Sunday 4 February 2018

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I first read this science fiction landmark when I was a kid and I have to confess I retained virtually no memory of it, except a general sense of the great flow of events through the vast spaces and long history of a galactic empire, with intrigue aplenty.

Actually, that's not a bad thumbnail sketch of this novel, and indeed the three-volume classic it kicks off.

I was motivated to give the Foundation Trilogy a much overdue reappraisal when I received a beautiful boxed set of Folio Society hardcovers for Christmas. (Thanks, Barb.)

I dived into this first volume about a week ago, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. In fact I found it addictively readable.

Asimov, at least at this stage in his career (1951), is no great literary stylist. But in some ways this is an advantage. 

His prose is so neutral there's no danger of it getting in the way of the story. And it's so colourless that there's little danger of it dating.

What has dated is the technology — I ask you, microfilm? — and the dialogue, which is sometimes stilted sci-fi speak at its worst ("Great Galloping Galaxies";  "I don't care an electron").

But let's cut Mr Asimov some slack. He is also capable of some striking and memorable descriptions, particularly when he's taken by the visionary excitement of space and he speaks of "the hard brilliance of the stars" or "the broken edge of the galaxy."

The Foundation trilogy tells the story of the collapse and rebirth of a vast galactic empire. The gimmick is psychohistory — a science which enables the future to be predicted, not in the sense of anyone's individual destiny, but in terms of mass movements and populations.

Hari Seldon (Asimov is good at names — we also have Sennett Forell and Salvor Hardin) is the master of psychohistory and he has worked out that the Empire will descend into chaos and barbarism for 30,000 years.

The collapse is inevitable, but the duration of collapse isn't. If he makes the right moves a new empire can arise in a "mere" thousand years. So he establishes the Foundation of the title...

The story proceeds at a headlong pace in a series of vignettes (the novel was reworked from eight short stories) with the protagonists using first science, then religion, then commerce to drive the galaxy back towards a new beginning.

Asimov was inspired by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and there's something intoxicating about the scope of his vision. And he has a knack for conjuring suspense and creating satisfying situations in which the bad guys are bested.

What he doesn't have is any women. The first female character turns up about one hundred pages in, and she's effectively a secretary who answers the phone. 

Another hundred pages along we get a sparky and troublesome queen of a planet (her title is actually  "commdora").

But she's immediately pacified when her husband gives her some fab fashion accessories...

Great Galloping Sexism aside, Foundation was compelling fun and I'm looking forward to volume two of the trilogy, Foundation and Empire. Stay tuned.

(Image credits: The Folio Society edition is from their website. The Gnome Press original hardcover (blue spaceships on a black background) was from an ABE book dealer, Heartwood Rare Books. The Weidenfeld UK original (blue spaceships on a purple background) is from another ABE dealer, Currey, L.W. Inc. The other covers are from Goodreads. I've given pride of place to the Avon edition with the lovely cover painting by Don Ivan Punchatz. This was the one I grew up with, but it isn't mere nostalgia which moves me to single out this striking design.)

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