The Foundation Series Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

At his death in 1992, Isaac Asimov had published at least 475 books, ranking him as one of the world’s most prolific authors. The Foundation Trilogy rapidly earned status as a science-fiction classic, while two other novels in the series became long-term best-sellers. A learned student of science—he held a Ph.D. in chemistry and was a professor of biochemistry—and a devotee of history, Asimov virtually founded the science-fiction subgenre of future history. He earned many major awards, including numerous Hugos and Nebulas, and was named a Nebula Grand Master in 1987. Throughout the Foundation series novels, Asimov’s scientifically or technically trained leading characters are aided or guided by historians. In the Foundation series as elsewhere in his writings, Asimov acknowledges drawing heavily on themes embodied in widely influential historical and metahistorical studies, notably Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History (1934-1954), and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1926-1928). Although differing in their subject matter and their perspectives, each of these works is concerned, as was Asimov, both with identifying recurrent patterns in history and with tackling the venerable historical question of whether such patterns are determined primarily by profound social forces or instead by individual actions or chance. The mutant genius the Mule, for example, temporarily upsets the Seldon Plan.

The unfolding of Seldon’s psychohistorical plan, around which the plotting of the entire Foundation series occurs, suggests that Asimov at one time believed in the existence of mathematically quantifiable, predetermined collective forces that drive historical processes. By 1955, however, he held an opposing view, which he expounded in The End of Eternity. In fact, over time, Asimov led his readers to wonder if he had resolved these great questions himself. In the Foundation series, after all, it is Seldon, an individualist, rather than a collective mind who develops the law of psychohistory.

A few writers of future histories, such as Mark Twain and H. G. Wells, anticipated Asimov’s grappling with the causes of historical development. Others such as Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, and Frank Herbert began publishing their writings as Asimov’s Foundation series evolved, and others have followed. For intellectual breadth, imaginative interplay of science and history, and sheer engaging volume of work, however, the Foundation series remains unsurpassed.