules of writing…..
    If there are rules for writing then there’s a very subtle sort of censorship working away there, doing more harm than any official body.

  2. I write future history, but what I conceived is simply based on what I see around me, along with my intuition. (I always wished I’d taken an economics course in college so I’d understand something about it – I was an English major and definitely humanities oriented). Anyway, my future history predicts a collapse of civilization beginning about 2100 when oil reserves run out, but I decided to take an optimistic view and allow humanity’s basic “core of character” to bring civilization back from disaster. Unfortunately, I see civilization beginning to collapse in my lifetime – something I never expected. I predicted “plague panics” and “fractures” (the breaking up of political entities and the rise of petty and not-so-petty dictators). Have you noticed that Texas wants to secede from the United States? And that we’re in the midst of a “plague” right now? And I also predicted “water famines” – enough said. And the use of technology for evil purposes. (If you want to know more without reading all my books, see http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/p/my-future-history.html – an excerpt from The Termite Queen, laid in the 30th century). I read the Foundation series way, way back and was bored to death by it. I have never liked any of the SF “classics.” Ursula K. LeGuin is my model and inspiration for science fiction, Tolkien for fantasy.

  3. Oh, back to 1969 when I was in junior high, that’s when I discovered Asimov by reading Foundation. The trilogy being a series of short stories in pulp magazines explains why he could get away with telling instead of showing, but then again Asimov was a master storyteller, his histories are written at the young adult market, but leave nothing out in the telling. His science books do the same he could explain anything and everything. I wouldn’t be a who I am today without Asimov. That said, all history is about fortune telling. Why do banks want a credit HISTORY, before loaning money? Your credit history predicts your credit future. Asimov applied that to a psychological understanding of civilization paired with the cycles of history.

  4. Even though I was reading sf in the 1960’s I failed to become enamored with Asimov. I only have a couple of books of his on my book selves, and only one Foundation book — Second Foundation(?) — which I tried reading in recent memory and found it to be as dull as dust. I’m not much of a lad for grand scale stories with cardboard characters used to convey grand ideas. But there seems to be a certain age in youth when grand ideas make a life-long impression on some people, be it Asimov or Ayn Rand.

    1. “Dull as dust” – good way to describe it, in my opinionated opinion! I don’t mind grand ideas, but they need to be conveyed through well-developed characters.

      1. Thank you for providing a perspective on Asimov’s “Foundation” from the direction of economics. Have you seen the recent Apple TV “Foundation” series?

        1. I have not seen it, but it looks interesting. I think it would be a tough story to adapt for the screen.

    2. That’s a very good point. I tried reading an Ayn Rand book once, and just couldn’t get through it, but some people love it.

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