Review of ‘Foundation’ by Isaac Asimov

I’d describe the theme of this famous and influential book as the decline of the Roman Empire, but on an intergalactic scale, thousands of years in the future. It’s classic science fiction but it left me rather underwhelmed.

The book is in five parts. It follows the development of the Foundation, an organisation which preserves knowledge as the Empire breaks up and wars erupt between the kingdoms. There is little action in the narrative; it’s mostly talking and political wrangling. I liked some aspects of it, particularly the mathematical science of ‘psychohistory’, which predicts human behaviour on a grand scale and ultimately influences the fate of the Empire. What I didn’t like was the uninspiring writing style and the author’s careless attitude to the characters. None of the these wooden people are developed and we never get to know them. If the writing style had been more enjoyable, perhaps lyrical at times as a lot of classic sci-fi is, I wouldn’t have minded so much about the characters.

Although Foundation has influenced so many science fiction authors and screenwriters, it’s clearly a product of its time, written in the 1940s. The positions of power are held by men who smoke cigars (yes, even thousands of years in the future, cigars are still a status symbol) and are preoccupied with the possibilities of atomic energy. In my review of I, Robot, I noted that one of the main characters, Dr Calvin, was female but that her portrayal was sexist. The same attitudes are present in Foundation, except that there are only two very minor female characters, a ‘cold’ jewellery-loving wife of a politician and an unnamed little girl. The patriarchal content of this story, as do various other elements, reflects that of the Roman Empire of course, but it grates on the modern reader.

Unfortunately I don’t recommend this book. I thought I’d like it more than I did. There’s a whole series of Foundation books but I’m not interested in reading them.

First published in 1951. This edition is by Harper Voyager in 2016 and has some distracting typos.

8 thoughts on “Review of ‘Foundation’ by Isaac Asimov”

    1. Unfortunately a lot of reprints haven’t been properly proof-read. It seems to be a problem with classic sci-fi but I’ve no idea why!

  1. Interesting review!! And just in time for the TV series they are making for next year! Even when I was very young people either loved the Foundation series or hated them. I didn’t like them at all. Asimov was very good at concepts but unlike many other writers – even for 1940s/50s sci-fi – Asimov could never write people. Empathy was never Asimov’s strong suit. That’s why I always preferred Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury etc. In fact, because it’s a Monday and I am in the mood for giving a strong opinion (LOL!) I don’t think he was a very happy novelist, which is why after the 1950s he concentrated on producing hundreds of non-fiction books. I’m interested to know what you make of the other sci-fi great Arthur C. Clarke….

    1. Thanks! I appreciate your thoughts. I didn’t know a TV series was in the works (I’m sure it will be more gripping than the books!) I think his people seem robotic even when they aren’t robots. I’m a fan of Arthur C Clarke, or at least I enjoy his earlier work. I’m not sure he was that good at writing people either but at least his style was readable and at times lyrical.

  2. The Fall of the Roman Empire in space is a perfect description of this book! I read the original trilogy as well as the two prequels (Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation). I honestly agreed with you that I wasn’t impressed by the original trilogy (it jumped around too much, focusing on the beautiful world but ignoring characters and plot), though I do recommend the two prequels. They follow only one character on one world, and I loved them. And you can read them without reading other books of the series (I read them first). Of course, I also completely understand if you totally do not want to read this series.

    1. Thanks for your comment 🙂 Interesting to hear about the other books, I will consider them but as I rarely buy any books now, are relegated to the bottom of the list 😀 I didn’t read up on the series much before I bought Foundation.

  3. “uninspiring writing style and the author’s careless attitude to the characters” <– this is a big no-no for me when it comes to books. Not only the author didn't handle the characters well, but its writing was uninspiring too? No, thank you! 😀 I did like the cover though! Great review, NS!

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