This recommendation is going to be split into three parts (all in one post) and each part will cover one book in this trilogy. The Foundation by Isaac Asimov is considered a classic science fiction tale that remains popular today. The television adaptation only recently began on Apple TV and partly prompted me to finally start reading it. I have the trilogy in one volume hence the structure of this post.
I know there are two additional books related to this trilogy, but I only focused on the core three novels as they were written sequentially and the two others were written well after the trilogy was originally completed. The first book was originally published in 1951 so it is currently 70 years old.
I think this book, the beginning of the Foundation trilogy, is a prime example of an old phrase “a bad story written well is still a bad story, a great story written poorly is still a good story” (or something of the like, I absolutely paraphrased that as I can’t recall it verbatim). The story that is the Foundation has an incredible premise though it is not executed as well as it could have been. The premise itself may be part of the reason. This premise being that the Galactic Empire is dying, and this galaxy-wide degradation will take time and the overall disintegration will leave the planets or systems isolated and essentially in a state of societal barbarism compared to the economic and social integrity known with the empire.
This eventual fall of the empire has been predicted by one man, Hari Seldon, who through a fantastically mathematical and psychological practice known as Psychohistory has also predicted that the subsequent years of galactic barbarism will last for 30,000 years before a second empire is established. He has also taken steps to reduce this timespan to a mere 1,000 years.
Thus begins the story that will, at least expectedly, span 1,000 years time. This is why I mentioned the premise as a reason I find the execution lacking. This first book is split into 5 sections and the entirety of the book covers roughly 200 years. Each section follows a new character but builds upon the previous section though sometimes it is not directly related. I once read somewhere that this book was originally published as a series of short stories, so that may be why it is structured this way. Regardless, there is a lack of connection for the reader due to the large gaps of time and constant introduction of new characters and settings.
This is why I think the book, and likely the trilogy, relies heavily on the premise itself to keep the interest of readers. I was willing to stick it out because I did want to see how it all wrapped up, but the lack of time with characters and lack of events within time periods does make it hard to stay engaged. Characters can seem superficial and events may seem altogether non-important when kept in perspective to the eventual 1,000 years we are working through. The second book is structured differently and we will see what changes that brings.
Foundation and Empire
The second book is structured a bit differently and to a little better effect. We are essentially given two parts, instead of the five seen in the first book, and each part follows a different series of events. The events of the first, shorter part seem somewhat nonessential and have little affect on the overall story aside from showing the decay of the dying empire. The second part is much more involved and has a wide impact on the overall story. It also is the best structured of the first two books. There are characters you follow long enough to know more about them and there is even a slight plot twist. This twist was predictable but not entirely so.
Regardless of the structure or characters, the second half of this book actually makes up for some of the lacking areas seen in the first half of the entire trilogy. The mysterious character of The Mule brings back some intrigue and returns the story to its purpose which is the Foundation and the efforts of Hari Seldon to subvert the 30,000 years of barbarism by creating a second empire within 1,000 years. This mystery, the initial one that keeps the reader interested enough to read through the entire story (if not then readers likely fail to complete the trilogy), is the overarching theme and The Mule seemingly is a possible disruption to Hari Seldon’s predictions. Or is he? The next book, Second Foundation, will conclude the trilogy and reveal whether or not Seldon could accurately predict the 1,000 years after creating the Foundation.
The final book in the trilogy is structured much like the second. There are two parts and each essentially tells a different stage of the overarching story. The first part has some returning characters and the second part is again a completely new set of characters and events as another span of years have passed. However, some of the main characters in this section are descendants of some characters we have already seen.
This book delves into, wait for it, the Second Foundation. I’m sure that is a shock given the title. The Second Foundation was established alongside the first, but we only follow the First Foundation throughout the first two books. The Second Foundation was kept secret and plays an entirely different role than the first. It remains a key component of Hari Seldon’s overall plan, but we still are not sure how everything will play out or if The Mule completely disrupted Seldon’s plan. These two aspects are what drive us through this last part. It almost seems like the First and Second Foundation are at odds with each other and the discovery of what the Second Foundation is, and is doing, is the focus of this final book.
The Foundation Trilogy
This trilogy almost seems like a fictional case study of economics over a long period of time. Many of the events follow characters and involve conflict, but since the overall story is long-term and centers on the decay and rebirth of societies and corresponding economies, it at times seems like the focus is more economic than an engaging story.
I was completing my MBA while reading this trilogy, so that made the economic aspect more intriguing for me. I’m sure I could get more out of the books if I read them again, but I likely won’t (at least anytime soon) because as you may have noticed I wasn’t terribly enthralled with the overall story. It did depend heavily on the premise and each book seemed lacking in engagement. I’m not sure how this story was received 70 years ago, but I’m not sure many people today would find it exciting. Perhaps part of my lack of engagement with the books was also influenced by the release of the recent film adaptation of Dune which is a much superior science fiction story (in my opinion).
So, I guess you may be wondering why I am actually recommending this trilogy if I didn’t love it. I am recommending it because I think it does continue to hold value for readers, and I think my recommendation will help you decide whether you want to invest the time or perhaps skip this trilogy. I liked it despite all the issues I take with it. I absolutely admit that it is not for everyone, or even most, readers. Some may even love the books and go on to read the additional two that were written for the series.
Whether this one is of any interest is entirely up to you, and you of course should read what you enjoy or want to read. This one may or may not be for you.
Okay, since I have read the entire trilogy, it is hard not to express a few issues I take with it that may be spoilers for new readers. I mentioned earlier that the story is expected to span 1,000 years and cover the entirety of Seldon’s plan. Instead we get only 600 years (still a lot for a trilogy to cover), and the ending is a bit open-ended. We are not sure how things will end up or if a second Empire is established. We are not even sure if Seldon’s plan is still in effect or is no longer relevant. Lastly, Seldon became irrelevant halfway through the trilogy. All recordings of him that pop up to “guide” the first Foundation are effectively disregarded or not even shown or mentioned after book one except for one case in book two. I would have thought this would have played a more central role in the overall story, but it is essentially forgotten despite being set up as a framework to guide the story along. The lack of cohesion this and other aspects, mainly due to the time frame in which the story takes place, I would consider detrimental to the story itself. There is a lot of potential for this story. Perhaps readers either fill in some of the gaps and like it or give up out of frustration for failing to meet said potential. Regardless, I think this is one of those stories you love or hate, and I can understand both sides.