The Novels

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Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy is a work designed on an astonishing scale. The actions it describes cover more than four centuries and many solar systems. This, however, is only a fraction of the much larger perspective behind the story, for the sequence opens with a view of a Galactic Empire including more than twenty-five million inhabited planets; that Empire is furthermore the result of an expansion into space so long-drawn-out that even the memory of Earth itself has vanished. All one can say is that the Foundation era begins more than twelve thousand years in the future, at a time when Sol III is known only as one of the possible worlds of human origin, and when all the knowledge and history of human beings to date have dwindled to a few scraps of legend.

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Yet the story that Foundation and its successors seek to tell is that of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire, together with its replacement by something yet greater, not only in scale but also in achievement. To add a final implausibility to this ambitious project, the three novels do not even appear to have been conceived as a whole, but instead first came out as a string of seven short stories and one three-part serial in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1950, all of these being then collected (with one additional story to round them out) in the three volumes making up The Foundation Trilogy. Asimov, in other words, did not know how his story would finish when he started. Yet the enormous scale of what he was doing was evident from the beginning. One cannot avoid the question of how he hoped to hold his story or stories together.

The unifying factor of the sequence is, however, perfectly clear, and provides an especially good example of the theory that science fiction is above all “idea centered.” The main idea of all the Foundation stories is psychohistory, or Seldon’s Plan. In essence, Asimov suggests that all of history, and all of politics, are controlled by forces as intrinsically open to classification as those of physics. These forces normally evade classification, first because human beings are themselves involved in them, and therefore cannot treat them dispassionately, and second because they are overwhelmingly statistical, working only—both these points are repeatedly stressed—on large bodies of people, and on people with no true understanding of what is happening to them. At the very start of Foundation, though, one man has arisen who has refined millennia of intuition into the exact science of psychohistory, and has seen from his studies that the Galactic Empire, then at its height of power, must inevitably fall into a new Dark Age.

This man is Hari Seldon, and the plan he has developed is aimed, not at thwarting the Dark Age’s coming—for this is now inevitable—but at mitigating its effects, shortening it indeed from thirty millennia to one. This will be achieved, he suggests, by setting up a scientific “Foundation” at the far end of the Galaxy, on the world of Terminus, so that knowledge will never completely be lost. All three volumes of the trilogy are then set within the first four centuries or so from the establishment of Seldon’s Foundation. They cover the beginning of the new Dark Age, the slow expansion of the Foundation...

(The entire section contains 857 words.)

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