Foundation "Trilogy," The by Asimov, Isaac, 1953

Foundation "Trilogy," The by Asimov, Isaac - Book cover from

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Foundation, 1951

Foundation and Empire, 1952

Second Foundation, 1953

I have never been a very dedicated historian. I just do not have a memory for random names, dates, places and occurrences. I never did well in my history classes, and certainly do not read much on the subject today. But there is one area of history that I do really love, and what little reading I do is in that area. Individual people and what they do are important, but I am always fascinated by history books that address the movements of masses of people. I could care less about Custer, but I loved Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Tojo bores me to tears, but Bataan doesnít. Stalin did too much evil for me to comprehend, but the Pogroms in the Urals capture my attention every time. There is too much on the History Channel about Hitler for me to get interested, but any story about the plight of the Jews and Iím there. Canadian history is not my cup of tea either, but give me a book on how and why the Acadians left Nova Scotia and moved to Louisiana and Iím happy for a day or so. I think that may be part of why I have always loved Asimov's Foundation books. They resonate with epic movements of people and future histories of wars in a way that very few other SF books do. And I think that for that reason, the Foundation novels are pretty much required reading for any SF fan.

When it comes to Isaac Asimov's classic, trendsetting "trilogy," Foundation, I suspect that many people out there are reading it incorrectly. The people we have to thank for that are the publishers at Gnome Press, and, by action of momentum, Doubleday. Asimov wrote his classic "trilogy" over a period of years of about 10 years, starting in 1941 and ending in 1951. The thing is, Asimov never wrote a trilogy. He wrote five novelettes and four novellas that were bound by Gnome in 1951 as a three book trilogy, done for marketing purposes only. Lord only knows how many copies Gnome sold of that trilogy. They certainly never really paid Asimov anything for it, so Iím sure he didnít even know before he died. But there are so many Gnome editions out there still today that it seem like they are still actively publishing. I point this out because I still, to this day, hear complaints about these books, and even though they are dated and written in Asimov's over stated style, I have to think that this is part of the problem. I myself used to try to read each book as a continuous piece, but in reality, each separate story was written completely independent of all the others with an eye only towards consistency within the broad universe Asimov created. The next time you pick up these books, try reading each of the five tales of Foundation (The Psychohistorians, The Encyclopedists, The Mayors, The Traders, and The Merchant Princes) the two books of Foundation and Empire (The General and The Mule) and the two books of Second Foundation (Search by the Mule and Search by the Foundation) as completely independent stories that may as well have their own covers, and I think you will be surprised at how much better the story is. Five out of five stars.

The Foundation is probably one of the best known SF stories of all time. It is the classic "man's empire in space" series. As I re-read my copy in the Seattle airport waiting room for Alaska Airlines I was talked up by three different people who noticed the cover. I read SF novels in that lounge all the time: Dozens and dozens of books alone in the last three years, and nobody has ever talked me up about the title before. And this time it was a young man, and old man, and an old woman, of all things! I think that pretty much says it all about the popularity and enduring qualities of these works. That is to say, it crosses literary boundaries and generations. The story itself evokes strong and widely taught historical scenarios. Asimov threw in Roman, French and American history, European governmental styles, Post WWII espionage tropes, and much, much more. The magic of the Foundation sequence is the set up, because pretty much each story relies on different background and characters. At the end of a 12,000 year run, a galaxy spanning empire of 25 million worlds is slowly starting to collapse. In fact, when the action starts it has been collapsing for hundreds of years, but its so big and powerful, nobody notices except for one mathematician named Hari Seldon. Seldon is a brilliant logician who has greatly expanded the science of psychohistory, which seems to me to be rooted almost entirely in symbolic logic, now rechristened mathematic logic. I took this as an undergrad, and its pretty much the reason I almost failed out my first year. Seldon advanced the study to such a degree that he was capable of predicting the future movements of masses of individuals, and thus could chart out the future prospects for the Empire. What he learned was that not only was the Empire failing, but within 300 years it would fail completely. Following that the galaxy would be subject to 30,000 years of barbarism. Being a bit of a philanthropist, as well as having strong determinist tendencies, he set about finding a way to fix this admittedly huge problem. What he came up with was a plan to eliminate 29,000 years of misery, and set up the galaxy for its second empire. He did this by getting a government grant to set up two Foundations, one at the fringes of the galaxy on a metal poor planet named Terminus, called First Foundation, and the other at "Star's End," on the "far side of the galaxy," called Second Foundation. The purpose of First Foundation (called from here on out simply "Foundation,") was to set up a document called the Encyclopedia Galactica, which would eventually be the summation of mankind's knowledge. It was a forced renaissance of sorts. The purpose of Second Foundation was never made clear, and its location was kept a secret. So after conflict with the government over Seldon's radical and seditions notions of the durability of Empire, Seldon and 100,000 of his closest friends were forcibly moved to Terminus to start the great project. As time wore on, the might and influence of the government in the periphery of the galaxy started to wear down, just as Seldon predicted, and the Empire itself began to contract towards its capital planet, Trantor, a planet-wide city in the center of the galaxy that boasted a population of 40 million, and which was served by 25 agricultural worlds. Over the next seven or eight generations the Empire wound down to nothing, Trantor was eventually sacked, and the Emperor moved his seat to Neotrantor, where he and his government died relatively slow and ungracious deaths.

Of course, all was not lost. Despite its dearth of minerals and resources, Terminus began to thrive very quickly. Once the Empire lost its hold on the periphery worlds the governments there started to assert rights of home rule, and were largely unchallenged. The first five novelettes of the story, compiled today in the book called Foundation, tells the story of Terminus' successes. In my opinion, these five novelettes are the best in the series. In them Seldon finagles the planet of his choice from the regent Commissioner for Public Safety, and began compiling the Encyclopedia. Within one generation though, the fringe provinces of Empire began to spread their own wings and started making policy for themselves. The problem the outer provinces all encounterd, save for Terminus, was energy scarcity. As they began slipping away from Empire they also had to fight tendencies toward barbarism as the start of a Dark Age crept into their civilizations. The first thing to go: Engineers and knowledge of nuclear power. As the provinces begin to retool for coal and gas power, Terminus alone with its strong Imperial connections and a firmly entrenched educated class retains atomics. Terminus uses this first to threaten the surrounding provinces, then to draw them in first with nuclear powered widgets, then by sending forth nuclear engineers that have been morphed into a class of missionary priests who changed the teaching of energy technology into the word of God, not fit for anyone to know or practice who is not an Encylcopedist. Terminus in quick order established a trading empire where the surrounding kingdoms provided metals and protection, and the Foundation provided technological assistance, nuclear know-how and consumer goods. By manipulating this balance to favor or emphasize one or the other leg, Terminus was able to withstand challenges to its authority first from renegade kingdoms, barbarians (who were ultimately brought into the fold) then from the floundering Galactic Empire itself.

Asimov's second "book," Foundation and Empire, tells the story of the elimination of the Empire as a political entity, and the rise of The Mule. One element of style that I have noted in Asimov's writing is that he likes to latch onto one gem technology or idea to develop in his stories, and pretty much ignores all others and uses them however he needs to tell his story. In this series, probably due to its length, he chooses two: atomics and psychohistory. But only psychohistory really takes central stage time and time again. Seldon's science apparently qualifies and quantifies the movements and motivations of the inhabitants of the entire galaxy, and effectively predicts future history. It works so well in fact that he is able to program his hologram to appear in a theater in the center of Terminus City to reappear after each "Seldon Crisis" occurs, so that he can debrief the encyclopedists. Seldon Crises are events in time where Foundation hegemony is challenged. The master plan established the Foundation and guaranteed that their citizens would have what they need far in advance of each Crisis. The appearances are to reinforce the direction that the Foundation finds itself headed after each Crisis is over. For the first three hundred years Seldon manages to be exact. But the failing of the Seldon Plan is that it cannot take into account aberrations that are not predictable from historical knowledge. Eventually a mutant conqueror arises, The Mule, that Seldon could not predict. The Mule had mental powers, and was able to bend the will of anyone towards his own ends. The risk to the Foundation is very real. If the Mule wins he will create a new race that will likely enslave homo sapiens. If he loses, he will likely take the Foundation down with him, which will leave the galaxy in the position it would have been in had the Foundation not been established in the first place. The Foundation, at the time of the ascendency of The Mule is headed towards civil war over the issue of the consolidation of power in a new Emperor, and the destruction of the democracy Seldon set up. As the Foundation prepares for the war with its own provinces, The Mule comes along and conquers everyone in his path. In the end of Book two the Foundation is defeated and the Mule becomes the First Citizen of a new league of planets. Ultimately the Foundation is saved by the Second Foundation, which actually was set up in the ruins of Trantor. Instead of encyclopedic knowledge, the Second Foundation's goal is to serve as an equalizer that steps in when the Seldon Plan went awry.

Book three picks up several years after book 2 ends, with the Mule continuing his desperate search for the Second Foundation. The third novella (in the third book) tells the tale of the Mule's search for the Second Foundation. Over the course of the years he has ruled the Foundation, now called the Union of Worlds, he has extended his emotional control to just about every person of consequence in his empire. He has also started to detect subtle mental changes in these people suggesting direct mental influence by someone else with similar powers. The Mule sends out one of his best generals, Han Pritcher, and Channis, a rare mover and shaker in the Union that is uninfluenced. The Mule reasons that he needs an untouched mind to search for the Second Foundation so he can more easily detect if any changes are made to him later. Otherwise he runs he risk of his detective being influenced by the Second Foundation. Pritcher seems to be there to be a baby-sitter for Channis. This particular story is probably the most overwritten in the entire collection, and I always find it a great labor to get to the end. However, there is one bright light in it. Pritcher is one of the most interesting characters in the entire series. He was originally a spy for the Democratic underground that was planning an uprising before the Mule came onto the scene. During the Mule's campaign on Terminus he was captured and conditioned by the Mule to love and respect him. Pritcher still has his same personality, and he knows that he has been changed and what effect the change has both on his outlook and his behavior. Readers get that Pritcher both rails silently and internally over the change, and at the same time lives happily with it. After the war Pritcher was promoted gradually to general and at the time of the third novella was the Mule's primary military advisor. He is one of the most emotionally scarred characters I have ever read. At one point the Mule's conditioning is removed forcibly by Second Foundationers, and he practically jumps out of his skin to rip the Mule's throat out. This kind of violence does really simmer just beneath the surface while his conditioning is in place, but Asimov did write it into Pritcher well enough so that a reader easily understands how tortured this soul really is, serving his most hated enemy with a smile on his face. That the smile is not forced and comes from a different part of his heart and soul than the hatred really makes me love how this character was drawn. The Mule himself is also a pretty detailed character. He's a megalomaniacal paranoid psychopath with a serious inferiority complex arising from his sterility and diminished stature. He very clearly references Napoleon, as in addition to all of this, he is also a brilliant tactician. He tries to find his Josephine in the second novella (Bayta, who was herself the wife of another man when they met), but wound up alienating her with his dreams of galactic conquest.

The fourth novella, Search by the Second Foundation, reads much like a juvenile or YA adventure. One of the main characters is a 14 year old female. Its the story of how the Second Foundation protects itself after confirming their existence during the time of the Mule. Its not the strongest story in the collection, but it is the first story that gives us a glimpse of what the Second Foundation is all about, and is critical to understanding the concluding novels Asimov wrote in the 80's. Asimov did have experience with YA adventures, having penned the Lucky Starr novels under the pen name Paul French.

I always thought that Asimov did a pretty good job of hiding the themes he had in mind behind a curtian of plot and action. The effect was so that they would hit you less harshly. His books read like pure adventure stories, and he was certainly not interested in making a statement about where we were socially, but instead where we were going. Because Asimov really only latches onto one idea in the telling of each of his stories, the secondary themes, motifs and ideals he deals with are not very easy to identify with any clarity. The most obvious one here is that good science can succeed in furthering society in spite of the barriers thrown up by politics. It seems to me that one should resonate a bit more these days than it actually does, as it seems to be a problem Americans face daily. Asimov also seems wedded to the notion that politeness and court ritual play a big part in society, and if you turn your back on them, you run the risk of forgetting who you are and failing. Asimov's voice is always optimistic, and despite his singularity of focus, Asimov delivers a complex and multilayered story. For example, in each of his stories Asimov presents at least three different points of view on each meta-topic. Sometimes he has solitary characters deliver one of the three points of view, and sometimes its groups of people or institutions. Whichever he relies on, the divergent ideas are always fully fleshed out and thoroughly discussed. Asimov also was deft at pointing out the similarities and differences between those divergent views, and was always believable when he either brought them together for alliances or allowed physical conflict to arise to resolve the problems. Through the development of the plot Asimov's characters, always in conformity with their own well developed morals, change alignments and alliances to further their goals. And despite the simplicity of Asimov's prose, none of the complexity in this respect is ever lost.

Despite what some people say to you, Asimov was not only a highly skilled author; he was one of the most popular of his day and one of the most respected SF authors in the history of the genre. He received during his lifetime some of the best critical, scholarly and popular criticism of any of his contemporaries, and he is remembered fondly by most. Asimov is known as one of the SF writers that really established the Golden Age of SF as an important literary movement. Asimov's mentor at the time he wrote these stories was none other than John Campbell himself who did more for SF than probably any other person in the history of the genre. At the time, and still somewhat today, Asimov's stories are proof of his visionary qualities, and still can generate awe inspired reactions. But sitting where we are today, Asimov's prose is slightly dated. His style is by most reckonings quite wooden and in my opinion the stories are a bit overwritten. Asimov was a scientist and was apparently very gentlemanly. Those personal attributes show in his writing, and in some places, detract from the stories. Asimov also wrote these stories at the dawn of the atomic age, and the liberties he takes with that technology seems a little ham-handed, even though we are talking about civilizations that have had 12,000 years to develop new, cool gizmos.

Foundation played a big influence in many, many important works that followed. Its quite easy for me to see the influences that Asimov's Foundation had on Herbert when he was creating the backdrop for Dune. They are (partially):

--Asimov created a strong, but fatally flawed Empire which was focused mainly on the maintenance of the status quo, and with a reluctance to evolve. So did Herbert's Imperium. Both also were modeled politically on feudalism. The emperor held ultimate political power and owned all the land, but doled it out to families in exchange for tribute and defense obligations.

--There also developed a strong trader class that shoehorned its influence into foreign governments by controlling access to energy, as well as trinkets, and until the Mule came along, was left unchallenged by the Foundation. This is mirrored in the realtionship between Leto II and the Spacing Guild.

--Asimov began each of his chapters with an epigram from the 116th printing of the Encyclopedia Galactica, and used those epigrams to foreshadow the action to come. Herbert did the same largely with quotations from in-universe documents in his books.

--The Seldon Plan resonates in the Golden Path.

--Asimov shied away from actually describing scenes of physical conflict, but instead relied on descriptions of pre-planning and post-conflict to get his point across. Herbert was almost identical in this.

--Asimov, like Herbert, also understood that when it came to allies it was best for his characters to spend time, wealth and effort developing instruments of conviction, rather than those of coercion, but in the end that the effect would be the same for foes.

--The Foundation's religion cemented its power with the surrounding kingdoms, and when ever a governor got out of hand, the Foundation cut off access to priests and flow of power to rouse the citizenry to remove that person from power. Herbert's actors tended to move more directly against their enemies, but with the same weight of zealotry behind them, and in support.

--Asimov's universe had also forgotten where Earth was, and had long forgotten much of the knowledge that we take for granted. For example, the Foundation had EKG machines, and had advanced them, but had long forgotten the science that led humans to discover that microelectrical impulses can be read and used by a diagnostician.

--Aliens also were not present, and while they were never really discussed in the first trilogy, fear of an extra-galactic attack by another sentient series is a primary motivator in the two conclusion books, noted below.

--Asimov spent considerable effort building up the idealism of the Foundation and the encyclopedists in the first book, but in the second book described a society that was tending towards corruption and graft. He sent opponents to the Foundation (The Mule and his armies) and effectively tore down what he had previously built up. Herbert certainly did the same with Dune Messiah

--Once Seldon set up the Foundation, he allowed no Psychohistorians so that nobody could disturb what he created. Leto II had the same idea when he decimated the Imperium's class of historians.

Asimov is no longer with us. He died early from AIDS which developed after he was infected with HIV during a blood transfusion. During his lifetime he was possibly one of the most prolific authors of our time. He managed to pen over 500 books that currently sit in 9 of the 10 Dewey Decimal categories (oddly, he never wrote a non-fiction book about psychology, even though his baby SF science is psychohistory, a blend of mathematics, history and psychology), and over 19,000 letters and thousands and thousands of articles. In volume 1 of his autobiography he recounts a story where a publisher called him on Friday to commission him to write a book about music. He agreed on the phone and had a finished manuscript delivered to the publisher on Monday morning, even before the hired messenger could get the contract to his apartment for signature! During the 70's and 80's Asimov gave up on SF for non-fiction work, but it was ultimately the Foundation that pulled him back. Doubleday had purchased the Foundation series rights from Gnome and had made both themselves and Asimov a mint. His editor there told him that he was going to write another Foundation novel, and after a few months, that's exactly what Asimov did. Foundation's Edge was followed by Foundation and Earth (both actual novels that tell a continuous story of the search for and discovery of Earth, and the decision of whether to proceed with the Seldon Plan, or adopt an option that arises later which is developed by the inhabitants of a planet called Gaia (I'll get to these books eventually, so I'm being vague here on purpose). Asimov knew that he was dying as he worked on these last two books, and I suspect to cement his place in modern SF (needlessly and pointlessly, I might add, as he had already done that) he made the odd decision to link up this series to his other two mega-selling series, the Robot novels and the Empire novels. He also wrote two novels about how Seldon came up with his science and devised the Foundations, and unfortunately they are every bit as exciting as I make them sound here. After his death even more novels were produced first by the "Three-B's," Benford, Bear & Brin, and then by Roger MacBride Allen, in the Cabal series. Iím fairly certain that no more foundation novels will come, but I know for sure that the Bear novel sold like hotcakes, so one never knows. Whatever happens in the future, whether more books come, existing ones are rereleased, or movies are made, the books that are the subject of this review are absolute classics. So much of what we take for granted in SF these days either comes directly from these novels, or as a negative reaction to them. I have rated other books on these pages higher, and I have said nicer things about still others, but from a pure historical perspective, any person who is interested in SF at all simply must read these novels. The paperbacks are easily available, and I even see Gnome printings all over eBay all the time. If you have not read these books yet, and if you are at all interested in SF, do yourself a favor and get them for your next read.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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