Monday, December 3, 2012

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

First sentence: 
His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov is a science-fiction classic and deservedly so.  I could easily put the novel aside but found myself compelled to pick it up.  I begrudged every moment I was forced to set it aside for obligations.  It is the best of both worlds—a novel you don’t want to put down but can when necessary.

The novel tells a story that spans millennia, each part focusing on a particular group of characters in a particular time in history.  This is why the novel can easily be put down—after you read one part, you know the story will leap forward, often leaving these characters in a past so far behind the familiar is no longer relevant.

But the compulsion to know what happens next is there, unrelenting and, in spite of myself, I found myself reading “just one more chapter” as I went to bed.   I wanted to know what would happen next, even if the same characters were not involved.  The novel begins with the psychohistorians, a concept that doesn’t reach too far beyond The Possible to be unbelievable.  After all, human behavior being somewhat predictable, is it really so far-fetched to believe that a group of people who have studied history and the human psyche might not be able to anticipate what is on the horizon.

These predictions both set things in motion and ensure that they will happen.  Each section lays the foundation for the next and leaves the reader with the impression but there is no choice but to move along the predicted path.  Yet, each story introduces different aspects of the story so that the reader can’t help but hope there are choices.

The obvious implication in all of this is the role of fate.  In a universe where god has been replaced with science, does fate have any bearing?  If the human psychological make-up of the individual can be so well understood that the actions of the masses can be anticipated, how does fate/destiny play a role? 

For all the implications, this is ultimately a science fiction novel, with a clear emphasis on Science.  There is an element of space-opera, with a rebellious realist who sees his role and manipulates the situations to meet his ends.

The protagonists are, inevitably, masculine leaving women with few characters that are remotely identifiable.  There are clearly influences within the novel, whether intentional or incidental, of Joseph Campbell, echoing his teachings about the social evolution of humanity from superstitious tradition to merchants. 

There was a trilogy and then seven books in the series and I have only read this one novel.  There is at least one prequel.  Normally I would choose to read the novels from the first, meaning the first prequel, than the first published.  But then there was this thing online where others were reading the novel together and the first book chosen was this one.  Only, I didn’t keep up with “the thing” and I read the novel during my moments of not studying.  This may be part of the reason why I found the novel so consuming but I doubt it was the driving force; rather, I wanted to know what would happen next and, leaving the characters from one section behind when moving to the next, allowed me to imagine what happened, to fill in the blanks, as it were.  Not that each section introduced new characters but even those that did altogether dovetailed so seamlessly with the previous section it didn’t feel disconnected in the least.

This to me is what makes this novel a great piece of literature and one I would happily recommend to anyone who enjoys science fiction.    

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