Foundation

Title: Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov
Published: 1951
Type of Text: Novel

Main Characters: The great psychohistorian (and founder of Foundation), Hari Seldon; his biographer, the mathematician Gaal Dornick. Salvor Hardin, first Mayor of Terminus; his second-in-command, Yohan Lee; Lewis Pirenne, the contemporary Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation. The rebellious and warmongering Councilman Sef Sermak; young King Lepold of Anacreon; his uncle the regent Wienis. The traders Limmar Ponyets and Eskel Gorov; the Grand Master of Askone, and his favourite, Pherl. Hober Mallow, a Smyrnian trader who becomes the first Merchant Prince; Jorane Sutt, secretary to the mayor; Commdor Asper Argo, ruler of Korell.
Genre: Sci-Fi
Narrative Style: Third-person omniscient narrative, chaptered in five parts (and tending to focus on one character at a time in each of these parts); the chapters are irregularly interspersed with abridged passages of quotation from the “Encyclopedia Galactica” (based on an edition supposedly published over 1000 years after the start of the principle narrative). Each part narrates the events of a few key months or years, and there are several unnarrated decades between each part (which minimises the number of returning characters).
Themes & Imagery: Forces of history, with a focus on key moments. The inevitable decline of imperial power; politics and political disputes. Science and the collection of knowledge; civilisation against barbarism; psychohistory as a highly-developed social science almost akin to prophecy; necessary ignorance for individuals being manipulated. Obedience and deference to authority and the past. Inertia and stagnation; complacency; lack of innovation. Exile; life on the edges. Lack of freedom or free will; historical necessity, bordering on a sense of fate or destiny. Pacifism against militarism; the victory of intellect over force. Religion as a tool, with an emphasis on missionary work and conversion. Adaptability; the essential pursuit of progress. Expansion and adventure, reminiscent of sea-faring traders and buccaneers supporting the early expansion of European colonial powers.

Synopsis: As the Galactic Empire looks set to fall, the psychohistorian Hari Seldon establishes a Foundation from which another empire might arise. The plot is in five parts, as follows: “The Psychohistorians” covers Hari Seldon’s manipulation of politics on Trantor to ensure the creation of his Foundation on Terminus; “The Encyclopedists” is set fifty years later, when the Foundation is threatened by its neighbours on Anacreon, and the mayor starts to orchestrate a coup; “The Mayors” is another thirty years in the future, when the Foundation is threatened with all-out war from an Anacreon which the Foundation has itself strengthened, while also dealing with internal political dispute; “The Traders” focuses on a smaller incident, the sale of nucleic devices on the planet of Askone where such devices are considered sacrilegious; “The Merchant Princes”, set a couple of decades after the previous part and around seventy-five years after “The Mayors”, which sees Hober Mallow investigating Korell to find out what is happening to Foundation ships in the vicinity, exploring whether the Empire still has power, and gaining political control on Terminus to prevent a third Seldon crisis.
Personal Response: This novel is based on a fascinating concept and, for the most part, the delivery does not disappoint either. The first part sets up the situation to come, and is fairly engaging itself, although I would have liked to see more of Trantor and particularly of Gaal Dornick; the fourth part was a fun side-adventure, but felt very short and something of a digression that didn’t advance any main plot (in which respect it reminded me of “The Horse and His Boy” by CS Lewis); but the second, third and fifth parts were all very enjoyable, developing complex situations and characters with a barely-perceptible economy. The universe and historical circumstances are lightly sketched but feel no less solid for it, and the sense of development between the parts ensures a pleasant cohesion without feeling contrived.
Favourite Part: Ironically enough for a work emphasing historical forces over individuals, I don’t have a favourite part so much as favourite characters whose skills and intellect are nevertheless strongly evidenced at particular sections: Salvor Hardin, who is strongest when he turns the tables on Weinis when the latter thinks he has power enough to defeat the Foundation in war; and Hober Mallow, whose genius comes out partially at his trial and more fully at his final encounter with Jorane Sutt.

My Top Five Lines & Passages:

Salvor Hardin urges the Encyclopedists to action:

“And don’t forget this. Even though he could foresee the problem then, we can see it equally well now. Therefore, if he could foresee the solution then, we should be able to see it now. After all, Seldon was not a magician. There are no trick methods of escaping from a dilemma that he can see and we can’t.”
“But, Hardin,” reminded Fara, “we can’t!”
“But you haven’t tried. You haven’t tried once. First, you refuse to admit that there was a menace at all! Then you reposed an absolutely blind faith in the Emperor! Now you’ve shifted it to Hari Seldon. Throughout you have invariably relied on authority or on the past – never on yourselves.”
His fists balled spasmodically. “It amounts to a diseased attitude – a conditioned reflex that shunts aside the independence of your minds whenever it is a question of opposing authority. There seems no doubt ever in your minds that the Emperor is more powerful than you are, or Hari Seldon wiser. And that’s wrong, don’t you see?”
For some reason, no one cared to answer him.
Hardin continued: “It isn’t just you. It’s the whole Galaxy. Pirenne heard Lord Dorwin’s idea of scientific research. Lord Dorwin thought the way to be a good archaeologist was to read all the books on the subject – written by men who were dead for centuries. He thought that the way to solve archaeological puzzles was to weight the opposing authorities. And Pirenne listened and made no objections. Don’t you see that there’s something wrong with that?”
Again the note of near-pleading in his voice.
Again no answer.

Major Hardin grasps the tinyness of the Foundation:

Salvor Hardin did not travel to the planet Anacreon – from which planet the kingdom derived its name – immediately. It was only on the day before the coronation that he arrived, after having made flying visits to eight of the larger stellar systems of the kingdom, stopping only long enough to confer with the local representatives of the Foundation.
The trip left him with an oppressive realization of the vastness of the kingdom. It was a little splinter, an insignificant fly speck compared to the inconceivable reaches of the Galactic Empire of which it had once formed so distinguished a part; but to one whose habits of thought had been built around a sinlge planet, and a sparsely settled one at that, Anacreon’s size in area and population was staggering.

The priest Theo Aporat cuts power to the battleship attacking Terminus:

His voice took on a deeper tone, while the acolyte listened with veneration and the two soldiers with mounting fear. “And because this ship is upon such a devil’s errand, the blessing of the Spirit is removed from it as well.”
He lifted his arms solemnly, and before a thousand televisors throughout the ship, soldiers cowered, as the stately image of their priest-attendant spoke:
“In the name of the Galactic Spirit and of his prophet, Hari Seldon, and of his interpreters, the holy men of the Foundation, I curse this ship. Let the televisors of this ship, which are its eyes, become blind. Let its grapples, which are its arms, be paralyzed. Let the nuclear blasts, which are its fists, lose their function. Let the motors, which are its heart, cease to beat. Let the communications, which are its voice, become dumb. Let its lights, which are its soul, shrivel into nothing. In the name of the Galactic Spirit, I so curse this ship.”
And with his last word, at the stroke of midnight, a hand, light years distant in the Argolid Temple, opened an ultrawave relay, which at the instantaneous speed of the ultrawave, opened another on the flagship Wienis.
And the ship died!
For it is the chief characteristic of the religion of science that it works, and that such curses as that of Aporat’s are really deadly.

Description of the planet Korell:

Korell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal “honor” and court etiquette.
Materially, its prosperity was low. The day of the Galactic Empire had departed, with nothing but silent memorials and broken structures to testify to it. The day of the Foundation had not yet come – and in the fierce determination of its ruler, the Commdor Asper Argo, with his strict regulation of the traders and his stricter prohibition of the missionaries, it was never coming.

Mallow offers his plan to fix the Seldon crisis:

“When I first landed on Korell,” he began, “I bribed the Commdor with the trinkets and gadgets that form the trader’s usual stock. As the start, that was meant only to get us entrance into a steel foundry. I had no plan further than that, but in that I succeeded. I got what I wanted. But it was only after my visit to the Empire that I first realized exactly what a weapon I could build that trade into.
“This is a Seldon crisis we’re facing, Sutt, and Seldon crises are no solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology. So the solutions to the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.
“In this case, – trade!”

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