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Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The Foundation Trilogy is a collection of short stories and novellas written by Isaac Asimov from about 1942 to 1950. The trilogy is organized into three novels: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953).

Although there are four more novels, two sequels and two prequels, published much later (1982–1993), this original trilogy is still referred to as such.

The setting is the Galactic Empire. In Foundation, the plot begins on the planet Trantor, the capital of the empire. Dr Hari Seldon, born in the year 11,988 of the Galactic Era, is a mathematician and psychologist who, using long-term mathematical modelling called “psychohistory”, has predicted the decline and eventual collapse of the Galactic Empire.

Seldon wishes to save humanity by using his model to prepare for the empire’s unavoidable collapse so it can rebuild as soon as possible, hence the name “Foundation”. The imperial authorities do not accept his view, so they in effect exile him and his followers to the planet Terminus on the fringes of the galaxy. But this too is part of Seldon’s prediction and plan.

These stories cover the challenges that the Foundation face over a few centuries. Asimov’s writing, like many contemporary sci-fi, is plain and unpretentious. He describes the action simply with plenty of dialogue and then moves on. The pacing for each story is typically steady.

The overall structure is somewhat unconventional in the sense that each story is set decades after the previous. As such, it is plot-driven and somewhat impersonal since there is no one main character running throughout the entire trilogy.

Due to the time jumps, the first novel in five parts can come across as episodic. The next two novels both in two parts read more conventionally. In any case, these time jumps do keep things fresh as they tell the audience how the Foundation and the galaxy are progressing.

The stories are not written in the style of non-fiction. They are written in third-person omniscient voice, sometimes with more than one main viewpoint character. Occasionally, there are parts that come across as a dramatized documentary which is presumably intentional.

The premise of “psychohistory”, of combining psychology, sociology and mathematics for long-term modeling is interesting. Human behavior treated en masse and over long periods can be modeled and there is nothing wrong with that in itself.

But of course, given Asimov’s beliefs, it is no surprise that the work assumes a materialistic and reductionist view of human behavior, that the nervous system “had to be … traced down to nuclear forces”. To be fair, some of the drama is due to the inability to predict individual human behavior and anomalies so the author at least admits these realities up to a point.

As for free will, determinism and fatalism, that is another discussion, but suffice to mention that these are explored merely in a shallow way. That is not necessarily a bad thing as it reads like the author is not necessarily trying to do otherwise. It reads like the author voices his materialistic views occasionally through the premise and characters but mostly focuses on storytelling.

In any case, the stories are generally intriguing. Every story has its problem or conflict with its associated obstacles for the heroes to overcome. To some readers, especially sci-fi fans, the twists may be predictable. This is a compliment to the author as he is good with signposting as well as maintaining the reader’s attention throughout even if it is predictable.

The conclusion for each story can be clumsy with long expositions but at least it explains everything, thereby providing a satisfying ending.

Foundation (First Edition cover)
Foundation (First Edition cover)

The first novel Foundation is organized into five parts.

  • Part I: “The Psychohistorians” is basically an introduction, covering the proximate events leading to the empire’s decision to send Seldon’s followers to Terminus.

  • Part II: “The Encyclopedists” is set about 50 years later with Salvor Hardin as the first mayor.

  • Part III: “The Mayors” is set about 30 years after the previous with Hardin still in charge of the colony. The Foundation’s sphere of influence is based on its technological dominance set up as a pseudo-religion with Foundation-trained “priests” being the only ones permitted to operate the technology.

  • Part IV: “The Traders” is set just over 50 years after the previous. By now, the Foundation’s control is exerted through trade as well as technology. Trader Limmar Ponyets is sent to Askone to negotiate the release of Eskel Gorov who was sent to initiate trade with Askone, a world that is against advanced technology.

  • Part V: “The Merchant Princes” is set about 20 years after the previous. Trader  Hober Mallow has to deal with some intrigue regarding the Korellian Republic where its worlds do not permit the presence of Foundation priests.

Foundation and Empire (First Edition cover)
Foundation and Empire (First Edition cover)

The second novel Foundation and Empire opens with a prologue that recaps the first novel. This second novel is more conventional than the first as it is comprised of two novella-length stories.

  • Part I: “The General”, at approximately 80 pages, is set just under 50 years after the previous—that is, about 200 years after the establishment of the Foundation. The Galatic Empire has weakened considerably but is still strong enough to be a threat. Imperial general Bel Riose intends to take on the Foundation as it has become big enough to be a threat to the Galatic Empire.

  • Part II: “The Mule”, at approximately 150 pages, is set almost 100 years after the previous and is about a ruler known as “the Mule”. He is a mutant with the ability to emotionally influence and therefore to some extent control others. Through this ability, he gains control of worlds near the Foundation and eventually threatens the Foundation itself. The ending sets up the start of the third novel.

Second Foundation (First Edition cover)
Second Foundation (First Edition cover)

The third novel Second Foundation opens with a prologue that recaps the first and second novels. This third novel, like the second, contains two novella-length stories.

  • Part I: “Search by the Mule”, approximately 80 pages, is set about 5 years after the previous—that is, about 300 years after the establishment of the Foundation. Although the existence of the Foundation is no secret, Seldon did secretly set up the Second Foundation. The former relies on technology whereas the latter relies on psychology. The Mule knows the Second Foundation is a threat to his empire and sets out the find it and the Second Foundation is forced to respond.

  • Part II: “Search by the Foundation”, at approximately 150 pages, is set about 75 years after the previous. The Foundation is aware of the existence of the Second Foundation and perceiving it as a threat sets out to find it in order to destroy it. The Second Foundation is once again forced to respond.


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