I am a fan of the more cerebral, less action-oriented science fiction. If we separate out fantasy as a separate genre, where Tolkien can be Lord High Master, the King of the Mountain in cerebral sci-fi for the half century of my lifetime has been Isaac Asimov.
A novelist, even his short stories are brilliant. His humor is generally quite humorous. His mysteries intrigue and confuse. His novels, wherever they fall on the science fiction/fantasy continuum, are fulfilling and fascinating.
And when he wrote his epic Foundation Trilogy, not content with simply creating an epic, he created an entire universe.
Virtually all Asimov’s fiction shares the same history. Characters from one series cross over to another without a hitch. This includes the ancient history of an entire galactic empire. Various stories span a period of more than ten thousand years (occasionally he goes the beginning and end of time, but we won’t count those).
His grandest epic, the one that started it all, is his Foundation Trilogy.
As a teenage boy wishing I were somewhere else, the summer afternoons (and evenings and mornings and nights) I spent in Asimov’s alternate reality let me believe that I could be the hero of a story someday. His protagonists are not big or strong. Occasionally they are not even especially bright, at least from a scientific or technical perspective.
What they are is morally upright.
Just this moment, dictating this post, I realized that’s what Asimov’s heroes have in common with all my favorite heroes: moral rectitude. Philip Marlowe cares more about what’s right than how well he’s paid. The multi-named-but-always-the-same protagonist in Dick Francis’ books is always a righter of wrongs.
Just on the off chance you haven’t read it, the 700-page trilogy covers more than one thousand years of history in the final days of the Galactic Empire (should any of the storyline or terminology seem vaguely familiar, I will point out in Asimov’s defense that this was published about the time Lucas and Spielberg were born. Any resemblance goes downstream in time).
Harry Seldon, psycho-historian, has calculated the collapse of the galactic empire followed by a ten thousand year dark age. He has also calculated a method to reduce the dark age to one thousand years, saving an entire galaxy nine thousand years of anguish.
That’s pretty noble. The sections of the book drop into critical junctures in the first few hundred years of that thousand, showing various heroes keeping it on the rails. Each is as different from the other as possible, yet all share Seldon’s passion for the benefit of the greater good. Each, though, finds a way to benefit the here and now as well.
These minor challenges overcome at various points by minor heroes in the saga, interesting as they are, are simply buildup to the real challenge — a character called the Mule who derails the Seldon plan — and because of unique abilities psycho-history couldn’t foretell, could make it permanent.
Book two of the trilogy, Foundation and Earth, recounting the disruption of the Mule, is science fiction mystery at its finest.
Asimov was a witty man. He wrote as he spoke, occasionally meandering, usually pointed and precise. The astonishing depth and breadth of his knowledge, which included multiple Ph.Ds (earned, not honorary) never gets in the way of the story. While his later extension of the series eventually flounders a wee bit, if I were fleeing the house and had room to tuck one book under each arm, the Foundation trilogy might go under my left.