Isaac Asimov - Foundation (the original trilogy)
Strange books. They are well-written, neatly composed (each one around 250 pages), and describe an almost 1,000 year long piece of our galaxy’s future history. It’s a single story but composed of a series of smaller stories. Due to the passage of time, many characters only occupy a short span of the book. I enjoyed the books but some parts didn’t exactly stand the test of time.
I’ll put the plot summary at the end, now focusing on things I found particularly appealing and disappointing in the original trilogy. Since this is one of the most influential and critically acclaimed science-fiction series of all time, I’ll skip the obvious analyses and whatnot, instead focusing on things that caught my eye in particular.
Starting with praise, I found the books very easy to digest and interesting enough to read without it feeling like work. I need to state this explicitly as many parts are constructed, quite deliberately, like history books. So, yes, it’s a history of the Foundation but it reads well.
Story-wise, the most valuable lesson from the books is that progress is not granted: there can be, and likely will be, regress due to the constant power struggles and random events. The premise that “with a population large enough you can predict the future with 100% certainty” is certainly ludicrous but for the purpose of the plot, it’s easy to suspend disbelief. Especially that it wonderfully demonstrates rises and falls of empires but also much smaller scale events of similar trajectory.
But the most fantastic insight was how even during growth periods knowledge is constantly lost. It’s not just people who forget, it’s also communities, it’s also civilizations. Due to death and lossy communication, information is subject to entropy just as everything else. Protecting it should be given more weight.
In terms of things I liked less, a lot of what I had issue with when reading I, Robot was problematic here just as well: smoking, 1950s tropes and language, lack of information technology, some other retro-futuristic elements I won’t be petty enough to enumerate. Instead, I’ll say that the characters in the trilogy are surprisingly one-dimensional, they “serve a purpose” to the story of the rise of the Foundation. The most interesting character is the Mule, but even he is kind of painted into a somewhat simplistic corner in “Second Foundation”. This was doubly disappointing that the Robot stories are great at creating characters that are believable, lively, and multifaceted. Andrew Martin in the “Bicentennial Man” is superbly complex. In comparison, Arkady Darell, the protagonist of the better part of “Second Foundation, is a depressingly simplistic and stereotypical depiction of a young woman.
Short and incomplete summaries
Book 1 is the beginning of the story: Trantor’s the center of the Galactic Empire, Hari Seldon uses mathematics to predict with near certainty that the Empire will see an inevitable fall into 30,000 years of barbarism. He devises a plan to shorten that period of dark ages to a single 1,000. At the beginning he sells the idea as an Encyclopedia Foundation, a number of scientists whose purpose is to write down all knowledge of mankind for the civilization rising from the ashes to be able to build on. It soon turns out he means the Foundation to be that new empire based on science instead of superstition and brutality. That’s explained by Seldon himself appearing in a pre-recorded message. He keeps re-appearing at predicted periods of crisis. A number of leaders (mayor Salvor Haldin, trader Linmar Ponyets, and the first merchant prince Hober Mallow) solve crises appearing at their respective times. The first through religion (Scientism), the second through trade, and the third through non-action (relying on market power).
Foundation and Empire
Book 2 is a bit incorrectly named. It claims to focus on clashes of the Foundation with the Galactic Empire but this is only one third of the book’s content. In that short part, the last talented and motivated general of the Empire, Bel Riose, identifies the Foundation as a threat and begins a war with it. Agents of the Foundation arrive on Trantor to make it seem as if the general was a traitor. Although they themselves fail, the Emperor ends up growing suspicious of the new talented general himself and recalls him to Trantor, executing him unfairly for treason. The implication is that from the Emperor’s perspective, even if Riose was right, that would give him too much popularity and power. In turn, the Emperor perceived him as a threat to his status.
The bulk of the book happens a hundred years after Riose’s death and after the “great sack” of Trantor by a barbarian fleet. It revolves around two subjects: finding Seldon’s “Second Foundation” and the Mule. The Second Foundation is supposed to be a “backup” Foundation set up by Hari Seldon at the “opposite end of the galaxy”, or “at Star’s End”, at the same time as the first one, with the same goal. The Mule is a sterile mutant, unforeseen by Seldon’s plan, who is able to control other peoples’ emotional states. He is quickly able to rise in power across the galaxy. His self-appointed title of First Citizen is supposed to demonstrate he’s “just like the other citizens”. At that time the Foundation became complacent (sure of winning because of the Plan) and dictatorial, with “mayors” being hereditary and with emperor-like decorum. By the end of the book, the Mule overpowers the Foundation but the hunt for the Second Foundation is still fruitless.
Book 3 is the second part of the Mule story, and then (one third into the book) a story about the search by Foundation of the Second Foundation.
The Mule, after conquering the Foundation, is looking for the Second Foundation to ensure his victory. At first he is led to believe it lives on a planet called Tazenda (Star’s End), and then through his emotional superpowers forces Bail Channis, a Second Foundation agent, to reveal it’s actually Rossem, a harsh small planet with few inhabitants in the Tazenda system. Through that part of the book we learn the Second Foundation was the opposite of the regular one: secretive and focused on mental science instead of industrial science. It’s assumed that the Second Foundation is able to face the Mule’s special powers. In fact, on Rossem, a mental duel between the Mule and SF’s First Speaker ends with the Mule being subjugated by the First Speaker. His remaining five years of rule are spent on planet Kalgan in non-expansive benevolent despotism.
55 years after the Mule’s death, the Foundation becomes widely aware of the existence of the SF. This both causes it to be overly confident (the SF will save us if needed) and distrustful of the SF (they are too powerful and will control us without us knowing). Both factions seek it then, the first one to ensure the success of Seldon’s Plan, while the other planning to destroy the threat. Through a long series of young adult spy novel-like twists and perturbations, and a short war with Kalgan’s new despot, the SF is first assumed to not exist at all, then on Kalgan, and finally on Terminus. Thanks to recent scientific developments, 50-odd agents of SF are found indeed on Terminus and indefinitely detained. The search is over.
In fact, however, it turns out that the true location was and is Trantor, the opposite “social” end of the galaxy. It was SF’s plan all along to get the Seldon plan back on track by removing itself from the original Foundation’s equation. The only way they knew how was by staging their own destruction.