Foundation by Isaac Asimov | October 1966, originally published 1951 | Avon Books | Paperback $1.99 (Used)
This book is one of 50 titles on my Classics Club list.
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future — to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire — both scientists and scholars — and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation. But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun — or fight them and be destroyed.
Kiiiinda disappointed in this one.
I had high expectations… maybe too high. Really, this is one of the (if not the) sci-fi classics that defined and elevated the genre beyond pulp in the mid-20th century. But now I’m left feeling confused as to why exactly so many modern SF readers still rate this book among their favorites.
It’s supposed to be an epic space opera (well, the first book of it anyway) with a focus on compelling, universal themes/ideas. And I guess it is? There is very little in the way of character development, so the entire plot revolves around the long-term revelation of the nature of humanity, especially in terms of scientific curiosity and governance/social control. The pace of the story is quick, covering decades in mere chapters, so the story necessarily can’t be about the individual characters (but rather the fate of Man as a whole).
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Which brings me to my primary problem with this book: it’s all about Man. There is literally not one single woman with any impactful dialogue whatsoever. There is one woman with a speaking part, who exists only as an incidental appendage of her spouse and who spends all her brief page time complaining about her husband like some kind of midcentury housewife cliché. Of all the anachronistic little things that served as constant subtle reminders that this book was a product of the 1950’s, this was the thing that I found most jarring.
Is it fair to judge a 65-year-old novel by the standards of modern culture? Not wholly, no. I can respect that Foundation had a huge impact on the SF genre as we know it. I can certainly enjoy Asimov’s imagination and engaging storytelling skills. And, as I haven’t read any further in this series nor read anything else by Asimov yet (for shame! I know), I have to be fair about withholding judgement on the author’s intentions/beliefs in general (which some brief web surfing indicates were comparatively feminist for his time, anyway).
It’s just that the near-absolute lack of any women at all in this particular book is just so surprising that it pulled me right out of the story. That “suspension of disbelief” threshold, so important to the enjoyment of well-written SF, was crossed and my suspension was suspended, so to speak.
I certainly wouldn’t be surprised by a novel of this era that featured some two-dimensional damsel in distress, doting mother, femme fatale, or some other trope version of a lady companion/sidekick/love interest or whatever. Women had been featured as such in stories for hundreds of years before Foundation, and I knew better than to expect a Princess/General Leia or Lieutenant Uhura here. It’s the focus on a 99% male cast of characters — for no apparent reason — that baffles me.
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My other problem with the book is that… well, I just had trouble caring at all about the plot. It’s as though the author wanted to show us this massive, complicated world, but zoomed too far back with the telescope so that all we can see is the general shape of things, with a few intriguing details here and there if we squint a bit.
All that said, the dialogue and the setting/event descriptions are great, though the latter are far too sparse. It might seem like an odd complaint, but I really think this book should have been longer and a bit slower paced, with more time spent on that fascinating world-building! Of course, Asimov was writing in a time when genre novels were far less frequently allowed to be the door-stoppers that they often are today.
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This brings me to my decision to not read the remaining books in the series, at least not anytime soon. My understanding is that there are a few more lady characters and the plot twists get to be considerably weirder in the following books, but I’m just not interested in trying them out right now.
Have you read Foundation, and did you care for it? If so, what do you think I’m missing about the appeal of this book???
- New York Times obit for Asimov
- Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for Asimov
- ‘What Absolutely Everyone Needs to Know about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series’ at io9
- ‘Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: The Little Idea That Became Science Fiction’s Biggest Series’ at io9
This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge. (Bought before the new year.)
Publication information: Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Avon Books, 1966. Print.
Source: Local used bookshop, Galveston Books.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.