Before I picked up a copy of Foundation at the local Borders, I’d read other work in the genre (Dune, because of the video game and the movie; a few books by Arthur C. Clarke; and a healthy dose of young adult authors like Madeleine L’Engle and Bruce Coville), but Asimov was the gateway. When I was 10 or 11, I think I went crazy for him, reading all the Foundation books, then his other novels and collections, and finally, when those ran out, the anthologies that he’d edited. And it was through those anthologies that I became not just an Asimov fan, but a science fiction fan.
A few weeks ago, inspired in part by the great series of Foundation-related blog posts on io9, I decided to reread the Foundation Trilogy. I’m pretty sure that I’ve read individual stories during the past few years, say if I needed a distraction from a difficult book or if I was searching for inspiration while writing. But I don’t think I’d read the trilogy from beginning to end for more than a decade.
Of course, it’s dangerous to revisit books that you loved as a kid. There were bits and pieces that remained fresh enough in my memory that I knew I would enjoy the experience, but I wasn’t sure how forgiving I’d have to be of clunky writing, thin characterization, and the old-fashioned ideas about the future.
So how did the trilogy hold up? As well I’d hoped. It remains, for me, the purest distillation of the pleasures that Golden Age science fiction can offer. (Moreso than anything written by Heinlein, whose work I enjoy but don’t love.) And while I’m thrilled by all three books, it’s the first one, Foundation, that offers those pleasures in their simplest form. The basic Foundation story works best at the short story or novelette length of the earlier pieces -- just long enough to introduce a “psychohistorical” problem, throw in a few complications and possible solutions, then surprise you with the real answer. It’s like a mystery, but on a galactic scale.
The later stories are in many ways an improvement -- they have more space to develop their plots and characters -- but they lose some of the fun. In fact, the stories themselves acknowledge this change, with later characters looking back nostalgically at the early days of the Foundation, a time dominated by heroic men of action. (They’re action-oriented by Asimovian standards, anyway.)
In fact, my favorite story is the very first, “The Psychohistorians.” It was actually written after the rest of the trilogy, as a way to introduce the series when the magazine pieces were collected into book form. I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest of the stories, and its basic conflict is wrapped up in just a few pages. But this is where we get a real glimpse of Hari Seldon, the unseen architect of almost everything that follows, and one of Asimov's most memorable characters. We also get an extended tour of Trantor, a sort-of a warm up for Asimov’s great future-city novel The Caves of Steel -- but Trantor, having engulfed an entire planet, dwarfs other science fictional cities.
Most importantly, this is where Asimov really lays out the concept of the series, and for that reason, “The Psychohistorians” remains one of my great experiences with science fiction’s much-hyped “sense of wonder.” There’s the idea of psychohistory, the science that can predict human behavior on a mass scale (a concept that supposedly inspired Paul Krugman to go into economics, since it was the next best thing). There’s the Galactic Empire, which is disintegrating after 12,000 years. And there are the Foundations themselves, set up on the opposite sides of the galaxy, to follow a mysterious plan that may reduce the long period of chaos to a mere millennium. Like the best space opera, it’s huge in all the right ways.