Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review -Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation'

Book Review,
Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’

“Space! If only we were as confident about it as we pretend…”

If you yourself were living in the post-Earth galaxy which is the setting for the original book of Asimov’s Foundation Series, the above quote would be one of the most poignant things you would never hear. The words were spoken to no one by Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus, a man that becomes an almost messianic character by the end of this astonishing book.

Isaac  Asimov’s Foundation first appeared as one complete novel in 1951 and is made up of five parts; The Psychohistorians, The Encylopedists, The Mayors, The Traders and The Merchant Princes. Each title describes the vital movers of their era at the outset of the book. Over the years, Asimov wrote a series of prequels and sequels so there exists a total of seven books in what is now known as The Foundation Series.

We open with mathematician Gaal Dornick’s trip to the planet Trantor where he is to work for the pioneering Hari Seldon. Seldon is the developer of a new branch of sociology called Psychohistory which is used to predict the path that populations will take with extraordinary accuracy. Seldon is getting old and has been subject to harassment from the rulers of Trantor for years because using his incredible new science he has predicted the downfall and decent into barbarism of the Galactic Empire which has stood for 12,000 years. Understandably, the government of Trantor, a key planet at the centre of this empire, is not happy to hear an influential man prophesising its doom and every covert effort is made to silence the ageing genius. Seldon needs a successor to carry out his plan for The Foundation. The Foundation is to be located on a small, unimportant planet at the periphery of the empire where 100,000 of all the best intellectuals of Trantor will be assembled to compile the Encyclopaedia Galactica (something I’m sure was parodied in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). This holy grail of knowledge, if seen to its end, will cut the period of barbarism and war in the galaxy to a third of the time predicted by Seldon, and Terminus (the Foundation’s home) will be its Jerusalem.

From this dramatic beginning a series of events are set in motion covering the next century or so of the galaxy’s history. We see the set up of the Foundation, we see it mature into a planet with its own culture and identity, we see it face challenges both domestic and foreign. Yet Hari Seldon’s presence is never far away; when the Foundation was built he installed a chamber in which a small number of important people can gather to view a hologram which is set to play a pre-recorded message from Seldon just before any one of several crises which become known commonly as ‘Seldon Crises’. The image of an elderly Seldon in a wheelchair cannot tell those watching exactly what will happen for fear that doing so will upset the accuracy of the psychohistorical prediction. It can only announce that yes a crisis is coming and here is vaguely what to expect. It is up to the rulers of the time to interpret the message and do whatever must be done to protect the Foundation.

A long line of fascinating characters appear as we move through the years. The best of which has to be Salvor Hardin, the first mayor of Terminus. We meet Hardin during The Encyclopedist era as a young politician who is rising through the ranks of the quasi-government that sees to the needs of Terminus. He is the first to recognise that after some years, the people of Terminus are not just a collection of working academics any longer, they are a population, a people with two generations now and a slowly emerging identity of their own. They need to see their planet as a nation, not just a work station and as such, they need leaders, men and women who will protect the planet and its interests. Hardin goes to work. He has to be one of the sharpest and most cunning politicians in all science fiction and it is his foresight that establishes Terminus as a political and economic power to be reckoned with. In time, this tentative power will define Terminus almost more than Seldon’s original purpose.

The once encyclopaedists become the Mayors, from the Mayors spring the mysterious religion of ancestor worship that the missionaries spread to every corner of the former empire. After them come the Traders who’s keen sales pitch puts countless planets under the economic thumb of The Foundation. Finally, the best of these traders, who all seem to worship the wit and wisdom of Salvor Hardin, rise to the level of the Merchant Prices. At their top is Hober Mallow, a master trader with a head for politics to equal Hardin. By his time the galaxy has grown into something altogether new and sinister and the residue of the former empire rears its ugly head in the most unexpected way.

I will give away no more and give you my impression. This was a fascinating read from start to finish. The book, surprisingly, is mostly talk and discussion; this would leave many readers bored if it were any other book but not here! Asimov’s detailed descriptive writing and his vividly individual characters can keep even the quickest and least patient readers from getting lost in the myriad of new names, new planets and new political situations. There are plenty of action scenes to boot, make no mistake. A series of narrowly avoided battles define the last few chapters of the book and the evasion of such battles, and all out war in the bigger picture, is where Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow are at their very best. They all posses a cunning nature that all men can admire.

I am inclined to think that the political nature of this book is what George Lucas wishes Star Wars could achieve but alas, he just had to waste time on Padme and Anacan Skywalker’s awkward love story. However, anyone thinking after reading this review that this book is nothing but politics and no hard sci-fi, don’t be alarmed, there is plenty of fantastic imagery and general weirdness to satisfy that all-too-familiar appetite for the wonderful. All things considered, absolutely excellent book and I’m heading down to the book shop in the mainstreet in Bray asap to scout around for the immediate sequel, Foundation and Empire.

According to Wikipedia, in 2008 it was announced that a film adaptation of Foundation is to be made with Roland Emmerich in the directorial driving seat. The following year Columbia Pictures bought the rights to the book and announced that the film would be made in 3D. In all honesty, I can’t say I’m excited by this news and the current wave of 3D movies is a forced fad to which I really do not give much credit. But you never know, could be something interesting.

Just a little end note: try reading sci-fi novels while on a plane going through turbulence. The book becomes more exciting and the turbulence becomes less stressful, I have experienced this twice in the past year, very interesting experiences!

Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’
Rating: 9/10
By Edward Gerard Brophy
For Born Again Nihilist 2011

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