Isaac Asimov – Foundation Trilogy

★★

“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.” 

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Title: Foundation (Foundation #1)
Author: Isaac Asimov
Language: English
Publication details: USA: Ballantine Books, 1983. (First published 1951)
Pages: 236

Title: Foundation and Empire (Foundation #2)
Author: Isaac Asimov
Language: English
Publication details: London: Granada Publishing Ltd, 1962. (First published 1952)
Pages: 172

Title: Second Foundation (Foundation #3)
Author: Isaac Asimov
Language: English
Publication details: London: Granada Publishing Ltd, 1965. (First published 1953)
Pages: 236

The gist of it:

  • Hari Seldon: scientist-psychologist-extraordinaire.
  • Predicts ending of galactic empire, sets up two new ‘Foundations’ at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve history and humanity and such.
  • Future generations live their lives revolving around Seldon’s predictions.
  • Space travelling, trading and war.
  • Mind-controlling. Lots of it.

My ponderings:

I’m having really mixed feelings with this one. Just as how I imagine reading the Lord of the Rings or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy must be like (lord forgive me, they are still in my TBR pile), I feel an instinctual bias to say that the Foundation trilogy was really good just because…well that’s how it goes. The Foundation won the Hugo award for ‘Best Series’ alongside LoTR for gosh sakes.

So why is it then that I didn’t enjoy it that much?

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I like this…right?
I enjoyed the premise and the concept behind the plot. The movement of man being predictable based on scientific psychology, Hari Seldon basically charting out the future actions of the galaxy, people being influenced by the Seldon plan both directly and indirectly, the search for the elusive Second Foundation etc, etc.

Basically, humans are predictable, but a singular human is not. And when people are aware that their actions have been predicted, do they still act out the aforementioned action? Certainly their awareness will effectively change their future course of action. All this has to be taken to account in Hari Seldon’s Plan. This is the mystery behind the story as you wonder what the Plan is all about and witness people reacting either to change it or adhere to it.

Now here’s the negative part of the review:

As interesting as the concept seemed, and was successfully carried out at times, overall the book didn’t get me hooked. Different folks, different strokes; as for me, my definition of a good book is one which has me constantly wanting to pick it up to continue the story. It doesn’t even have to be a thriller type novel; I’ve read books about the countryside and wanted to read on (Cranford comes to mind).

Though the Foundation had me going “What’s going to happen? Why is he doing this? What’s the big idea? Where is the Second Foundation?” and so on, it made me more want to flip to the end of the book to see what happens, and skip all the interaction in the middle.

The first book had me intrigued; I had no idea what was going on except that Seldon had predicted the future course of the universe and thus created a ‘Foundation’ on a new planet which would eventually restore the empire to its greatest heights, and that every once in a while there’d be a ‘Seldon Crisis’ in which the ‘Foundation’ would always emerge triumphant.

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OH ok, I get it.
The second book started to slow down for me; there was this couple, and the mutant who called himself ‘The Mule’, and lots of intergalactic travelling and trading but mainly focusing on ‘The Mule’.

What the second book did do was get me hyped up for the third book; that’s where we find out the what, who, where and why behind the Second Foundation. Yeah that’s right Hari Seldon actually set up TWO foundations, instead of one.
So the first foundation was convinced that the second foundation had been manipulating them (through mind control) and wanted to go all-out war on them. It’s complicated, but as you read along you kind of get it. At the start I was really lost, but then the pieces started to come together.

As you can see, I actually have a good impression of the plot. However, the Foundation series just didn’t make me feel immersed in the universe. The world-building was good, anymore description and it would enter the realm of boredom, but the interaction between the characters felt stilted, and we hardly ever get to feel what the characters are feeling.

A story doesn’t have to be told in first person in order for you to understand what the characters are going through. The Foundation touches on real people who feel scared for their lives, worried about the future, confused, shocked, bewildered and at times confident and happy (those are rare). I hardly sympathized with the characters much less empathized with them. If their dialogue didn’t really contribute to the plot, I kind of wish they weren’t talking at all.

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Yabba yabba yabba…
The Foundation story does span centuries, but that fact really shouldn’t detract from the characterization. The odd thing was that Asimov did offer a spectrum of character types: the mad but well-meaning scientist, the courageous newlyweds, the megalomaniacal freak who feels unloved, the precocious and foolhardy teenager, the holier-than-thou higher-ups etc, etc. Even so, the characters were hardly explored and just felt like cardboard cut-outs of the personalities they were supposed to play. Captain Hans Pitcher was the only character I felt myself actually rooting for, but he pretty much just faded out from the story.

Do you remember when History channel used to actually show historical documentaries? For example, there’d be a documentary about Marie Antoinette where they’d show re-enactments of her life intersected intermittently with clips of professors sitting in front of a backdrop and talking about the kind of woman she was, explaining 17th century France and blah blah blah. That’s what the Foundation felt like to me. It wasn’t a story like how a movie would be, it felt more like a documentary. There was no sudden narrator voice explaining everything, but the characters stepped in and did all the explaining in long paragraphs of dialogue.

A review on Goodreads pretty much sums it up:

Man1: Haha! I tricked you!

Man2: But I knew you were going to trick me. Instead, I tricked you!
Man1: But I knew you knew that I was going to trick you, so really *I* win!
Man2: NO! *dies*
Man3: I knew that you knew that he knew that you knew that he was going to trick you, and I set up the whole thing! So I win!
Man1: But I knew that you knew that I knew…
-excerpt from Ian’s Review on Goodreads.

I cannot tell you exactly how accurate this is to the book.
I’ll be real here, I’m no hard-core sci-fi fan. From the top of my head, I can’t think of any other obviously sci-fi books I’ve read, so this is like my intro into the reading world of sci-fi. My dad and my bro are real sci-fi fans, and my dad absolutely loves the Foundation! He’s the one who suggested it to me in the first place. Though he partly agrees with the problems in dialogue I brought up, he forgive it because of its age, and I think he’s more used to not having connections with the characters for the sake of the plot.

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…except I didn’t.
Well, I’m not. I need character connection, I crave it! I actually gave up on reading the Riverworld series just because I felt so absolutely disconnected from the characters, and as intriguing as the plot was supposed to be, I just didn’t care because I didn’t care about the characters. Ye god.

I feel like I’m committing blasphemy giving the Foundation trilogy 2 stars, but as a book I really just find it…ok. I adore Asimov’s ideas, ‘I, Robot’ was one of my favourite movies ever (still is), but the characterization in the Foundation was just…flat.

Recommends it to: Readers who don’t mind the prioritization of plot over character development. Or even if you do, maybe just give it a shot and see if such a case really detracts from your reading experience as it did mine.

Quotes:

“It is the chief characteristic of the religion of science that it works.”

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

“Society is much more easily soothed than one’s own conscience.”

“To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.”

“There’s probably no one so easily bribed, but he lacks even the fundamental honesty of honorable corruption. He doesn’t stay bribed; not for any sum.”

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