Interested In Its Own Mythology: Foundation

untitledIsaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of the earliest science fiction works of the contemporary era, being published in 1951. Asimov published four the five sections of the book as short stories in the early 1940s before tying them together and releasing them as a novel. The novel would become the centerpiece of his Foundation series, an alternative galaxy where a galaxy wide Empire crumbles into dust. I quite enjoyed Foundation and its premise, easily reading the five sections in only a few days. However, I think that as a whole, the book does not quite hold together.

This is because, as I said above, the sections were each published as short stories. Each is a world unto itself with some connection between them, but Foundation does not build a coherent, linked narrative across stories. What is does build is an epochal history of what happens in the galaxy after the Empire falls. To be sure, the stories all tell individual pieces of this grand narrative, but they don’t quite amount to an engaging novel-length narrative like some of the other science fiction works I have read this year (say Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Asimov certainly is not the first writer to produce a less-than-complete novel from a set of short stories. Even today, I often feel like some novels are really just elongated short stories that authors have been forced to expand by an eager publisher (Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil suffers from this among other things).

What Foundation does have going for it is its epochal scope. It refuses to limit itself to a small story and instead aims at a grand narrative of the galaxy. This has its own attractions and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it also means that the novel seems more invested and involved in its own mythology than in telling a story. This aspect of science fiction seems particularly noxious to readers who simply cannot buy into science fiction’s main premises. And to a certain extent, I can understand why. A book like Foundation simply uses a rotating cast of characters to tell a much bigger story, a story that seems to have little to do with our own world. Foundation does seem to be a critique of authoritarian political power, but that kind of reading lessens the total craftsmanship of the book itself. Instead, it is intent on painting its own grand canvas, and if you are not on board, then you will not enjoy it.

I strongly recommend Foundation for fans of science fiction. This is a seminal work in contemporary science fiction and a highly enjoyable read.

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. 1951. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. Print.