I heard the word science fiction sometime when I was in school. It sounded cool and jazzy. But kind of scary also! I had already read Jeffrey Archer and Agatha Christie while I was still at primary school. But I still felt science fiction would be too tough to read and was reluctant to go anywhere near it. I did try one of the books from Rama series by Arthur C Clarke. But somehow I could not connect and did not proceed far. I am sure there are many an avid readers out there, who have a similar feeling towards science fiction.
When I went to college, I experienced class for the first time. There was a class of people, the social and intellectual elite. I did not belong and I was one of the nobodies living in the shadows. Though I used to scoff at them in public as snobs, I used to observe them in secret and try to imitate them in private. I first heard of Foundation series, when I heard some of these guys conversing. Immediately I went to the hostel library and picked up ‘The Second Foundation’. Initially when I started reading, I got a feeling of being disoriented. But I persisted and was rewarded. It was an immensely gripping read and I was just hooked on. At the end of it I was a convert – I went on read all books written by Asimov I could lay my hands on and eventually became a complete science fiction buff. That is the power of this master. It was one of those books that totally blew me over.
The book ‘Second Foundation’ was totally gripping. The book actually has two stories. The first story tells us of how a secret group called ‘Second Foundation’ defeats a mutant called Mule, who rules the universe through his control over people’s emotions. The second story is about how the second foundation’s sister foundation ‘The First Foundation’ seeks to seek out and destroy them as they feel the ‘Second Foundation’ is taking away their free will and controlling their lives. I was briefly introduced to the science of psychohistory here. I was curious to learn more. So I picked up the first two books in the series – ‘First Foundation’ and ‘Foundation and Empire’. The first tells about how the first foundation manages to establish itself in a hostile environment. The second tells the story of its defeat of the empire and establishing dominion over the universe and then subsequently its defeat by Mule, the mutant. Then I moved on to ‘Foundation’s Edge’ that tells the story of the encounter between the foundations and a powerful world of people like the Mule. Then there were these books ‘Prelude to Foundation’ and ‘Forward the Foundation’ that tell the story of how Hari Seldon formulated the science of psychohistory. The last book ‘Foundation and Earth’ is about tracing history of mankind back to earth. It tries to link the various series created by Asimov in a single universe. It is a nice book for a diehard Asimov fan but not a great book in itself.
The thing I liked most was of course the concept of psychohistory. It is an interesting idea of applying concepts of physics to sociology, history and psychology. The field of thermodynamics says the motion of a single particle is random and unpredictable but a system consisting of large number of particles can be predictable. Similarly sociology and psychology cannot predict how a single person will behave but can help develop a mathematical model to predict behavior of entire human population consisting of billions of people spread across galaxies. History would provide data to test the model on and refine it to fit as closely to history as possible. Hari Seldon based his model on historic data. However the second foundation was a group of mathematicians who could carry out live experiments and collect real time data to refine the model.
The book is written more like a history running over centuries and not focusing on individuals as such except in as much as history books write about kings and generals. I found this book to be a learning experience giving me lot of insights into political science, international relations and the art of war, peace and diplomacy. The book is a pure intellectual delight. However I am not suggesting that narrative is pedantic and boring. On the contrary, the narrative is extremely gripping and the plot is just literally out of the world. The problems the foundations face are too intriguing and the solutions are totally unexpected and give the reader a ‘Wow’ feeling. The suspense and surprise factor in the story is no less than a detective novel.
This book does not go too much into technology as one would expect science fiction to. Nor do we have aliens and robots. In fact foundation series has no robots or aliens at all. Space travel and blasters are the only pure technological aspects in the books. It is the sociological and political aspect that is given more attention. There is just sufficient technology to make the reader believe the story is actually set many millennia from the current time and avoid giving a contemporary feel.
If one were to look for flaws in the series, it is that the series connects more at an intellectual level and is quite low on emotional quotient. Individuals are treated as just pawns in the grandiose scheme of the universe. The protagonists appear to us more in their role in shaping history and do not connect with the reader at a personal level.
I would definitely include at least the core Foundation trilogy in my list of 20 books to read before you die for everyone and not just science fiction buffs. As far as science fiction buffs go, please don’t call yourself that if you have not yet read this series. Only people who can afford to skip these books are small children and the really casual reader.