A truly seminal work, Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy fertilized the SF field with a potency still felt today. Originally published as a series of short stories in John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction beginning in 1942, the trilogy retains its serial structure, as shown by the table of contents below:
Part I: The Psychohistorians
Part II: The Encyclopedists
Part III: The Mayors
Part IV: The Traders
Part V: The Merchant Princes
Foundation and Empire 1952
Part I: The General
Part II: The Mule
Second Foundation 1953
Part I: Search by the Mule
Part II: Search by the Foundation
PREMISE and PLOT
It's difficult to review a series and refrain from divulging too much of the plot. It is especially so for the Foundation trilogy since it is structured not as three books, but as nine stories. I can set up the premise of each story, but to do so for succeeding stories would be to include spoilers of preceding stories. On the other hand, giving the premise behind only the first story would be a very small offering, since the remaining eight all take place at increasing distances of time, space, and character from the first.
So I'll do my best, beginning by outlining the initial premise of the first story, and then try to outline the structure and relationship of the remaining stories, spoiling as little as possible. I would welcome those who are familiar with the trilogy to let me know if I go too far in some areas, or not far enough.
In The Psychohistorians, Hari Seldon is introduced. He is the genius behind the revolutionary theories of psychohistory, including the concept that cultural and sociological indicators can be assessed and calculated in such a way as to mathematically predict the course of human history. Using this new science, Seldon realizes that the Galactic Empire is unavoidably doomed, and its fall will cause a 30,000 year long dark age before a second empire rises. He calculates that this period can be reduced to 1,000 years if certain steps are taken, and he takes them.
Not surprisingly, psychohistory proves to be the ultimate tool of manipulation. The entire trilogy is the history of the Foundation which Seldon establishes to quicken humanity's recovery from the empire's fall. Throughout the trilogy Asimov keeps surprising us, these twists cropping up as stages of Seldon's plan come to fruition in ways the characters of later generations never imagined. To muddy the waters, there are also twists arising from the times Seldon's plan doesn't quite work out how he expected.
The fall of the empire happens quickly, and in The Encyclopedists the Foundation Seldon has established on a remote planet finds itself surrounded by aggressive neighbors now free of imperial restraints. The Foundation considers itself a repository of knowledge but soon learns its larger role, and of the periodic crises Seldon foresaw will threaten its success. Without the pax imperia, the Foundation must use its own scant resources to defend itself.
In The Mayors another crisis arises when a stronger military power threatens the Foundation. Again, those of the Foundation must shift their thinking and preserve themselves in a new way. This formula is repeated in The Traders and The Merchant Princes with interesting variations. At each crisis, the Foundation succeeds in redefining itself and progresses along the plan Seldon had established generations before.
Foundation and Empire picks up with the Foundation well in control of its area of space. But it's beginning to encounter the remnant of the old empire, which is still a powerful adversary. In The General the inevitable war for dominance breaks out between the fading empire and the expanding Foundation. Then, in The Mule, Seldon's plan is derailed. Psychohistory, like all statistical sciences, cannot predict the individual, only the society. But an entirely unpredictable and remarkably powerful individual called the Mule appears and single-handedly changes the course which Seldon had set for human history.
By this point it becomes clear that there is another element of Seldon's plan as yet still hidden. This 'Second Foundation' was meant to be the invisible hand guiding the destiny of mankind, just as the first has preserved humanity's culture and civilization. But no one likes to be controlled, do they? So the search to expose this Second Foundation begins and Search by the Mule and Search by the Foundation are exactly what their titles suggest they are. But if either the Mule or the Foundation succeed in finding the Second Foundation, will Seldon's plan finally be thwarted?
There's plenty of Asimov's stock characters in these stories. The witty and charming scientist who manipulates people into following the path of wisdom because explaining it to them would be too much work, and there'd be no telling whether they'd be smart enough to do it anyway. The similarly witty and charming trader or politician or general who similarly affects the course of history, this time to the befuddlement of establishment scientists, who of course aren't of the witty and charming variety. On the other hand, there are the villains--patsies who lack wit and charm but may have a small degree of intelligence, or at least enough brute force to make them a threat.
These characters, though redundant and static, are nevertheless just what they're intended to be: witty and charming (or brutish). Unless you're a snoot who won't read anything where the main character isn't a failed hero going through a traumatizing personal transformation or self-realization, you won't find Asimov's characters boring. They're exactly what they need to be to make these stories work and they're highly readable. Their motivations are credible in light of their situations, assuming you have an open enough mind to accept those situations.
Mention must be made of the Mule. This is the one standout character in the trilogy. He is complex, sympathetic, and believable. He inspires conflicting emotions and great interest. And enough time and attention are given him to create a complete portrait.
Asimov, being a witty and charming fellow, can be a joy to read. The brevity of the early stories and the suspenseful twisting of Seldon's machinations pulls you in. When the stories grow longer, fascination with the Mule keeps you reading as the final surprises are uncovered.
Asimov's is perhaps the definitive style of science fiction. Bare bones facts, plot development and characterization. Brief but detailed treatments of science and ideas. Puzzles. Surprises. Many of the things that make a good story of any kind, and little of the things that can bog down a story. No heavy-handedly transparent meanings, nor intentionally obscure ones. Foundation does not try to be anything it isn't. What it is is a good story built around some great ideas.
The concept of psychohistory is amazing. Most professors of social sciences, whether they admit it or not, have fallen into the delusion that their fields carry the import that Asimov gives psychohistory. Obviously, such a thing is impossible. But . . . what if? The psychohistorian would be a god! Certainly there are those who have tried. Hitler. Lenin. The USA's founding fathers. The flavor of psychohistory, the feeling of one person having a plan and guiding humanity along that plan, has resonance with real history. And with religion. This theme is later taken up in a similar way by Frank Herbert in his Dune series, especially in God Emperor of Dune. In contrast, the ability of an anomaly, the Mule, to thwart the carefully laid plans of the god-like psychohistorian gives Foundation roots in individuality. The tension between free will and destiny is the key theme in these books.
The importance of knowledge and technology to human culture/civilization is treated in Foundation. So also is the idea that knowledge and technology can be as powerful and decisive in human history as actual military might. The great influence of religion on human history is addressed. And the idea of science as a religion is raised. The ultimate power of economics over all other considerations is illustrated. The effects of all these factors on the motivations of individuals and of societies is portrayed effectively. Foundation is social science fiction of the highest degree.
It's hard to begin. It's hard to make a pretense of objectively evaluating such a landmark. Foundation is a great work. I'd include it in my list of 100 MUST BOOKS (someday I'll write that list and stick it in my profile). It's a quick read, around 700 pages for the entire trilogy. Refreshing in light of the lumbering size of many recent SF/F books, few of which have as much substance as Foundation. The same goes for 'mainstream' literature for that matter.
The concepts it presents are worthy of thought, and the sweeping scale of the trilogy brings a sense of the historic. However, it's not a character driven story. Unless you're talking about the character of the human race. So call that a fault if you want to. Admittedly, Foundation will not appeal to everyone. And despite its monumental stature in the field of SF, and my own love for it, I do not believe it has the greatness needed to appeal to those lacking in the capacity to appreciate genre fiction. It doesn't have the characterization that bridges such gaps for Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, or Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice. Nor the depth that does so for Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, or the excitement that does it for Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye. It doesn't have the sole claim to primacy in its genre like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, nor is it so astoundingly magnificent as Frank Herbert's first Dune book, which deserves five stars even though it lack the things mentioned for these other examples. Therefore, I give Foundation only four stars. BUT, if you are someone who has the capacity and enough freedom of mind to enjoy genre fiction, I emphatically recommend it as a must.