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.