An Analysis of the Foundation Trilogy
It was in 1942 that Isaac Asimov published a story called The Encyclopedists in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine. The story is notable for being the first episode he wrote in the Foundation saga which would go on to total sales of over twenty million books. But it’s also a remarkable piece of writing to revisit in that though Asimov would complete a total of nine stories in the original Foundation trilogy, all of the characteristics that would grant the series such enormous success were there to be seen at the outset. Among them, there was a cast of characters who, while sometimes shallow in their depth, were kept simple enough to take the reader through an ever-expanding science-fiction tale. There was a strict dedication to the process of scientific thought. And, as with much of Asimov’s later entries in the series, there was more of a focus on the ideas of the work rather than on any kind of over the top action sequences or lengthy worldbuilding that might typify the genre today.
My name is Simon Fay and you’re watching Content Lit, a channel dedicated to the best books of the 20th Century. In these episodes, I’ll be looking at the original Foundation trilogy. I suspect that many of you will have read the books already. Others might just be curious about the series. As such, I want to share with you the extraordinary plot that captured so many imaginations and understand the era the books came out of as well the influence they had on successive generations. I’ve created an episode for each of those topics, which I’ll link to at the end of the video, but in this episode, I just want to concentrate on the cogs and gears of the writing in Foundation; something which Isaac Asimov isn’t always given enough credit for. And to help with my case in that, I’d like you to meet a couple of his characters.
On Writing in the Foundation Trilogy
The first sentence in the first story of the first Foundation book introduces us to a man named Gaal Dornick, who, we soon learn, is a country boy, about to land on the gigantic city-planet of Trantor. The first sentence of the second story sees the arrival of Lewis Pirene, a bureaucrat on the recently established Foundation world of Terminus. Of the third story, the protagonist Salvor Hardin is mentioned within the first five words and revealed to be the mayor of Terminus, and of the fourth and fifth, we’re similarly acquainted with the characters of Limmar Ponyets and Hober Mallow, a foundation trader and outlander respectively.
You don’t need to remember any of these names. I’ve already forgotten most of them myself. The point to take is more the manner in which Asimov introduces them and the purpose that this method helps to serve.
The original Foundation books are about the collapse of an empire and the rise of another. In them, a man named Hari Seldon has advanced a field of thought known as psychohistory, a social science which can be utilised to predict broad strokes of the future. It’s thanks to this that the man is able to create what will become known as the ‘Seldon Plan’, a strategy to ensure that the thirty-thousand year long dark age that will follow on from the collapse will be limited to a mere one-thousand. Beyond the first story, we don’t see much of Hari Seldon. In fact, across the books that make up the original Foundation trilogy, the nine episodes are set in different locations, time periods, and socioeconomic circumstances and mostly deal with a different protagonist on each occasion. Given the scope of it, you can see how the saga might have had the potential to confuse many a reader. But it’s a misrepresentation to say that Foundation is tough to follow. While the books are full of complicated scenarios replete with unexpected twists and political intrigue, one of the most enjoyable aspects of them is how approachable Asimov makes it all feel, for instance, by starting every story in the first book by immediately identifying the character with whom we’re to journey with through the next chapter of the saga. It’s a no-frills approach that was easy for Asimov to execute, but it’s also one he deserves credit for recognising the necessity of. After all, there’s no shortage of writers who might’ve been tempted to reinvent the wheel every time they were faced with a new section of the book. Instead, by sticking to the formula, Asimov establishes a comfortable rhythm that allows the reader to bound across the vast timespan of his novels without fear of getting lost.
To this end, throughout the stories, it’s rare for Asimov to linger on the superfluous details of a given scene for long. From the very start, each paragraph of the saga moves the story forward to the extent that even dramatic events that alter the course of history, such as when the encyclopedists of the Foundation experience the earth-shattering revelation that their place in the Seldon plan is only to act as a diversion, are often resolved in a few sentences. As mentioned already, the individual episodes of Foundation were originally published as short stories, so you can see why Asimov wouldn’t have wanted to waste any time on flowery prose, but when read as a three-book collection, it makes for an incredibly dense epic in which every line still manages to serve a practical purpose.
You might say that it’s this succinct manner of communication that exemplifies Asimov’s writing, though this would be to overlook the beauty he manages to convey even as he remains committed to such an economical approach.
In general, most of the language used throughout the original Foundation trilogy could be said to reach a 7th-grade reading level at best, meaning most twelve-year-old kids who are into books would probably be able to get through it without much of a problem. That said, Asimov does sprinkle the books with a selection of words that even had me reaching for the dictionary. Among them I learned of lugubrious, phlegmatic, inveigle, unctuous, and condottiere, but it never felt like they were inserted into the text in some pretentious show of intellect. I always got the sense that they were the right words for what Asimov had to say and that as a man who took so much pleasure in language, he was writing for an audience who would take some pleasure in it too. Further to this, for all the praise Foundation gets for its ideas, it’s really this joy of storytelling that Asimov keeps at the forefront at all times, for example, in the first story of the book when we see the arrival of a young man on the city-planet of Trantor. Given Asimov’s predilection for establishing important facts, you’d expect he’d have been happy to just describe the length and breadth of the place with a list of statistics. And while we certainly are given a rundown of numbers that describe the population of the planet, the size of its city, and the age of the empire that built it, it’s through the awestruck eyes of the country boy who gets lost in the port on his arrival that we gather even among a galactic civilisation the city is of a size bigger than any other, and by his journey into its depths that we gain an understanding of just how deep it goes when he realises that most of its people have never even seen the sun. In this way, the characters we meet at the start of each story act as the lens through which we can experience and explore the ideas that makeup Foundation. Before he wrote the original Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov had actually earned a degree in chemistry. I’ll go on to discuss how his time as a scientist would influence his series of books in a video that covers the history and influence of Foundation, but for now I’ll mostly just concentrate on how relevant his background was in terms of his writing. As an academic who would go on to teach at the Boston University School of Medicine, any papers Asimov wrote would have followed a structure of identifying a gap in knowledge and composing a section in which he would argue in favour of a theory that would fill that gap. And to be sure, many of the stories in Foundation see the points of view of two conflicting characters, each putting their case forward as to why they believe their interpretation of the Seldon plan to be the correct one and why their opponents’ interpretation is wrong. By way of example, the first story sees Hari Seldon argue the necessity for the continuation of his work before a tribunal of shortsighted aristocrats. The second story sees a frustrated politician argue against an encyclopedist as to why their emphasis on research will be pointless in the face of an increasingly hostile universe. And the third story sees this same man argue against a group of dissidents for the necessity of a peaceful resolution over their cries for war. I could go on, but what’s mainly worth noting is that though most of these storylines could be limited to two characters discussing their points of view over glasses of sherry while seated in fireside armchairs, it’s a talent of Asimov’s that the stories are compelling regardless of wherever the meat of them take place thanks to the fact that the points are always strongly argued on both sides and full of enough twists and turns to make them page-turners in their own right. Moreover, his background as a scientist didn’t just help to inspire all of the interesting concepts he put forward and to construct robust arguments to make a case for their believability, he also had a talent for communicating the complicated nature of them in a way that made them easy for anybody to understand. There are countless moments throughout the book where Asimov is able to provide a satisfactory explanation of a given situation but then goes on to underscore it with an expertly crafted metaphor. One example that comes to mind is when Hari Seldon attempts to convince the aristocracy that however strong their Empire might seem it is in fact about as sturdy as the trunk of a rotten tree. That is, to all appearances it has all the might it ever had, until the break of a storm and it’s blasted to pieces. It’s a description that I’d say is typical of Asimov’s writing, in that, while it might sometimes feel like he falls back on familiar tropes in both his character types and imagery, they’re always exactly what’s required to evoke the necessary feelings of a given scene in as efficient a way as possible. There’s a real sense of craftsmanship in how he takes clear facts and intersperses them with appealing symbolism, especially when you realise it seeps into every aspect of how the story is told. You see it in the simple but excited way he summarises events and, as you’re about to learn, you see it in how he builds both the characters of his story and a universe of such an incredibly large scale.
On Character and Worldbuilding in the Foundation Trilogy
I think the first moment I found myself impressed by Asimov’s writing was in his description of an inscrutable security officer, who he said had a face that was, “all lines.” What I liked about the description was that I had a clear image of the man in my head without Asimov having to report on things like the colour of his eyes or the length of his nose. Thinking about it now, I’m reminded of a documentary in which I saw a police sketch artist recount how they achieve the likeness of people they’ve never actually seen. The trick, they said, is not to concentrate too much on the physical details that the victim talks about, but to draw out descriptions that capture the personality in question. Was the criminal’s jaw clenched? Was there anger in their eyes? Did they look like they were thinking about what they were doing? It’s a method that results in more of a caricature than a life-like portrait, but in the case of police work, that’s often all that’s required to at least identify a suspect that will advance their investigation, and, in the case of Foundation, it’s what allows the reader to recall a distinct image of each of the main players in a cast that spans nine stories across three books. You could say in some cases Asimov relies a little too heavily on familiar tropes to accomplish this, but I think this is more than made up for in how he uses them toward the larger effect.
Going into book two of the original Foundation trilogy, for instance, sees the introduction of an ailing emperor, the leader of that civilisation in collapse, bed stricken and somewhat at the mercy of his sycophantic subordinate. The subordinate brings one of their generals to the Emperor’s attention, a young man whose thirst for glory has put him into conflict with the ever-expanding Foundation. As the story progresses, the general is emboldened by a series of victories he scores over the Foundation, so, despite the fact that the Seldon plan is clear in its prediction that the Empire will inevitably lose, he begins to grow so self-assured that when he pushes onward the Emperor is forced to recall and execute him, for fear that the man’s power will begin to rival his own. Now, each of these characters wouldn’t be out of place in any other myth, classic piece of literature, or Hollywood movie, but in the minimal way they’re described, Asimov is able to create a proper sense of rising tension and deliver a conclusion with an incredible amount of impact, even though we might have seen it coming all along. By that I mean, the Foundation, from the Empire’s perspective, has become an utterly alien society that they can’t fully comprehend. But at this stage, we as readers know all too well how full proof the Seldon plan to be, so, taken together with the iconic character tropes, the whole story reads like the type of inevitable tragedy you’d more often associate with Shakespear. In yet another creative use of familiar archetypes, in the followup story of the second book, we meet a dunce character of sorts, a clown who’s been made the servant of an intergalactic warlord, who you could certainly describe as a one-note character trope until you’ve grown comfortable with him and Asimov pulls the rug from under your feet and reveals him to actually be the warlord that the heroes of the episode have been trying to escape for so long. It’s a wonderfully executed twist that’s achieved in the short story format through the use of caricatures we can identify at the glance of an eye.
Similarly, I’d like to put forward that the worldbuilding of Foundation is accomplished in much the same way.
Specifically, the Empire and its fall is transparently based on that of the Romans. Asimov was always open about how the idea for the story came to him because he had been reading The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon and entire episodes, such as that of the young general, have been said to have direct parallels to historical figures of that time. What’s more, the possibility of a small group of people conserving the culture of a civilisation throughout a general decline has always been a fascinating idea, even finding a new proponent for it in Thomas Cahill’s book, How The Irish Saved Civilisation, in which he explains how much of western culture survived the dark ages thanks in part to monks who worked in seclusion away from Europe’s mainland. That’s obviously a bit of a self-indulgent aside for me to bring up, but the point remains that actual events from our own history became the plot tropes for Asimov’s science-fiction books. However, you can go even further than that to see how his use of caricature even encompasses the way in which he describes the geography and historical context relevant to the story as its told.
In an interview with Sy Bourgin in 1975, Asimov said that in terms of catering to the science-fiction readers’ needs, he believed that if you give them just enough information to believe something could be real, they would be willing to travel into the realm of fantasy with you. Though today the idea of an intergalactic empire is certainly common enough for any science fiction fan to accept, back when Asimov first penned the thing, it was pretty much entirely his own. Faced with such an enormous concept, you can see how another kind of writer might have been tempted to establish a thorough history of the culture, a reference book along the lines of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a narrative history of the world in which The Lord of the Rings was set. Well, in fact, Asimov did dream up such a book; The Encyclopedia Galactica. it’s become an iconic title of genre fiction in and of itself. But the text never actually appears in full throughout any of Isaac Asimov’s work. Rather, we mostly just see short extracts of it appear at the start of each story in Foundation. The extracts are sometimes used to impart some critical information about the Foundation itself, but just as often they’re only used to establish a particular character, location or time. Beyond that, everything we learn about the galaxy in Asimov’s saga is through snippets that appear whenever they’re relevant to the events at hand. I know, for example, that the innumerable worlds that were once under the empire’s control speak a common language and that they still utilise a universal currency, but it’s not because there was some lengthy lecture given. Really, all the facts that helped me to build an image of the galactic society over its multiple aeons were just dotted amongst the pages.
You know, I think one reason some people shy away from space operas like Foundation is because they’re afraid that they’ll have to read ream after ream of fictional history to even figure out what’s going on. But in some cases, the difficulty is really the opposite. As a reader, you’re kind of running downhill when you pick up Foundation, discovering every stone that your foot is supposed to balance on as you land. While it might be a difficult descent for somebody who isn’t used to the kind of landscape common to the genre, I don’t believe it would be long before they catch up with the rest of us and gain an uncanny knack for building a map of the place as they go along.
Overall, I think it’s undeniable that there’s an impressionistic value in what Asimov accomplished here. It’s in the pathfinding manner by which he described the boundaries of his universe. And it’s in the character portraits that he managed to draw in a swift few lines. There are definitely people and places that are portrayed in much finer detail, principally in second and third books as the story lengths begin to expand, but I would say that these instances are usually the exception to the rule in a series that prefers to skip along to the next major plot point rather than to brood on any singular incident or place for very long.
On Style in the Foundation Trilogy
The writer Umberto Eco once stated that he believed when it comes to examining the methods of writers, there’s too much of a fixation on their choices on a line by line basis and not enough on their overall style. For example, when a writer like Irvine Welsh chooses to omit quotation marks from his novel Trainspotting and to craft all of the text in Scottish phonetics, the fact that much of the joy in the book comes from the interactions between his richly drawn characters can get overlooked. Umberto Eco himself was a philosopher and novelist who enjoyed a lot of acclaim for books that were dense with esoteric references and subtle literary jokes. This might give you some idea then, of why it was surprising when in an interview with The Paris Review, he said that his favourite TV series of all time was Starsky and Hutch, which at that point was already thirty years old. To many, the series is only remembered as a formulaic buddy-cop show, but from his comment it’s apparent that Eco recognised a certain level of style in the execution of what are generally considered to be familiar tropes.
Make no mistake about it; Isaac Asimov is a pulp writer. His voice is heard loud and clear through Hari Seldon, unambiguous in its intention. He’s not afraid to utilise a well-placed exclamation mark to drum up a little extra excitement. And he’s certainly guilty of using that old writer’s device, whereby if you’re not sure what’s supposed to happen next, just have a man walk into the room with a gun.
Consequently, for all the praise I can heap on his work, he’s never truly going to be thought of as a master of the craft within loftier literary circles. Even among sci-fi fans, he’s often remembered as an innovator, but one whose books lack the depth of character that’s generally associated with the kind of self-reflective science fiction that got more popular from the 1960s on. However, none of this is to say that he wasn’t an extraordinary writer who produced a multitude of books in a style that I personally think is difficult for even a talented novelist to master and that, regardless of how you feel about it, he managed to make his own. At times, I probably have gotten lost in his work on a line by line basis as I described that style here, though I do think when it’s considered all at once, you can see how the books are characterised by a careful balancing act of intellectual stimulation and outright entertainment. Fun really is the order of the day. It’s just that what Asimov finds fun might not be what a run of the mill writer does. As a result, it’s fascinating to study how both big and small aspects of the work are hewn by Asimov’s personal worldview.
For starters, I’d say that his background as a scientist and as a science communicator are easily the most definitive elements to be found. On a surface level, this helped to ground some of the more outlandish science fiction elements of the books. By that I mean, while anybody can imagine something magical like a spaceship travelling through hyperspace, Asimov is rare in his ability to explain why it’s so difficult for that ship to identify its location in the galaxy once it’s lost the reference of familiar stars. The stories don’t usually hinge on the reader’s understanding of a given piece of technology like this, but Asimov’s joy in describing them in instances when they do becomes seriously infectious where with other writers it might feel like a chore. On top of this, I’d go on to say that it’s the actual ethos of scientific thought that characterises the personality of the Foundation saga itself.
I already talked a little about how many of the stories feature a conflict between two ideas. In most instances, these conflicts literally take the form of a discussion between two characters as you might imagine one would play out in the letters of a pair of friendly scientists. In addition, the stakes are almost always on a galactic scale, so as you can imagine there are plenty of actual wars along the way, but there’s never any particular attention paid to the action inherent to them. Rather, in true intellectual fashion, the heroes almost always find non-violent solutions to their problems, if not through their own intellect, then certainly through the prodigious work of Hari Seldon. Indeed, this means that each story kind of reads like a puzzle, the pleasure of which comes from discovering the methods that lead to them being solved. Essentially, every single situation in the original Foundation trilogy is met with the kind of procedural thinking that’s required in order to run a proper experiment. Whether it’s the teenage girl in the third book trying to deduce why a man is outside her window at night or the group of conspirators in her father’s basement trying to identify whether their inner circle has been infiltrated by a foreign spy, the respective situations are all met with the same kind rigorous dedication to proposition and counter proposition before the most appropriate conclusion is arrived at. In this manner, the final confrontation between the Mule and the second Foundation forces sees his defeat through superior planning, rather than through the kind of atrocities he himself is willing to perform. And in the very last episode of the trilogy, when it’s been revealed that it will be the Second Foundation’s job to control the First Foundation through the use of incredibly invasive psychological manipulation, it’s still arguably the most peaceful way to maintain Hari Seldon’s utopian vision of a galactic society that can survive over a period of millennia. What exactly is to make this ultimate form of Foundation such a utopia is never described in detail, at least in the original trilogy, but you can gather from Asimov’s portrayal of other civilisations what it might be and it too links in with what you could call progressive scientific thought.
As the Empire begins to collapse, the peripheral powers that attempt to interfere with the Foundation’s plans are often described as barbaric. This barbarism is generally distinguished by a fading knowledge of the technology they use, fascist forms of government, and in most cases, bigotted societies, to the point that women in them tend to be considered inferior to men. Now, Asimov doesn’t always live up to modern standards in terms of his gender politics, but it’s evident that in spirit at least he was of the mind that in a just society, every citizen would be on equal terms. Furthermore, the government of the Foundation itself goes through a number of iterations in its early years, experimenting in everything from a form of administration akin to an academic institution to the wholesale rule of a series of dictators. At best, it would seem the Foundation will be run as a democracy, but considering that there are plenty of those today that are far from utopian, you might go on to wonder what makes their form of it such a success. Well, it would appear the major difference in the First Foundation’s democracy will be the influence of the scientists among them and of course, the secret oversight of the Second Foundation, who value psychological development over technological, which I’d go on to assume would mean that the emotional wellbeing of the average citizen will be somewhat assured. What’s more, because Seldon himself warned that in the barbaric years that follow on the Empire’s collapse: a feeling will pervade the Galaxy that only what a man can grasp for himself at that moment will be of any account and that ambitious men will not wait and unscrupulous men will not hang back, you would expect his vision for the Foundation would be more conducive to an empathetic society in which each citizen considers the impact they will have on their peers and how their actions will affect generations to come.
That said, I suppose the day to day logistics that enable a paradise like this to exist are best left a little obscure. We can hardly expect Asimov to outline the structure of it any more than he could the plans for a hyperspace engine. As with the engine, what’s more important is the manner in which he investigates the aspects we do understand.
Along the way, Asimov examines what some of the pros and cons of things like capitalism, religion, and militaristic regimes might be, not only in how they affect the journey towards the Foundation but by implication what their roles might be in our own world today. By the same token, because the structure of the book is made up of nine short stories, there’s never just one hero or villain to follow through the length of the tale, meaning that it’s the sociological investigation of the work that’s brought to the fore. For example, you might find yourself rooting for the Mule as he takes on the Second Foundation and even feel a little sorry for him when he’s defeated. Or, on the flip side, you might not be taken in by whatever charms he has and be thankful that the Second Foundation succeeds in putting a stop to his megalomaniacal plans. In either case though, regardless of their roles as heroes and villains, what’s of interest is the question of what will happen to the galaxy now that he’s no longer in control. It’s fair to say, no character in the original Foundation trilogy is so important that the story wouldn’t work without their continued presence. I mention in my review video for the series that even Hari Seldon’s memory is sidelined by the end, which while disappointing still makes a degree of sense because in actuality, the draw of the book is in the concept of psychohistory and whether Seldon’s vision for the future will come to pass.
The biggest success in style, so far I’m concerned, is how Asimov can take so many speculative ideas and turn them into fully-formed fictional stories rather than just a series of information dumps in which he lays out all of the plans. He does so by hiding elements of the scheme until it would be most entertaining to reveal them at certain dramatic turns. He does it by having a cast of characters that immediately endear themselves to you and whose revelations help you to understand the true depth of what Seldon had planned. And he does it by allowing you to examine each element of the plot, like a scientist who’s sent out a paper for review, before he stuns you with the conclusion and explains why it had to turn out that way all along.
I’d like to end this episode by pointing out that however you feel about Asimov’s approach to writing, he’s undoubtedly one of the most influential novelists of the twentieth century. I’m not one to insist that you should read a piece of fiction just because many other writers you like might have been influenced by it, but in the case of Foundation, I do think it’s a fascinating history to touch upon in and of itself. Moreover, for however many science fiction franchises these books inspired, it’s worthwhile looking back over exactly why they were so significant in the first place and what modern fiction could take from them today. I’ve talked about some of these topics in this video, but there’s a lot more to learn. To that end, I’ve created two other episodes on the original Foundation trilogy for you to explore. In one, I go into detail about all of the twists and turns in the plot and review exactly what did and didn’t work for me. In the other I explore the actual history of how Isaac Asimov came to write such a masterwork and go into more detail on the influence it’s had. Links to the other episodes are appearing on screen now and are pinned in the comments below. I’d write a clever sentence about why you should check them out, but for better or worse, at this point the style of my video will have to speak for itself.
Subterranean Howl by ELPHNT
Ticker by Silent Partner
Resolution by Wayne Jones
Flickering by VYEN
I Want to Fall in Love on Snapchat and John Stockton Slow Drag by Chris Zabriskie
Aeon Flux (2006)
Another Earth (2011)
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Enders Game (2013)
Flash Gordan (1936)
Hidden Fortress (1958)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Legend of Galactic Heroes – My Conquest is The Sea of Stars (1988)
Legend of Galactic Heroes – Overture to a New War (1993)
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979)
Star Trek (1966-1969)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001)
Star Trek: Discovery (2017-?)
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The Searchers (1956)
The Thing (1982)
The Tree of Life (2011)
The Martian (2015)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
What Dreams May Come (1998)