The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
In 1966, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books won a special Hugo Award for Best Series of All Time, beating out other luminaries such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars saga and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Today, this might come as a bit of a surprise. With the success of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s work and the pop culture phenomenon that was HBO’s interpretation of Game of Thrones, fantasy fiction has enjoyed a lot more respect with mainstream audiences, while in many ways science-fiction seems to have continually sea-sawed in the public imagination as a fully matured medium. Still, there isn’t any doubting the phenomenal popularity Asimov has continued to enjoy as one of the key figures in what is known as the Golden Age of science fiction.
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 intend to analyse what made Asimov’s work so extraordinary 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 this video, but for now, I just want to concentrate on the actual storyline of Foundation; an epic that in many ways can speak for itself when it comes to understanding how it became such an enduring classic. And to help it do that, I’m just going to start at the beginning
Book I: Foundation by Isaac Asimov
At the outset, the Foundation stories introduced two enormous concepts, brand new in western thought. One: the idea that humanity could create a galaxy-sized imperial empire, so expansive that its origins on Earth would be entirely lost. And two: the concept of psychohistory, a form of mathematics that would enable its practitioners to predict the future of broad social forces, meaning that in the plot of Foundation the collapse of the aforementioned galactic empire could be foreseen and the disastrous effects of it minimised. All of this in the book is described by the great psychologist Hari Seldon, a figurehead of the psychohistory movement who warns his contemporaries about the end of humanity’s greatest empire and sets in motion a series of events to ensure that the next one will rise within a mere one-thousand years rather than the originally predicted thirty-thousand.
It was impressive for Asimov to have created these ideas at all. A truly groundbreaking pair of concepts at a time when the genre’s writers were still emerging from the b-grade fictions of mad scientists and damsels in distress. But the manner in which he decided to build the story around the ideas was at least as interesting as the ideas themselves. That is to say, there is no singular protagonist within the time period that the original Foundation books cover. Each part of the books, in fact, were originally published as a series of short stories, with entirely different casts of characters set across a span of centuries, before a handful of the stories were collected together, given an additional entry and released as the first Foundation book in 1951.
The first story in this collection is that of a young scientist who meets the great Hari Seldon and learns of the psychohistorian’s prediction that their empire has begun to collapse. Because the scientist is quite literate in the language of psychohistory, he’s quickly about to confirm Seldon’s findings and get on board with the plan to minimise the fallout from the collapse. Essentially, this means that he stands alongside Seldon as the man is put on trial by the ruling elite, who feel their security threatened by the possibility of the general population becoming aware that all of their institutions are set to topple like a house of cards. Of course, Seldon’s genius isn’t limited to predicting the future but also enables him to utilise that knowledge to alter both events in the present and events to come. In this way, he’s able to manipulate the Empire’s highest officials into allowing him two settlements where his fellow scientists can work in seclusion. The nature of the second settlement is kept a secret for much of the series’ run, but the first, located on a planet called Terminus, is positioned by Seldon to become the birthplace of his ultimate vision; Foundation, the next great human civilisation, an eventuality that will come to pass thanks to his deft prodding of major political events, most of which are charted across each episode of the Foundation saga.
It’s generally true to say that aside from your typical style of Greek tragedy, this type of inevitability in storytelling isn’t always the best way to keep a reader entertained. After all, if much of the book hinges on how accurate Seldon’s predictions are, it might have become slightly redundant to actually go through the motions of reading each story. However, if the fictional genius of Seldon lay in his ability to see the future, much of Asimov’s was in presenting the predictions in a dramatically compelling manner. Really, when reading the book, the pleasure of it comes from journeying alongside the multiple casts of characters who are as in the dark as to Seldon’s predictions as you are once the initial plan is laid out.
The second story, for example, tells the tale of the Encyclopedists who are the first people to settle Terminus and begin the work toward Foundation. As far as they’re aware, it’s simply their duty to compile a repository of knowledge to be kept safe in the course of the Empire’s collapse, not to get involved in intergalactic politics. This in due course is proven to be a ruse of Seldon’s when we learn of a chamber where a hologram of him appears every few decades to confirm that his plan is on track. In this first such appearance, he reveals the uselessness of the encyclopedia that the people of Terminus have compiled and informs its leaders that they are at a particular kind of juncture in history which if overcome will ensure the continued growth of the Foundation. These turning points will become known as Seldon Crises. And as a result of this particular Seldon Crisis, a new form of leadership is able to gain control of the government and take a more proactive role in manipulating galactic events by sharing their advanced technology with neighbouring star systems that might otherwise have conquered them. The third story picks up thirty years later when the consequences of this shift in foreign policy continue to unfold. Now, as certain members of the Foundation politic are insistent that the sharing of technology has become a stopgap appeasement strategy in the face of an inevitable war, one man doesn’t see the point in starting an arm-wrestling contest with their foes, famously declaring that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, and instead builds a religion around the use of the technology they share, shifting their side of the galaxy from a weapon-based balance of power to a spiritual one. Once again, this series of events is confirmed to be a Seldon Crisis by the man himself, who appears in the holographic chamber to warn his intellectual descendants that this too will just be a passing phase in the development of the Foundation. As such, the fourth story covers the renewed growth of capitalism in the region as a pair of Foundation traders help spread the word of their religion by tempting prospective followers with the riches that their technology can produce. And through the success of this strategy, in the fifth story we meet yet another Seldon Crisis, but one which is tackled by the new cast of merchant princes who usurped the previous institutions thanks to their financial success with enlisting other planets to the Foundation’s cause.
All in all, much of the satisfaction from the episodes collected in the first Foundation book come from the whip-smart cast of characters who are constantly guessing at what Seldon might have predicted next, thereby encouraging you the reader to marvel at the labyrinth of cause and effect you were thrown into at novel’s start. Regardless, at times it does feel like the concept of the book is undercut when some crucial protagonists emerge to move the story along in a more traditional way, even if it is psychohistory’s insistence that if they didn’t emerge as major players in any given situation somebody else would have, and because everything that happens is mostly constrained to the predictions of psychohistory, you might also feel the hovering hand of deus ex machina, meaning, no matter how much danger the Foundation appears to be in, you can always rely on some unforeseen factor to bound in at the last moment to save the day.
In spite of all this, while these complaints would actually have some merit in a story constructed by a less competent writer, through the robust sequence of events that Asimov constructs, you can’t help but feel like you’re being dipped and twirled by a particularly good ballroom dancer. Indeed, in much the same way you might thrill in reading about Sherlock Holmes put together the puzzle pieces of a murder you already know he’s going to solve, each section of the book is a surprisingly fascinating tale of a character attempting to figure out what Hari Seldon already knew about their time. To that end, though I’ve given you a fairly detailed plot summary, I’m confident that if you haven’t read the first Foundation book before now you’ll still be able to approach it on its own terms, safe in the knowledge that spoilers won’t entirely ruin your enjoyment as matters unfold. Asimov constantly offers new developments to keep the story fresh, even as he tells you over and over again that Seldon’s predictions aren’t going to be wrong. What’s more, the exceptional world-building and anthological approach to a wide array of sociological threats are really something that can only be experienced in a thorough reading of the stories. Though even after experiencing all of that, I was still a little cynical as to how he could keep up the act. The first Foundation book only covers about two-hundred years in a thousand-year plan, after all. So how did Asimov maintain the interest of his audience for two more books in the original series run?
Book II: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
If the first book’s modus operandi was in the myriad ways Asimov explored his concept of psychohistory through the short story format, the draw of the second two was in how much depth he could carve out by expanding the scope of each episode. By that I mean, rather than act as a collection of quick one-shots, the second and third books of the original Foundation trilogy present longer format novellas; two in each of the books, a choice which I think would have taken the pressure off Asimov having to come up with countless new takes on the formula, given him room to create more nuanced characters and situations, and allowed the reader to slow down and bask in the enormity of the universe he’d created.
The first story in Foundation and Empire, the second book of the trilogy, sees a return to the decaying empire from whence the Foundation fled. Here, a prodigious young general has identified an opportunity to attack the Foundation and reclaim their territory for the Empire. To help in this endeavour, he enlists a scholar who boasts a degree of expertise on the Foundation and who warns the general that there really is no beating them. This is because Seldon’s findings were so conclusive, as far as the elderly scholar is concerned, that they essentially act as a form of plot armour for the fledgeling civilisation. To be sure, even as the general gains the attention of his own Emperor with victory after victory over Foundation forces, the scholar ends up siding with a Foundation trader in an attempt to warn the Emperor that the general eventually intends to betray him and take control of the Empire itself. At this stage in the story, it would seem Asimov is once again dancing that line in which it appears a handful of individuals could push history in a particular direction. But having primed us in the first book to at least accept that some influential protagonists are required in order to tell a good story, it actually comes as a bit of a twist when the men’s actions turn out to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. As it turns out, when they attempt to warn the Emperor of the subterfuge, they get turned back when they’re threatened with arrest. Nevertheless, the war ends anyway, thanks in part to an oppressed world of the Empire seeing an opportunity to switch sides in the conflict, and because in any case, the Emperor couldn’t allow his general to gain so many victories without feeling his own power threatened. Furthermore, if the Emperor’s power was stable in the first place, there wouldn’t be any need to risk further conquest. So, in perhaps the best illustration of psychohistory played out in realtime, the scholar explains, “We can see, now, that the social background of the Empire makes wars of conquest impossible for it. Under weak Emperors, it is torn apart by generals competing for a worthless and surely death-bringing throne. Under strong Emperors, the Empire is frozen into a paralytic rigour in which disintegration apparently ceases for the moment, but only at the sacrifice of all possible growth.” Meaning now that Seldon’s predictions have proven to be correct when the remnants of the Empire are sidelined once and for all, it looks as if there could be no major obstacles in the Foundation’s immediate future, which of course is an outlook that’s proven all too naive.
In the second story of Foundation and Empire, we’re met with what looks like another Seldon Crisis. The mayor’s of Terminus, the Foundation’s homeworld, have been ruling as a despotic elite in which the leadership is passed down from father to son. Even so, while it looks like life within the Foundation is relatively stable, there are a number of disgruntled peoples on the outskirts who have a laundry list of problems with the status quo. In point of fact, there’s actually a small democratic movement gaining momentum in the periphery and it would appear that the next Seldon Crisis is to be a civil war between them and the ruling forces. Standard fare for psychohistory, you’d be inclined to think, except for a mysterious third force that has poked its head over the horizon. The Mule, a warlord largely unknown to the Foundation, has been conquering world’s just outside their borders, so agents from both the despotic government and the democratic underground work together to investigate the matter when they stumble upon one of The Mule’s escaped slaves; a court jester of sorts who warns of the warlord’s unlimited capacity for evil. The Mule is a mutant, the clown insists, ten times the size of a normal human and all the stronger for it. As a ruthless bully, he’s captured countless planets, and as the story progresses he pushes even further into Foundation lines. Worse still, they believe he has a secret weapon. A technology that can nerf the nuclear armaments of the Foundation. Nothing is sure in these uncertain times, so as the Foundation people turn to the holographic chamber and await an explanation from Seldon, they’re all the more disturbed to discover he hadn’t predicted the existence of a mutant like The Mule at all and that really the crisis they were supposed to face was only whether or not the democratic forces could take control of Foundation. In the chaos that follows, The Mule conquers Terminus itself, but remains an utter mystery to the agents that flee in search of their one remaining hope; The Second Foundation, the other world Seldon hid away at the beginning of the series. That world, wherever it is, could be the only force capable of keeping Seldon’s plan on track, something which The Mule obviously knows himself when he’s actually revealed to be the court jester who has accompanied the escaping agents in their search for the place and now demonstrates his true mutant ability. The Mule, it turns out, was born with a terrifying psychic power to control the emotional lives of the people around him. Paired with the new weapon that makes all nuclear warheads useless, he represents a complete anomaly that Seldon just wouldn’t have been able to account for, thereby nullifying the dream of limiting the predicted thirty-thousand year dark age to a mere one-thousand. All would be lost, if not for the quick thinking of one woman, who shoots the only man that’s figured out the location of the Second Foundation, protecting it from The Mule’s advances, at least for the time being…In many ways, Foundation and Empire is easily the darkest book in the original series run, the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, if you will, in which only the barest ray of hope survives as the credits roll over a devastating cliffhanger. But I think Asimov’s effort is a lot more unique than that other great space opera, in that, while there are certainly galactic wars and heroes to cheer for, as a more sociological oriented story, you can’t help sympathising with the antagonists of the tale as much as the apparent good guys. To be honest, as the general of the first story won victory after victory against the Foundation, I couldn’t help rooting for him, mostly because he was so clearly ignorant of his position as an underdog in his fight against the inevitable. And though The Mule of the second story is a much more of an actual threat to the Foundation, his sad backstory as an outcast and the gentlemanly way in which he admits defeat establish a complicated emotional dynamic as the stakes for the third book are set: The race between he and the remaining contenders to find that almost mythical world of the Second Foundation.
Book III: Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
In a move surely designed to confuse many a sci-fi novice over subsequent decades, Isaac Asimov decided to name the third book in his Foundation series, Second Foundation. Nonetheless, it’s an appropriate title for a pair of novellas that concentrate on The Mule’s hunt for the Second Foundation in the first case, and the Second Foundation’s struggle to survive against another unforeseen enemy in the second.
At the start of the book, we learn that The Mule has conquered a substantial part of the galaxy and that the Foundation itself has become just another gem in his crown. With his mutant ability to control the emotions of those around him, his dominance over hundreds of planets is all but assured for ages to come. Still, for five years he hasn’t ceased his search for the Second Foundation, sure that the power they hold is equal to his own. To put that another way, the secret of their success in hiding away from him is surely a phenomenally advanced form of psychology that makes them capable of manipulating individuals and the worlds those individuals rule. So, in a final attempt to track their homeworld down, The Mule enlists two of his most talented subordinates. A one-time rival who he brainwashed into professing unquestionable loyalty and a young upstart who the mutant warlord prefers to leave unmolested in the hopes that the man’s self-serving nature will lead to some success in their search for the Second Foundation. The power games between The Mule, his puppet commander and the young upstart are interesting in their own right. In fact, the struggle of the puppet commander to prove his worth to The Mule while at the same time subconsciously wanting to kill the man is a compelling story regardless of whatever galactic stakes are on the line. But there are yet more mixups with the question of whether the young upstart has been secretly enlisted by the Second Foundationers, and in the introduction of the Second Foundationers themselves, who appear in short intervals every other chapter, ominously pulling strings that you know in some way will shape the course of the story to come. Overall, the whole thing plays out like the ultimate game of chess, in which each piece on the board is also battling to win out over their own fears and suspicions. Once again though, it’s in the defeat of The Mule where Asimov proves himself capable of writing emotionally complex narratives. As the psychic mutant’s search for the Second Foundation turns out to be a complete failure, he rages at having destroyed an entire planet he took to be the one he sought and at the realisation that he’s been lured into a trap where the astonishing emotional control he demonstrated against his enemies is used against him to assure he will never bother the Second Foundationers again. At the end of it all, the young upstart is revealed to be a second foundationer himself and the Second Foundation implants the Mule with an urge to go home and put a halt to any further desire for conquest, until, in due course, his brittle body gives out and his reign is ended a short few years after it had begun.
It’s a sad end for a strangely likeable genocidal maniac and probably my favourite story of the entire series, which you’d think would make Second Foundation my favourite book of the original Foundation trilogy, but the final episode that follows it does go for some plot choices that left me feeling a little betrayed.
In Search by the Foundation, the final story of the original Foundation trilogy, the Foundation is slowly getting themselves back on course with the Seldon Plan, many years after the death of The Mule and the collapse of his short-lived empire. However, these Foundationers have become aware of a threat they believe to be far more insidious than that of The Mule. A secret threat, which under normal circumstances would never be known, but having become aware of its existence through the actions of The Mule they now feel an urge to track down. The Second Foundation, they’re almost certain, has planted agents among them to ensure its dominance at the end of the Seldon Plan. Paranoid of what that world’s presumed control could mean for them, this small group of rebel intellectuals renew the search for it in the hopes of assuring their independence in the future. As ever, that seed of a question that Asimov planted in the first book—Just where is the Second Foundation?—is a compelling mystery that drives the story forward, though this time we’re given a complete view of them, with a good portion of the events told from their perspective. As shown in the previous episode, they are indeed an advanced group of psychologists who have taken the discipline to its ultimate extreme. Whereas the first Foundation was to concentrate its efforts toward technological progress, it was their mission to balance that out with more sophisticated emotional awareness. Ultimately, this means it’s the Second Foundation’s role in the plan to act as the secret rulers of the First Foundation, thus being able to ensure enough stability for the civilisation to flourish over an immeasurable length of time. All for the better, if it hadn’t been for The Mule, who’s random aberration threw the First Foundation’s development off by decades and worse still, revealed the existence of the Second Foundation to the universe as a whole. Over the course of the story, the First Foundationers frantically take the reader down a long list of red herrings as to where the Second Foundation could be, such that, I think that even if you guess their location at the beginning of the story, it’s probably fair to say you’ll almost certainly question your opinion a handful of times before it’s revealed to be among decaying remnants of the old empire; the planet where Seldon originally created the entire psychohistory plan.
The Second Foundationers, of course, take the day, fooling the first Foundationers into believing they have a practical defence against their psychic manipulation and that in any case, the Second Foundation forces have been found and defeated. Though as readers we know full well the Second Foundation’s true location and maybe even feel a little disturbed at their success, ultimately the Seldon Plan staying on course is the point of the entire series so it’s inevitable that these advanced psychologists should win. All told though, for my part I found it to be a bit of a disappointing end for the trilogy in that it favoured a clever twist over commitment to the original theme. For starters, after everything the First Foundation suffered through to keep the plan on track, it’s odd that they’d refuse to accept the idea of the Second Foundation having an important part to play in it as things progressed. On top of that, there was a time when Seldon himself was the only major hero to act as a thread throughout the entire saga. It was his work, after all, that set everything in motion, and his regular appearances in the holographic chamber that acted as key landmarks in an epic of enormous proportions. But by the end of it all Seldon is somewhat left to the side, even by the First Foundationers themselves, who don’t seem all that interested in the possibility of his future revelations. Finally, I think to begin with the main draw of the series was always in Seldon’s identification of cause and effect and in his ability to chart broad sweeps of it centuries down the road. It was certainly impressive that he could ever so slightly nudge the odds in the plan’s favour, but the idea of a Second Foundation watching over everything to ensure his predictions came true kind of revealed the whole affair to be a bit of a rigged game. Basically, once you’re aware of the Second Foundation’s mission, you have to wonder if an eventuality like the Empire’s failure to conquer the Foundation was actually predicted or if it was simply because Seldon knew that if all else failed, the Second Foundation would be able to force key figures in the Emperor’s court to make decisions that were required. That said, overall I’d say the final story in the original Foundation trilogy was undoubtedly an entertaining way to wrap things up. While I still think it’s true that the distinguishing feature of the series was switched out for an altogether different one at the end, I have to acknowledge how skillfully it was handled. The idea that Seldon would indeed have a backup plan like the Second Foundation definitely isn’t out of character, and the nature of them as an advanced civilization of psychologists is a fascinating science-fiction premise that gives you plenty to mull over. As ever, it’s just another instance where Asimov found innumerable ways to push the boundaries of the concepts he himself created. To be sure, he apparently had even more twists to share, given that he would return to write yet more books in the saga many decades later, but that’s a story for another time. For now, I’d be remiss not to wrap this up by mentioning how in the final episode of the original trilogy he once again created a wonderfully charming character to accompany you through the story in the form of a protagonist named Arkady Darell, the teenage girl who manages to stay one step ahead of practically every adult in the book as she hitchhikes on a road trip across the galaxy in search of the Second Foundation threat.
So then, what of the title that the original Foundation trilogy was awarded by Hugo’s in 1966? Looking at it now is it really worthy of being cited as the best series of all time?
Well, speaking as a fan, even I’m not sure if it should have beaten out the likes of Lord of the Rings, but that isn’t to say I don’t think there isn’t a strong case for it.
At the time, science fiction was at the tail end of what would become known as a golden age for the genre. The stories that typified those years were largely characterised by a mechanistic view of reality. With books such as I, Robot and his groundbreaking Foundation series, Isaac Asimov had very much solidified his position as the ultimate proponent of that outlook. Science-fiction would continue to evolve beyond him, as genres are wont to do, but there was no doubt that wherever it was going to go, he would remain one of the most important figures in its history. What’s more, though today his fiction might sometimes be criticised for one-dimensional characterisation and a preference for talking heads over bombastic set pieces, I myself would denounce those accusations as being shallow in the former case and misguided in the latter. For starters, while I’d be quick to agree there’s no shortage of cast members in the stories that never grow beyond their status as worn-out tropes, you’d be underestimating how useful those tropes are in a saga that covers at least nine different eras of history, zips along at an incredibly succinct pace, and still manages to introduce a surprisingly sophisticated character portrait on occasion. Lastly, I think any comment that there should have been more action is really looking at the series from the expectations of today, where Foundation’s descendants in the space opera genre have taken as many cues from blockbuster cinema as they have from the science fiction of Asimov’s day. After all, to criticize the work for not putting the violence front and centre of the books would be to overlook that it’s the rationality of human nature that should be celebrated, a point which Asimov himself talked about many times in the years since.
I’d like to end this episode by pointing out there’s a lot more to what makes Foundation such a notable work than the awards it received or even the compelling plot. Its influence on science fiction is such that just about every notable franchise we’re familiar with today would have borrowed a little from it, while never really attempting to tackle that unusual mixture of scientific thinking and sociological narrative in quite the same way. Pedigree notwithstanding, I think that the books can sometimes be wrongly described as a fossil from another time, in that, while they showcased incredible ideas that inspired more than one generation of scientists and writers, the way in which they were put together might not be as compelling for audiences today. I touched on some of those issues in this video, but there’s a lot more to be said, certainly in regards to the timeless quality of the work. To that end, I’ve created two more episodes for you to explore. In one, I map out the publishing history and influence of Foundation. While in the other I provide a more detailed literary analysis of the writing and plot. Links to the other episodes are appearing on screen now and are pinned in the comments below. I’d try to tempt you to pick one over the other, but I’d prefer to rely on Hari Seldon’s example and allow for the fact that the vast majority’s decision has probably already been made.
Subterranean Howl by ELPHNT
Solar Flares by Silent Partner
Night Snow by Asher Fulero
Flickering by VYEN
I Want to Fall in Love on Snapchat 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)