Foundation is a quick and easy read, split into bite size chunks with chapters rarely longer then couple of pages, neatly organized into “books”. Apart from several main themes, stories and characters rarely arch across books. So, all in all, it’s an easy but somewhat shallow entertainment.
At least that’s what I thought almost until the last chapter. Either I was blind or I needed to wait until the end for Asimov to wrap it up. Or both. Anyway, there is more to it then it initially seemed.
Far into the future, humans have colonized 25 million planets of the Galaxy, and all of them are organized in an ancient, slowly stagnating and decaying Empire. A mathematician gone psychiatrist, Hari Seldon, pioneers a new field of science - a psychohistory, a “branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli”. Psychohistory requires “that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment”, and also “that the human conglomerate itself is unaware of psychohistoric analysis in order that its reactions are truly random”.
After applying such analysis to the Empire, Seldon comes to a conclusion that there will be further crises and turmoil followed by disintegration and finally an imminent collapse 300 years in the future and after the collapse a 30000 years long dark age of warfare and barbarism would follow. These down-spiralling trends are so inert that nothing can stop them at that point, however he comes up with a Plan to cut the Dark age following the collapse to only 1000 years instead of 30000.
Psychohistory can reliably predict the outcomes of large masses, broad sweeps of economics and sociology, but any distinguished individual actions, “brilliant heroics” as Asimov calls them, introduces large amount of variability and uncertainty. Seldon’s Plan was to create a nucleus, a Foundation for a new empire that would rise at the end of the Dark age. In order to create a deterministic system, he isolates the Foundation in a subsystem (in order to simplify it and decrease variability) and manipulates “starting conditions” as much as he can to reduce the effects of the individual actions by engineering a number of crises that would force a single available action (the one that he plotted) on to the Foundation, and each of these crises is followed by an evolution of the society into the next stage.
Hari Seldon is a god, or as near as one may get to that. He has a “Plan”, a grand design for the universe, and he is the sole active protagonist with full freedom of movement and action. All other characters from the very beginning are influenced or manipulated by Seldon, and even those that become aware of that, accept it as a fate without resisting it. Hari Seldon is later even virtually referred to as a deity.
Even before the final collapse starts, it is preceded with a scientific and technological stagnation that slowly turns into degradation and regression. So, the first stage in resisting this collapse is collecting and preserving the technology and science. When the collapse and regression starts unfolding, at the second stage the preserved technology is used to influence and control the worlds that regressed technologically. Since only the products (and services) of the technology are shared, and not the know-hows, the recipients are no longer able to utilize them (or even grasp them) on their own. The technology is equated with religion/magic and these societies are made dependent on the priestly order (in effect brainwashed technicians that maintain the systems) loyal to the Foundation. In the third stage, trade is used to introduce technology to even more worlds, and along with it the religion, and thus further the reaches of Foundation’s control. At the fourth stage, the trade and economy have developed so much that it made all the participants so interdependent that the cooperation is inevitable and has no alternative, and religion can be discarded as it is no longer needed and may be hard to control.
Parallels with the real world
The Empire is obviously Roman empire, blown out of proportion spatially and temporally. But unlike Rome, the Galactic Empire is all encompassing, has no neighbours or rivals and it exclusively crumbles from within.
Historically, Europe did pass through all the above mentioned stages and used its advantages to influence the whole world. First, it used its technological superiority (in the 16th century) to establish itself a foothold in other societies, and afterwards it started proselytizing and spreading Christianity. This was followed by globalisation, technological imperialism and usurpation of the industries and making them dependent.
At some point, Foundation is contrasted with the remnants of the decaying Empire. The Empire was portrayed as a big, inert, centralized and state run economy that extensively relies on bribes, intimidation, mainly focusing on the (puppet) rulers, disregarding completely the well being and interests of the common people. By contrast, Foundation bribes with little things, useless in war but vital to prosperity (coca-cola, nylon and bubble gums). It seems to me that the Empire may be Nazi Germany or perhaps Soviet Union, while Foundation is obviously USA (it spreads democracy, capitalism and consumerism).
The theme of prejudice of Terminus natives to the outsiders and outlanders is also present. Asimov himself was a Russian born Jew living and working in the USA. I don’t know if he wrote from his own experience, but I noticed a parallel.
Foundation was written in the 1940s. It is far from being obsolete or irrelevant scifi, but some traces of that era may be seen.
For example the all present “atomics”. Everything, the whole technology, was based on the atomic energy, even down to the smallest things, and this goes in line with the anticipation of the atomic age that was anticipated at the time of writing.
Everybody is smoking, a lot. Messages are passed and data is stored on microfilms, and of course, all the technology that came after the 1940s and that we take for granted is missing (computers are most noticeable).
Women are marginalized and they are restricted to domestic role. There is a single female character in the novel, and she is shallow, barely has any lines and would not be missed if she was completely removed from the novel.
There is much more to this book then meets the eye at the first sight, and far from claiming that now I “cracked” Asimov after reading my first book, I think that I came to a better understanding.
I don’t like all ideas and premises. 30000 years long dark age following such an advanced society? Also, the idea of suppressing individualism and initiative and accepting “fate” and merging with the mass trends. Advocation of capitalism and consumerism. But I learned my lesson and I wont underestimate Asimov again, there are more books from this series to read, and maybe further answers await for me there…