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.