Saturday, July 31, 2021

Foundation: Isaac Asimov

I am intimidated by writing a review of a classic of science fiction like this one, when I am not that knowledgeable of science fiction in general. But I will do my best, and I welcome comments and corrections.

As the Foundation series begins, Hari Seldon is predicting the fall of the Galactic Empire. an extremely large group of planets settled by humans. He also predicts that the breakup of the Galactic Empire will cause 30,000 years of turmoil. He proposes to set up a group of men to write an encyclopedia that will include all human knowledge and preserve it, and claims that the effort will reduce the years of turmoil to 1,000.

The Commission of Public Safety accuses Seldon of treason, but they allow him to carry out his project of developing an encyclopedia. They force him to move this group to a remote planet, Terminus. The rest of the book follows the events on Terminus and adjoining planets over a period of about 200 years.

This book was not what I expected. What did I expect? Maybe more of a space opera, maybe more action. That is not to say that there is no space travel or action. The society is futuristic to a point. This novel is more about society and interactions in society. And a lot of talk. People arguing about ideas, people convincing others to do things.

The book was divided into five sections:

  • The Psychohistorians
  • The Encyclopedists
  • The Mayors
  • The Traders
  • The Merchant Princes

It took me a while to get into the book, especially while reading the first two sections. The writing was sort of dry, and I could not get interested in any of the characters. Each section is about a new set of characters although some characters carry from one section to the next. But with each part the story improves, although I remained confused through at least the third section. There was humor in the fourth section, The Traders. That section read like a good short story, and only later did I realize why. In the end, overall, I thought Foundation was an exceptional story.

After I finished reading Foundation, I read Asimov's introduction to that edition (written in 1982) which explained that he had put each book in the trilogy together from previously written stories. That did explain a lot about the structure and some confusion I had. The introduction was fascinating and I was amazed that doing that worked out so well.

One complaint I had is the lack of women in the story. No women characters at all until the fifth part, which is over 2/3 of the book. And the only woman in that section has no significant role. I know the stories were written in the 1940's and the book was published in 1951, but I found it irritating, regardless.

Also see FictionFan's review.

Foundation was first published as part 1 of a trilogy. The second book is Foundation and Empire and the third part is Second Foundation. Later, more books were added to the series. I will be reading further in the trilogy, and more books by Asimov outside of the Foundation series.


Publisher:  Del Rey Books, 1986. Orig. pub. 1951.
Length:     285 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Foundation, #1
Setting:     The Galactic Empire
Genre:      Science Fiction
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2017.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I really admire you for not only trying this book but trying to make sense of it. It is very sad how little Asimov and writers of SF especially seemed to value women or to see them play much of a part in anything in the future. But thinking back on that era, there was only one woman senator and so few women occupied positions of power in any field. We have come a long way from that and I hope there will be no return to women just being baby machines, sexual partners and homemakers.

TracyK said...

Patti, that does help put the attitude towards women a bit in perspective. The male characters who are featured are all major leaders. It did affect my reading pleasure though. And initially my issue was only that they did not mention wives, family. I guess the story was just keeping things at a higher level I guess.

Cath said...

I always say that the classic sci-fi writers could imagine anything you like in the way of planets and aliens... everything except the idea of women in space or in positions of power. Like you, Tracy, I try hard to be forgiving but in reality it annoys the heck out of me. But an excellent review! I'll get to this book at some stage.

Margot Kinberg said...

You did a fine review here, Tracy! This is perhaps my husband's best-loved Asimov work (and he's pretty familiar with science fiction), so it's very good to see it here. You make an interesting point about the female characters. Asimov himself is supposed to have said (or written) that he wasn't very good at writing female characters. He did do a few, but I can see why you feel the way you feel about that.

TracyK said...

Cath, I suppose it makes sense that books of that time reflect the times. It was a nice that the book got better as I read more of it than vice versa. I learned a lot about Asimov and his other writings while researching this book, which was a good thing.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Margot. I definitely agonized over writing the review. I wish I was more familiar with science fiction. It is nice that you and your husband both like to read but in different areas. I found it interesting that later Asimov wrote more nonfiction about science subjects than fiction.

Brian Bennett said...

Every comment so far has focused on the lack of women characters. Which reflects today’s gender politics, but indicates little interest in the exceptional, ground-breaking novel itself that Asimov crafted, continued in Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.

Just a note: when this book was written, 95% of science fiction writers were men writing for a 90% male audience reading novels and stories edited by men in magazines and publishing houses. That was the reality. To get published and paid, writers had to write to their audience. In the mystery field, most writers of the time were women, writing woman characters, or men using female pseudonyms.

Question: Would the novel have been improved if the gender of the characters had been reversed?

Question: What, and where in the novel, did you get “bothered” by this? When did you think “where are the women characters?”. Early in the book, or at he middle, or end? Are you and your commenters applying 21st Century values to a mid-20th Century book? I think yes.

TracyK said...

Brian, thanks for your comments. You have covered why books of that era would have had less women characters, which is the same reason that mystery novels of the era often included racial and ethnic slurs. I comment on racial and ethnic slurs in Golden Age mystery novels when they bother me, and to let others know of the content. In any case, I think that books of that era are well worth reading. I plan to read more of the Foundation series, more of Asimov's books.

I included my reaction to the lack of women characters because I wanted to give my honest reaction to the story, rather than omit it. I take notes when I read books and I noticed the lack of women characters towards the end of the 2nd part.

I was intending to note a minor issue I had with the book. I noted in my review that "I know the stories were written in the 1940's and the book was published in 1951", acknowledging that at the time of writing, that was not unusual. But I did want to provide an accurate picture of the book.

Countdownjohn said...

If you decide to continue with the series - strongly recommended - then you will find more female characters in "Foundation and Empire" and "Second Foundation".

TracyK said...

Countdown John, I do intend to continue the series. My son has a copy of the trilogy that he loaned me, so I don't have to go looking for a copy. And I am glad to hear that there will be some female characters.

col2910 said...

Hats off to you for reading this, I think I would struggle.

Sam Sattler said...

Sounds like a difficult read. I'm not a huge fan of Asimov, mainly because I find his style almost always to be a little dry for my taste. I think the first classic SF writer I read as a kid...and still enjoy...was Robert Heinlein. I think, too, if I remember correctly that he was a little more likely to include female characters. Not saying he always treated them particularly kindly, though...maybe even a little sexist toward them.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Col. It was a challenge for me, but it has been in my plans for a long time, and on my Classics list, so I very glad I read it. I have read two books from Asimov's science fiction / mystery crossover series and enjoyed them a lot so I look forward to reading more of his books.

TracyK said...

Sam, it was initially difficult and then got better, more humorous and more action towards the end. As Brian noted above, it was a ground-breaking novel, and I had not realized how influential it was. I have read some Heinlein, but mostly years ago, and I would not mind reading more. I would like to read Starship Troopers someday.

I was just recently reading about the trip you went on with your grandson. Hope to hear about your travels soon.

Todd Mason said...

Unfortunately for Brian Bennett and his desire to remake the past to suit his wish-fulfillment, it was less a woman-free field of writers (and certainly not women-free in terms of magazine editors) or readers in the '40s when Asimov was writing the stories gathered together to be the FOUNDATION trilogy...though there remained a tolerance for those who felt they didn't know women well enough to write good female characters. Unfortunately, Asimov had some serious behavior problems when it came to women, and the story by him including fairly grounded women characters would be relatively few and far between.

Algis Budrys was among those who have noted that Asimov also tended to treat fiction much the way he would an essay.

He loved writing pop-science articles, and popular science books made him his initial fortune (THE INTELLIGENT MAN'S GUIDE TO SCIENCE and its immediate success allowed him to quit his relatively onerous job at Boston University's School of Medicine...he apparently loved giving lectures, but had great difficulty with his bosses and was never a first-rate hand in the laboratory. The pop-science/math/occasionally variant monthly essay series for THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION alone was responsible for dozens of books, as they were collected.

Todd Mason said...

Brian's non-facts about crime-fiction writers of the '40s are kind of indicative of the distortions of the situation in sf, as well.

TracyK said...

Todd, thanks for all that information about Asimov. In the introduction to the Foundation edition I had, Asimov noted that he later turned to writing nonfiction more than fiction and enjoyed nonfiction writing more. (That was my interpretation.) Which seems to go along with your comments.

Richard S. said...

Having re-read a bunch of the Foundation stories recently, I noted that the sex/gender of the characters so rarely comes into play - and, for the most part, their names are ambiguous when it comes to gender - one can easily switch the genders of the characters in one's mind without affecting the story AT ALL.

It's only in the later stories - written in the 70s and 80s, when Doubleday threw tons of money at him and basically ordered him to write more "Foundation" and "Robot" novels - that gender came more into play.

TracyK said...

You have a point, Richard S. The names are often strange and ambiguous.

I am interested in reading the Robot stories too.