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May 27, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Foundation Trilogy, By Isaac Asimov

I have this notion—and it may be wrong—that people don’t read enough science fiction, and this makes me sad. Because sci-fi is cool, guys, and if you’re thinking about getting into it you could do worse than Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

The Foundation trilogy—Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation—is only the central trilogy of Asimov’s larger series, but it works as an introduction to both the Foundation world and Asimov’s general oeuvre. Written in the early 1950s, the series has a definite Cold War heritage which informs its focus on international (or interstellar?) relations and concern with larger historical forces.

The basic premise lies in Asimov’s ‘science’ of psychohistory—a sort of large-scale psychology which can be used to predict civilisation’s reactions to certain stimuli, and thus predict the course of history. Hari Seldon—the creator of this science—recognised the decline of the Galactic Empire and set up a Foundation to preserve scientific thought and limit humanity’s dark age to just a millennium. The trilogy charts the Foundation’s rise and fall, jumping from century to century, encompassing a broad sweep of history.

Despite its preoccupation with psychology, it has little of the modern, Firefly-esque, concern with character arcs; Asimov has no qualms about leaping forward 100 years in a single chapter, or calmly detailing the destruction of a world we have spent pages coming to love. I found these leaps disconcerting, especially at first: we build up a relationship with the characters over a number of pages, only to have it destroyed.

This relationship is maintained in some respects, as preceding characters refer back to the historical deeds of their predecessors. But this is a hollow comfort. It’s akin to the paradigm shifts between seasons 3, 4 and 5 of Fringe; the storyworld is constantly being reasserted in a new context. All we have to cling to for familiarity are the historical figures made from prior protagonists. In this way, Asimov really creates a sense of history progressing—the Foundation rises from an uneasy conception, through various uncertainties, into a lumbering, and at times corrupt, institution.

While this is a shame, as you get into the trilogy it matters less. The real thrill of this series is more in the wide movements of history and therefore the plot. Small, forgotten, plot points are rekindled at the end of a section or novel with immeasurable elegance: it’s like a sci-fi version of an Arthur Conan Doyle story. Despite its length—my copy runs to over 500 pages—few things are superfluous. Through the subtle machinations of the plot, Asimov becomes a Seldon figure himself; he never loses his grip on the storyworld, which is a welcome change from much science-fiction writing, as well as long series in general.

Essentially, this is a vast, intricate series with a strong and fascinating quasi-theoretical background where people march into rooms at random intervals crying “Space!” “Space!” guys. “Space!”

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