The Folio Society has released a beautiful, illustrated slipcased edition of Asimov's Foundation trilogy, illustrated by Alex Wells, with a special introduction by Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman. The introduction (PDF) is a great and insightful piece into one of the ways that science fiction inspires and shapes the lives of its readers.
Yet despite their lack of conventional cliffhangers and, for the most part, either heroes or villains, the ‘Foundation’ novels are deeply thrilling—suspenseful, engrossing, and, if I may say, bracingly cynical. For the absence of conventional cliffhangers doesn’t mean an absence of unconventional cliffhangers.
In the first book and a half there are a series of moments in which the fate of the galaxy seems to hang in the balance, as the Foundation faces the apparent threat of extinction at the hands of barbarian kings, regional warlords, and eventually the decaying but still powerful empire itself. Each of these crises is met by the men of the hour, whose bravery and cunning seem to offer the only hope. Each time, the Foundation triumphs. But here’s the trick: after the fact, it becomes clear that bravery and cunning had nothing to do with it, because the Foundation was fated to win thanks to the laws of psychohistory. Each time, just to drive the point home, the image of Hari Seldon, recorded centuries before, appears in the Time Vault to explain to everyone what just happened. The barbarians were never going to prevail, because the Foundation’s superior technology, packaged as religion, gave it the ability to play them off against each other. The warlord’s weapons were no match for the Foundation’s economic clout. And so on.
This unique plot structure creates an ironic resonance between the ‘Foundation’ novels and a seemingly unrelated genre, what I’d call prophetic fantasy. These are novels— Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ cycle comes to mind—in which the protagonists have a mystical destiny, foreshadowed in visions and ancient writings, and the unfolding of the plot tells of their march toward that destiny. Actually, I’m a sucker for that kind of fiction, which makes for great escapism precisely because real life is nothing like that. The first half of the ‘Foundation’ series manages, however, to have the structure of prophecy and destiny without the mysticism; it’s all about the laws of psychohistory, you see, and Hari Seldon’s prescience comes from his mathematics.