The Foundation Trilogy (1951–53)
The Foundation trilogy has been hailed as a landmark and one of Asimov's major contributions to the genre. It is not a trilogy, actually, but a series of short stories and novellas that later happened to be collected into three novel-size volumes.
For the purpose of this series, Asimov has invented the fictional science of psychohistory. It is a statistical science, inspired by thermodynamics, which cannot anticipate the behavior of individual particles, but once you have myriads of them, statistical laws produce a perfectly predictable behavior subject to handling by the tools of mathematics. Psychohistory applies the same concept to humans. Its subject are not individuals but enormous populations, and from the psychology, sociology, and economics of the masses it can distill a history of the future and assign probabilities to individual predictions.
For millennia the Galactic Empire has stood supreme, but now its most brilliant psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, predicts an imminent fall and the galaxy's descent into barbarism. On its own it will take 30,000 years for another empire to arise and to restore civilization. However, as Seldon discovers, this unavoidable period of chaos can be cut short to a mere thousand years if history is forced to move along an optimal path. To this purpose, Seldon sets up two organizations at opposite ends of the galaxy. The Foundation series is their story across the centuries.
Asimov's Galactic Empire is obviously modeled on Imperial Rome. More historical parallels might be lurking, such as Bel Riose from the first part of Foundation and Empire, who is transparently based on Byzantine general Belisarius. Although the series involves a lot of wars and battles, these are relegated to the background and there is little in the way of action in the stories themselves, which are really puzzle stories, daring the reader to take a stab at deriving the conclusion on his own from the included hints.
Half a century later, the series is noticeably dated. The far future feels very much like 1950's America with blasters and spaceships added. Asimov displays occasional sparkles of wry wit, but the overall impression is one of oppressive dullness. As the series progresses, the influence of Asimov's editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., rears its ugly head. The third volume is much concerned with mental control, both as a mutant psi power and as the hokum result of advanced psychology.
While the Foundation series remains readable, there is little to recommend it to the modern reader. It ain't as great as it used to be.
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