27-Oct-2007

Foundation

Finally, last morning I finished the last of the Foundation novels ‘Foundation and Earth’. Thus comes to an end a five month relationship with a series that kept me preoccupied on treks, travels, office lunch breaks, signals at the road, late nights and early mornings till Hari Seldon seemed like a close friend. I almost cried when I read the novel where he dies.

It all began with Foundation. Hundred pages into the book, I kicked myself hard for having waited this long to begin the book. Foundation is more fiction and less science. And how magnificently so. Asimov focuses on the way human civilization thinks and moves. The story begins many thousands of years from our present days. Pretty much the whole galaxy is under the rule of a giant galactic empire based in Trantor. Unfortunately, the galactic empire is crumbling and the likely consequence is a plunge of civilizations into the dark ages till another empire takes its place. This process should take atleast ten thousand years. Except that the series’ unconventional hero, Hari Seldon, has developed a tool called psychohistory to contract the period of the dark ages into a mere thousand years. To enable this, Seldon forms a colony of scientists, technicians and other such people called the Foundation. The novels trace the challenges the Foundation faces and if it eventually reaches the happy conclusion that Seldon meant it to.

The first novel, Foundation, describes the process of how settlers fit in and they begin colonization through religion and economics. Somewhere halfway down, you suddenly realize that it is almost like reading a book on civilizations of the world – fiction inspired masterfully from a rational view of reality. Panting for more, I grabbed the second and then the third books. Asimov manages to keep the level of interest high in both by introducing various conflicts in the path to the formation of the second galactic empire.

A young Asimov had written the first three novels in his 20s. Apparently the series languished for a while as its original publisher had not really done much in terms of promotion. When a more popular book house acquired the international rights, the series exploded onto the bestseller lists. Naturally this lead to a lot of offsprings and four other foundation novels emerged. In all four novels, Asimov, works in characters and references from his other books of fiction. Two are set before the Foundation saga actually begins and talk about how Hari Seldon makes psychohistory his life purpose. Prelude to the Foundation and Forward the Foundation are both compact works that gives the curious reader another piece of fiction inspired by reality – the struggle of early days when testing a new concept right up to the problem of being viewed as a doomsday soothsayer.

The last two novels Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth were written about thirty years after the original trilogy. Not surprisingly, the novels are more philosophical than fictional. Asimov begins to question the whole premise of the Foundation series, and thereby the premise of normal empire building. Sadly, for me, the endless discussions on single organism vs a single person began to sound quite repetitive and finally the logic for the choice made by the hero of the novels seemed quite inadequate. Infact the distant murmurs of a standard Hollywood pinning for a sequel could be heard.

As a series, Foundation is certainly a masterpiece. A fact, which has been testified by its cult like popularity. And it being an inspiration to some real cults around the world (including the crazy one which gassed a Japanese subway many years ago). Asimov is without doubt is a storyteller par excellence.

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