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The Foundation Trilogy () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

I went into economics because I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, in which social scientists save galactic civilization, and that’s what I wanted to be.
-Paul Krugman

The Foundation Trilogy, one of the touchstones of Science Fiction, began as a magazine serial in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in November 1949.  Respective stories were gathered together into the three volumes: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953).  Finally, the whole shebang was published as The Foundation Trilogy in 1961 and in 1966, won a Hugo Award as the best science fiction series of all time.  I don't know that this last is still true, but it is certainly one of the seminal works in the history of Science Fiction and remains extraordinarily influential.

Oliver Morton, in The New Yorker of May 17, 1999, had an excellent essay about the books wherein he pointed out that Asimov is really responsible for the concept, so prevalent in science fiction, of the Galactic Empire.  He particularly demonstrates the debt that the Star Wars series owes to Asimov's vision, a vision which apparently in turn owes a debt to Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire Asimov had read twice as a young man.

He also draws one important distinction; where the main foundation of the Star Wars series is speed (iconified by the image of the accelerating starship), the Foundation series is built upon size.  It is the epic scope, spanning thousands of years and worlds and incorporating billions of people, that really made Foundation so groundbreaking.  It enabled Asimov to apply historical themes to a genre that, virtually by definition, lacked history.

All of this is certainly true, but it strikes me that the epic scope as utilized by Asimov presents a political/philosophical problem.  Asimov posited a future science of psychohistory, a discipline which would bring scientific cause and effect certainty to the field of human affairs.  The Trilogy traces the fall and reemergence of a Galactic Empire with the entire process having been predicted by and, to some extent guided by, Hari Seldon, the Founder of Psychohistory.  This premise manages to combine two of the worst ideas that human's have ever had--first, that history is deterministic and follows some kind of iron clad pattern; second, that there is any merit to psychology, particularly  as a predictive tool when applied to large populations over a lengthy period of time.

The whole thing is sort of creepy in so far as it dismisses free will and the impact of ideas and individuals on man's development.  The quest for discernible patterns and laws in human existence is nothing new, most religions are predicated on the revelation of such hidden patterns.  And it is natural for scientists to be attracted to the idea that there are certain universal laws that will eventually explain our behavior, everything from why we love or why we kill to why I just typed the letter r.  But I for one, do not believe that our lives are predetermined.  In fact, I find such an idea pretty bleak and antihuman.

I still recommend the series, particularly in light of the influence it has had on the genre and for the massive scope of Asimov's vision, but, for me at least, the Freudian & Hegelian overtones are a little bit off-putting.


Grade: (A-)


Isaac Asimov Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Isaac Asimov
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Foundation’s Dark Future: Asimov judges the present by an imagined future, acting on the belief that scientific procedures guarantee progress. (Titus Techera, 11/19/21, Law & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Life & Times : Isaac Asimov (NY Times)
   -OBIT: Isaac Asimov, Whose Thoughts and Books Traveled the Universe, Is Dead at 72 (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, April 7, 1992, NY Times)
    -Isaac Asimov Home Page
    -Welcome to Jenkins' Spoiler-Laden Guide to Isaac Asimov
    -Encyclopedia Galactica
    -Isaac Asimov's Foundations Universe
    -Literary Research Guide: Isaac Asimov (1920 - 1992)
    -ESSAY: FIVE QUINTESSENTIAL EXPEDITIONS; No. 2: Encounters With a Hostile Clerk (Isaac Asimov, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: C. S. Lewis and Issac Asimov:   A Comparison and Contrast of the Men, Their Minds and Literature (Chris Howard)
    -ESSAY: Technology; A Celebration of Isaac Asimov  (JOHN MARKOFF, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : The Smart Guy ( Jacob Sullum, Reason)
    -REVIEW: (Dendry's Review)
    -REVIEW: of Foundation's Edge (Gerald Jonas, NY Times Book Review)