Isaac Asimov: The Foundation

When you look back at the Golden Age, there are three pre-eminent authors, and they were referred to in science fiction circles as The Big Three: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein. I will want to discuss each of them, but in this article I will start with Asimov.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was born in Russia, but he and his parents emigrated to the United States when he was 3 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. He was a precocious child who taught himself to read at the age of 5. His parents owned a succession of candy stores that also sold newspapers and magazines, including the pulp magazines that got him hooked on science fiction. He attended Columbia University, where he got his BA (1939) and MA (1941) in Chemistry. He then joined Robert A. Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II. After the War, he got his PhD in Chemistry, again at Columbia, and then became an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University.

Asimov got involved with the fan group The Futurians in 1938 , which is the same group that Frederik Pohl was a member of. That same year, he took advantage of his location in New York to take the subway downtown to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction, later renamed to Analog where he dropped off a story with the editor John W. Campbell. He got it back with a detailed rejection letter, and started a practice of weekly meetings with Campbell. By the end of the month he had a second story written, which Campbell also rejected it in”the nicest possible letter you could imagine”, but encouraged him to keep writing. His third story, Marooned Off Vesta, was sold to Amazing Stories. Eventually he sold one to Campbell (Trends) which appeared in the July 1939 issue of Astounding, which is regarded as the beginning of the Golden Age.


He continued to meet regularly with Campbell, and in 1941 his story Nightfall was published. This story was voted the best science fiction story of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1968. Then one day he was due for a meeting with Campbell, but he did not have a story idea to pitch. He had, however, been reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and that provided a spark. What would happen if a Galactic Empire went into a decline and fall? And thus was born the Foundation. At this point Asimov was a writer of short fiction, so this began as a series of short stories that were of course published by Campbell in Astounding. They were enthusiastically received by science fiction fans, and beginning in 1951 Gnome Press collected them in book form. Asimov wrote some additional material to help tie the stories together, and the three volumes that resulted have become known as the Foundation Trilogy.

The premise as Asimov explained it is that a mathematician named Hari Seldon has developed a science of psychohistory. Asimov saw this as analogous to the kinetic theory of gases. When looking at any single gas molecule you cannot possibly predict how it will move. But with a sufficiently large collection of gas molecules, you can apply statistical rules that tell you how the entire collection of molecules will behave. Seldon’s psychohistory would similarly enable someone trained in this science to make predictions of how a society will behave, if certain conditions were met. The two axioms Seldon required were:

  • the population whose behavior was modeled should be sufficiently large to represent the entire society.
  • the population should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses because if it is aware, the group changes its behavior.

Seldon met the first criterion because he was modeling the entire galactic empire of one quintillion people. As for the second, he created a secret group, called the Second Foundation, to manage his plan.

Seldon used psychohistory to first forecast that the fall of the Galactic Empire would usher in a dark age lasting 30,000 years. This is similar to what is presumed to have happened in Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire (though historians tend to disagree with this characterization). But then Seldon created a plan to cut this period from 30,000 years down to 1 thousand years.

Seldon had to get the support of the Emperor to put his plan into action, so he sold it as a plan to create a massive encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Galactica, that would collect all human knowledge and preserve it. The Emperor bought it, and gave Seldon a useless world with no natural resources on the outskirts of the Galaxy, and this became the home of the Foundation. A group of scholars were collected and moved there to start work. But this was all a ruse. He really intended the Foundation to be the nucleus of the next Galactic Empire. And a world with no natural resources was part of his plan. I remember how back in the 1960s Japan was pre-eminent in the miniaturization of technology and consumer products, and one of the reasons for this is that Japan is lacking in almost all natural resources, and this of course was one of the main factors leading to World War II in Asia. The stories in Foundation looked at how the Foundation would be pushed in certain directions that would lead to this eventual Empire.

But of course an invisible hand guiding destiny only gets you so far. To keep up interest in the stories there has to be conflict. In Foundation and Empire, the second volume, the first conflict is with the old Empire in the person of a general named Bel Riose who starts thinking something odd is going on with the Foundation. The name is a clue to Asimov’s reading of history. There was a Byzantine general named Belisarius who was doing well reconquering the western parts of the old Roman empire until the Byzantine Emperor got concerned about such a successful general and recalled him. In this book, Bel Riose is eventually recalled by the Emperor, and it turns out Seldon had predicted the whole thing. Then something Seldon did not predict happens in the form of the Mule, a mutant who affect people’s emotions and thinking. He creates his own empire at the expense of the Foundation, which is absorbed.

In the third volume of the trilogy, the Mule is defeated by the Second Foundation, the hitherto secret organization. But this means that the second of Seldon’s axioms is now violated, so in the last story the Foundation, now aware, and feeling like they are the puppets, goes in search of the Second Foundation to perhaps destroy it, or at least destroy its power over them. They are ultimately thwarted by the Second Foundation, which means that the Seldon plan can be put back on track. Seldon was wise enough to foresee that no plan set up could run for 1,000 years without needing course corrections, so he had set up the Second Foundation as a group of psychohistorians specifically to monitor and course correct.

Later Additions

Asimov temporarily stopped writing fiction as a result of the Sputnik satellite, reasoning that he could do more useful work by writing about science, which he did extensively. But in 1982 he returned to the Foundation universe with the novel Foundation’s Edge. This picks up a bit later when the Seldon plan seems to be back on track, but this suggests to some in the Foundation that maybe the Second Foundation was not wiped out and is back pulling the strings. So man named Golan Trevize is sent out to look for it. He thinks it may connected to a mythical planet named Earth that appears in no database, but somehow appears in myths and legends. Meanwhile, on the Second Foundation they find evidence of a group of advanced mentallics who may be more powerful than the Second Foundation. This turns out to be a planet called Gaia where every organism is part of a common mind. And they have been manipulating all the other players, but they need Golan Trevize to make a decision for them as to who should guide the galaxy. He decides in favor of Gaia.

Then in Foundation and Earth (1986) Trevize wants to find out why he decided in favor of Gaia, and goes in search of the mythical Earth. He has adventures along the way, eventually meeting up with an intelligent robot who was behind both Hari Seldon and Gaia. In the end Trevize decides the reason he picked Gaia was that it would be the best protection against a potential alien race from a different galaxy, something our galaxy had never experienced.

This did not leave any obvious path forward, so for the next novel Asimov went back to the early days of Hari Seldon in Prelude to Foundation (1988). This tells the story of how Hari Seldon came to the imperial capital of Trantor, and how he developed psychohistory. It turns out Trantor was a pretty good place to research since it had so many different groups and cultures. And in this book Seldon meets and is pushed by the same robot we saw at the end of the previous book. It is interesting to see Seldon as a a young man instead of the aged sage of Foundation.

Finally, Forward the Foundation (1993) was published posthumously and covered the period between Prelude to Foundation and Foundation. It looks at how Seldon was able to put his plans together once he had an idea of how psychohistory would work.

Killer B’s and others

After Asimov’s death, his widow Janet and the Asimov Estate authorized three science fiction authors to do a trilogy that is roughly contemporaneous with Forward the Foundation. They were Gregory Benford with Foundation’s Fear (1997), Greg Bear with Foundation and Chaos (1998), and David Brin with Foundation’s Triumph (1999).

Other Media

Foundation has been done as an audio series by the BBC. This consisted of 8 hour-long episodes with minor changes to the written series. You can get the audio files at in 2021 Apple TV+ released a television series that is pretty good, though the casting made major changes from what Asimov wrote since nearly every character that Asimov wrote was a man, and it is hard to believe that many millennia into the future that would be the case. But it has received good reviews, and Asimov’s daughter Robyn is one of the Executive Producers, so it can be considered reasonably authorized. Right now it is not available on DVD, but when it is I plan to get it. Meanwhile it can be watched on Apple TV+, and I am following it. Here is my look at it.


In 1966 the Foundation series was given a Hugo award as the best series of all time, beating out such notable series as the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Future History series by Robert A. Heinlein, the Lensman series by Edward E. Smith, and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. And it is entirely possible that I will talk about all of them before I am done.

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