Foundation by Isaac Asimov

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For the Try Something New Mini-Challenge as part of the Dewey’s Books Challenge, Jackie from Farm Lane Books and I teamed up to read something a little bit out of our comfort zone. We chose to read science fiction, a genre neither of us is completely comfortable with. Our choice was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

What were your initial impressions of the book?

Rebecca: I do not normally choose science fiction to read, but after some good experiences last year when my husband and I read Dune and Space Odyssey 2001 together, I came to appreciate it. I have of course heard of Isaac Asimov, so I was expecting Foundation to be a great example of the master of science fiction. From the beginning of my reading, however, I was disappointed by just about everything — the writing, the development, and the general plot.

Jackie: Initial impressions were quite good. After the first few pages I was wondering what I had against science fiction. The character of Gaal was great. I loved his reactions on arriving at the planet of Trantor, everything was so new and exciting to him. I was willing to forgive all the irritating references to three-dimensional newscasts and plasto-textiles, as his awe and emotions shined through.

What did you like the most about Foundation?

Rebecca: I really liked the premise of Foundation. It is that in a far future era, psychohistorians are able to mathematically predict the future. When they predict the downfall of the empire, they determine to shorten the length of barbarian ignorance by preparing the scenario to their advantage. This concept had potential, and as I read, I sought for themes, as I did when I read Dune and subsequently reviewed it. Foundation encourages us to avoid being too comfortable with the status quo, to be careful to always be learning, to use your strengths to your advantage. These are universal themes to some extent.

Jackie: The picture on the cover of my book was beautiful!

Was there anything that particularly irritated you in the book?

Rebecca: It seemed to me that Asimov’s brilliant ideas fell far short of their potential. Asmiov wrote Foundation at age 21, apparently, and it feels amateur. The novel was divided into five sections of between 45 and 120 pages, and each section covered a separate setting in the midst of a 300-year history. Thus, just as I finally was understanding each personality and setting, it would shift to an entire new setting. I never felt completely comfortable with the characters and setting because I never had time to.

But even if Asmiov had developed each setting further, I doubt they would have felt familiar by the end because Asmiov’s writing was superficial: there was absolutely no development of anyone or thing. Things happened. People spoke. That was it. In the court room scene in section 1, the inquisition is told in a Q and A format. This was horrible to read in that it was boring and weak. While the rest of the book never resorted to that format, it felt the same.

Jackie: Half of Part II, and Parts III, IV and V!! (for those of you who don’t know, Foundation is divided into five separate short stories – parts I – V). I loved the first story (Part I) but after that the book went downhill very quickly for me. I’m not very interested in the politics of my own country, so the arguing of Galactic Councils, which don’t even exist, seemed really pointless to me. I was interested in the book while it concentrated on individuals, but once it started waffling about alternative power sources, regulations and trade agreements I lost interest.

Who was your favourite character and why?

Rebecca: I don’t have a favourite character because I felt Asimov never developed any character to any extent. They were all superficial and boring. If there is any section I wanted to know more about, it was the first one. The concept of psychohistorians (mathematicians predicting the future based on human character) was intriguing.

Jackie: Gaal was my favourite character by a long way, as he is the only one we really saw a human side too.

Will you be reading the rest of the trilogy?

Rebecca: No. I can’t imagine it being prolonged into two more books!

Jackie: No, I won’t be reading the rest of the trilogy, or any more books written by Asimov. There are so many amazing books out there, that I don’t see the point of reading ones which I probably won’t like.

The Dewey Mini-Challenge was to “try something new,” and science fiction was out of your comfort zone. What is your “after” impression of the genre? Will you be reading more in the future?

Rebecca: In addition to Dune and Space Odyssey 2001 as I mentioned above, I’ve also read Ender’s Game. Of those four science fiction books, Foundation was my least favourite. I liked the others much better, so I can’t swear off science fiction forever. That said, I may try Asimov again in the future to give him the benefit of the doubt, but not any time soon!

Jackie: I had a strong suspicion that I won’t enjoy Asimov, and this was proved to be correct. In the past I have read a few science fiction/fantasy books, for example some by David Gemmel and The Fellowship of the Ring, but I haven’t enjoyed them. It obviously depends on your definition of science fiction, as it could be argued that The Time Traveller’s Wife also falls into this category, and I loved that. I much prefer books which are based in fact – only a really talented writer can make me enjoy books which are pure fantasy – Murakami is a good example of this. I need to be able to empathize with the characters, and this is much harder for me to do if they are living in a world in which all our laws of physics and society are different to theirs.

Cross-posted at Farm Lane Books here.

Is science fiction out of your comfort zone? Have you read Asimov? If so, what Asimov might you recommend to me? (I don’t think Jackie is interested!)

If you have reviewed Foundation, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on March 17, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I agree with you that Foundation is boring, but it is a really great story about practical politics. I read Foundation as a teenager and have re-read it many times and I still find it fascinating. It’s based on Gibbon’s “The rise and fall of the Roman Empire”, by the way.

    If you are brave enough to try more Asimov, the next parts of the Foundation series are more people-centric, and less fragmented. If I remember correctly the same group of people are followed on a quest through the galaxy, so there are no jumps in time and more possibilities for character development.

  • I have never read Asimov, though he’s on my “someday” list just because he’s one of the forefathers. Sorry to hear the book was disappointing for you.

  • Sci Fi is also an “avoid” genre for me most of the time, though there have been a few gems that I’ve enjoyed. I think you guys made an admirable choice here, even if it didn’t really pay off for you this time.

  • Paula, I’m sincerely glad that you did enjoy it so much! I actually do disagree about the story being interesting — although I can see how the practical politics may be interesting. I’m making a note to avoid “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” and I’m sorry but I’m really not interested in the sequels to this. I was hoping there were other Asimov’s that might be different.

    Nymeth, I hope other Asimov’s are better! But maybe this is right for you. See Paula’s comment above.

    Amanda, …especially if you don’t normally like science fiction!

    Steph, well, I think that was the idea — to go out of the comfort zone a bit! Which “gems” did you enjoy?

  • Like you, I enjoyed “Ender’s Game”, but I’ve also enjoyed some Robert Heinlen (namely “Stranger in a Strange Land”). Also, I kind of consider Vonnegut to be sci-fi, but I’m probably in the minority there (as he is housed in the “literary fiction” section…)!

  • My husband was all over me for years to read Foundation, so after years of being harassed, I finally picked it up….and put it right back down about halfway through. Although I found the premise interesting, the writing was so appalling that I couldn’t continue reading. It got in the way of the ideas. I think this happens to a lot of science fiction writers (at least from what I encountered of them in writing workshops): they think the ideas matter more than the prose. And why shouldn’t they believe so, if a “classic” is so poorly written?

  • Steph, someone else mentioned Vonnegut over on Jackie’s post. I think maybe sci fi is kind of broad, so I’m not swearing it off forever. I will try it again. Just not soon.

    priscilla, I do think Sci Fic isn’t well written, normally. (Of course I say this from my four books of experience.) I think maybe they are more concerned with the story and the science-y creativity of it, like you say. But yeah, I don’t blame you for putting it down half way.

    Jackie, thanks again for doing it with me! It was fun having a reading buddy, even if the books wasn’t our favorite!

  • Sci-Fi would definitely be beyond my comfort zone! Every time I try it, including Vonnegut, I don’t care for it. It’s not the writing I mind, it’s the whole concept. But, I have the same problem to a lesser extent to magical realism, fantasy, and even some historical fiction. I guess I prefer realism in my fiction no matter what.

  • I agree with the assessment of Foundation. The idea/concept Asimov is great but he fell short in putting them together as good narratives with lifelike characters, etc.

    But I wouldn’t go as far to say the same about all science fiction, however. Like in any other genre, there are good and bad science fiction books.

    Frank Herbert’s Dune series is a good place to start. So is Vonnegut. There’s also Haruki Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, any book by J.G. Ballard, Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and of course, good old Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, etc.

    For my part, I personally recommend Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

  • karlo, very fair points. Whenever we criticize an entire genre, we’re being very unfair. I’ll certainly try again. I liked Dune, but not interested enough to read more. I’d really like to try Vonnegut this year too. Thanks for the other recommendaitons. I look forward to trying them!

    Ladytink, I don’t normally read YA but I’ve heard great things about the Uglies series, so have to try it!

  • When I saw that 2 readers already not too thrilled about SF chose Foundation, all I could think was ‘Oh No!’ Asimov is classic, but he’s also responsible for a lot of the classic prejudices against the genre.

    Jackie, Since you mentioned the Time Travelers Wife as a + , I recommend Maria Doria Russell’s ‘The Sparrow’ about an expedition to an alien planet – it is written like a “regular” novel but happens to be about an expedition to an alien planet. I’ll second karlo’s rec for Margaret Atwood, with the (now-)classic Handmaid’s Tale.

    Rebecca- For you, I recommend Nancy Kress’s ‘Beggars in Spain’ – about a group of children/teens who are genetically modified to not need to sleep. If you enjoyed Ender’s Game, I think you will enjoy this.

    Praise to both of you for trying, even if it was ultimately a painful experience.

  • Alisa, oh, that’s so interesting. I though because he was “classic”, he’d be good. I guess maybe not for non-Sci Fi types?

    The books you recommend sound very interesting. I’ve started on a “dystopian” kick, and while Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t my favorite, I forget that those too count as “science fiction.”

    As for the sleep one, sometimes I think it would nice to not need sleep, but other times I just love to sleep, and that would be sad to not need it any more!!!

  • I found this discussion searching for: “azimov” “foundation” “boring” just to see if I was the only person who felt this way 😉 I read about a quarter of Foundation… good start and then ground steadily downhill. I made it to the big day they were to open Selden’s time capsule and was just too bored to go even five more pages to find out what it contained. That’ a sad comment on his writing.

    This is the second SciFi “master” I’ve picked up and put down. This book is full of completely disposable mono-thematic characters and moved along gracelessly through plot twists that arrive so thoroughly pre-announced it grates. OK, so Asimov was a kid when he wrote it… but I’ve attempted some of his later works and with the exception of I Robot, it’s more of the same. I can’t understand how a short story writer of middling talent could become so famous while incredibly talented short story writers like Raymond Carver are relatively obscure. Well, OK – I guess I know the answer to that one. Asimov wrote about rockets in the rocket age; nuff said. Actually he did write a few “physics for the masses” educational books that were great… called: “Azimov On… (Light / Sound / Electricity etc… I’ve long since forgotten their names though I had them as a kid)

    The other science fiction writer I found disappointing was Heinlein. My God… he made Asimov seem brilliant. He wrote oppressively long streams of bludgeoningly leaden dialog reaching obvious conclusions. I tried two well known Heinlein novels (Book names escape me – the ones about Lazarus Long) I would call them water torture but I’m almost certain that dripping water couldn’t be that mind numbing.

    Oddly – I’m a big science fiction movie/TV fan!?! Star Wars, all flavors of Star Trek, Dr. Who, Red Dwarf, Serenity, Torchwood, Stargate… I love science fiction; the cheesier the better! Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps I love SciFi for the fun of it – the sheer escapism. “Serious” SciFi writers like Azimov and Heinlein are held to a much higher standard. Even the great Gene Roddenberry who had such wonderful social messages in his work did it all tongue-in-cheek like the talented showman that he was. In other words, it’s all a romp until someone stands up straightens his collar and says: “Take me seriously.” At that point it’s no longer comedy/escapism… it’s time to deliver the goods and it seems that most authors who rely on a device or premise instead of on plot and character development just can’t deliver. Charlaine Harris’ vampire books are a great example of “wonderfully cheesy” Science Fiction. They’re fun, they’re quick reads, they’re not intended as serious works, and yet I’d have to say they’re better written and more engaging than Asimov and Heinlein put together.

  • I am disappointed in this website. I was looking for meaningful reviews over one of the most highly celebrated science fiction titles in the world by one of the most talented science fiction writers, but I found this.

  • Rebecca, I haven’t read science fiction in (approx.) 20 years, and so, I might not remember details of those specific books. Back when I used to read science fiction, that was, more or less, all the fiction I would read. Looking back now, I don’t think I can point to any of his books for good development of characters. But that’s not what I used to read for! I was always an “ideas person”. Most good science fiction authors use science as a means to create new worlds (ideas), new creatures (ideas), new societies (ideas). Stanislaw Lem used science fiction to explore philosophical ideas. Doris Lessing wrote science fiction to explore to ideas of societies in her series called “Canopus in Argos: Archives”.

    A winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Krugman (whom I can’t stand) wrote about Foundation, “but that’s how I got into economics: I wanted to be a psychohistorian when I grew up, and economics was as close as I could get.” [Src: I mention this only to point out why I get the impression that most other people who enjoy science fiction do so, more or less, for the reasons I do.

    If I have to pick a science fiction novel that has /some/ character development, I’d pick Heinlein’s “Double Star”

    If you’re still open to reading Asimov, and in the mood for some Wodehouse-like humour, I recommend his Azazel series of short stories. Then again, this has about as much character development as a typical novel of Wodehouse has.

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