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Putting the World on a Solid Foundation

by Michael Szul on

When Apple TV+ released the first season of Foundation, I realized that I hadn't read Isaac Asimov's Foundation series at all—only being familiar with his robot tales. I had heard of Foundation but never took the plunge. When I found Foundation on a list of "books that people pretend to have read" I decided that I was going to be a person that actually read it. In fact, after enjoying the first season of Foundation and rewatching it prior to the premiere of the second season, I decided that I was going to not only read the first book, but all seven. I decided this in June of 2023 when I started Foundation, and I wanted to finish all seven by the end of the year. I didn't quite make it (I read other books interspersed), but as of today, I have just put down the final book (Forward the Foundation).

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is a story that spans thousands of years and explores the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the emergence of a democratic federation. Much of the narrative is propelled by Hari Seldon's psychohistory—a mathematical, predictive tool applied to large groups of people, while the major conflict centers early on the fledging Foundation vs. the Galactic Empire. Asimov's series scores major points on world building and futurist philosophy that places a clear lense on modern day struggles.

The first book—simply titled Foundation—was originally written as somewhat disconnected short stories that share common institutions and common timelines. Each chapter was a separate story, and as such most character developer was short and sparse and the tales move quickly. In the Foundation book, Hari Seldon—creator of psychohistory—predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire with an immense dark age to follow. His goal is to lay out plans for a "Foundation" to protect all galactic knowledge in order to rebuild civilization faster and shorten that dark age immensely. Through psychohistory, he manages to determine key conflicts in history and sets in motion his plan, ensuring that the right environment emerges for success.

As we enter into the second book—Foundation and Empire—we effectively get two distinct stories in one: The first detailing the final fall of the empire, and the second detailing the conquest of the Mule. The Mule is one of many reader's favored characters, as the storyline introduces more rounded characters, a real antagonist, and the hint at evolved mental powers. It also has one of the better endings for a Foundation story. The Mule storyline is also the first tht disrupts the so-called Seldon Plan, which creates a crisis all its own.

The third book (and last of the original publications) also covers two stories with the first being about the Second Foundation overcoming the Mule, while the second story is about the original Foundation seeking to overcome the Second Foundation out of fear of manipulation. This was, by far, the best of the Foundation books. Whereas Foundation and Empire struggled with the Empire story, but overwhelmingly succeeded with the Mule, Second Foundation has two quality stories with fully fleshed out characters, and Asimov's dialog heavy-style managed to weave a tale to conclude stories that relied heavily on mentally-powered characters. It is a true masterpiece.

When Asimov returned to the Foundation series (he was almost forced to return), he needed to come up with newer, fresh tales. This was difficult, in my opinion, because Second Foundation had a natural conclusion that allowed us to guess at the future of the universe without involving greater and greater threats. How do you disrupt a Second Foundation that is rife with mentally-powered people capable of manipulating events across planets?

To do so, Asimov needed to come up with a greater threat/story arc: Gaia. And this threat needed to follow through on Asimov's previous tales that lacked alien creatures. Foundation's Edge was a good story, but it was the first full length Foundation story that Asimov wrote, and it suffers slightly from being elongated; however, again, Asimov's characters and dialog-heavy logical deductions by those characters make for a good tale that concludes on moving humanity beyond the Foundation concept and Seldon's Plan, and into a future of hive mind consciousness.

By the time we get to Foundation and Earth there isn't really much "future" story left. I think Asimov realized this and so he resorted to using this final (chronologically speaking) novel-sized story to deeper the connection between the Foundation series and the Robots series (and a few other tales). In doing so, we end up with a monotonous planet-hopping story that really doesn't go anywhere for almost 400 pages until it reaches Earth and concludes on a meeting with R. Daneel Olivaw. It was a somewhat satisfying conclusion (with a minor thought on a cliff-hanger), but certainly took too long to get there.

Asimov claimed he had ideas to further extend the future of the Foundation series, but with the next two (and final) books in the series, he instead returned to the beginning to detail the development of psychohistory. In Prelude to Foundation, we are introduced to a young Hari Seldon whose psychohistory paper causes a stir within the empire. Unfortunately, this book—much like the previous one—is several hundred papers of running around in circles. We're introduced to various sectors of Trantor and several characters, but little in the way of actual story, and psychohistory isn't developed at all. Only once we reach the end of the book are we tuned into the fact that Eto Demerzel—the Emperor's First Minister—is actually R. Daneel Olivaw (a robot), and that Dors Venabili (Hari Seldon's future wife) is also a robot, and that Eto was manipulating the situations on Trantor to put Seldon in a position to develop psychohistory.

The second prequel book—Forward the Foundation—is written as four snapshots in the history of Hari Seldon, and follows his rise to the position of First Minister, the death of Emperor Cleon, the death of Dors Venabili, and ultimately the creation of both Foundations (although the story in the book leaves much of the First Foundation creation to the imagination and focuses on the Second Foundation and the discovery mentalics).

There is a lot of discussion online about the "proper" reading order for the Foundation series, but after reading through the entire series myself, I do recommend staying in publication order and reading the two prequel books last. There are moments, discoveries, and conclusions in the prequel that have a much greater impact after you already know about both Foundations and R. Daneel Olivaw's roll across the centuries. Forward the Foundation in particular would not have had as much of an impact on me if I had read it second in order instead of last.

Elon Musk hasn't exactly been the poster child for futurism with his behavior and comments on Twitter (or his recent handling of Tesla employees), but if you look at his focus (battery storage, electric cars, solar panels, reusable rockets, artificial intelligence, and a multi-planet species), it shouldn't come as a surprise that he is an admirer of Asimov's Foundation. Musk has previously mentioned that the series had a significant impact on his thought.

Asimov's way of writing is different than most science fiction writers. He has stated in the past that he's not a visual person. Instead, he hears dialog, which explains why all of his stories are much more dialog heavy that action filled. In fact, much of his original stories skip right over the action and go from a lead-in straight to the aftermath. Asimov's writing is good enough that this still keeps you captivated even with characters that aren't exactly fully developed (again, the earlier stories were mostly short stories published in magazines). Asimov's obsession was in the exploration of how technology and science impacted developing society and what that would mean for humanity's future. The Foundation series explores what happens in a galaxy-spanning society that takes for granted what it has accomplished. The very word "psychohistory" implies a combination of psychology and history, and although psychology is larger regarded as a "soft" science today, at the time of Asimov's original writing, psychologists were pursuing research on behavior from a very hard science angle—eventually culminating in cognitive behavioral therapy and behaviorism. Psychohistory was a mathematical representation of the probability of effects on causal actions at a societal scale, using past events as "training data" to predict future outcomes. Asimov was able to weave wonderful stories and create amazing worlds while relaying ideas on science advocacy and social commentary, making Foundation a truly inspiring epic.