Book 1 in the Foundation series
Not surprisingly this is a second reading – I first enjoyed this classic about twenty years ago.
There’s much to enjoy. Or, rather, there’s the central idea to enjoy: Asimov is generally at his best in short stories with a single ‘what if’ notion. What’s unusual about Foundation is that he managed to successfully spin his workable ‘psycho-historian’ idea out into a (wisely short) novel. The series even kicked along OK for a while, but by the time we get to the dreadful fifth Foundation and Earth Asimov had spun out of control into event horizon of his ego.
One way he gets away with a whole novel here is by basically telling the same story three times (only the character’s names have been changed to protect …). Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow are all puppet master politicians who keep their master-plans carefully hidden, pulling a clever rabbit out of a hat at the last minute to thwart their thug foes: I can’t really remember who’s motto was something like, “Violence is the last resort of the unintelligent,” but it works as well for any of them. The latter two are a bit annoying in their reiterated, ‘Look, it’s obvious how to solve this crisis – Seldon’s plan means there’s no other way’, when it’s no such thing, but the joy of fiction is never having to say you’re wrong. I mean, Asimov’s quasi-Marxist political theory of historical progress is, at heart, flapdoodle, but he can have the fun constructing his universe to confirm his protagonists’ convictions. We can have fun to: it’s a nice idea competently realised.
The leading men are arrogant, spurning or using public opinion with machiavellian disdain while they manipulate enemies with the same Trojan horse technique. Oh, and they are, of course, leading men: Asimov’s SF futuristic orientation didn’t stretch as far as women being any more than pantomime caricatures, if indeed they exist at all. His only female character is execrably predictable: vain, pretty and shrewish. People are basically divided into three groups: realists (successful scientists, businessmen and/or politicians); greedy amoral militaristic imperialists; and sheep.