Six hundred years ago, Luo Guanzhong wrote a couple of true sentences at the beginning of his book Romance of the Three Kingdoms:
“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”
And thus it ever will be? It reminds me of the first time I read Plato’s Apology, the first writing (other than the Bible) of significant age I had ever read. I was surprised and disappointed to find that people were people then, just as people are people now. The fact that we are trying to solve the same problems now as we were thousands of years ago was—and is—…disheartening.
It isn’t clear how many years in the future Isaac Asimov writes about in Foundation, the first book in his famous trilogy. Humanity has spread across the galaxy, and has been for so long that people have forgotten where they came from. Earth has fallen from from memory. Citizens of the hundreds of worlds that make up the Empire ask themselves: Is it possible that the origin of humanity lies on a single planet?
The search for Earth is not the point of any of the five stories collected in Foundation. The main character, Hari Seldon, is a mathematician who has worked out the science of psychohistory. The science is worthless when predicting the actions of a person. However, people being people and all, it can be used to predict the probability of the actions of large groups. After doing the math, he predicts the fall of the Empire, and tells people so.
The four stories that follow span centuries of the history of Terminus, a planet founded by Seldon and populated by scientists directed to collect the sum of human knowledge. They do this not to prevent the fall of the Empire, but to hasten the growth of a Second Empire. This collection of people is called The Foundation.
Asimov wrote these stories from 1942–1944. Apart from some of the technology, Foundation holds up extremely well. Readers will discover many elements of these stories that have found their way into science fiction in print, on-screen, and in video games.
His prose is crystal clear, and the story is told mostly through dialogue between characters that are participating in the political and economic history of Terminus and the surrounding worlds. Asimov was inspired by the history of the Roman Empire when he wrote the stories—specifically Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
I highly recommend Foundation. It spurs thought about free will, religion, intelligence, growth, and society as a whole. And it’s a darned good story to boot. An epic scale with worlds—and empires—at stake. Read it for the story, read it for the ideas, read it because it’s one of the founding (ha ha) texts of modern science fiction. It’s well worth your time.
Release Date: August 1951 (USA)
ISBNs: 0553293354 (9780553293357)
Alcohol/Drugs: 2 (some smoking and drinking)
Violence: 1 (science fiction battles, threats of violence)