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Asimov 101: Your Ultimate Guide to the 'Foundation' Series

Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation' series comprises seven of the most legendary novels in science fiction, but you might need a guide to help you navigate the whole of the author's rich, fictional universe.

By Deniz Galip OygürPublished 7 years ago 38 min read
Photo Courtesy of Douglas Kirkland/Corbis

Long before the incessant arguments among Star Wars fans were heard all over the galaxy about when to watch which episode, Isaac Asimov had his fans up in arms about which books of the Foundation series shouldno, mustbe read before the others. And rest assured that the Asimov-split had far more to contemplate given the complicated timeline of the seven books' releases; prequels and sequels were added to the original Foundation trilogy over a real-time span of 42 years from 1951 (the release of the original Foundation trilogy) to 1993 (the posthumous release of Asimov's second prequel Forward the Foundation).

This timeline, of course, mustn't be confused with the fictional time span covered in the books themselves—over those real-time 42 years Asimov chronicled almost 550 years of fictional endeavor for a better future in the future.

Bearing in mind that Isaac Asimov is widely considered one of the most creative minds and prolific writers in the genre—his critical acclaim includes eight Hugo awards, two Nebula awards, and a crowning "All-Time Best" science-fiction short-story award from The Science Fiction Writers of America, to name a few—I undertook this painstaking project in the spirit of codifying the fictional bequest of a truly visionary storyteller.

And thus, as we begin our journey into the future of the future as envisioned by the late, great Isaac Asimov, we start at the very beginning: the post-facto prequels to the Foundation trilogy…

“Historians pick and choose and every one of them picks and chooses the same thing.”–Isaac Asimov, Prelude to Foundation

Prelude to Foundation is the first of two prequels added to the original Foundation trilogy. The style of this prequel is nothing like the original 1951 Foundation, focusing on the actions of one protagonist over a relatively short duration of time. When compared with the original style of the trilogy, i.e. chronological chapters set to follow one another between long intervals, the difference in format alerts the reader as to how Asimov went about allocating significance to the characters or to the events that play a role in his macro-plot of his future of humanity. As a rule of thumb, the novels in the series that focus on one character without highlighting the chronological flow of time validates that they are as important as the events narrated through the book. By the same token, when the events are intended to take precedence over the characters introduced, Asimov reverts back to the original emphasis on chronology, paying minor attention to people referenced within major events. Think of this as Asimov's using relative "face-time" of events and characters within the book as a visual aide to direct readers' attention as they navigate the complicated plot. And with that, we begin.

It is 12,020 G.E. (Galactic Era). For more than 12,000 years, the human race—thanks to hyper-space traveling technology—has colonized the Milky Way Galaxy in the form of a far-reaching Galactic Empire. The Galactic Empire, whose failures have started to outnumber its successes, is still able to hide its faltering behind the Gordion Knot of a social, economical and political mess comprised of millions of habitable worlds and over 500 quadrillion people. The oppressive and authoritarian rule of Emperor Cleon I is at its peak. Young mathematician Hari Seldon, hailing from a backwater planet called Helicon, arrives at the Galactic Capital, Trantor, to present his latest research at a mathematical convention. Having become associate professor at a considerably young age, Seldon proposes a new field of science that could be used to predict the future actions of the galactic society and humanity. He cites the law of mass action, explaining that advance mathematical calculations can analyze the aggregate behavioral data of an enormous number of people to deduce the patterns of behavior of the masses.

Hari Seldon’s presentation grants him a short but enlightening interview with Cleon I, during which the (perceived) scientific naïveté of Seldon bores Cleon I, who insists on capitalizing on the outcomes of such statistical predictions thus crafting a plot to direct the masses by way of fortune-readings in order to gain political advantage over his opponents (or, as simplified in real-world politics, “for the greater good”).

Having been dismissed by the Emperor and terrified-to-the-spine by his newly-dawned fear of politicians using his method to better manipulate the galactic society, Hari Seldon decides to take a tour of the Imperial District to collect his thoughts. After a chance altercation with some ruffians at a public park he runs into a reporter, Chetter Hummin, who persuades Seldon that his life in danger. Hummin admits that Seldon’s theory that the Empire has entered a period of collapse is significant and offers help both for Seldon’s safety and further development of Seldon’s studies through his vast contacts as a media-person.

Here marks the beginning of the inevitable “journey” central to most works of fiction. However, since Asimov’s style tends to utilize already-developed characters, he primarily uses Seldon’s journey around Trantor to throw at the reader bits and pieces of information related to his other equally successful Robot series whose timeline was set roughly 20,000 years before the Foundation series. These "bread-crumbs" appear throughout his Foundation books and create an incredible continuity of the macro-plot to a Tolkien-esque level, connecting almost all his works, starting from I, Robot to convey a single epic about the future of humanity only visible when analyzing his body of work in its entirety.

The Seldon Discovery

Mycogen Microfarm; Illustration by Dániel Plesa

The secondary purpose of Seldon’s journey seems to have a more pragmatic objective in reflecting the socio-cultural observations Asimov had made at the time. The districts in Trantor that are visited by Seldon are reminiscent of a somewhat distorted projection of Earth and its countries. This interpretation will become evident later on in the macro-plot time-line once Trantor is revealed to have been settled by descendants from Earth. As such, some the districts in the capital of the galaxy feature distinct and largely insular cultures that are in constant opposition to each other, similar to the historical and socio-cultural positions of countries in the real world both then and now.

Two examples in particular illustrate this point well, plot points which are central to the “micro-plot” of Prelude to Foundation. The Mycogen District features heavily fundamentalist practices similar to some religious autocracies on real-time Earth as seen in their value system that de-individualizes citizens by using numbers after clan names and in which showing one’s hair or touching someone outside one’s immediate family is considered to be one of the gravest sins. Meanwhile over in the Dahl District, the laborers seem to have a somewhat proletarian rule over the other classes, who in turn become minorities in the course of the fictional time-line.

It is in Mycogen that Hari Seldon discovers major references to the pre-Imperial history of the galaxy and to a unique planet known as Aurora (Latin for "dawn") from which the humans are thought to be originated. Also, it is here that he becomes familiar with a school of thought and tradition that proposes there had once been mechanical entities called Robots which Seldon and his scientifically-trained mind immediately suspects may have recorded the behavioral patterns of large quantities of people.

Seldon, though, cannot yet draw a definitive conclusion; he must reconcile the Mycogen account with the conflicting version of events he encounters in the Dahl District. Dahl's oral tradition holds that the original planet is actually called Earth and that Aurora is in fact its arch nemesis, causing in a now-obscure way the destruction of the original planet from which humans first spread to the galaxy.

"The word 'tradition' covered it all, as it covered so many things, some useful, some foolish."–Isaac Asimov, Forward the Foundation

Prelude to Foundation closed with Seldon forced (both by his own reasoning and by external influence) to accept two divergent paths to develop his theories on the prediction of the behavioral patterns of the masses, a discipline he now aptly calls “psychohistory.” The first option was to remain in Trantor, whose great cultural diversity is highly conducive to develop psychohistory. The second option came from the shocking revelation that Chetter Hummin—our media man from earlier and Seldon's main source of help—was actually a high-ranking bureaucrat and moreover, had an alter-ego, R. Daneel Olivaw, whose first initial "R" indicated that was one of the long-lost human-manufactured Robots (and a very special Robot at that). The revelation lended itself to the plausible scenario that the robots have existed throughout the course of the known human history, and already recorded the data that Seldon has been looking for.

These break-points not only create the ultimate philosophical foundation of Seldon’s newly-coined scientific field of psychohistory, but also invites the reader to plunge into a science-fiction Grand Master's reckoning of human destiny.

The Man with the Plan

Keeping in mind Asimov's method of switching between character development and setting up the overall plot for future events, the author opens the second prequel to Foundation with some context. Asimov temporarily abandons his focus on the former à la Seldon in Prelude to elaborate on the latter at the start of Forward the Foundation.

Eight years have passed since the events of the last book, and Hari Seldon has since been able to apply his once-theoretical concept of psychohistory and predict more or less accurately how the masses will react to a given stimulus. Seldon's initial “fall of the Empire” hypothesis has been refined into a theory that the Galactic Empire will fall relatively soon; with millions of inhabited worlds and a population of over 500 quadrillion people, there will be a post-Imperial barbaric chaos all over the Milky Way Galaxy that may continue for 30,000 years as a result of the power vacuum set off by the collapse of the Imperial power structure.

Seldon's dedication to his field of work, together with the help from his high-level bureaucratic ally (Hummin-slash Robot R. Daneel Olivaw) escalates him to the center of galactic politics and power as Cleon I's First Minister. It will suffice to note that Seldon’s rise to power is closely related to the mysterious disappearance of Cleon’s previous First Minister.

Seldon is able to hold his position for a mere 10-year period when the Emperor Cleon I is assassinated. This incident not only serves as the turning point in Seldon’s short but influential political career but also allows Seldon to experience first-hand that psychohistory cannot be applied to predict the fate of a single individual; the statistical predictions only work on the masses.

While Seldon's public life is flourishing, his private life lies on a course of tragic deterioration. Everybody who has a close relation with Seldon is lost to him, either with untimely deaths because of political conspiracies or under civil unrests, save for his granddaughter Wanda. Once Seldon is statistically certain about the time-line of the collapse of the Empire and the ensuing period of barbarism he starts to draft his Grand Plan (known as the Seldon Plan) to shorten this period of Gothic rule (which Asimov loosely based off of the fall of the Western Roman Empire in real world history), helped by Wanda's innate abilities.

Seldon, having suffered deep personal tragedy and now bearing witness to increasing galactic decline as well as his personal health decline, is filled with renewed resolve to alter the course of human history by mapping out a plan for post-Imperial survival.

“It is the chief characteristic of the religion of science that it works.”–Isaac Asimov, Foundation

Foundation is the first book of the original trilogy and thus the foundation, if you will, upon which the great Isaac Asimov would build his ever-lasting philosophical and science-fictional empire. The trilogy was first printed in the form of a series of eight short stories published in a popular sci-fi magazine, now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Foundation encompasses four of those stories while the second and third in the trilogy cover the rest.

As will be evident soon, the stories reflect some sort of hierarchy with regard to the importance attached to the protagonists mentioned in them. For instance, while Salvor Hardin—the first Mayor with real political power in the Foundation society and the founder of a long line of powerful and active Mayors—is allocated two chapters in Foundation, the rest of the protagonists, however significant they may seem within the micro-plot of the book, is allocated only one.

I've preserved Asimov's original chapter demarcation in the following plot analyses so as to convey at least a general sense of the grand design of one of the greatest authors of the genre.

The Psychohistorians

Now, it is the 0th year of the Foundation Era (12,068 Galactic Era). Continuing the events described in the prequels, Hari Seldon has perfected his scientific method of psychohistory and calculates the remaining and irrevocable life-span of the Galactic Empire as a mere 300 years; Seldon has a plan in the works to preserve the cumulative human knowledge of civilization while humanity lays dormant: Enter the Foundation.

By strategically publicizing parts of psychohistorical predictions in Trantor, Seldon manipulates the bureaucratic behemoth of the Empire into arresting him over his traitorous comments about the fall of the Empire. He uses his subsequent trials as a platform to introduces to the Committee of Public Safety his idea of the Encyclopedia Galactica, the written form of the Foundation. Seldon emphasizes that if only the Encyclopedia could be finished before the fall of the Empire, the dark ages to come would be reduced to a mere millennium.

The Committee seems to agree, but only tepidly, and Seldon is exiled to a remote planet in the periphery of the galaxy to start acting on his theory. Seldon is joined on planet Terminus by a band of followers that will help him in his seemingly crazed and eccentric effort to create the Encyclopedia. Thus, “the Seldon problem” is solved in the eyes of the galaxy's higher-ups, who rest assured that in a remote world with no mineral resources, the name Seldon and his psychohistory will be lost forever to the average galactic citizen.

What the Committee did not take into consideration, though, is the fact that Hari Seldon’s Grand Plan had actually been initiated with the first spoken words of Seldon’s defense at the trials; in other words, whatever verdict they would have passed regarding the future of Seldon and his psychohistory movement was reflected in one of the many statistical alternatives that Seldon had long since been aware of. To that end, Seldon had a secret fallback plan should the scientifically-inclined Encyclopedia Galactica Foundation on Terminus not work out, that being a sister planet ("Second Foundation") said to be located “...at the other end of the galaxy, …at Star’s End”…

The Encyclopedists

Fifty years after the Seldon plan was initiated, the Foundation's members (solely comprised of scientists, the scientific colonists) reside in Terminus City, effectively the only habitable piece of land on the entire newly colonized planet. The Board of Trustees of the Encyclopedia Galactica Foundation oversee the scientists (aka the Encyclopedists) as they work tirelessly to bring the Encyclopedia Galactica to fruition. On the other hand, the bureaucracy of Terminus City is placed under Mayors to keep the Board of Trustees away from the mundane tasks of running the city itself.

The current Mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, believes he has stumbled upon a divergence in the great Seldon Plan. With the tension escalating between the Foundation and its neighboring prefects that have recently all but severed diplomatic ties to Trantor and started calling themselves The Four Kingdoms, Hardin believes that the survival of Terminus, and hence the Foundation, lies with a politically and bureaucratically empowered Mayorship. Hardin had recently managed to prevent a ploy by one of Four Kingdoms to establish military bases on Terminus in order to exploit the advanced nuclear power of the Foundation (which, as a science-based colony, has achieved highly sought after technological advances), a telling ploy given that the Four Kingdoms had been refraining from anything scientific as the decline of the Empire had become evident in the peripheral sectors. In this Hardin finds proof to his beliefs and concludes the ultimate solution for Terminus’s survival.

Knowing of no other political maneuver to circumvent the Board of Trustee’s influence on the scientific community than a coup d’état, Salvor Hardin schedules his bold and risky move on the same date that the great (and by now deceased) Hari Seldon’s holographic image is supposed to appear before the Encyclopedia Foundation and convey his most up-to-date advice. All of his messages have been prerecorded and preserved in the Time Vault of Terminus City and released in installments as Seldon's various psychohistorical models come to fruition. This time, Seldon’s message delivers the final blow to the Board of Trustees. He finally reveals that the Encyclopedia had always been merely bait for the Imperial bureaucracy, and that even though there is much to be salvaged from the cumulative human knowledge of 12,000 years, the Foundation’s real purpose was less publishing house and more to pave a more stable path to the formation of a Second Galactic Empire.

As the First Seldon Crisis involving the actions of the Four Kingdoms threaten the very existence of the Foundation, its solution is also offered, however cryptically, by the holographic image of Seldon from years ago. Hardin, a politician among a colony of scientists, seems to be the only one to have understood the possible uses of science in other walks of life better than the scientists themselves.

The Mayors

It is now 80 F.E. (Foundation Era). Three decades after the consolidation of Mayoral power by the indirect use of science, the Foundation's scientific advance has provided it with an advantage when dealing with its neighboring Four Kingdoms. Moreover, as Salvor Hardin foresaw politically and as Hari Seldon calculated psychohistorically, the lack of scientific studies in the Four Kingdomsand across most of the Empire's outskirts, for that matterprovided an excellent opportunity for the Foundation to indoctrinate the ignorant populations of the peripheral kingdoms with a new “religion” called Scientism. It is through Scientism that the Foundation successfully shares technological products with the semi-barbaric kingdoms, keeping the scientific teachings and studies required in producing technology as secrets under the guise of this information being the sacred core of said religion. The maintenance technicians trained in the Foundation comprise the priesthood of Scientism, while higher echelons of religious leaderswho are aware of the real agenda of Scientismare appointed as ambassadors to the Four Kingdoms.

Salvor Hardin has been consecutively reelected Mayor and remains the sole ruler of the Foundation. His major opposition within the Foundation has, for some time, been demanding that the Foundation cease the sharing of technology with the Four Kingdoms and enter a state of war against the kingdom or kingdoms that pose an eventual military threat. On the eve of a Second Seldon Crisis, when the contenders for galactic power both within and outside the Foundation openly praise one sort of violence or another to bring an end to the stalemate, Hardin himself is tasked with defending the truth behind his most famous creed:

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”

As the escalation of tension between the most powerful of the Four Kingdoms (Anacreon) and the Foundation brings them to the brink of full-fledged war, the invention and successful planting of Scientism among the ignorant masses proves to be more effective a weapon than atom-blasters and nuclear spaceships; or, in more subtle words from Hardin: “An atom-blaster is a good weapon, but it can point both ways.”

The Traders

By 135 F.E., the Foundation had spread its influence over a great number of neighboring planets in exchange for shared technology to attain an ever-growing political, social, and economical power. This period of the history of the Foundation marks a shift in strategy from “the spread through Scientism” toward a “spread through trade” ethos.

Traders, a socio-economic class of Foundation citizens, boldly trespass the borders of individual entrepreneurship and are tasked with advancing the sphere of the Foundation's influence throughout the galaxy.

One such Trader named Linmar Ponyets becomes ultimately instrumental in defying a major clog in the spread pattern of the Foundation. Since the use of Scientism has been identified as part of the Foundation’s strategy to exert its power, some planets reacted by reverting back to religious fundamentalism to stave off the Foundation's advances. The religious taboos that are in place in such planets are so effective that Foundation agents and individual traders caught so much as advertising technological productions might find themselves counting their days on death row.

It is on such a planet that Linmar Ponyets discovers the next strategy, (naturally, one already foreseen by psychohistory) in order to secure the Foundation’s advance further into the galaxy. To be able to hack into the rigid social structures of religious fundamentalist societies, the Foundation needs to have more liberal individuals with more liberal minds (in both the philosophical and economic sense) than most others trained in Scientism. Ponyets figures this out during a crisis in which he uses every alchemists’ dream of a machine, the transmuter, to convert iron into gold in order to be able to bribe the leader of one of the religious fundamentalist planets called Askone.

Ponyets’ major success in paving the way for a more secure advance of the Foundation came by way of his use of the transmuter itself as another bribe for another high-level bureaucrat within the religious power structure of Askone. By doing so, he not only proves that a more liberal approach would fare better when dealing with fundamentalist and taboo-based societies, but also that planting technology itself as a bribe into the bureaucratic power structure would inevitably lead more demand for once-hated technology, thereby legitimizing its use in due time.

The Foundation’s move toward a new era of liberal and overtly-pragmatist strategies is underlined when Ponyets, facing criticism regarding his seemingly lack of morals during the recent crisis, refers to yet another famous quote by the First Mayor Salvor Hardin: "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!"

The Republic of Korell

155 F.E. The Foundation has become a serious power in the Galaxy. It had long since wrestled its neighboring Four Kingdoms into submission and managed to expand to various solar systems thanks to its technological and commercial ingenuity. However, as its sphere of influence continues to reach out of the periphery of what was once known as the Galactic Empire, a new threat to the Grand Seldon Plan emerges.

The mysterious disappearance of three Foundation ships around planets within the Republic of Korell raises suspicions of technological development that might be developing elsewhere. In fear of a new Seldon Crisis, administrative and religious bureaucrats of the Foundation design a scheme of their own not only to tackle the too-liberal methods and the unchecked autonomy of the Traders, but also to be able to appraise the unknown technological source or sources of the Republic of Korell.

Master Trader Hober Mallow, a fast-rising Trader who is also offered a place in politics, is selected for the Foundation’s mission in Korell. His first test is thrown at him—a legal crisis with religious undertones erupts as soon as he lands on Korell. Scientism missionaries are not allowed to operate on Korell, like many other systems, lest they meet the fate of Askone, which has now been converted into another Foundation colony by the influence of technology and Scientism. When an alleged missionary, escaping from a mob of angry Korellians, seeks asylum in Mallow’s ship as he waits for clearance in a space-port, Mallow manages to turn the crisis into an opportunity by handing over the missionary to the local authorities. The clearance and an actual invitation Mallow receives a mere half-hour later to meet Korell's authoritarian president proves that Mallow’s instincts were correct regarding the missionary crisis.

During a tour to one of the steel factories of the Korellian Republic, Mallow notices that the guards there are carrying nuclear blasters. Moreover, these guns have the markings of the Galactic Empire, whose influence and control over the periphery is thought to have been lost for quite some time. Mallow has found the evidence he has been looking for with regard to the unknown source of Korell’s technological advances. Suspecting that the Empire is trying to rebuild its control and presence in the peripheral systems, he decides to pay a visit to one of the Imperial provinces. What he learns there regarding the technological and military power of the Empire will help him form the next strategy of the Foundation.

Following his success in averting the Korellian crisis and bringing to light the political coup designed to disgrace the Traders in favor of a fundamentalist Scientism movement within the Foundation itself, Mallow gets elected the Mayor of the Foundation and the High Priest of the Scientism Religion. Thus, when confronted with the third Seldon Crisis since the initiation of the Foundation—in which, as foreseen by psychohistory, a war is declared upon the Foundation by one of the barbaric states in the periphery—he has the ultimate power to do absolutely nothing other than cutting out trade with the Republic of Korell which in only three years brings the now-technology-dependent Republic to its knees. This turn of events also marks the end of pseudo-religious practices and the beginning of a plutocracy, along with the first-drawn lines of economic warfare against the possible enemies of the Foundation, to be expounded upon in the next book.

“The human mind works at low efficiency. Twenty percent is the figure usually given. When, momentarily, there is a flash of greater power, it is termed a hunch, or insight, or intuition.”Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire

Although the style of Foundation and Empire is not starkly different from that in its predecessor Foundation, Asimov chose to reduce the number of segments to two rather than five. It would be safe to assume that the reason for this minor change in style is two-fold, as conveyed through Part I: "The General" and Part II: "The Mule."

In the first part of Foundation and Empire, Asimov clearly intends to highlight the one and only instance of backlash of the old Galactic Empire against the Foundation, the latter having vastly surpassed the successes in the golden-days of the original Empire. To that end, the great master of science-fiction describes that the Empire, which still has the most powerful navy despite its sociological and technological decline, is doomed to fail against psychohistorical calculations. The Foundation has been forged and shaped by a series of Seldon Crises and proved able to correctly identify and apply the correct solution for each of the different types of crises. The Foundation now shines as a beacon toward an eventual galactic dominance as opposed to the 30,000 years of barbaric violence that was expected to ensue after the colossal fall of the Galactic Empire. The era of physical threats is over, and there is only one possible risk that threatens to bring the Seldon Plan to a premature halt.

In the second part of the book, a more sinister and deadly enemy makes himself known to the Foundation and threatens to bring down the relative comfortability the Foundation has been enjoying pretty consistently. As far as the Foundation is aware, the Seldon Plan has calculated every possible hindrance on their path from scratch to the Second Galactic Empire. However, with the rise of a protagonist, only known as the Mule—a mutant with semi-psychic abilities—the Foundation faces a divergence from the Seldon Plan with possible catastrophic outcomes that had not been previously conceived. Deducing from the limited knowledge they have been provided about Hari Seldon and his Grand Plan since the establishment of their Foundation, which would, from now on, be called “the First Foundation,” the Foundationers swiftly get on with their search of a fail-safe mechanism that may or may not have been devised by Seldon the Savior…

The General

It's now been 200 years since the establishment of the Foundation. Apart from the indirect technological help it provided for the Republic of Korell during its unsuccessful confrontation with the Foundation, the old Galactic Empire had until now never directly challenged the Foundation. In fact, until one of the prominent and fast-rising generals, Bel Riose, hears of certain mystical and mythical rumors about some “magicians” located somewhere in the periphery, the Galactic Empire had no inkling of the Foundation's progress made toward galactic dominance, save perhaps for some obscure information about a colony of scientists moving to a remote planet of Terminus some 200 years ago.

In a chivalrous and romantic attempt to bring back the golden days of the Imperial power, Riose believes that if he can reestablish the influence and presence of the Empire to the peripheral systems, he would be fulfilling his duty to the Empire and the Emperor. As he follows the rumors of so-called “magicians,” he discovers for himself what the Foundation is and what the Foundationers firmly believe their role in the future of the galaxy will be. Although being warned about the great Seldon Plan, however vaguely, he dismisses his chances of failure by comparing the Plan to the “dead hand” of Hari Seldon.

What Riose refuses to see, in his self-imposed ignorance of the Imperial structure, is that the Empire has moved far too much downward in the spiral of collapse that his success as a capable general would bring unwanted attention to his would-be ulterior motives; many generals before him have craved for and tried to grab the title of Emperor and his failure would force the Imperial political bodies to dismiss him as another short-lived hero. Since there is no third option other than success or failure in his military campaign against the Foundation, Bel Riose was doomed by the current political paranoia of the falling Empire, which means that the “dead hand” of Hari Seldon check-mated the Imperial interference against the Foundation almost 200 hundred years ago.

The Imperial threat comes to an end, as implied, without any direct action on behalf of the Foundation other than fighting some defensive battles. Thus, as in Mallow’s time, the faith in the Great Seldon Plan, which by definition advises the Foundationers to do absolutely nothing (since the Foundation's influence all over the periphery has been managed by technology, religion, liberalism, and plutocracy respectively) saves the Foundation and coddles its citizens and administrators alike in a soon-to-be-falsified sense of security.

The Mule

It has been roughly 100 years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire’s last major threat to the Foundation. During the years that followed the first and last military confrontation between the Empire and the Foundation, the Galactic Empire has been reduced to only a handful of agricultural planets; the once-proud Galactic capital, Trantor, has been sacked; and most of the galaxy (save for the periphery which is under the influence of the Foundation) has deteriorated into barbaric kingdoms.

The Foundation’s last strategy shift from religious manipulation to plutocracy has already bore its fruits and now, just as the case was with its former strategies, has started to ooze poison into the social and economic progress of the Foundation. The once-upon-a-time-saviors of the Foundation—the Traders—have been cast down to the pits of the socio-economic structure and the Mayorship of the Foundation has become a birth-right rather than the ultimate prize of free and democratic elections. As the acknowledgement of the Seldon Plan spreads, so does the semi-religious belief in the inevitable and mysterious ways of the Great Hari Seldon in forging a Second Galactic Empire; and hence, the core Foundation world's population and the administration alike have become stagnant and conformist. It seems highly likely that for the first time in its 300-year history, the Foundation will be facing civil war.

However, an unpredicted development occurs. Defying psychohistory’s statistical ignorance of the fate and the deeds of a single individual as opposed to the behavioral patterns of the masses, a man single-handedly brings destruction into the doorstep of the Foundation. Until the Foundationers gather reliable intelligence on this new threat of this dictator, known only by his alias The Mule, the planets on the outer circle of the Foundation’s influence fall into his control. And soon enough, the Mule’s forces start their attack on Terminus and the Foundation collapses into surrender.

The Traders, who form the majority of the dwindling pockets of resistance against the Mule’s tyranny, quickly gather an expedition party in search for the rumored Second Foundation, which may possess the knowledge how to defeat the Mule and set the Seldon Plan back on track. The expedition party consists of Toran and Bayta Darell, a resourceful couple with ties to the Foundation and the Traders, along with psychologist Ebling Mis and former court-clown Magnifico Giganticus (who had escaped from the Mule’s oppression). As the expedition party travels though numerous star systems, it becomes evident that the Mule is a mutant and that he possesses the ability to sense and manipulate emotions of the others even through vast distances.

The party decides to visit the former galactic capital Trantor to gain access to the Great Imperial Library located on the planet. Shortly after they set foot on Trantor and Ebling Mis starts his research in the library with hopes of uncovering the secret location of the rumored Second Foundation, the events take a dramatic turn. Bayta Darell, suspecting that the semi-telepathic presence of the Mule is among the expedition party, feels obliged to shoot and kill Ebling Mis before he can reveal the location of the Foundation.

With Ebling Mis dead, the rest of the expedition party is sure that the secret location of the Second Foundation, now more than a rumor with tangible evidence of its existence, cannot be retrieved in time by the Mule or his followers before the Second Foundation is ready to make its move and take the abhorred mutant down.

“It was a sign of decaying culture, of course, that dams had been built against the further development of ideas.”–Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation

The series of events leading up to Second Foundation reflect Seldon's brilliantly-orchestrated dispersal of knowledge, falsehoods, deception, and enlightenment. The First Foundation is a community that gains its advantage through development and implementation of the physical sciences. To that end, all of the crises and confrontation we've seen thus far were in some way or another connected to the tangible universe: technological advance, military power, or plain old political maneuvers. The basis of Hari Seldon's psychohistorical analysis was the specific and predictable nature of each crisis the Foundation faced; there was always “one, correct strategy” to be selected among a myriad of others, and as the crises progressed toward their peak, the singular option would inevitably reveal itself for the Foundationers to act upon.

Through a succession of maneuvers that changed their strategies in the face of their impending doom (i.e. librarians to preserve the galactic accumulation of knowledge evolved into a technological superpower in a hostile environment; the technological superpower evolved into a religious center of power; the religious center of power evolved into a liberal trade-based economic kingdom; and eventually the economic kingdom evolved into a plutocracy of a real kingdom), the Foundation managed to survive in accordance with the Seldon Plan. However, with the rise of the Mule, an individual with semi-telepathic powers that create mind-slaves, the physical defense system of advanced technology and Hari Seldon’s calculations of psychohistory are not enough to ensure the survival of the (First) Foundation.

The Great Hari Seldon, though, knew something that the others didn't—he did not entirely depend on physical sciences to assure the rise of the Second, and better, Galactic Empire. Having been so far only a rumor with intangible and hearsay evidence, the Second Foundation is finally revealed to be real. More importantly, it's revealed that the they have been focusing on social sciences, especially psychology and mental powers, as well as developing the psychohistory as Seldon intended in their establishment.

The Search By the Mule

The third book in the original trilogy begins with the "Search by the Mule"; the Mule’s search for the rumored Second Foundation continues with renewed vigor and concentration but also brings his advance toward galactic dominance to a halt. Expecting a counter-strike from the Second Foundation against him at every corner, he postpones his expansion over the star systems to be able to concentrate his undivided effort on uncovering the Second Foundation which he believes has already started plotting against his rule over the (First) Foundation. His hesitancy, along with the misinterpreted words of the Great Hari Seldon about the whereabouts of the Second Foundation, will be the root of his demise. The delay gives the Second Foundationers the time they need to develop a strategy to bring him down, which they achieve by way of misleading and then debilitating the Mule's power to such an extent that he gives up his search and lives out the rest of his days alone on an isolated planet. The "Search by the Mule" is finally over, as is Part I of Second Foundation.

Since the most dangerous enemy to the First Foundation, and therefore, to the Seldon Plan itself, is taken care of, the Second Foundation must now direct its concentration on how to bring the Seldon Plan back on track.

The Search by the Foundation

Part II of Second Foundation jumps ahead 55 years after the threat of the Mule was neutralized. The First Foundation is still trying to repair the damage left in his wake, in terms of both the political integrity of the Foundation and implementation of the Seldon Plan. Since some rumors surfaced about the involvement of the Second Foundation in the Mule’s demise, a major part of the First Foundation’s population has now transferred their faith and focus toward the supervision and protection of the Second Foundation.

There is, however, a small group of eminent people from various professions within the First Foundation, who remain unconvinced about the superficial benevolence of the Second Foundation. They believe that, armed with their mental powers and intimate knowledge of the intricacies of the Seldon Plan, the Second Foundationers conspire to take over the First Foundation and become the rulers of the soon-to-be-established Second Galactic Empire.

Little do they know, though, about the true contents of the Seldon Plan. The Great Hari Seldon designed the Second Foundation to be the de-facto rulers of the Second Galactic Empire, while the First Foundation was devised to be a mere infrastructural and technological spear-head aimed at the shortening of the barbaric interval between the two Empires. Therefore, any direct threat from the First Foundation to the Second Foundation is deemed a threat to the Seldon Plan itself and must be dealt with by the Second Foundationers who have been supervising and adjusting the mathematical calculations of the Plan since Seldon’s passing.

Meanwhile, the First Foundationers, with the cessation of the flow of the Seldon Plan by the Mule’s interference, figured out their lack of knowledge on social sciences, and especially on psychology, and have been focusing on the intricacies of the human mind with regard to telepathic abilities. The small, disgruntled group within the First Foundation develops a device that can jam telepathic abilities and trigger an enormous mental pain to telepaths.

Acting on yet another misinterpretation of one of Seldon’s cryptic revelations on the secret location of the Second Foundation, the one about the Second Foundation being “at the other end of the galaxy” the group of First Foundationers, envisioning the Milky Way Galaxy as a circle rather than a spiral, come to the conclusion that since a circle does not have an end and when a trace is started on any given point of a circle, that trace ends up on the same initial point. In other words, they suppose that Terminus has been the secret location of the Second Foundation all along.

Little did they suspect, however, that the Second Foundationers killed or apprehended were only false-flag agents exposed to the device willfully in order to mislead the First Foundationers into being convinced that the Second Foundation is destroyed. The authentic Seldon Plan continues to progress with the true location of the Second Foundation hidden and the population of the First Foundation unaware of the real path the Plan rides them through.

Had they not been manipulated into seeing the galaxy as a circle, had they actually considered the Milky Way as a spiral, with Trantor at the center and Terminus at the furthest point, “at the other end of the galaxy”, i.e. at its periphery, it would have dawned on the First Foundationers that since the defeat of the Mule on Rossem, everything that came to pass was designed by the Second Foundation with clock-work precision.

“We abandoned the appearance of power to preserve the essence of it.”Isaac Asimov, Foundation's Edge

As the fourth book in the order of publication and the sixth installment of the chronological plot, Foundation’s Edge was written 29 years after the completion of the original Foundation Trilogy. The book was Asimov’s first novel to be presented in The New York Times best-seller list, and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1983.

The character at the center of Foundation’s Edge is Golan Trevize and, with almost minute-by-minute narrative of his journey to “the other end of the galaxy," is described with high praise on par with that given to Hari Seldon in the early books. Just like his other significant characters, Asimov grants Trevize not only an already developed psyche but also a deeply intuitive mind and an ability to reach infallible conclusions with inadequate evidence.

With the First and Second Foundations rapidly moving toward a course of collision once again, the burden now rests on the shoulders of Golan Trevize to find a solution to the last and most unexpected of Seldon Crises.

It has been 408 years since Hari Seldon established The Encyclopedia Galactica Foundation. After the defeat of the Mule and the seeming elimination of the Second Foundation, the First Foundation believes it still lies firmly on its intended path to rule the galaxy via the establishment of the Second Galactic Empire. However, the reality is quite different from what they are led to perceive. The Second Foundation is still in ultimate control of the Seldon Plan, supervising and altering its equations as it is deemed necessary for the successful implementation of what Seldon envisioned for the covert group almost 500 years ago.

A member of the Council of the Foundation and a former Navy officer, Golan Trevize is the only one to dare defy the galaxy-wide belief in the destruction of the Second Foundation and asks the Council to investigation further. He is certain that the Seldon Plan is working perfectly, perhaps too perfectly, which would mean they are under constant supervision and control by the Second Foundation.

The current Mayor of Terminus, Harlo Branna, responds by sending Trevize into exile, which will keep Trevize (and the only opposition she has against her in the council) away from Terminus while simultaneously allowing for the possibly discovery of the remnants of the Second Foundation. For a successful cover-up of the true intent of Trevize’s exile, Branno orders Trevize to be accompanied by a professor of Ancient History and Mythology, Janov Pelorat, whose ulterior motive is to find the original home-planet of humankind—Earth. Branno also sends another Councilman after Trevize to monitor and report Trevize’s actions. Unbeknownst to her, however, is the true identity of Councilman Munn Li Compor, who's actually a Second Foundation Agent.

As Trevize and Pelorat become acquainted, Pelorat reveals his fascination for Earth and the myths surrounding the long-lost home-planet of the mankind. As another one in the long and prolific history of the misinterpretations of Hari Seldon’s cryptic revelations about the location of the Second Foundation, Trevize comes to believe that Seldon’s phrase "at the other end of the Galaxy" may be about Earth itself; his logic is that if Terminus is the last planet to be inhabited by the humans and Earth is the first, it follows that "the other end" of humankind's spread to the galaxy is in fact Earth, the place that it originated. But their search for any planet named Earth or likewise in the galactic table of planets fails; all references to Earth or its whereabouts seem to have been expunged from galactic sources. They are able to isolate a name from the long-list of planets, Gaia, which Pelorat assures Trevize is one of the names used in reference to Earth.

The Gaian Collision

Once the duo arrives on Gaia, Trevize and Pelorat discover that the whole planet is a “super organism,” with animate and inanimate entities forming a planet-wide collective consciousness. Each individual living or non-living thing, while maintaining their own consciousness, thoughts or memories, participate in a collective decision making process that affects the whole entity.

As Trevize and Pelorat try to familiarize themselves with the incomprehensible notion of a collective consciousness—an alien concept against every single argument of free will and individualism—Pelorat gradually falls in love with a Gaian woman, Bliss, who implies to Trevize that he was selected for his uncommonly strong intuition and hints that he will soon be making a very important decision.

The nature of this decision becomes clear when the three most powerful forces of the Milky Way Galaxy come head-to-head in orbit over the planet Gaia: the First Foundation (symbolizing physical sciences and Imperial politics), the Second Foundation (symbolizing social sciences and rule over mind-control) and Gaia (symbolizing the next step in the evolution of the humankind into literally becoming one with the galaxy).

Meanwhile, Trevize is told by Bliss that, despite his fears, his mind is not tampered by Gaia so as to keep his inherent intuition intact. She elaborates that he had been led to “find” Gaia in order to observe the alternative for the First and Second Foundation’s rule over the galaxy, that being a gradual spread of Gaia’s collective consciousness to encompass the entire galaxy and eventually form Galaxia.

Golan Trevize decides to favor Gaia, which in turn will become Galaxia. His decision is based on the fact that Galaxia will take much longer to form than either of the Foundationist alternatives; thus, should it necessitate change or cancellation, there will be ample time to revert from the selected course of action and bring Galaxia to a halt. However, Trevize believes that there is a much more significant aspect of his reasoning that he cannot even explain to himself. He conveys his firm resolution that until he figures out more clearly why he is compelled to favor Galaxia, he would not live in peace with his own decision. To do that, he must find Earth and uncover its long-held secrets…

“Where is the world whose people don't prefer a comfortable, warm, and well-worn belief, however illogical, to the chilly winds of uncertainty?”Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Earth

Being the fifth book in the order of publication and the seventh and last in the chronological events, Foundation and Earth was written 33 years after the completion of the original Foundation Trilogy. Foundation and Earth is the book that incorporates the Robot and Foundation series into one fictional universe and brings the macro-plot of the great Isaac Asimov to completion.

Golan Trevize is still ruminating on his decision to select Galaxia over the First and Second Foundations. His uncanny intuition in arriving to correct conclusions with inadequate data or evidence now directs him to the long-lost home-planet of all humanity. With the mental force of the planet Gaia at his side, Trevize embarks upon a journey to uncover the mystery surrounding Earth: who deleted all the information about Earth from all galactic archives and more importantly, what are they hiding?

Golan is determined to find Earth and reveal its long-lost but still vigorously protected secrets. The crumbs of hints and hearsay he and his companions discover help them learn about a 30,000-year-old conflict between two groups of direct descendants of Earthmen: the Spacers and the Settlers.

The Spacers and The Settlers

Art by Michael Whelan

It is apparent that the Spacers have lost the conflict and the Settlers eventually colonized the Milky Way. This constitutes the completion of the first circle, which can be considered a conceptual one throughout the Macro-Plot in the Asimov Universe. The conflicts that in turn brought about the current state of the Galaxy, namely the Empire versus the Foundation, the First Foundation versus the Second Foundation, and ultimately the Seldon Plan versus Galaxia, are all based on the dual and conflicting nature of the first hyper-space travelers filing out into the Galaxy from Earth—the Spacers versus the Settlers—whose struggles detailed in the Robot series actually shaped the future in the future of humanity.

Trevize and his expedition party find three sets of ancient coordinates that they think belong to three Spacer worlds along with rumors about robots that once served humanity. Even though there are no planets listed in the galactic archives around the stars that the coordinates point to, Trevize once more acts on intuition and decides to pay a visit to all these stars. The party discovers the three Spacer planets Aurora, Melpomenia, and Solaria.

Planets Aurora and Melpomenia have been sitting idle and unoccupied under the disastrous impacts of gradual un-terraforming caused by the lack of humanity on both planets. This constitutes the completion of the second circle throughout the macro-plot in the Asimov Universe and bolsters the main argument presented in the Robot series that robots, in spite of offering tremendous help in the daily workload of humans and the colonization of new worlds, will eventually lead humanity to be lethargic and—for lack of a better word—lazy. Aurora and Melpomenia are meant to confirm that when humans lose their will and drive to propel the species forward, it instigates the cessation of the human colonization of the Galaxy. But Solaria's fate tells us a different story...

The decadence of the Spacer culture on Solaria is not a physical one but a philosophical one, with only 1,200 Solarians each running an estate of enormous size on the planet and degrading the universal values of what it means to be human-beings. Starting from the early years of the Spacer-Settler conflict and the subsequent race to colonize the rest of the galaxy, the Solarians have isolated themselves from the rest of the galaxy—Spacer and Settler alike. Through genetic modifications, they have become a closed-circuit population of hermaphrodites so as to terminate the last remaining necessity to get into physical contact with other individuals. This, in turn, nullifies perhaps the most important axiom of humanity: being social animals.

The strategy of Solarians is disturbing and brilliant: this oxymoronic “asocial society” is determined to wait out the extinction of the descendants of the Settlers until such a time when they will be left as the only true humans in the entire galaxy. In other words, they are letting the universe do the work for them.

The Solarians’ robotically and genetically-enhanced claim of being the “true humans” and their 20-millennia-old-feud against the Settlers and their descendants leads Trevize’s expedition party into an inevitable confrontation with one of the Solarians. The foreigners escape, but barely.

With all their hopes about discovering the location of Earth by direct inquisition gone awry in the Spacer worlds, Trevize and Pelorat decide to use the coordinates of the Spacer worlds to deduce the location of Earth. They are eventually successful in locating the long-lost home-planet of mankind, thus revealing the third complete-circle in the Asimov Universe. This is the notion that intelligent life started on Earth, ventured away, and now finally return back home. Nevertheless, the expedition party plunges into despair since Earth is now excessively radioactive and cannot support any form life on its deadly crust.

The excessive radioactivity of Earth, which was an actual attack of the Spacers during the Spacer-Settler conflict that was manipulated into a very brave strategy of ensuring continuous spread of humanity into the Galaxy (as described in the Robot Series) constitutes the fourth complete-circle in the Asimov Universe. Trevize’s last hope of finding an answer to his preference over Galaxia lies on the unusually large and close satellite of the long-dead home-planet of humankind.

The moon contains the answer, indeed. Asimov draws yet another complete circle, this time between science and fiction, by selecting the last scene where the whole Macro-Plot is revealed to the reader: the moon. This indeed reflects real-world events; the moon was the first astral body to be landed on by the first outer-space expedition party, Apollo 11. Asimov's bringing the last expedition in his fictional universe to the Moon is appropriate, a true blending of science and the genre he so greatly impacted: science-fiction.

On the moon comes the final revelation of the series, for the expedition party is met by the “humaniform” robot, which was known as R. Daneel Olivaw by Elijah Bailey who almost single-handedly set the Galaxy’s successful colonization into motion 20,000 years earlier and who is now considered to be a mythical and fictional figure; this is the same character we once knew as Chetter Hummin back during Hari Seldon's initial invention of psychohistory and the Seldon Plan.

The Fate of the Galaxy

Daneel explains to the party that Galaxia is the only way to bring all humanity together in one super-organism, a necessary measure as per the Laws of Robotics designed to protect individual human-beings. For almost 20,000 years, Daneel had been using telepathic powers, passed to him by a fellow robot during the Spacer-Settler conflict, in line with the original set of the Laws of Robotics and an extra and ulterior one conceived by the said fellow robot.

Daneel had helped both Bailey and Seldon, by far the most influential protagonists in the Macro-Plot that encompasses the Robot and Foundation Series. He protected the Seldon Plan from faltering after the Mule’s rise to power. He designed and created the super-organism of a planet, Gaia. But now, at long last, he is dying and to be able to ensure the successful establishment of Galaxia he needs to merge his positronic brain with a human one.

After observing, experiencing, and learning a myriad of novel things and entities during his expedition, Trevize now understands and recognizes the reason he opted for Galaxia. There is a possibility that new and different-than-experienced threats may be lurking in other galaxies of the universe, and to be able to defend humanity against these threats, individual freedom must be sacrificed for the sake of collective survival. Thus, he confirms his choice about the fate of the Galaxy, and decides on the fate of the Solarian child, who, by mere existence, proves his point of view. In its purest form, Asimov's Foundation Series is a testament to the power of preservation; there's a universe of difference between information lost and information idled; with a foundation of ideas, humanity is immortal.

Read More of Isaac Asimov's work:

  • Transcript of Asimov's 1974 lecture on "The Future of Humanity"
  • Novels by Isaac Asimov
  • Short Stories by Isaac Asimov

literaturescience fictionbook review

About the Creator

Deniz Galip Oygür

Language teacher, innovator in language learning, and the founder of Cafe 4 Kids Playshop, the D.U.Y. approach, and the Linguasophia method. Poet in soul, philosopher in mind, and Foundationer at heart.


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