The Foundation Trilogy
by Isaac Asimov
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 20, 2001
This is another of the many examples of a common occurence in Golden Age SF. Awarded a special Hugo as the "All-Time Best SF Series" in 1966, the three books that comprise this set, generally considered to be novels, are actually compilations of shorter works published from 1942-49, all in Astounding magazine. The individual titles are Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. The fact that they were written at different times is evident in the amount of polish and style Asimov was able to sustain in the later segments as opposed to his first efforts.
The image to the right is the first copy I read of these books, one I got from the Science Fiction Book Club sometime in the late '60s. The individual book cover images below are from the current mass market paperback editions available in bookstores or at amazon.com.
I have seen quotes from Asimov on several occasions in which he declared that he really didn't know anything at all about writing. In spite of that, he was certainly compelled to write a great deal during his lifetime, to the ever-lasting joy of his multitude of fans. I feel he improved immensely in a very short period of time. Even though I still enjoy the earlier segments of the trilogy, I think his improvement is quite noticeable in the second section of the second book, known individually as "The Mule," which was awarded a Retro-Hugo in 1996.
Foundation begins on the planet of Trantor, the governmental center of the Galactic Empire. The entire planet has been developed into a never-ending complex of buildings housing all of those responsible for the administration of galactic politics. From orbit, the only visible plot of clear land is a small area surrounding the royal residence and the Galactic Library. All of the planet's needs are imported from other colony worlds since there are no agricultural or manufacturing facilities there. On the surface, it appears that Trantor is a thriving metropolis, vigorous and strong, controlling the destinies of millions of far-flung worlds throughout the Milky Way. All is not as it seems, however.
There is one man who has developed the theory that not only is the Empire not thriving, it is destined to collapse in short order. The man is Hari Seldon, a proponent of psychohistory, a scientific discipline which combines an advanced technique of human psychology with the rigors of mathematics. Seldon and other psychohistorians theorize that all of human behaviour (not as individuals, but as a group) can be accurately predicted, and it is Seldon's contention that the Empire is rapidly approaching a crisis point which will result in a "dark ages" spanning more than thirty thousand years before another empire will be established. Galactic officials dispute his claims, and Seldon is put on trial for sedition against the Emperor.
At his trial, Seldon proposes a solution to the problem, the establishment of a foundation of scientists who will strive to reduce the period of interregnum to a mere thousand years. The purpose of the foundation would be to maintain the vast store of knowledge compiled by humanity, and to produce an Encyclopedia Galactica, which would be made available to all of the libraries in the galaxy. Surprisingly, the judging council agrees to this proposal, but it is determined that Seldon and his group should be exiled from Trantor and relocated to the planet Terminus, far out on the rim of one of the galaxy's spiral arms. We later learn this is a situation for which Seldon had planned, and Terminus is the planet he had hoped the council would select. To this end, he had been planning for the group's exile for more than two years, since he realized it would have been next to impossible to accomplish the move with the tens of thousands of his group had they not been forced to abandon their home planet. We also learn of Seldon's plan for the formation of a second foundation, separate and hidden from the first both in location and purpose, to be established at "the other end of the Galaxy, at Star's End."
The story picks up some fifty years later on Terminus, as the Foundation is approaching one of the crisis points predicted by Seldon, now deceased. The administrators have been instructed to assemble together at a specific time and place, where they will be presented with a message recorded years before by Seldon. At the appointed time, a holographic projection of the Foundation's creator appears, and he acknowledges the crisis situation with which they are confronted. The neighboring planet of Anacreon is poised for rebellion against the Empire and threatens Terminus with invasion. Seldon informs them that the situation has been manipulated in such a way as to leave them only one avenue of response, as will be the case for the succeeding crises to follow over the next several hundreds of years. He also tells them that the initial goal of the Foundation, that of compiling the Encyclopedia, was a fraud perpetrated for the sole purpose of establishing the colony on Terminus, far away from the populated Galactic center. They are destined to be cut off from contact with the Empire as it begins to crumble, the better for Seldon's true plan to be accomplished.
The following chapters of Foundation, along with the first section of Foundation and Empire, revolve around the various other crises presented to Terminus. The planet is deficient in metals, and since for fifty years its inhabitants had been studiously working on the now abandoned Encyclopedia project, it is undeveloped and incapable of any sort of manufacturing enterprise. Knowledge is their one marketable commodity, and as the neighboring planets are also cut off from their previous sources from the Empire, Terminus begins to exert its influence. The Foundationists are able to come to agreements with other worlds for the manufacture of certain goods, which are then disseminated to out-lying planets desperate for power sources and devices to keep their own civilizations thriving. A guild of Traders from the Foundation is established, and Terminus' sphere of influence begins to grow. The Empire is still intact, however, even though it is rapidly loosing effective control planet by planet. In the first section of Foundation and Empire, an ambitious general and his fleet of starships is dispatched to bring the Foundation back under the control of the Empire. As with every other preceeding crisis, Terminus is able to prevail, which signals the death knell for the original Empire. However, a factor unforseen by Seldon arises, one which could possibly destroy the thousand-year plan for the establishment of the Second Empire.
Please remember that psychohistory is the study of humanity in groups - clans, cities, nations, planets, groups of planets. It is unable to predict the actions of individuals, only large masses. One thing that Seldon could not predict was the influence of the Mule, a mutant who possesses the ability to alter and control other men's thoughts and emotions. Through this unique talent, the Mule is able to conquer many worlds and threaten the existence of the Foundation, and thus threaten the success of Seldon's Plan. The Mule believes that he can circumvent the Plan and re-establish an Empire much sooner than the thousand years predicted by Seldon. In order to accomplish this he must discover the location and purpose of the Second Foundation, which is still shrouded in mystery and unknown even to those of the first Foundation.
Whereas before most of the plot was driven by dialogue, Asimov now turns more to descriptive exposition and the internalized thoughts of the characters to set the scene and develop mood. As mentioned before, this individual portion was awarded one of the first Retro-Hugos, honoring works that came before that award originated in 1953. It is definitely one of Asimov's better efforts, and on a recent re-reading I was struck by the definite change in tone and style from the previous portions of the trilogy. There are several passages I would like to quote that are so poetic in nature one might at first suspect Asimov was quoting someone else.
In one of the early chapters of this section, Foundation citizens Toran and Bayta Darell are vacationing on the pleasure world of Kalgan, a world chosen by the Mule for his headquarters in his campaign of galactic conquest. Purportedly on their honeymoon, they are actually attempting a covert investigation to obtain information pertaining to the Mule and his plans, and also to search for information leading to the discovery of the Second Foundation. One day, while sunning themselves on the beach, they encounter an acrobatic clown, supposedly the runaway court jester of the Mules' entourage. This clown, who claims his name is Magnifico Giganticus (a description that is the direct opposite of his slight and wiry stature), is able to escape the clutches of a military guard, and the Darell's come to his defense. Although his words were originally written in typical prose style, I will quote several of his phrases here in the fashion of a poem simply to better illustrate my point. When confronted with the beautiful Bayta, the clown pronounces:
"Were I to use the wits the good Spirits gave me,
Then I would say this lady cannot exist.
For what sane man would hold a dream to be reality.
Yet rather would I not be sane
And lend belief to charmed, enchanted eyes."
And when asked if he is worried about the guard, he replies:
"Oh, no, not he.
He's but a windlet that blows the dust about my ankles.
There is another that I flee,
And he is a storm that sweeps the worlds aside
And throws them plunging at each other.
A week ago, I ran away,
Have slept in city streets, and hid in city crowds.
I've looked in many faces for help in need.
I find it here.
I find it here."
The Darell's (or at least Bayta) are captivated by the clown, and they take him under their wing as they return to Terminus, where they request the assistance of Foundation scholar Ebling Mis in their quest for the Second Foundation. Their journey leads back to Trantor, former seat of the Empire's power. Although a titular Emperor is still on the throne, his influence is relegated to a mere few nearby worlds that still cling to the traditions of the past. The questing group is granted access to the great library of Trantor, where they hope to discover evidence of Seldon's actions in the creation of the Second Foundation.
Here I will end any further description of the actions and characters in the trilogy. Any more would spoil the effects of the discoveries of the true nature and location of the Second Foundation, and of the identity of the Mule. The Mule himself is one of the most intriguing characters Asimov ever created, as is Hari Seldon. Although his physical prescence in the story is limited to just the first chapters of the first volume, the impact that the psychohistorian has on the course of human history is as significant as any other character in SF. Another interesting character that surfaces in the final volume, Second Foundation, is Arcadia Darell, the precocious but intelligent grand-daughter of Bayta.
In the latter part of his career, Asimov would return to these themes and produce prequel and sequel volumes in the Foundation saga. Later, I may add comments on these other books when or if I read them. I have recently read the original trilogy for the first time in many years. The first time was in the early years of my SF explorations, close to fifty years ago. I would still rank it among the most significant and influential works in the genre, and it should be required reading for every SF fan. There are several other authors who I feel are better writers than Asimov, but there are very few others who exhibit such an unfettered imagination in envisioning possible future scenarios while at the same time exploring the universal themes that have been at the core of human experience throughout the ages.
EDIT: I've now read 1982's Foundation's Edge, the first of Asimov's expansion of this story sequence.
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