Isaac Asimov wrote the several short stories that make up the Foundation trilogy in the 40s for a magazine. They were later compiled into three books, and eventually Asimov added to the series with two sequels and two prequels in the 80s and 90s.
The trilogy, and later series, revolves around the decline of a galaxy spanning empire far in the future, and the plan of the foremost expert in the fictional science of psychohistory, Hari Seldon. Seldon’s plan is to establish a Foundation at the edge of the galaxy that will grow and envelop the whole, shortening the period of galactic decay between the old empire and the new rule of the Foundation.
The short stories are heavily inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, rather than the decline of the British Empire which was more contemporaneous with the novels’ writing. It gives the books a substantial historical feel with references to emperors, generals, and barbarians while still clearly being science fiction. I think this helped to ground the books and establish Isaac Asimov as a writer, and science fiction generally as a serious genre. While certainly compelling, the books are clearly written a while ago, and not just because of the technology mentioned in the book, which often focuses on nuclear and atomic energy as the most advanced possible. The characters themselves feel like science fiction stereotypes with wizened bureaucrats, rule-breaking rogues, and tactical generals. I suppose they likely established those as science fiction tropes, but perhaps they also borrowed them from Roman historical fiction.
The books’ influence is interesting. The series won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-time Series” in 1966, beating out The Lord of the Rings (!). It was likely one of the first science fiction novels to explore the ideas of advancing not just physical sciences, but social sciences. The namesake Foundation is built on the concept of “psychohistory” which purports to predict human behavior mathematically at the level of planets and galaxies, with trillions of beings. Asimov never mentioned this, but it seems that this theme of social prediction must have been inspired by the dominance of Samuelson and Keynes in economics at the time. Friedrich Hayek would later have much to say about the limits of such social science knowledge. It’s some 60+ years after the publication of these stories, and the concept of psychohistory seems much more like fiction than science.
Before I get into spoilers, I want to state a qualified recommendation of the Foundation series. It’s an important part of science fiction history, but if you’ve never read science fiction before, other classics are a bit more accessible with more action and less history, like Ender’s Game or dystopias like 1984. Science Fiction is a really broad category, but one axis I’ve found useful to categorize sci-fi is “amount of world-building needed”. The range would be from a story that takes modern society largely as-is and only changes a couple things, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle to narratives where almost nothing is retained from modern society. This could be because the piece takes place in outer space or the far future or confronts and explores the implication of new technology. Examples include Dune and Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star. The far end of this axis is fantasy like Lord of the Rings. This axis is interesting but also quite subjective. I would consider Seveneves to have more world-building than Jurassic Park (both movie and book) even though both are pretty hard science fiction, take place in about the present day, and assume one unusual science-breaking event (finding enough dinosaur DNA to clone a dinosaur or the moon spontaneously exploding). I think it’s because Seveneves‘ story takes place over a much longer period of time and so the world is built up around it. But that’s my rule, others might think differently about this axis.
Bringing it back to Foundation, I find that the further down the “world-building” axis a science fiction book goes, the more it risks becoming outdated in the future. 1984 does a pretty good job world-building, but the core of the book is the devastating social commentary on totalitarianism. It remains an interesting book because of that and because the technology explored aged pretty well into the 80s, when the story takes place (Orwell wrote it in the 40s). It’s not too important to the story, but there are several places in 1984 where the technology used betrays its 1940s origin, like the way Orwell talks about helicopters or the use of “telescreens” when hidden microphones would have been fine. Nonetheless, it doesn’t detract too much from the story since it’s supposed to take place in something approximating Earth’s past. But Foundation is a whole galactic society thousands of years in the future, and so the way that society is constructed is pretty important to the story. But of course, it was written almost 70 years ago and so you can’t help but notice this far future society has a very 1950s attitude on nuclear power.
How should we approach this science fiction limitation? To some extent, all books should be read in the context of when they were written, but for purposes of recommendation, since modern science fiction authors literally have more information than past authors, does it make sense to recommend to newcomers more modern science fiction — since it requires less context? I think so, and it is for this reason that I qualify my recommendation of the Foundation series unless the reader has some context on when they were written and how they shaped other science fiction later on.
Finally, on to the spoilers. Once I got into the story, I found it extremely compelling. I thought at first it was going to be just a series of Hari Seldon’s genius plans going well as the Foundation steadily conquered the galaxy. And don’t get me wrong, I love stories where the protagonists have a genius plan that comes together, but I also thought it was a pretty silly view of the world to imagine that human action was so predictable. I suspect that’s how Asimov initially saw his magazine series, but then came the story about the Mule, which was much more engaging. The Mule is a genetic “mutant” which has more similarity to mutants in the X-Men than actual genetic mutations. His role in the story is to provide for a part of the Seldon plan that could not be predicted. The plan falls apart and the Mule conquers the Foundation. This re-introduced a lot of uncertainty into the story just as you were coming to understand how the Foundation might win by following the Seldon plan. True to it’s serialized initial publication, I was very excited to read about what came next, and I think the trilogy delivered well on that front.
In fact, as a consequence of everything I’ve stated in this article about how sometimes the technology seems stuck in the 50s, I’m pretty interested in reading the additional Foundation stories Asimov wrote later in the 80s. I am still wondering how the story of the Foundation continues, but I suspect the technology will be a bit more relevant to today with these books written 30 years later. Overall, I’m glad I got to finish this trilogy and my first foray into Asimov’s books as it helps put many other of my favorite sci-fi stories in perspective.