On the 18th September we reviewed Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1951, it is the first book in the classic science fiction Foundation Trilogy.
The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology (analogous to mathematical physics). Using the laws of mass action, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale; it is error-prone on a small scale. It works on the principle that the behaviour of a mass of people is predictable if the quantity of this mass is very large (equal to the population of the galaxy, which has a population of quadrillions of humans, inhabiting millions of star systems). The larger the number, the more predictable is the future.
Using these techniques, Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a dark age lasting thirty thousand years before a second great empire arises. Seldon’s psychohistory also foresees an alternative where the intermittent period will last only one thousand years. To ensure his vision of a second great Empire comes to fruition, Seldon creates two Foundations—small, secluded havens of all human knowledge—at “opposite ends of the galaxy”.
What Did We Like About It?
It was old school, theoretical without detailed science and there were a lot of interesting ideas. Much of the technology we have today was not available when the novel was written, but was predicted in the novel. We liked the idea of psychohistory and how a mathematical formula could be used to plan the future. That tension was created through elements other than action made a nice change. The words used to describe technology, such as televisor, were endearing. We liked the logical progress of steps through time and the way in which characters talked about is going to happen and what did happen.
The main criticisms were that it was repetitive and that there was not enough time to be able to form an attachment to the characters. We were also disappointed that there was not a dog in story.
Science and Society
A great deal of the story is about the way societies interact. Foundation is certainly more about people than about technology. There was a lot of politics played out between the characters on Terminus as well as with the Rulers on the other planets. Terminus used religion and capitalism to gain control over planets which were threatening Terminus. Through these mechanisms there are underlying criticisms of religion and capitalism. There was no mention of communism, which is likely to be due to the McCarthy witch hunts at the time the novel was written. Nuclear power featured heavily as being something that enabled civilisation to occur in the galaxy. It is surely no coincidence that electricity was first generated by a nuclear reactor in 1951. As well as including influences from the day, elements of the history of Roman civilisation were also drawn from in the decline of the Galactic Empire.
We liked Hari Seldon, but our favourite character was Salvor Hardin. He led the Foundation through two crises by being charismatic rather than aggressive. Hardin had the confidence to ride out each crisis by ensuring that no action was taken, since he was aware that in Seldon’s plan psychohistory needed to be played out. We particularly enjoyed the crazy priest taking over the space cruiser.
Essentially Hardin wins by being sneaky and right, as opposed to being brave and courageous. This story where not needing to be physically strong to win has probably cheered up a lot of nerds!
There was a lack of serious female characters, however this is likely to be due to the period of time in which Foundation was written.
We though that it was cruel that the encyclopedia project turned out to be a cover story. Excerpts from the Encyclopedia Galactica were included in this story, suggesting that substantial amount of it was published after all. We wondered whether there was a connection between the Encyclopedia Galactica and the bound volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that middle class people aspired to buy before the advent of computers?
We enjoyed the detailed description of the planet Trantor, the planet at the heart of the Galactic Empire, but felt that Terminus lack physical description. The story was first published as a series of short stories. It is possible that the description of Trantor at the beginning of Foundation was added in later when the collection was brought together as a single volume.
For some of us Foundation was the first science fiction story that we had read and we thought that it was a good introduction to the genre.
Quote of the Evening
You could say that this book is the foundation for a lot of science fiction literature.
Manchester Sci-Fi Book Club Contacts
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Next Sci-Fi Book:
- November 20th – The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
SciFi Books for Following Months:
- January 15th – Reamde by Neal Stephenson
- February 19th – Behold the Man by Michael Morcock
- March 19th – Neverness by David Zindell
- April 16th – Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
- May 21st – The Truth (Discworld Novel 25) by Terry Pratchett
It has been suggested that we read SciFi Comic Y:The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, in collaboration with the Mad Graphic Novel Group.