I’ve had limited exposure to the writings of Asimov but my encounters with many older science fiction works have shown me that in many cases their strengths lay in ideas over characters. As a reader whose attention is drawn to vivid characters this often poses a problem. Niven and Porenelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye had similar problems and I’m not sure I can name a specific character from Rendezvous with Rama. Each of those novels were in one way or another a struggle for me typically since engaging with the novel leaned almost exclusively on the intellectual rather than the emotional. Foundation opens up with a fascinating concept: a psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, has used mathematics to determine that the current Galactic Empire will fall into ruin. Needless to say this sends the current leadership of the Galactic Empire into a bit of an uproar and sees Seldon and his compatriots exiled to the far end of the universe where they can continue their work without upset the current order. What follows is a march through time as Seldon’s work echoes through the ages as he and his descendants seek to limit the impact of the “dark age” that follows the empire’s fall.
Asimov plays with some truly interesting ideas over the course of the novel and while there are some glimpses of interesting characters they are gone far too quickly before they even have much of a chance. The constant shifts forward in time place the novel’s primary focus on the Seldon’s overall goal rather than the people left who move it forward. As an intellectual exercise this makes for interesting reading. As a work of fiction it makes things difficult. Foundation isn’t so much a story as it is an idea. It works as a frame narrative, likely deliberately, similar to Thomas More’s Utopia. It feels less like a novel and more like a handbook on how to preserve society through the darkest of times.
Throughout the story Asimov shows flashes of what could be great stories. Hardin’s facing down the attempted hostile takeover of Trantor was a particularly thrilling moment. However, Hardin’s story feels brief and the novel rarely reaches that level of excitement as things plod forward. The lack of a firm character to draw readers in and the constant shifting of setting makes for unsure narrative footing. With neither a strong sense of person or place the goals of the titular Foundation are hard to root for. As a reader I find no reason to root for the Foundation and their ascendency throughout the novel is interesting rather than thrilling. Indeed, while the Foundation itself might be the novel’s protagonists their actions are often looked at without examining any legitimately human impact. Everything from their manipulation of religion in the Mayor’s section and the manipulation of trade throughout the Traders and Merchant Princes section is looked through a lens how it best secures the future of the Foundation itself. With the narrative perspective 100% focused on the Foundation we rarely get a glimpse of what the Foundation has actually cost the members of the periphery. It’s a curiously one-sided approach that looks at the overall outcome of preserving civilization without acknowledging the costs along the way.
Foundation is a fascinating intellectual exercise couched as a narrative. Its ideas shine even through the dross of its prose. Furthermore, there are definite moments when the elements Seldon uses to determine the fall of the Galactic Empire bear resemblance to events and practices seen today. There is a universal relevance there that will likely stand the test of time.