So after watching the new TV show, I was curious to see if anything other than character names had come from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and so re-read the first volume.
This is a series I have known for almost exactly as long as I have been reading adult books; a boxed set of the (then four book) series were the very first adult books I ever bought myself. And having read the books when I was young, I of course re-read them a lot, too, because back in those days, we didn’t have an internet and only had three channels of television and the library was 30 miles away and we wore an onion on our belt because that was the style at the time.
Anyway, though, while I’ve read this book a lot, I haven’t read it at all recently. I think there’s a strong chance that it’s been 25-30 years since I last picked this up. And—surprise!—turns out that my memories of the book weren’t entirely accurate.
So for instance, I remember the book as setting up a series of psychohistorical crises, each of which came to its inexorable conclusion as a result of the unstoppable momentum of large sociological forces, as religion and trade and whatever else proceeded to shape the evolution of the Galactic Rim.
And… okay, it’s sorta that, but it turns out that large impersonal forces that proceed inexorably make for a terrible protagonist, and so the stories in this book give us shockingly active protagonists that are tbh hard to reconcile with the whole premise of psychohistory—it sure seems like these super-geniuses we’re supposed to cheer for are making important decisions upon which the fate of civilization rests, but aren’t we supposed to believe that those things had to happen?
But okay, psychohistory isn’t real, and Asimov was just telling adventure stories, same as anyone else. It is notable that a lot of his heroes are shockingly autocratic—Hari Seldon literally takes power in an armed coup, for all that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” I really wonder if Asimov knew how anti-democratic and pro-dictator these stories were, or if the “guy who cuts through red tape to get stuff done” aspects just read as like petty bureaucratic faculty politics to him?
The last surprise is that the stories were much better written than I remembered. Asimov was never known as a stylist—he revelled in that reputation, in fact. I’m not going to go totally revisionist on this, because they weren’t like amazing or anything, but let’s just say there are a a lot of writers today whose sloppy style makes Asimov look like Shakespeare.
At any rate, these are stories that were old when I was a kid and are now positively antiques—the first story was published in 1942, the same year Casablanca came out. I think they hold up astonishingly well, considering their age and the nature of science fiction as a genre, but obviously if you’re reading them today, it’s more for the historical context than to enjoy them in the straightforward way you’d read a new release. But—with full awareness that my childhood readings have made it impossible for me to be completely objective—I think this is good enough to be worth reading for that context. Recommended.