Foundation by Isaac Asimov
As I’ve said before, as much as I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, those two genres can also very easily get hokey or just be badly written, so I’m usually hesitant. Obviously, Asimov is one of the classic science fiction writers, but I guess I also like more modern science fiction generally. While good science fiction has a message about society and isn’t just about technology, I didn’t really want to read about a futuristic world that was actually already antique seeming. This is especially noticeable when watching older movies or shows.
Foundation is the first of a trilogy to which Asimov eventually added several prequels and sequels. While this novel was written years before Star Wars, there were definitely parts of it that reminded me of it – there is a large galactic empire spanning thousands of planets and star systems. No aliens, though – these planets have all been colonized by humans over the past few millennia (like Firefly). However, Trantor, the main planet, sounds like a precursor to Coruscant – the entire planet is covered by buildings and sky scrapers, and there are inhabitants that have not seen the sky in years (in one of the Star Wars books, the author portrayed the lower levels of the planet as slums while the levels became more prosperous as they became higher).
As for the actual story, the Galactic Empire has been successful for several millennia but is slowly starting to weaken and decline. For example, science and technology is resting on laurels of years past and the people are too focused on the past to make any more discoveries. In this way, knowledge is starting to stagnate and also be lost. Hari Seldon is the head of a science termed psychohistory which basically sounds like very complicated mathematical probability. Using this theory, he can basically predict the reactions of masses for several years ahead of time. Of course, knowledge of historic trends probably would help as well. After the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a period of chaos and ignorance in that area of the world, and Asimov applies this on a much grander scale to his novel. Seldon predicts the fall of a the empire within three hundred years, and a dark age lasting over 30,000 years unless he can set up a scientific Foundation to preserve the knowledge and serve as a new beginning which would lessen the dark ages to a mere millennia instead of 30. However, his theory relies on the subjects not knowing the future, so he makes sure not to divulge this information beyond a few personnel, and does not send any trained psychohistorians to the Foundation.
The novel charts the first 150 years of the Foundation and how they maintain their hold and some power on a planet with limited resources surrounded by planets that have taken control of their domains, no longer fall under the Empire and are ruled by war lords.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I already picked up the second part of the series at the PX. However, while the politics and rise and fall of nations was well done and interesting, his treatment of gender was disappointing to say the least. After 1000s of years of development, Asimov couldn’t imagine women in a role other than wives. In fact, the only woman that even made an appearance in the novel was someone’s shrewish wife whom the husband had married to make an alliance with her father. While I could definitely buy the idea of societies taking away women’s rights and retreating back to a kind of medieval set up, there’s never any suggestion that women had any type of power before nor do they seem to have any prominence on Terminus, the heart of the Foundation which is supposed to be the most advanced planet around. When Seldon sets up the Foundation, a court asks him about the number of people, and he said they were including wives and children in that number. The only other time women are mentioned is when Mallow talks about economic warfare, and someone sarcastically responds, “so the war is going to end because of disgruntled housewives?” (Not an exact quote, I don’t have the book near me). While I’m willing to give him some leeway since this novel was published in 1950 or 1951, it is still rather irritating – it’s not like WWII hadn’t just ended during which many women took on roles and jobs that were traditionally done by men. They may have had to give them up again right after, but they’d definitely proven themselves. I’m hoping there will be an improvement in the next parts of the trilogy.