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Discussion: Is "Foundation" No Longer a Classic?

Paul B. Hartzog's picture

So, I was reading Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different by James Wallace Harris, in which he says:

Twenty years ago I wrote an article about the classics of science fiction for the fanzine Lan’s Lantern – and later made the essay into a web site at the Classics of Science Fiction.... The final Classics of Science Fiction list wasn’t selected by me, but was assembled from the most frequently recommended books from 28 best-of lists and other sources dating back to the 1950s. Of the 193 books on the list, I’m not sure how many I would personally recommend today.

Well, I thought, this should be interesting. And at this point, I totally agree, classics should change over time, not only because new great works get written, but also because as civilization marches on, our attitudes about older works change and we see them in a different light.

But then he says this:

A few months ago I listened to Foundation by Isaac Asimov and I was appalled by how bad it was. I had forgotten most of the story. I had read the original Foundation trilogy back in the 1960s and accepted it then as a classic because everyone said it was so. Listening to it now it was obvious that it was a fix-up novel from a handful of Astounding pulp fiction stories.... It is well loved, but not by me anymore.

"Is this guy nuts?!" my brain wails. But then I start thinking, well, what is this guy looking for in science fiction that would make him say this, or, conversely, what do I look for in science fiction that makes me disagree with him. Since I am currently rereading Foundation (still in the first book so far), here's my take.

First, Foundation speaks to me because it is about how certain aspects of human behavior lead inescapably to the rise and fall of societies. As a result of Jared Diamond's book Collapse, this is somewhat of a recent fad in anthropology. In fact, I, myself, have succumbed to the temptation to write about collapse.

But more importantly, Foundation is an exemplar because no one has written anything like it since! By "like it" I mean that the story has well developed characters that move through interesting plot twists. Also, Foundation manages to do something that few other writers have ever done (Dan Simmons is one who has). Specifically, Asimov uses a vast scale but shows how we puny humans are still important, how we can be important by our thoughts, decisions, and deeds.

If that doesn't make for classic sci-fi then I don't know what does. :-)

Everything in its right place.

It's still a classic in the sense that "Nosferatu" and "The General" are classic silent motion pictures.
I think that it represents the high water mark of the space-opera genre.
Is it dated? Sure. Just like everything speculative will be. Does that make it less enjoyable?

Fact is, silent movies aren't everyone's cup of tea. However, for those who do enjoy, they
are a unique and rewarding art form.

every wall collapses, given enough time.

paulbhartzog's picture

Every Wall Collapses

that's sweet rhetoric

hope you are writing that down ;-)

Still a classic?

I just recently finished listening to all 7 books in the Foundation series. I enjoyed them as much this time as the first time I read them. The entire series deals with real issues but does so in such a way that it is a joy to read them. While the first few books do deal more with humanity as a whole and seem to bounce between stories as you get into the later books they tend to focus more on a small group of people. I'm not sure how anyone could say that Foundation is no longer a classic. I have read other books that are considered "classics" and did not enjoy them one bit, but that doesn't mean they are not still classics. A classic is a book that forms the foundation for the genre for years to come. On a side note, has anyone noticed how Asimov tied the Robot, Empire, and Foundation series together? I just love that.

Not all of the foundation series are of equal quality.

I think the first few foundation stories are fantastic, although a bit jarring in that they are following human society as a whole rather than maintaining a single protagonist. The later ones do tail off. I remember reading in a preface to one of them Asimov admitting that he was forced to write more of them, because of the huge sums of money being offered even though he didn't want to. I think that shows.

I certainly wouldn't recommend the whole foundation series as classic, but definitely at least the first book.

Foundation

All I know is that when I read the first in the Foundation series, I couldn't wait to read the rest, and when I finished them, I felt a certain "sadness" that the story was over. I believe that is a sign of an excellent piece of work, regardless of genre. Granted, culture changes over time and our ideas about what is modern and relevent follows the same path. But, I pose a question in rebuttal to the idea that the Foundation series is no longer a classic: If the Foundation series was never written, would ideas about science fiction (and other related fields such as anthropology as you mentioned), would they be different? I think that science fiction would have undoubtedly taken a different path without this body of work, and to me that makes it important as a classic. Plus its a damn good story.

Thanks- alpha