Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

I’ve recently been trying to become more acquainted with science fiction as a genre, as most of my life I’ve been focused primarily on horror fiction.  A natural and obvious place to place some emphasis is on classic works from the golden age of science fiction, and a natural and obvious place to start there is with the work of Isaac Asimov.  A few weeks ago, I read Asimov’s Foundation (1951), and blogged my thoughts about it.

Asimov has written seven books set in the Foundation setting; I figured that I would be content reading the first one, to get a feel for it, and then move on to other authors and other series…

… and, as of today, I’ve started reading the fifth of the Foundation novels.

As the first three books, Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953), form the original trilogy, and I thought it would be worthwhile to blog my thoughts on the trilogy as a whole.


The Foundation trilogy tells an epic, galaxy-spanning story over the course of some 400 years, telling the early history of what is known simply as, well, the Foundation.  Some 12,000 years into the existence of a powerful galactic Empire, a mathematician named Hari Seldon predicts, using a new and advanced mathematical science known as psychohistory, the collapse of the Empire within 300 years and a galaxy-wide Dark Age to follow lasting some 30,000 years.  The collapse of the Empire is inevitable — the actions of quintillions of humans in the Empire possess a momentum that cannot be overturned in time to avoid disaster.

Seldon can, however, predict what actions can be done to nudge history, eventually, in a more favorable direction, and it is for this reason that he established the Foundation: to shorten the Dark Age, and its associated human suffering, from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000 years. After this 1,000 years, a new galactic Empire will be founded, one that is more stable and more just than the one that preceded it.

Foundation tells the story of the first 150 years of what becomes known as Seldon’s Plan.  Through psychohistory, Seldon has predicted a series of crises, known as Seldon crises, that must be overcome in order for his plan to progress. The lesson of this first book, however, is that Seldon also built the solutions to his crises into his plan, and that they have a certain inevitability as well: when the crises arise, societal factors will push individuals to act in a way to resolve them.

It would have been simple for Asimov to continue the series in this manner, detailing new crises and showing how much power society, culture, economics and technology can have to resolve seemingly impossible situations.  But he was much more ambitious and clever than this. The second book, Foundation and Empire, begins with another Seldon crisis — direct attack by the remnants of the Empire — and this is resolved as foreseen by Seldon.  However, then something happens that Seldon cannot predict: the rise of an individual, a single person, powerful enough to wreck the Plan utterly.  That person is known simply as the Mule, and the second half of Foundation and Empire describes the cataclysmic rise of the Mule.

When I was reading the Foundation series, I was struck by an analogy with another trilogy — it will sound unfair at first, but I was immediately reminded of The Matrix series of movies!  In The Matrix, we are introduced to an incredibly compelling world and the movie ends with the rise of The One, a seemingly unique Messiah-like figure.  In the second movie, The Matrix Reloaded, however, almost all of our beliefs about The One and the Matrix are challenged and tossed aside.  The third movie, The Matrix Revolutions, attempts then to tie up the conflicts of the first two but the Wachowskis don’t really “stick the landing,” in my opinion.

Similarly, Foundation treats Seldon as almost god-like in his prescience.  Foundation and Empire shows that Seldon’s vision has a seemingly fatal weakness to individual X-factors Asimov, however, is far more imaginative, and his trilogy nails the conclusion.  In the third book, Second Foundation, Asimov reveals that the Seldon plan is much more complicated than it superficially appears: there is a Second Foundation, often hinted at but never explored, that serves as an external and active control to The Plan.  It is up to this Second Foundation to neutralize the Mule, if possible, but even this will lead to more unexpected and dangerous consequences.  Unlike The Matrix series, Asimov nails the conclusion in a very satisfying way.

To summarize the Foundation series in another manner: each sequel challenges the premise of the previous book, forcing the reader to challenge the assumptions that he or she has developed.  The Foundation trilogy is a thinking person’s series, and Asimov has a talent for making boring conversations about economics, politics and philosophy utterly compelling.  That is not to say that there isn’t any action: Second Foundation includes one of the most dramatic scenes of any science fiction novel I’ve ever read.

In Asimov’s work, psychohistory provides the ability to predict the behaviors of large groups of people as a whole and even manipulate those behaviors. I swear that Asimov applies this idea to his own readers in Foundation and Empire!  This book, like all of them, includes many surprise twists.  One in particular is especially surprising, however, because Asimov basically tells you what the twist is early on in the novel.  It seems that he realized that many of his clever readers would figure out the secret, anyway, so he went ahead and gave it away! I figured it out immediately from the oblique statement Asimov makes, but it didn’t ruin the story or effect my interest in it at all.  Instead, as the reader waits for the inevitable revelation, the tension is provided by a sword of Damocles hanging over the character’s heads.  Asimov is such an incredible writer that he can pull it off.

Where the first Foundation book may be considered an ode to the physical sciences and technology, and the power that comes, even indirectly, from possessing such knowledge, the third book is an ode to the social sciences.  The Second Foundation is an organization that has mastered psychology and sociology, and Asimov suggests that such knowledge is the equal of, and even occasionally the master of, the physical sciences.

Overall, the Foundation trilogy is undeniably a classic of science fiction, and a brilliant exploration of how society and culture shapes humanity as a whole.  It is utterly compelling, and highly recommended.

And this trilogy only covers the first 400 years of the predicted thousand year interregnum between Empires!  Some thirty years after writing the original trilogy, Asimov would write two more novels continuing the saga… but we will discuss those in a future post.

Before ending, I can’t help noting one strange technological development that Asimov predicted well ahead of its time.  In Second Foundation, we are treated to a section in which a teenage girl, Arcadia Darrell, writes a school history report using an automatic transcribing machine:

“In the days, nearly four centuries ago, when the First Galactic Empire was decaying into the paralysis that preceded final death, one man — the great Hari Seldon — foresaw the approaching end.  Through the science of psychohistory, the intrissacies of whose mathematics has long since been forgotten,

(She paused in a trifle of doubt. She was sure that “intricacies” was pronounced with soft c’s but the spelling didn’t look right. Oh, well, the machine couldn’t very well be wrong –)

This looks to me like Asimov predicted the frustration of computer autocorrect!

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6 Responses to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

  1. kaleberg says:

    My favorite thing in the Foundation trilogy is that everyone smokes. One character even remarks that smoking is no big deal, lung cancer was easy to cure with radiation therapy. Even back in the 1960s that seemed very funny.

  2. Patrice Ayme says:

    Reblogged this on Patrice Ayme's Thoughts and commented:
    In the Real World, Foundations Saved Civilization Before

    The combination of imperial collapse followed by re-birth from Foundations within appeared several times already, for real.

    Civilizations collapsing into Dark Ages from the actions of dozens of millions of people already happened several times. And then very small groups rose, and imposed a new way of thinking. One such case was the Mongol takeover of China, and the subsequent collapse of the Yuan dynasty replaced, within a century, by the Ming foundation.

    Yet the most striking examples of collapses are in the West, and the most spectacular ones come with two foundations.

    The first collapse was that of the seven superpowers which made the Bronze Age civilization. They were attacked by nations which made “a conspiracy in their islands” (said Pharaoh Ramses III in 1175 BCE). Besides the calamitous invasions by these “Peoples of the Sea”, a number of disasters striking simultaneously (calamitous climate change, including super drought, quake swarm, etc.) brought the entire trading system down, upon which some civilizations depended for survival, and then generalized destruction followed. The Foundation consisted in a number of Greek city states, mostly on the Ionian coast. The Second Foundation was Athens.

    However soon enough, an unserious Greece was taken over by the fascist Macedonian empire, and its successor regimes, the Hellenistic kingdoms.

    The Second Foundation was the Roman Republic itself. Rome had been created where the shock waves from Magna Grecia, Italian Greece, and the Etruscans collided. That positive interference brought herdsmen to civilization. The Etruscans were themselves one of these roaming “Peoples of the Sea”, and they had settled in Syria for a while, before grabbing the part of Italy with the richest iron deposits: Foundations everywhere.

    Rome freed Greece, and then turned into an evil empire itself. Rome degenerated ever more into all sorts of fascisms… and progressively collapsed ever more, as one major system after another became dysfunctional.

    Then emperor Constantine re-founded Rome by imposing the Catholic Church, which had grown semi-secretly for two centuries, as a favored institution within the empire.

    At the same time, other Roman generals cum lawyers equipped the savage Germans constituting the Frankish Confederation with a Latin written law, the Lex Salica. The Franks were opposed to Christianism. In a further twist, Constantine and his successors used the Franks as shock troops of the empire (Once the Franks staged a full civil war to give back control of the empire to secularists).

    Meanwhile the First Foundation, Catholicism, collapsed Rome, and then it gave control to the Second Foundation, that of the Franks, which had opposed them. In a complete turn-around, the Franks then adopted Catholicism, modifying it extensively to eliminate all its bad aspects (no more apocalypse around the corner, total tolerance for fellow religions, mandating secular education, etc.), while keeping the good ones (charity, altruism, Christian Republic mentality, etc.). Within 150 years, the Franks would outlaw slavery in Europe (there had been no slavery in Germany, so this is more the German than Christian influence: all bishops were very rich and they had dozens, or hundreds, of slaves).

    Small foundations can, and will always, save civilizations. For two main reasons: 1) their small size enable them to think democratically, thus better. 2) the excellency their struggle for survival forces on small foundations, require them to think straight and true (otherwise they won’t survive).

    It is likely that some of the real events I just related inspired Asimov: he was a very knowledgeable person (and the Foundational aspects of Rome and Athens were well known, as was the social failure to oppose Macedonia in a timely manner, in spite of the strident warnings of the philosopher Demosthenes).

    When I read the Foundation Trilogy, long ago, I found, even then, some of its aspects very dated. But in a way, that is the entire point.

    Psychohistory was not invented yesterday, we have crucially depended upon it, for millennia.
    Patrice Ayme’

  3. Rincewind says:

    It’s a brilliant series.

  4. Jonathan Thornburg says:

    *Definitely* read Arthur C Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”. IMHO it’s his best novel, and (again IMHO) it’s far superior to the Foundation trilogy.

    Or to see some other genres of science fiction, try Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity”,
    Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle’s “The Fifth Planet” (yes, that’s Fred Hoyle of steady-state cosmology fame!), Athena Andreadis’s “The Other Half of the Sky”, Robert J. Sawyer’s “Rollback”, or John Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids” or “The Kraken Wakes”

  5. Jonathan Thornburg says:

    Also read John Varley’s short story “Options”. It’s a brilliant science-fiction exploration of what life might be like if you could easily swap your mind back and forth between female and male bodies (other genders occur in some of Varley’s other works, but not this one). It’s been reprinted in several anthologies, including “Universe 9”, edited by Terry Carr.

  6. detonacciones says:

    There is an ancient name for the pattern that constitutes the trilogy within Asimov’s eventual ‘heptalogy’, and that you note as follows — “To summarize the Foundation series in another manner: each sequel challenges the premise of the previous book, forcing the reader to challenge the assumptions that he or she has developed.”

    Going back at least to Socrates and Plato, and, perhaps, to Zeno, that name is “dialectic”.

    The ‘self-reflexivity’ essence of dialectic also applies to the nested nature of Asimov’s relationship to — and USE of — “psychohistory”, that you also note, as follows: “In Asimov’s work, psychohistory provides the ability to predict the behaviors of large groups of people as a whole and even manipulate those behaviors. I swear that Asimov applies this idea to his own readers in Foundation and Empire!”.

    A group calling itself ‘Foundation Encyclopedia Dialectica’ has endeavored to bring Asimov’s insights, expressed via his fictional Foundation history, into actuality.

    They have developed a new mathematics — whose core is a CONTRA-Boolean Arithmetic and Algebra — and applied it to model the history of humanity on Earth, via seven ‘psychohistorical-dialectical meta-equations’, including separate ‘meta-models’ describing (1) the [psycho]history of the progression of the dominance of the forms of human ideology\knowledge, from Mythopoeia, then to Religion, and then to Philosophy, then on to Science, and on to Psychohistory itself, (2) the [psycho]history of human social formation(s), (3) the [psycho]history of human social RELATIONS of human-societal self-reproduction, and (4) the [psycho]history of human social FORCES of human-societal self-reproduction.

    Using this new mathematics of ‘psychohistorical dialectics’, they have ‘pre-constructed’, symbolically, the institutional and functional structure of a successor social system to that of the present, including deriving draft constitutional amendment and statutory undergirding for that successor system, plus a plan to foreshorten the ‘New Dark Age’ that that present system impends, versus the ‘Global Renaissance’ that it also potentiates.

    For more about this developing story, see

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