Foundation Review - nuwen.net

Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete

The Author, Isaac Asimov:

Okay, I'm going to assume that you've never heard of the Foundation novels before. My goal is that after reading this page, the next time you're at a bookstore you look at these novels, or the next time you're at a library you check out a few of them. Hopefully you've heard of Isaac Asimov before. If you haven't, well, I'll say a few sentences about him. Asimov was an extremely prolific writer: by the end of his life he had written over 500 books on a wide range of topics. He wrote both fiction and nonfiction; his fiction encompassed a great number of short stories and a number of novels, while his nonfiction was science writing, both in essays and in books. A number of his nonfiction books are listed on my Book Reviews page. There's plenty of information on Asimov on the Internet if you want to find more.

The Books:

There is an excellent Isaac Asimov FAQ on the Internet if you'd like to know more about the order in which the Foundation novels were actually written. Here, I'll simply provide a list of the novels in the chronological order they take place in the fictional universe.

[A number of short stories on robots occur before the robot novels]
The Robot Novels:
1) The Caves of Steel
2) The Naked Sun
3) The Robots of Dawn
4) Robots and Empire*
The Empire Novels:
5) The Stars, Like Dust--*
6) The Currents of Space*
7) Pebble in the Sky*
The Pre-Foundation Novels:
8) Prelude to Foundation
9) Forward the Foundation
The Foundation Novels:
10) Foundation
11) Foundation and Empire
12) Second Foundation
The End Foundation Novels
13) Foundation's Edge
14) Foundation and Earth*

So, there are 14 in total. (The grouping names are a mix of my names and Asimov's names for them.) Unfortunately, the novels with a * after their titles have gone out of print! Sadly, they're somewhat hard to find. I have read all of the novels in this list that are still in print, but not any of the out-of-print ones, except for Foundation and Earth, which I did manage to find at a library. Therefore my comments will be restricted to the novels I've read. The great thing about the Foundation series is that each novel can be read independently of the others. Unlike most series, you won't feel that a whole lot is missing if you read, say, The Naked Sun without first reading The Caves of Steel. They stand up on their own.

Different Orders in which to Read the Books:

There seem to be three ways in which people read the Foundation novels.
1) In universe-chronological order, as I've given.
2) In the order in which they were written.
3) In the order you get your hands on the books.
On the Internet, each method has its own proponents. Advocates of (3) argue that the novels' partially stand-alone nature allows one to read them in any order. And they're partially right. But I think you'll gain more from reading them in an order. Advocates of (2) argue that reading the novels in the order they were actually written allows one to see how Asimov constructed his universe in a non-linear fashion, adding that Asimov included "spoilers" in the novels that chronologically come before other novels but were actually written after those novels. And this argument has its merits, but such "spoilers" aren't readily apparent to me. And this is why I advocate a modification of method (1). Asimov never really had a timeline or a script written out for the Foundation universe, preferring instead to work from memory. It was pretty successful, although some inconsistencies worked themselves in. So reading the novels in universe-chronological order allows you to see what's happening over the epic span of the series. (If I remember correctly, it's something like 40 millennia.)

My Recommended Order:

Quite simply, I recommend that you read The Robot Novels in order, then the Pre-Foundation Novels in order, and then the Foundation Novels in order. This offers a complete view of the epic Foundation story, and not coincidentally encompasses the novels that are still in print. (Though I haven't read Robots and Empire, if you can find it, read it along with the others in order. It does seem to offer some backstory to the other novels.) In particular, the Empire Novels (all out of print) don't seem to be all that good, and in fact Asimov considered The Stars, Like Dust-- to be his least favorite novel. You won't miss anything by skipping those novels. Now, as for my recommendation that you not read the End Foundation Novels (one of which is still in print), it's because they're not that good, in my opinion. They deviate from everything that was written before, the characters introduced aren't that interesting, and even the writing is off. They don't make a good place to end. I consider the end of Second Foundation to be a perfect place to leave the epic. However, if you'd like to know exactly what was going on behind the scenes in the Foundation novels or would like to know what happened to some of the early people and places you're introduced to, then you might want to read the End Foundation Novels.

My Review of the Novels:

[There aren't any "spoilers" here, so you can definitely read my rewiew even and especially if you haven't seen the novels before. Also, I'm halfway lying when I call this a review, as it's a review and summary in one.]
Reading the Foundation series put me into a daze for a week. They're incredible, but I'll try to see if I can describe them on this page. The main thing to know about the Foundation novels, all the way from The Caves of Steel to Foundation and Earth, is that it takes place in a "human galaxy". Basically, this means that all the characters you'll encounter are human. Aliens, that staple of science fiction writing, absolutely do not appear in the Foundation universe. Asimov wanted to write about people and their interactions - aliens would be an unnecessary complication. (There were other reasons as well.) Ah, yes. There is a semi-exception to this "human galaxy" in the Foundation universe. You will meet not only humans, but human creations: robots. Robots are a major issue in (of course) The Robot Novels, but for important reasons (which you'll find out in the novels), they don't appear so much later on....

The first three Robot Novels are, interestingly, science fiction detective novels. That sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. You'd think that advanced technology would provide "escape routes" to the problems you'd expect to encounter in a detective story, but that's not the case in Asimov's work. Rather, Elijah Baley, a New York City detective living a millennium in the future, has to deal with a great number of problems, a good amount of which are caused by technology. Baley is also required to take on a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. (See if you can guess what his first inital means.)

Digression: In many of Asimov's short stories, robots are treated as machines. Asimov hated the "Frankenstein" image of robots, ones that turned on their masters and ran amok. This image has been with robots ever since the term was invented in the play R.U.R. This is why Asimov created and explored the "Three Laws of Robotics", which put strict limits on robots' behavior. In his short stories, he explores how the Laws affect robot behavior, often with unexpected consequences. However, robots are treated as servile in many cases. Someone on the Internet remarked how close this resembles slavery: even in The Caves of Steel, Elijah Baley refers to the simple R. Sammy as "boy". Thankfully, Asimov wasn't restricted to a servile image of robots. When he wanted to explore such an image's consequences, he did. But Asimov also explored what it would mean for a robot to have human-level intelligence. I know of two excellent examples. One is Andrew Martin, from "The Bicentennial Man" (a movie was recently made as well). And the other is R. Daneel Olivaw of the Foundation series. Back to my review.

The Robot Novels are great detective stories. They work perfectly as detective stories go. You really need to pay close attention to one, though, as the situation is very complex. (I won't say any more for fear of revealing the novels' plots.) But they also deal with greater issues. In a nutshell, a millennium in the future (when the Robot Novels take place), Earth has colonized extrasolar planets, up to a total of 50 "Outer Worlds". But as Earth's population grew, it became too concerned with problems at home and the colonization stopped. Now, in Elijah Baley's time, Earth is too concerned with its own problems, and the Spacers of the Outer Worlds (who live in luxury) aren't willing to colonize any more worlds. A few people recognize that both cultures are doomed to extinction, and that something must be done to save humanity.

That's what, fundamentally, the Foundation series is about. Saving humanity. Fast forward a dozen or so millennia to the time of the Galactic Empire. (I'm now talking about the Pre-Foundation Novels, skipping the Empire Novels.) Hari Seldon, a mathematician from the unimportant world of Helicon, has just proven an obscure theorem that attracts the attention of the Emperor. The Emperor summons him to the central world of Trantor for a short meeting, but it soon becomes clear to Hari Seldon that shadowy forces close to the Emperor are pursuing him in the belief that he holds a powerful tool (which he doesn't have). He meets a reporter, Chetter Hummin, early on, who convinces him to flee and develop this mathematical tool. According to Hummin, the Galactic Empire is decaying. When it collapses, the 1 quadrillion people under its rule will be thrown into a state of anarchy and barbarism. Hummin believes that Hari Seldon's proposed tool, psychohistory, can slow down or prevent the fall of the Galactic Empire. Okay, I won't reveal any more plot. The two Pre-Foundation Novels center around Hari Seldon's life. It won't be too much of a spoiler to say that he eventually develops this "psychohistory" and a plan which he sets in motion near the end of his life. It's interesting to know that Forward the Foundation, the second and last Pre-Foundation Novel, was written at the very end of Asimov's life as well. There are interesting parallels between Hari Seldon and Isaac Asimov, and Forward the Foundation is also a farewell to Asimov as well as to Hari Seldon. But the main thing that should be apparent after reading the novels up to Forward the Foundation is that the Foundation epic is larger than any one man, even Hari Seldon. After saying goodbye to him (it is a touching end indeed), we must continue on and see the plan he's set in motion develop.

The Foundation novels, actually written some four decades before the Pre-Foundation novels, detail what happens to Hari Seldon's plan to save humanity. I can't say too much about them without revealing what happens in the Pre-Foundation novels, so I'll just say this: it's an epic. No other word comes close. When you've finished the last page of Second Foundation (and PLEASE don't read the end of any novels ahead of time, as you'll just spoil it for yourself!), I think you'll agree with me that you've just read the best story ever told.

My Thoughts:

[Again, this section doesn't contain any "spoilers", at least not intentionally.]
Why do I keep calling the Foundation series an "epic"? I mean, there's lots of other book series out there, trilogies and even more. Some people might say that the Star Wars movies are an epic, and I might agree with them after I've seen the trilogy of prequels. But right now, I don't consider it an epic. In fact, the only other epic story I can think of, excluding the ones recognized in literature like Homer's Odyssey, is the Star Trek series. Star Trek and the Foundation series resemble each other to a very limited extent, as they both recount a history of the future. In the Foundation series' case, this history of the future spans some 40 millennia, from Elijah Baley's time (actually, from Susan Calvin's time, but don't worry about who she is) to the end of Foundation and Earth, whereas in the Star Trek universe, the history of the future extends from the late twentieth century (partially overlapping with "real" history in the process, but not always exactly) to the twenty-fourth century and beyond. The only other similarity I can think of is that Data is a sentient android, much like R. Daneel Olivaw and Andrew Martin, but that's it. Someone may well indeed hate Star Trek but like the Foundation novels, and vice versa - someone may like Star Trek but hate the Foundation novels (though I doubt that such a thing is possible!).

What does it mean, anyways, to "save humanity"? (I found one of Asimov's essays, "The Friends We Make", to offer an interesting insight into his thinking, the same thinking that underlies the Foundation novels.) Does it mean just saving lives from some huge catastrophe? In many movies and books, it means precisely that. But in a time when there are 1 quadrillion humans spanning 25 million worlds, the loss of all human life down to the last person seems dubious. In the Foundation universe, "saving humanity" means more. It means preserving civilization in an orderly form. It's no secret that Asimov wrote the Foundation series with inspiration from Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ("a tiny bit of cribbin' from the works of Edward Gibbon", as Asimov puts it*). Psychohistory is about the interactions between people (that's as detailed as I can get without spoiling anything), and that's what Asimov is concerned with in the Foundation novels. But the series isn't just about that. There are basically three "heroes" in the series, though that term doesn't really apply because they're not superhumans who can do anything and always deduce the right conclusions in the blink of an eye. They're people who are (or become!) committed to saving humanity and all of its good. I am, of course, speaking of Elijah Baley, R. Daneel Olivaw, and Hari Seldon. For certain reasons which I can't go into without spoiling the novels for you, I consider Hari Seldon to be the most interesting "hero". After all, he has two novels devoted to his life; while Baley appears in four, they don't focus as heavily on his character. Seldon started off as an unimportant mathematician from an unimportant world. And as he goes through his life, he realizes something important. Out of the 1 quadrillion humans in the galaxy, he alone is in the right position to save humanity. His abilities aren't that extraordinary, really. And even his life's work was in the most primitive state at the end of his life. But Hari Seldon saw that he could set a chain of events in motion that would save humanity, and he recognized that he had to do it, or no one else would do it. He dedicated his life to save the human race, knowing that he would be long dead when the results were finally achieved. That's what makes Hari Seldon a hero.

Don't worry if you don't understand that. It's not meant (unlike the rest of this page) to explain to you what the Foundation series is all about, or why you should read it, or how you should read it. It'll make sense only after you're reading the series and have finished Forward the Foundation, and it'll really make sense only after you've finished the series (i.e. up through Second Foundation). Come back and read my thoughts again when you've done so, and maybe you'll agree with me.

* - Isaac Asimov, "The Foundation of S.F. Success", The Complete Stories, Volume I


http://nuwen.net/seldon.html (updated a long time ago)
Stephan T. Lavavej
Home: stl@nuwen.net
Work: stl@microsoft.com
This is my personal website. I work for Microsoft, but I don't speak for them.