The 20th Century Classic You’ve Never Read But Should (And Why It’s a Classic)

The sum of human knowing is beyond any one man; any thousand men.

Foundation

Issac Asimov

Hari Seldon

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of the great classics of the 20th century you have probably never read. Yet, Asimov is the reason why we think of science fiction in the way we do. In fact, if you consider the first novel in the Foundation series was published in 1951, then Asimov easily pre-dates Star Trek, Star Wars, and yes, even the science fiction of the Marvel Comics Universe.

Isaac Asimov is the J. R. R. Tolkien of science fiction and there isn’t much in modern science fiction which has gone unaffected by his work. The two things which we may think are his work but aren’t are time travel and alien invasion. H. G. Wells still has credit for those.

Foundation in Context

If you put Foundation as a novel into context, it makes sense to remember Asimov as a truly great writer instead of the more boring authors from the 20th century we are usually forced to read in school.

And either end up detecting them, getting bored out of our minds, or deciding reading isn’t for us.

I used J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as literary guideposts here. Not any of the other major names. Why? Well, compare like with like. Compare a literary giant with a literary giant.

Everyone else pales in comparison.

Here's a timeline running from 1937's publication of The Hobbit to 1989's Star Trek: Next Generation. 

In chronological order:

1937: The Hobbit is published. 

1942-1944 Isaac Asimov publishes a series of short stories the first of which was entitled "Foundation."

1951: Foundation is published as a novel using the four short stories from a decade previously. 

1954-1955: J. R. R. Tolkien publishes the three books of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

1957: The USSR launches Sputnik I into space. It is the first artificial satellite. 

1961: The USSR put the first man into space. 

1966: The first Star Trek episode premiered on TV. It lasts for 3 seasons. 

1969: The U.S. lands the first man on the moon. 

1977: The Voyager 2 probe launches to study the farther planets of our solar system. As of 2019, it was still transmitting data back to Earth. 

Also in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope premiers in theaters. It's the first Star Wars movie. 

1987: The first episode of Star Trek: Next Generation premiers. It lasts until 1994--a total of seven seasons.

If you didn’t believe it before, now do you understand why Foundation is so important? It predates even the first forays into space.

On the cultural side, without Asimov, there would be no Marvel Comics Universe, no Star Trek, no Star Wars. The world would be a far smaller, meaner, and more depressing place.

Which, considering the assassination of Japan’s former prime minister in the early hours of this morning is saying something. Let’s not even get started on all the stuff that’s happened since the start of 2020.

Foundation as a Historical Saga

If you’re a history nut, like I am, then reading Foundation will start to sound more and more like an alternative timeline version of the fall of Rome. Even Hari Seldon’s suggestion of creating an encyclopedia and trying to engineer exile to Terminus sounds almost exactly like the early monastic communities of people like St. Benedict and St. Brigid.

This alone, without Foundation’s historical pedigree, should be enough to raise Asimov to a level higher than Hemmingway, Steinbeck, or Salinger. While all of those authors have their historical place, none of them displays the appreciation, knowledge, or sense of historical proportion that Asimov does.

Tolkien is the only 20th-century writer who comes to mind who has the same sense and appreciation for the vastness of history.

Foundation the novel takes place over a century’s worth of history. The entire series covers an even longer span of time. I’ve only read Foundation the novel, so I haven’t precisely calculated the exact length of time, but it’s massive enough to be connected with Asimov’s other famous series, I, Robot.

It’s vast and complex in a way that only history can be.

A Real Classic

To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.

Salvor Hardin

Until Foundation, I hadn’t read much Asimov. There were a few short stories in my high school textbook, but none of his books were on the reading lists.

Although to be fair, my high school days were when the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies came out, so I was slightly preoccupied.

But Star Trek: Next Generation and Star Wars were part of my childhood too. Would I have picked up Asimov sooner, had I known just how much his science fiction influenced some of the most compelling stories of my childhood?

That kind of influence makes a true classic, however. Because it’s not the books that sound smart or profound that are the most influential. It’s the ones that tell us the stories that we know by heart already. Or the ones that tell us the same stories about love, life, loss, hope, and success as the fairytales of our childhood.

Why do we still read Shakespeare, even when we can’t always understand his language? Because in Shakespeare we see echoes of ourselves. Even if we only see Shakespeare through the echoes of a Disney movie, a teen romance, or a classic comedy.

And in Asimov? We see our society. We see our hopes, our dreams, our struggles, and the endless church of historical ages from one decade to the next.

Perhaps, in this the third year of 2020-style weirdness, we can see ourselves in Foundation. We can see the world on the cusp of cataclysm and feel it’s all as inevitable as a Seldon crisis. Perhaps even the hard bitten Salvor Hardin’s epigrams comfort us, or the free-commerce wielding Hober Mallow lets us know that life does still go on.

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