Foundation is a quite excellent science-fiction novel that, rather than choosing to follow a single central character, tracks many different figures who are used as tools to help reveal Asimov's grand vision. Set in the distant future, the story begins with Hari Seldon, a man who has predicted through a science known as 'psychohistory' (calculations using a gigantic quantity of human-based equations) that the all-powerful, all-conquering galactic super-power known as the Empire, would soon fall, plunging the galaxy into chaos. Seldon knows that with so little time left, the disaster can not be avoided, but with the help of his predictive science, he comes up with an audacious plan to limit the impending 30,000 years of barbarism in space to just 1,000.
How does he intend to implement this plan? Well, that's where the Foundation comes in - Seldon sends 100,000 people to colonize the planet Terminus, where they begin a mission of collecting mass amounts of data that in time are to go towards creating an 'Encyclopaedia Galactica' (think Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, only less wacky). Hari Seldon used this merely as a decoy however, as a hologram recording of himself reveals to on-lookers fifty-years after the original landing on Terminus. His recordings there on in appear after every major crisis that involves the Foundation - his psychohistory had helped him predict precisely when they would occur. But to the frustration of those caught up in the crisis', the long-dead Seldon refuses to reveal anything more than hints at what lies ahead for the new civilisation, for fear of changing the course of the future, and jeopardising the Seldon Plan.
And so Asimov uses this first part of the trilogy to describe the beginnings of the Foundation and its evolution as a galactic power in the first 200 or so years of its being. As I mentioned earlier, the story tracks a number of characters across the two centuries; mayors, royals, spies, traders, diplomats and warmongers. Times passes at an alarming rate - at the end of each section the story races into the future by anything between 30 and 70 years. Less significant characters you'll read about are suddenly cast into history, never to be spoken of again. Then there are those who do manage to leave their mark - Hari Seldon of course, who far from being forgotten in death, is increasingly seen as something of a God in the eyes of the people of the Foundation; and Salvor Hardin, the best character on show - an early mayor of the Foundation, he features both as an aggressive, enthusiastic twenty-something and a wise, calmer man in his sixties, and in the later parts of the story, is quoted by those who aspire to emulate his success.
The abrupt exit of featured characters at the end of each section could easily have proven a stumbling block for Asimov, but in understanding that each small part is in place to help the progression of a much bigger picture, they fit in rather nicely. The characters are generally excellent; interesting, intriguing and surprisingly quick to endear themselves to the reader - they're superbly consistent and in this respect the story is superbly-written.
It's what happens around these characters that really makes the book stand out though - the evolution of the galaxy; the Foundation, its societies, beliefs, changing governments and religious attitudes go a considerable way to creating interest around each new character and situation that the reader encounters. It's almost as if Asimov slotted in the characters environmental observations as mere background information, but it ultimately helps the reader to understand the changes that take place over the many decades and centuries covered. Ingeniously, snippets from the 'Encyclopaedia Galactica' are included at the opening of each new part of the story, briefly summarising what lies in wait for the reader, and there's plenty - the formation of various Kingdom's, the gradual decay of the Empire, the as a galactic power as well as the emergence of potential rivals, and the element of atomic power.
It doesn't rely on action much considering it's a science-fiction novel; there are smatterings here and there, but Foundation wisely plays to the strength that is its dialogue. Asimov, rather than choosing the simple option of depicting war, instead explores the more-complex ideas of bribery, trickery and appeasement within governments - it may have been written over fifty years ago, but the whole concept is still wonderfully ambitious and fresh to read.