Welcome to this special third edition of Dust Jacket. During our #0 edition podcast, the Nerd Culture Podcast crew reviewed the first three novels in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Lauded as one of the greatest sci-fi series ever written, Foundation has the unique honour of being the series awarded the Best Series of All Time by the Hugo Awards, beating out such luminaries as Lord of the Rings and the Lensmen saga.
Here’s a summary of just some of what the NCP crew had to say. For the full review, check out our #0 edition podcast at iTunes.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Set more than 13,000 years in the future, humanity has built a vast galactic Empire. So great is this Empire that Earth has been all-but forgotten. Unfortunately, the Empire is on the verge of collapse due to internal decadence, strife and complacency.
Only one man has the foresight to see the inevitability of this collapse: mathematics professor Hari Seldon. Seldon has developed a complex system known as psychohistory, which mathematically predicts the behaviour of large populations over vast periods of time. Using this system, he predicts both the Empire’s collapse and the 30,000 years of barbarism that will follow. But with the proper preparation and planning, he calculates this period could be reduced to a mere 1,000 years.
On a planet on the far edge of the galaxy, he establishes the Foundation, ostensibly as an organisation dedicated to preserving the knowledge of humanity in a vast galactic encyclopaedia. His real intent in establishing this group, however, is to set in motion the Seldon Plan, which will see the Foundation world emerge as the centre of a new, more benevolent Second Empire in 1,000 years time.
Placed on trail and exiled from the Empire for his beliefs, He records a series of messages highlighting key moments in these thousand years, key challenges humanity will have to face if his plan is to succeed.
As his predictions come true, we see the Seldon Plan in action over several hundred years. As the Empire collapses, smaller kingdoms are formed. Later still, The Foundation becomes the pre-eminent power in the galaxy due to its knowledge of atomic power. Asimov guides us through the emergence of the merchant barons, threats from within and without, and the mystery of the Second Foundation, established by Seldon independent of the first.
WHAT WE THOUGHT
Foundation (book one) introduces Seldon and Psychohistory. A fascinating and detailed concept, Asimov gives us enough detail about Psychohistory without bogging down the story. More importantly, the man behind the theories is equally fascinating. Mysterious yet proud, brilliant yet fallible, he is the driving force behind all that follows. Each story highlights a key moment Seldon has predicted, a major threat or challenge that humanity faces. The messages he records lay the groundwork for humanity’s future. He becomes our anchor point, the link that holds the stories together. Not bad for a character who appears in less than a third of the novel.
Whilst some of the stories are more fascinating or thought provoking than others, there are no bad tales in the book. Each has strong characterisation, interesting plots and insightful social or philosophical commentary. It never feels like just a short story collection. There is always a forward progression as Seldon’s thousand-year plan unfolds amidst potential threats and/or turning points.
Foundation and Empire (book two), opens in a similar manner to the end of book 1. Another threat to the plan. Another message from Seldon. The Foundation lives to calculate another day. Interesting, but nothing Asimov hasn’t told us previously. However, there is an x-factor lurking in the universe the Seldon Plan has not predicted. A mutant, the greatest danger to the Foundation, capable of derailing everything Seldon has established. Just when the series is losing momentum, Asimov hits us with an overwhelming sense of menace by introducing the Mule, the most compelling character in the series outside of Seldon himself.
The Mule is very three-dimensional. You feel both sorrow and empathy for him while also wishing him ill because he so greatly threatens the Plan. The story of the Mule helps elevate the series to a new level and also leads to the next big revelation in the series, the existence of a Second Foundation. .
Second Foundation (book three) sees the Foundation in ruin. A desperate search takes place for the Second Foundation, now man’s only chance of salvation. The novel charts the power struggle left in the Mule’s wake. The Seldon Plan has failed. Who will forge the second empire? This is the book you read Foundation and Empire for. The Mule’s hunt for the Second Foundation is a great way to re-introduce both the character and the universe. And whilst the Mule’s story is concluded a third of the way through the novel, it establishes the big mystery of book three: What is the Second Foundation? Where is it? And what role will it play, for good or ill, in the events of the galaxy?
Asimov continued the series with Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. He detailed the life of Hari Seldon in Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. However, the thousand-year plan was left unfinished. We never see the birth of the new galactic Empire heralded at the beginning of the series, although Gregory Benford and Greg Bear have given us tantalising what-might-have-beens.
Foundation is a masterpiece of SF, a seminal work. Asimov presents us with an allegorical tale of the history of the world, from the fall of the Roman Empire through the dark and middle ages. He uses the tenets of the science fiction genre to illustrate to the reader the cycles of history that humanity experiences. By giving us a better understanding of the history and nature of humanity, Asimov elevated SF beyond the bug eyed monsters and two-fisted action that preceded him. Foundation is the culmination of a slow trend in SF literature at the time, a move towards a deeper, more philosophical approach to science fiction.
Here’s how the NCP crew ranked Foundation:
High praise indeed from the NCP team.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Is Foundation worthy of the lavish praise we’ve heaped upon it? Is it truly the genre-defining novel we’ve presented it to be? Send us your comments, criticisms and, most importantly, your votes! Help us compile the definitive list of Greatest Sci-Fi Masterpieces.
Foundation claims top spot as our list slowly begins to take form:
POSITION TITLE AUTHOR RANKING
1 Foundation series Isaac Asimov 4.5
2 The City and the Stars Arthur C. Clarke 4
3 Non-Stop Brian Aldiss 3.5
Next up we’re back to our regular review schedule. Stop by as Luke and I review Player of Games, the second of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels.