The Foundation Trilogy Essay - Critical Evaluation

Isaac Asimov

Critical Evaluation

The Foundation trilogy has become one of the texts on which the science-fiction future history subgenre is based, and its popularity validates its canonical status. The trilogy has sold millions of copies in many languages and has never been out of print. Its vision of a human galactic empire encompassing 25 million stars provided a broad canvas on which to paint human progress or downfall. It begins—like Edward Gibbons’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), on which the trilogy was modeled—with the impending dissolution of civilization and efforts to avert an ensuing dark age.

Donald Wollheim was a fellow member with Isaac Asimov of the Futurians (a seminal Brooklyn fan organization of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s), the editor of Ace Books, and then editor and publisher of DAW Books. In The Universe Makers (1971), Wollheim called the Foundation trilogy “the point of departure for the full cosmogony of science-fiction future history.” The 1966 World Science Fiction Convention voted the trilogy “the greatest all-time science fiction series.” Numerous scientists have attributed their interest in science to their early reading of the trilogy. These include theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who has said that he went into economics because it was the closest thing he could find to psychohistory.

A number of misconceptions arise from calling the work a “trilogy.” It is a sequence of three books with a coherent topic: the fall of the Galactic Empire and efforts by Hari Seldon and his successors to shorten the period of barbarism that would follow from thirty thousand years to only one thousand years. However, none of the three books was orginally conceived as a single novel. The first book, Foundation, is made up of five novelettes, four of them written and published in Astounding Science Fiction over a period of three years. The first section of the book was written specifically for the publication of the book in 1951. The second book, Foundation and Empire, is composed of two novellas, written in 1944 and 1945 and published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945. The third book, Second Foundation, consists of two more novellas, written in 1947 and 1949 and published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1948 and 1949.

Before and during World War II, almost no science fiction was published in book form, and Asimov had no idea that he was writing anything but magazine fiction that would die with the issue of the magazine in which it was published. He was astonished after the war to find editors interested in reprinting his magazine stories in anthologies and a few publishers interested in publishing complete Asimov books. One of the publishers was Doubleday, whose editor, Lawrence Ashmead, asked Asimov for an original novel, rather than reprinted material. Asimov wrote Pebble in the Sky (1950), in which he imagined Earth’s radioactivity increasing, shortening human lifespans and forcing humanity to seek a refuge among the stars that would ultimately lead to the Galactic Empire. Only a fan publisher, Gnome Press, was interested in Foundation, and Asimov published it there in 1951, followed by Foundation and Empire in 1952, and Second Foundation in 1953. Later, the books would be acquired and reprinted by Doubleday.

The problem with considering the trilogy as three coherent, sequential novels is that readers will fail to...

(The entire section is 1450 words.)