by Isaac Asimov
“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!”
In 1966 the Hugo Awards presented a new category: Best All-Time Series. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy won, knocking out its competition which included no less than The Lord of the Rings.
Using advanced mathematics Hari Seldon has predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire in a few hundred years as well as a rebuilding period of 30,000 years, during which time the Empire will be mired in a Dark Age. There is no way to avoid the crash of civilization, but he has presented a solution in formation of a special group called the Foundation that will reduce the period of darkness from 30,000 years to 1,000. Hari dies shortly after launching his plan.
What follows is a series of stories told many years apart, each with different characters. The Empire has lost control of the systems on the peripheries of space, one of which contains the planet Terminus on which the Foundation is located, and each main section details a progression through civilization. Originally published as separate stories in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1950, the first four were gathered into the book Foundation in 1951 and Asimov wrote a new story to introduce the others.
“The Psychohistorians” – Hari Seldon mathematically predicts the need for the preservation of key elements of the Empire so it can rise out of its own ashes 1,000 years after its fall. The empire grants him a worthless, fringe planet on which to set up his Foundation.
This is a brilliant introduction, written after publication of the initial few stories below, revealing a massive scope and the promise of great things to come.
“The Enclyclopedists” – After establishing a colony and digging well into the creation of the new Encyclopedia Galactica aimed at preserving knowledge, surrounding space has degenerated into four separate kingdoms of which the Empire has lost direct control. Salvador Hardin predicts the coming crisis and is proven correct by the pre-programmed appearance of Seldon himself and The Board of Trustees steps aside for Hardin to gain firm control of the Foundation.
“The Mayors” – The Foundation has hidden its technological prowess under the guise of religion, and man’s access to the wonders of science is now controlled and obfuscated by ritual and mysticism. One of the four kingdoms launches a direct attack against the Foundation to gain control of its sciences but a religious tidal wave rises against the invading kingdom.
“The Traders” – The Foundation has become powerful in trade, possessing technology, often miniaturized, that can no longer be replicated by the Empire. One particular trader is sent to a planet that decries advance technology and arrests him, sentencing him to death unless they receive a substantial bribe.
Here’s the second main area where the brilliance of the series begins revealing itself. We get to see natural, cultural evolution as we go from a barren world containing great thought, to that thought being enfolded and beaten by religion, to that religion being enfolded and beaten by trade. Then science, and so on. Sound familiar?
“The Merchant Princes” – Political complexity rises to the top in this story, where the Foundation has gained great power but retains ardent enemies. A Master Trader is dispatched to investigate a planet where he’s greeted with a catch-22.
Foundation and Empire
The stories now step out of the short story phase and into longer novellas.
The General – A young, brash general of the Empire has identified the Foundation as a major threat and is launching his own war against Terminus without official Imperial support. A Foundation member learns of the General’s plan and attempts to contact the Emperor in an effort to stave off the attack.
The Mule – 300 years after Hari Seldon’s death and the advent of the Foundation, a man is sweeping the galaxies forces in an inexplicable way and no one can stand against him. The Foundation falls and those in the know despair Seldon may have been incorrect this whole time, while others believe Seldon’s plan to unite the Empire again is being spurred forward by the man known as The Mule. Complicating matters is the secret location to Seldon’s Second Foundation, established in tandem with the public Foundation.
It’s been said The Mule was Asimov’s favorite story from the Foundation collection, and it won a retrospective Hugo award for best novel of 1945 given at the 1996 WorldCon. It is heavy on politics and intrigue, as many of these stories are, but has an interesting premise and heats up towards the end.
Search by the Mule – The Mule, the First Citizen, has conquered the galaxy. The only threat to his rule is the hidden Second Foundation, so he hatches a plan to find and destroy its members.
This one was an amazing story, with intrigue and maneuvering remaining central to the plot with politics taking a step back. It also advances some ideas and evokes images that are decades later used by Star Wars, and is absolutely one of the strongest stories of the original eight that make up the trilogy.
Search by the Foundation – Fear of the Second Foundation has reached an all-time high, as the secretive group is regarded as a group of supermen that covertly control the minds of everyone, including members of the original Foundation. A group of thinkers gathers on Trantor and seeks the Second Foundation, inadvertently dispatching the feisty young daughter of one of the members on galaxy-wide search.
Note: It seems some of the versions of this third book have slightly revised text, though I’ve had a difficult time verifying abridged versions. Please note the Barnes and Nobles leather-bound classic edition, as well as the Bantam Spectra e-book, is missing some dialogue in the Search by the Foundation novella at the end of chapter 4, after the question “You have eaten?” and before the Fourth Interlude. This is about two full pages of interaction that some people feel is important.
WARNING! If you look too deeply into which versions are abridged, when it happened, what is missing, etc., you risk running into a major spoiler (like I did). I’ve read the missing material and linked it here along with a pic of its corresponding page. An argument can be made that tension is actually heightened between two integral characters by this dialogue being left out.
What makes this book so interesting is its scope and its progression. You have an ultimate, powerful Empire that falls and in order to wrest peace from invading barbarians, religion and fear of religious power is employed. Many years later when religion itself has been corrupted (and is the new barbarism), economics are employed to wrest peace from religious zealots. Then technology, eventually to be toppled by decadence and corruption, and the great circle continues. This trilogy, in its own way, contains both the entire past and the future history of the human race.
But be warned, this is not book of action-oriented science fiction.
“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
It’s composed of conversations and exposition, and the action is between the lines for you to either envision on your own or gloss over entirely. It can seem a bit dry at times, but contemplating the timeline and the sheer weight of the consequences means the stakes are rarely higher than they are here.
In the end, the inevitable question has to be asked: Did this trilogy deserve to beat The Lords of the Rings for the Best All-Time Trilogy Hugo award in 1966?
No. It’s not even close. And there are major differences in thematic presentation between this and modern science fiction. However, this is a hyper-smart, incredibly ambitious project, taking The History of the Decline of the Roman Empire and applying it to a futuristic space and time. The pacing is outside the norm for today’s reader, but the trilogy is not to be ignored.
“Such folly smacks of genius. A lesser mind would be incapable of it.”