Review: Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Reviewed by Mike Phelps


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Near the end of Isacc Asimov’s Foundation, one of the characters explains why empires inevitably fall with the words, “it’s still the little things in life that count” (293.) Rulers measure their empires in military victories, territory and riches. But the people want bread and the lights work. When the bread runs outs or the lights won’t come on the empire is doomed, even if it takes centuries to fall. These are some of the issues Asimov considers in his recasting of the fall of the Roman Empire as a science fiction saga. Set many thousands of years in the future, mankind rules an empire spanning the galaxy.
According to a renowned psycho-historian named Seldon the Galactic Empire is in fact doomed. He is dismissed as an agitator, but is allowed to set up an organization called the Foundation on a barren planet at the edge of the galaxy. This organization’s ostensible purpose is to gather all the knowledge of the empire in to an Encyclopedia Galactica so it will survive the empire’s demise. Asimov uses the encyclopedia to add a layer of realism, with excerpts providing some historical details. But Asimov doesn’t linger over the details, he is interested in how men and events shape and get shaped by the irresistible tide of history.
As the empire declines science and technology are lost to a dark age of ignorance. Heirs to the foundation conspire to make the secrets of nuclear energy a religion to control the masses in their little corner of the galaxy. Asimov spends time on these historical processes but the characters come and go as the decades swiftly pass. They plot and plan and seize opportunities to advance the Foundation’s agenda. But it’s always a close thing and petty kingdoms and the remnants of the empire lurk in the background ready to sweep them away.
Seldon set the Foundation on a course to shape the future of the Galaxy, shepherding events along a narrow path with ruin on all sides. Different men play different roles as circumstances change and the empire continues to fade. Thousands of years from now man is beset by the pitfalls: selfishness, greed and ignorance. Man of the far future has much in common with their ancient Roman counterparts who saw their own empire crumble beneath their feet. In Foundation Asimov shows only the early stages of the decline, but as readers may know – there is still much future history to make.


  1. I read this as a very young fellow and loved it. I’ve thought about rereading it many times over the years, but now worry how it will hold up after I’ve spent decades working as a physicist. Anybody else in a similar boat who went ahead and tried it? How’d it work out?

  2. I read this originally in the late seventies and re-read, well listened to actually, again a couple of years ago.
    Good news, I enjoy it a lot. Yes, the Galactic Empire is pretty much fifties middle America with incremental advances here and there, the future is still very much analog.
    But I think it holds up well because it is basically a pretty good story, and the books are short compared a lot of contemporary SiFi.
    Overall, a nice trip down memory lane for me.

  3. I hesitate to seem harsh or over critical, but I can’t really agree with those who praised Asimov’s original FOUNDATION books. By the mid 1970’s, I was feeling disenchanted with Asimov’s novels. More and more I found them too flat, plain, colorless.
    A few years ago, I reread the first three FOUNDATION books. Alas, they simply no longer had the fascination with which I regarded them as a boy. The background was too flat, the characters, aside from a few like the Mule, were not interesting. Also, I simply don’t think any “psychohistorians” can manipulate history the way we seem them doing in the FOUNDATION books.
    I vastly prefer the works of Poul Anderson, esp. in this context, his Technic Civilization stories and novels. Not only was his handling of background and developing of characters far more interesting, Anderson’s speculations about the rise and fall of a civilization were far more PLAUSIBLE to me.

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