Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov: A review

Fourteenth book reviewed as part of the 130 Challenge.

Science Fiction isn’t really a genre that I have taken seriously in the past. But that changed after a friend (whom I respect quite a lot) suggested a collection of Science Fiction short stories to me. They were amazing and I was immediately hooked. After reading a few titles, I decided to read the big one – The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov.

Foundation 1: Foundation, was simply superb. I had half expected it to be an action packed novel with ridiculous futurization. Thankfully, it wasn’t! It was a carefully constructed story with a lot of things happening (at the scale of the galaxy, no less!). The story concentrated not on so much on futuristic weapons and warfare, but on intelligent strategy and cunning as inescapable means of victory. It does not matter what your weapons are or how big your fleets are.. rather how well you control them, is what decides the outcome of skirmishes. I say skirmishes and not war because there isn’t really much fighting in these books; it is mostly brilliant mind games and psychological maneuvers (guided by the unwavering and inevitable predictions of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory)

It was a delightful read and the way that Asimov outlined the slow decay of the galactic empire and the meteoric rise of the Foundation as a force to reckon with, will definitely keep you hooked. I had even remarked to my friend how closely the various phases of the Foundation’s domination corresponded with our own history. Asimov has created a masterpiece in the form of this series (that originally started off as short stories) and the whole series deserves to be read widely.

foundation and empire coverComing back to Foundation 2: Foundation and Empire, this book sets the stage for the final face off between the dying empire and the ascendant Foundation, thriving on technology. Just a brief recap now for those who aren’t familiar with this series –

Sometime in the future, humans have developed a science called ‘psychohistory’ that can predict the behavior of large masses of people, much like we can predict the behavior of a collection of gas atoms using the kinetic theory of gases. The catch is that this works only when the numbers are sufficiently large and the nature of human beings remains more or less the same over the period of predictions. Hari Seldon is supposed to be the greatest practitioner of this science and using it, he predicts the fall of the Galactic empire and a return to barbarism for a period of at least 30,000 years until people finally get their act together and become civilized once again. But Hari doesn’t want the world to be in darkness for so long and devises a strategy with the help of psychohistory to shorten this period of rebound to a mere 1000 years. This he does, by establishing two communities of scholars/encyclopedists (known as the ‘Foundation’) at each end of the Galaxy, whose job is to catalog all the knowledge of the universe so that they will function as the seeds of the second galactic empire.

Foundation book 1 and 2 talk about the first 3 centuries and only about the first foundation of the two (situated on planet Terminus). The second foundation is only mentioned here and there, with the climax of the 2nd book revealing the importance of the second foundation and thus, setting up an exciting premise for the 3rd book.

Foundation and Empire (book 2) isn’t as exciting as book 1. Book 1 follows the rise of the Foundation as scientists, then religionists, then traders and then aristocrats; but Book 2 is definitely more realistic. There are fewer heroes and more ordinary people. This way, it is established that psychohistory doesn’t depend on the individuals, but on the nature and reactions of the human race as a whole.

Book 2 is more rigorous with its treatment of this aspect and in it, we also see the predictions of psychohistory failing for the first time. We see how these predictions are actually quite precarious, but we also see how Seldon, with his great foresight, prepared a contingency plan even for this!

Asimov has written a great saga of a Galactic scale that boggles and amazes the mind simultaneously. I found this series to be quite absorbing and intellectually stimulating without really playing with words (see the excerpts). The language is simple and the focus is on the story (a splendid story at that) and this approach really delivers.

If you’ve never read a science fiction book before, look no further; this book is a great introduction to the genre. If you have, this book will be a great continuation of your interest and if you love this genre, this book will make you love it so much more!

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