I just finished reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation. The first book of the Foundation Series is truly a masterpiece. It has become even more powerful a read.
I first read it as a bored teen, with no idea what it was about. But the fact of the matter is that Foundation is a book which demands to be read quickly, and thus the impression, amidst the brilliant storyline, is often shallow. I read it this time in a couple of hours; I would've read it quicker without trains and cafes and other impediments, but basically I devoured it. And because it read so fast, the impressions of the individual stories flickered past too.
The sense of history as pattern is stronger in this book than any single narrative. Having read the brilliant new Foundation trilogy, written by the three Bs (Brin, Benson, and Bear - all writer whom I test strong using the kinesiology test, a rarity among Sci-fi writers) which tells the personal life story of Hari Seldon, the very brief treatment of Seldon in the first trilogy is more notable for what is unsaid. Hari is just another name in history for Asimov; the hero is the idea, even the fast-flow of the narrative of itself might be called the Hero, because the whole notion of story here is webbed against historical patterns so closely.
Briefly, then, Foundation has the setup and three payoffs. The setup is Hari Seldon arranging exile to Terminus.
Salvor Hardin's politicization of Terminus is the first payoff, and is especially brilliantly written.
Smyrnian Trader Limmar Ponyet's chicanery on planet Askone's closed market demonstrates the limits of religion and is the second payoff.
Then Hober Mallow's power grab and abandonment of religion for trade as a means for influence in the third.
The story starts and ends with a court case, first against Hari Seldon and last against Hober Mallow. The ideology of the book is anti-violence and pro social and economic measures. In fact it may be the first really positive exploration of what has come to be called "soft power", of which the European Union is the present example.
The great touches of image serve to cast a deeper shadow on the role of public morality in sustaining a civilisation. For instance, the ambassador from Anacreon presents the hilt of his gun as a symbol of peaceful intentions when he visits Salvor Hardin on Terminus.
In the context of history the book is extraordinarily complex and sophisticated. Social and economic complexity is reduced and strained free of dense matter and difficulty, like consomme soup, made to be thin yet delicious and easily consumed. The very first thought I had at the end of reading Foundation was "how I wish there were a history of Rome so readable and fast and easy to consume!" and then "how I wish I wrote a history of such things myself, that was so readable and consumable!" and so on.
Normally I read Foundation in a great hurry (as I have this time) in combination with the other two books, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. But I only have a copy of the first book of the trilogy and must make do with it.
The first payoff is quite brilliant, because it is delayed and played out indirectly, thus deflecting the thrill of emotional rush into intellectual wonder. Specifically, Salvon Hardin delays the confrontation between Terminus and Anacreon for thirty years, years which Asimov summarizes in a bitter and brilliant battle of words between the old Hardin and young Sek Sermak. Thus the reader feels that the payoff is deferred. The reader senses an even bigger payoff at the far end of the section, "Mayors". And Asimov does not fail us. For Salvor Hardin travels to Anacreon to personally entrap the evil regent there and defeat him - again, inevitably, with soft power. Hardin defeats his enemy on the enemy's territory, at the precise moment when it seems all is lost for the Foundation.
One is left with the distinct impression that brains defeat brawn, skilled inaction and insight defeat busyness and boldness, and that the power of wisdom and foresight overcomes even a social collapse on the scale of the fall of the Roman Empire - as indeed they did. For the Fall of Rome resulted in the rise of Christendom, and with it a grand tradition - so Asimov's message, by locating a historical European lesson in the distant future - becomes a timeless affirmation of human excellence.
The book, incidentally, calibrates at 450, which makes it the highest calibrating science fiction book I have yet read. Foundation thus stands virtually alone in the field of science fiction novels in excellence.