“To seize control of a world, they bribe with immense ships that can make war, but lack all economic significance. We, on the other hand, bribe with little things, useless in war, but vital to prosperity and profits.”
Flip to any page in The Foundation Series and you’ll find the same thing: one person sitting in a room talking to another. This sci-fi classic is really just a series of conversations. No space battles. No lightsaber fights. No forbidden love. Yet Asimov’s books hold more tension and suspense than your average Star Wars saga.
Over three books, Asimov tells of the decline of one galactic empire, and the birth of another. Originally written for a magazine audience as separate short stories, the series doesn’t follow any one particular character, but instead flits between scenes like a stage play. The space in between chapters can number hundreds of years, with characters going from alive to legend at the turn of a page.
Asimov’s true skill is using dialogue as context. His writing is skeletal, wasting no time on description or logistics, and focussing entirely on what’s most important: deliberation, negotiation, persuasion.
There’s a tangible sense the galaxy hangs on every word. That everything matters and nothing is wasted. Yet even then Asimov obscures our vision and remains utterly unpredictable.
The first book is the standout in the trilogy. It tells of a burgeoning society on the fringes of the galaxy. A society that’s powerless, fragile and surrounded by hostile forces. Decisions hold impact and threats feel real. By the latter books, this society has grown into a multi-planetary community, having enough inertia and scale to never feel truly threatened. It becomes a lot harder to tell meaningful personal stories in an empire numbering billions than one numbering thousands.
Even so, Asimov’s Foundation series has a lot to offer us in the 21st Century (Elon Musk mentioned it at this year’s SXSW) and makes for a fantastic read, whether want to ponder themes like legacy, society and empire, or just looking for some enjoyable sci-fi.