Issac Asimov – The Foundation Trilogy (Everyman Edition)

This is, of course, not a new book. I was trying to remember when I first ready one of the three volumes, and came up with something in the vicinity of 35 years. Back in those days, second-hand bookshops were to be found all over the place, and I slowly built up a collection of the old Panther Science Fiction editions, as and when I could find them, and in no particular order. This meant that I read the middle volume long before the first, but never mind…

All this started as an open-ended series of short (and not so short) stories that Isaac Asimov wrote starting in 1942. He moved on to other things in 1950 or thereabouts, and the apparently complete series was collected into three books published between 1951 and 1953, with a new opening section to the first volume. These three books: Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation, formed the Foundation Trilogy, which for many years has enjoyed a reputation as one of the classics of sf.

It was based on an idea knocked together by Asimov and the hugely influential editor of Astounding, John W Campbell. The plan was to tell the story of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire and the subsequent rise of a greater and generally better Second Empire. All good classic sf stuff – Galactic Empires were pretty standard at the time, but most people were writing about rising empires or fully operational ones rather than decaying ones.

The new Empire would be based on two Foundations, “at opposite ends of the galaxy”. Most of the series focuses on the First Foundation, ostensibly set up to create an Encyclopedia Galactica, to preserve the knowledge of the Empire and so reduce the inevitable period of barbarism after the collapse. This turned out to be an elaborate misdirection on the part of Hari Seldon, the mathematician who devised the science of Psychohistory, which aimed to predict the general flow of history by examining the behaviour of enormous numbers of people. While the behaviour of any individual remained unpredictable, Seldon proved that the behaviour of sufficiently large groups could be determined.

It’s good stuff, and it’s still very readable. The technology described often sounds primitive to modern readers, but if you can look past that to the stories, there’s much to enjoy.

I obviously have these books already, but I was browsing in the Newcastle Waterstone’s recently, and this tastefully produced hardback caught my eye. It’s nicely bound, with an interesting introduction, some useful bibliographical and biographical notes, and properly typeset. I’m often annoyed when older books are reprinted by the process of scanning an existing edition and effectively printing photocopies, with the resultant slightly blurred type, and preserving any old errors. This has been done properly, with proper clear print.

If you’ve never read the Foundation Trilogy, this would be an excellent version to buy or borrow from your local library. If you have read it, and your old paperbacks are a bit tatty, or even lost, here’s the ideal opportunity to get a fresh copy and re-read the series.

Reading this reminded me of the sequels and prequels that Asimov wrote many years later. I’m working my way through those, and you know what? They’re pretty damn good too.

Another thing that came to my mind was a vague memory of a BBC Radio adaptation of the original trilogy, probably made in the 1970s. A bit of searching turned it up on Amazon in MP3 format for a very silly price. I’ve listened to the first four of eight episodes, and so far I’m impressed. There’s an overuse of electronic noises (the teletype sound effect behind the voice reading the Encyclopedia entries is a bit silly), the sound quality is variable (some voices are too quiet), but overall, it’s nicely done, with minimal cutting and mangling. Worth a listen – it was just £3.99 when I bought it. I’d have paid more for a properly indexed and remastered version, but this will do for now.