Top positive review
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laid the foundation for much of today's scifi
on 13 July 2004
Asimov's Foundation series was more aptly named than many suspect. Over the years it has served as an inspiration to many science fiction masterpieces, and became the benchmark by which all other epic science fiction was based. Much of today's space opera owes much to the original vast planet-spanning tale of the birth of a civilisation guided through the ages by the God-like hand of Seldon, and its testament to the enduring legacy of the work that its still as awe inspiring a tale as it was more than half a century ago. True, some of the technologies and settings are a little dated but that's not where the strength of the series lies.
If you're unfamiliar with the Foundation work, they are basically a series of short stories taking place over a number of centuries that chart the rise of an intergalactic civilisation from humble origins to a vast galactic power, and the trials and tribulations that shaped it, narrated from the perspective of its major historical figures, such as prominent civic leaders, military heroes, merchant traders, brilliant scientists etc. Underpinning all this is the strange figure of genius Hari Seldon, who predicted the whole course of future events through his discipline of psychohistory, a science that predicts the actions of whole civilisations and societies over a grand time-scale.
Each chapter starts with an excerpt from the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica on the events portrayed in the following scene as if the whole series is a look back at history from some undisclosed future. It lends a wonderful sense of grandness to the stories as well as being an original and novel way of introducing the new setting. As I mentioned earlier, each chapter takes place several decades after the previous one so characters who were 'upstart young rebels' in one story become 'noble visionaires' in the next scene, and 'legendery heroes' in the one after that. The chapters all focus on a Seldon Crisis, which are a series of predicted crises that would mark a new stepping stone to greatness, and are accompanied at the conclusion of the section by the appearance of the long dead hologram of Hari Seldon popping up every few centuries describing the events that have just occured.
The character of Seldon and the way he evolves from crackpot theorist, to brilliant but misunderstood genius, to an almost prophetic role is wonderfully moving, as are the other important characters throughout the novel, and the development of the Foundation and its gradual dominance through various means (including religion, trade and war) is spell binding. Asimov touches on many themes here: the role of religion as a tool of conquest, the magicianry associated with any highly advanced technological society, the inevitable bureaucracy that any establishment eventually succumbs to, the predictability of mob-mentality. Unfortunately, many of these wonderful themes are only lightly touched upon, which is a shame although Asimov's clear simple writing style and light humour make his work accessible to anyone.
If you can ignore the surface details and the slightly comic-bookish settings then you will enjoy one of the most pivotal and ambitious science fiction series written. I also highly recommend the two sequels.