Asimov's 'Foundation': Incredibly flawed, incredibly powerful

When I was ten years old, I received a compilation of Jules Verne's most famous works as a birthday gift. At first, the stories — which had plots like using a cannon to launch a spaceship to the moon — seemed bizarre and silly. But the moment I opened the book, I found myself loving everything about them. This started my lifelong fascination with science fiction. 

While I initially tended towards modern sci-fi, after watching “Dune” in 2021, I decided to return to the genre’s classics and see what all the hype was about. I wanted to start by reading the “Dune" series, but the buzz drummed up by the movie meant hundred-person library waitlists and high prices on Amazon. Instead, I began with another sci-fi stalwart, Isaac Asimov's “Foundation” trilogy, which I now consider some of the best sci-fi ever written. When I eventually read the sequels, I found that they were subpar, lacking the original trilogy's charm while amplifying its flaws. 

Asimov's “Foundation” started in 1942 as a series of interconnected short stories that were eventually compiled into books, with two novel-length sequels, a novel-length prequel and several prequel short stories released later. Set far into humanity's future, the series takes place in the dying days of a great galactic empire, where mathematician Hari Seldon has developed a new discipline called psychohistory. By using mathematical and statistical principles that predict the behavior of large populations, psychohistory can peer beyond the veil and study the future of humanity. And the future Seldon has seen is a bleak one, with the fall of the empire destined to trigger a new 30,000-year dark age. Desperate to avoid this horrific future yet unable to stop the momentum of the collapsing empire, he resigns instead to working to shorten the fall, establishing the Foundation to continue the work after his death. The series follows the group over the next few millennia, looking at how the galaxy changes and evolves and how the Foundation adapts to new challenges and barriers to its journey.

The Foundation is one of Asimov's most “Asimov” works, meaning that it fully benefits from what is, in my opinion, Asimov's greatest strength: his ideas. The series is packed full of new, novel ideas that are entertaining and thought-provoking, with the reader exposed to everything from psychohistory to concepts regarding governance, warfare and science. 

Additionally, the overarching story — which is heavily inspired by Edward Gibbon's “The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” — creates interesting dynamics, like the tragedy being unpreventable yet still alleviable. The story is enhanced by the series’ short story format, which lends itself to constant twists — often multiple in the same story — that make the reader excited to see how Asimov will one-up the previous twist. This format also allows the story to quickly move throughout the series' universe — traveling between locations and across eras — without it feeling jarring. And speaking of the series’ universe, “Foundation” also displays some of the best worldbuilding Asimov has ever done, with locations like the planet-city of Trantor and the desolate world of Terminus and groups like the tech-priests and independent merchants all feeling real and inspiring countless works to follow.

However, Asimov abandons one of the series’ best components — the short story format — in favor of novel-length works later in the series. This change marks one the biggest flaws of the sequels, as the short story format was perfect for the story’s grand scope and vision. 

Asimov's writing — while not bad — was never the series’ highlight, with the switch to novel format further highlighting the existing flaws. And even the story itself — the true star of the series — begins to suffer towards the end, with the audience spending the entire sequel with a few uninteresting characters that go through events which don't feel as fun as in previous stories. The series as a whole also feels dated, and nearly all characters being men and specific ideas and choices emphasize that this was written in the 1940s.

Yet, despite its flaws, I recommend that everyone read Asimov's “Foundation.” Its interesting ideas, reasonably compelling story and exciting plot twists will keep you entertained while making you think deeply about the world. Even more significantly, it'll show you how sci-fi takes previous concepts and mixes them with new ones to create unique and powerful works.

Zev van Zanten | Campus Arts Editor

Zev van Zanten is a Trinity sophomore and campus arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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