I’ve decided that one of the things I’m going to do on my blog besides talk about my own books and writing, is review books that are my favorites and are also major inspirations to me. I am convinced that to be a good science fiction or alternate history author, one should be an avid reader of both science fiction and alternate history. I’ve recently begun rereading the original Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the greatest science fiction trilogies of all time. Today I will review the first book in the series, “Foundation.” I will refrain from reviewing too much of the plot just in case anyone wants to read the book for themselves. If you are a major fan of science fiction books you really should read the Foundation Trilogy.
The first thing I’ll comment on is that Foundation has a very unique structure as a novel. It is a short novel (by modern standards– more on that later) that covers over 150 years. You do not really follow any one character but rather different characters in different eras of the history of the foundation. The story starts on the planet Trantor which is a planet completely covered by one massive city and that is the capital world of the Galactic Empire. No my fellow STAR WARS fans, this is not something that was copied from Coruscant and the “Galactic Empire” of STAR WARS, rather it is something that Asimov wrote about in the 1940s about 37 years before the first STAR WARS movie. If you read Asimov’s work you will discover a large number of things that are present in other more modern Science Fiction franchises that were actually written about by Asimov. To give you another example from Star Wars, Asimov’s universe has an equivalent of a Light Saber known as a Force Blade. Specifically in Foundation there is mention of a “pen knife” that has a force field blade that can cut through anything. There are also other staples of modern day science fiction such as Hyperspace, personal force fields, energy weapons, space cruisers etc.
One thing that Foundation has been criticized for is that the setting is Male dominated. Rabid Feminists will not like this book. We have to remember, however, that when Asimov wrote these stories he was living in the 1940s and like it or not, it was a man’s world. The vast majority of women in those days were homemakers. I have three objections to those who would criticize the Foundation books for this reason. 1) It’s not fair to judge a historical book by modern standards, 2) there is nothing wrong with women being homemakers if that’s what they want and 3) it is foolish to believe that gender roles in the future will match what they are today. Its not inconceivable that things could come full circle or head back the opposite direction. In short when a Science Fiction author writes in a far future setting, that author has the liberty to create whatever cultural particulars they choose. It might be a male dominated society like what once existed in our world. It might be a female dominated society such as in the Masters of the Universe episode “Trouble in Arcadia” where women rule and men are slaves.
Another example of 1940s influence in the work is that virtually everybody smokes cigars or cigarettes. I’m reminded of the first time I showed my wife the James Bond movie Dr. No. My wife is seven years younger than me and she was stunned to see James Bond smoking inside an airport. Once again, in the far future, anything is possible, even a society in which smoking is almost universally practiced. Fiction does not have to conform to the cultural norms of our own time.
Structure wise, the novel is basically five interconnected short stories, skillfully combined into a single 60 something thousand word novel. That might seem short, but readers need to realize that from the 1800s to probably about 1970, the average novel was only between 30 and 70 thousand words long. With the e-book revolution we’re again seeing shorter novels. My favorite part of Foundation is undoubtedly the group of chapters called “the Mayors,” One of the Four Kingdoms known as Anacreon has discovered an old Imperial Cruiser that has enough power to destroy a planet. Anacreon’s war mongering prince regent Wienis turns the Cruiser against the Foundation. The way the Foundation turns the table on Wienis and Anacreon is just BRILLIANT but I’ll not ruin the story.
I will say that the story is extremely deep. It deals with the power of Politics, Psychology, Religion, Technology, and Commerce upon the forces of history. There are honestly some readers who might find it tedious a tedious read, but still I think it will be worth your while. It’s probably the best mixture of “Hard Science Fiction” and good old “Space Opera” that I have ever seen– two things that don’t normally go together. Most books focus on one or the other, but in my opinion Asimov managed to pull off both with Foundation. The books one drawback in my opinion is that, because of the nature of the novels structure, there is not much characterization. You never really have time to get attached to any of the characters because from start to finish Foundation covers over 150 years of history (covered in just over 60,000 words). There’s five generations of characters.
Foundation has given me an idea about what to do with a short story that I wrote a while back, dealing with intelligent life forms that live under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The story is Hard Science fiction in the sense that I tried to use as much real science as possible in telling the story. But the story is far too short to publish alone. People aren’t anxious to buy a single short story for even 99 cents when there are plenty of full novels for around the same price. However, if I can write four more short stories dealing with those same life forms (in different eras of their history), I could combine them together into a single novel with a structure very similar to Foundation. I love Space Opera / Action Adventure in Space. But I also like Hard Science Fiction. Space Opera is easier to write, but Hard Science Fiction is awesome because you get a real sense of “this could happen one day” or “this could be real.”