Sunday, October 12, 2014

Isaac Asimov's Foundation--Reading a Science Fiction Classic

Since discovering that my excellent local library has books on tape, I've been happy to check out some classics I've never had a chance to read. One of the first books I listened to was Isaac Asimov's Foundation. I'd read some of Asimov's short stories, but this was my first experience with one of his novels.

As a whole, I enjoyed listening to Foundation, even though it has some flaws as a novel. On the good side, the ideas behind the novel fascinated me. The psychohistory, the image of an empire on the verge of collapse (it's clear that Asimov is well versed in Roman history), and the clever way the Foundation's leaders save it during each Seldon crisis--these make for a compelling storyline. I liked many of Asimov's characters as well--Hari Seldon makes for a great enigmatic genius/scientific prophet, and Salvor Hardin shines as a ruthlessly brilliant politician. However, Hober Mallow and Ponyets seem too similar to Hardin, and could have benefited from more unique characterization.

Yet, the novel has some problems, especially from a modern point of view. Though science fiction is famously prescient about technology, Asimov apparently didn't foresee computers very well, much less smart phones or the internet. It's a bit jarring when the Encyclopedists discuss distributing their massive magnum opus via microfilm. Or that the only form of energy used by the Foundation is atomics. There were definitely moments where the book felt dated.

Worse, in the entire novel, there's only two female characters who ever speak at all. Women, children, family life, and sex barely exist in the world. Asimov was writing at a very different time, and later in life he acknowledged that he'd failed to write female characters well out of inexperience. He tried to rectify his mistakes in future books and even supported feminism. Still, it's jarring to read a book where women are completely invisible.

Despite its flaws, Foundation is still a fascinating read full of compelling ideas. Asimov's depiction of a civilization clawing its way out of chaos gives the book an type of large-scale epic drama you rarely see in science fiction today. In contrast, much of our modern fiction feels so small scale, even narcissistic. This sci-fi classic is well worth reading. 

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