Best Books: Foundation

The next work on my list of books everyone should read is Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

As you may recall, the two criteria I use in evaluating whether a (fiction) book belongs on my list—whether everyone ought to read it, rather than (say) only “die-hard fans” of the genre—are its ability to “teach and delight.” To use Chaucer’s terms, whether it contains “sentence and solace.” To make the list, a book should be very enjoyable to read purely as a story. But it should also be “weighty,” helping a careful—or, better yet, even a casual—reader to grapple with the enduring issues of the time and of all time.

In the preface to The Lord of the Rings (which is also on my list), Tolkien describes his disdain for what he call “allegory” and his preference for “history, true or feigned.” While I disagree with his term for them, I share his dislike of “stories” that are merely thinly and crudely veiled didacticism and his preference for “history.”

I mention that because in Foundation Asimov tells “history,” in several senses. First, and most obviously, it is a series of “snapshots,” so to speak, in the supposed history of the galaxy during and after the fall of the Galactic Empire. At the critical junctures of that history, he shows us the events that “change the course of history,” and the people, reasons, social forces, etc. behind those events, usually from the perspective of someone close to them. This is an interesting, effective, and even compelling way of telling a story on such a grand scale—qualities not lessened in any way by the fact that the technique stems from the book’s origin as a series of stories published in Astounding.

But Asimov is also drawing, more explicitly than most stories, on “real” history. The “feigned history” (to use Tolkien’s term) of “the fall of the Galactic Empire” (and so on) often follows lines already traced by the “true history” of our world. Asimov has said that the premise was based on ideas in Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The story of Foundation feels familiar because it draws deeply from real history.

And third, Asimov is writing about history. In the opening scenes he introduces the idea of “psychohistory,” a supposed branch of mathematics by which its practitioners can reliably predict what masses of people will do in the future. The inventor of this discipline, Hari Seldon, becomes a central figure for the entire book, and even for subsequent volumes, in which the idea is refined and described in more nuanced form.

And so, while the book is for the most part not didactic (“pushing” the ideas on even a hostile reader) in the slightest, Asimov is definitely promoting his ideas (or a set of ideas I presume to be his) about the fundamental questions of the study of history. While I can’t say that Asimov is right, and in fact, as in many good books, distilling the themes into brief statements is difficult, this lends the story a sense of “weight” that lingers even for years after it is read.

I mentioned Asimov’s technique of telling the story from the perspective of characters close to the pivotal events of his imagined future history. In the hands of a lesser author, the characters might only “feel” interesting because of the events they witness. But not so with Asimov; while there are enough similarities between them that a handful of main or viewpoint characters across the original “trilogy” could easily enough get confused with one another, they are compelling characters in their own right, with good reason and strong motivation for their actions beyond the obvious dictates of Plot, but different ideas about what is best and how it ought to be obtained that bring them into conflict. Asimov’s characterization shines, in my opinion, most clearly (or at least most memorably) in Second Foundation, which is, strictly speaking, outside my scope here, but this first “book” has its own compelling characters painted with touches of humor.

With his striking and compelling characterization, the interesting plots that flow largely from that, and the episodic format (which I find works in a way that other authors’ attempts do not), I would say that Foundation (and for that matter the other two volumes, and perhaps the later continuations—which I have not yet read and so won’t speak more on) was well worth reading even if it “had nothing to say.” But because Asimov writes so engagingly here, yet on such a “weighty” and lasting theme, I can only say that Foundation is one of the books that everyone ought to read.

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