My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Asimov’s work is excellent, as always. He has the ability to condense important information into a small space, to introduce characters quickly and efficiently, to present scientific concepts with ease, and to lead the reader on whatever twists and turns he wishes. This makes one of his most famous books entertaining, at least, and delightful, at best.
There is not much I can say about the skill with which he writes this book. But I will mention why I downgraded the book from five stars to four.
First, the structure. In his style, he writes in sections, which separate the book nicely – but seeing as I complained about the chapter enumeration in McDevitt’s work, and that enumeration is almost identical here, it would be incongruous for me not to mention my displeasure with it in this case. On the other hand, Asimov’s publisher, whether it was a modern choice or not, has done a good job of making the pages clean and the chapter breaks clear, whereas McDevitt’s pages seemed cluttered, and the chapter breaks random.
The second issue was something brought to my attention by an old associate. Now, let me preface this by noting that I have no problem with authors trying to convey important messages through their work; if they don’t, there’s not a whole lot of point to the work to begin with. An author has to talk about the human experience, or political problems, or religious questions, or philosophy, or history, or something, anything, other than “Bob and Sally had an adventure.” It only makes sense.
But with that being said, it can get a little… overbearing. In “Foundation,” the overbearing part is the pacifism. “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent,” characters quip throughout the book. Every crisis, every situation, every challenge is resolved with completely non-violent means (or at least, no means involving direct violence; starting a kingdom-wide religious riot probably resulted in a little bit of violence). In fact, the whole point of the book is not the cleverness of psychohistory (which was heavily involved in “Prelude to Foundation”), nor is it technology, or even really the challenges of rescuing knowledge and science as civilization devolves at the end of an era. It’s mostly about how peaceful means are more effective than violent means – inventing religions, manipulating economies, and playing politics are all more ethical behavior than fighting a war (even defensively).
What was most frustrating was that the last two sections of the book proved this to me. The penultimate section did not even deal with a Seldon crisis; its only purpose was to lay the groundwork for the final section (i.e., “There are traders, and they trade stuff.”). And the final section does not bring us full circle to the first section of the book; it does not connect back with Seldon’s initial appearance; and it does not close an overarching story from beginning to end. It does bring us back to the Empire, but only as an unexpected twist. One of the defining characteristics of Seldon crises is the appearance of Seldon with sage advice, which did not occur in the final section of the book.
In short, the reason I downgraded this otherwise-excellent book from five stars to four is that it struck me, not as a cohesive unit with constant theme and strong message, but as a collection of short stories, each of which tried to say, “Peaceful coercion is better than violent coercion, even if the peaceful behavior is traditionally unethical.”