I think I kind of get why it's an important book, taking world-building to a new level and elevating the genre of science fiction by a few degrees of respectability. For its relatively low page count, Foundation is big in scope and ideas. But I didn't quite love it.
If you know it only by its reputation, as I did, then you probably don't know much about it at all. Foundation began life as a series of interconnected short stories. The basic premise: it's been foreseen that the Empire is in demise, and a foundation is established to preserve its knowledge. I stand by my initial impressions.
Asimov introduces some terrific concepts: psychohistory and the Encyclopedia Galactica chief among them.
And I love the application of symbolic logic, using it "to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language." Upon submitting to symbolic analysis the transcripts of Lord Dorwin's discussions during his diplomatic mission, the Division of Logic
"after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications — in short, all the goo and dribble — he found he had nothing left. Everything cancelled out."(I wish we could run those analyses on the some of the meetings I'm forced to attend at work.)
"Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn't say one damn thing, and said it so you never noticed."
And the Church of Science, established by the Foundation in order for the barbarians to more readily accept the science of the Foundation. Hah! Its high priests are in charge of the power plants. This is a wickedly satirical story.
The book reads to me as a cross between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for its general tone, humor, and spaciness, and Game of Thrones, for its backroom dealings and back-stabby politics. All of Foundation was narrated to me in my head by the voice of the Guide, giving characters here and there a whiff of Zaphod or Slartibartfast, and adding greatly to my enjoyment.
I should note that the book contains one female character. I was reading some forum or other recently, and someone was criticizing an author for not writing women well and it led to accusations that the author was misogynistic. And so I happened to notice that to that point, I hadn't encountered a woman in Foundation. I don't think Asimov has been accused of these things. However, clearly he is a product of his times. (Possibly there are actually two female characters in Foundation — I can't be sure because my attention foundered toward the end.)
Is my life changed for having read Foundation? No. Am I dying to read the rest of the series? Not particularly. Am I glad to have read Foundation? Sure, but more for its historical significance than for the actual story. I wasn't quite in the perfect headspace for it, but I'll give the rest of the series a chance someday.
Have you read Foundation? How does it rank in your personal sci-fi pantheon?
Check out io9's chapter-by-chapter discussion of Foundation, its strengths and weaknesses and its big ideas.