Isaac Asimov was especially known for his ability to explain complicated scientific concepts clearly. Although his reputation as a writer is based primarily on his science fiction, his nonfiction writings are useful reference works on the many subjects he covered. His goal was not only to entertain but also to inform.
Most of Asimov’s novels are science fiction, and, of these, fourteen novels are tied together at some point with part of the Foundation series. Early in his writing career Asimov established four series of stories: the Empire series, consisting of three novels and collections of short stories; the Foundation series, consisting of seven novels, with more that Asimov outlined to be finished by other authors; the Robot series, consisting of four novels and collections of short stories; and the Lucky Starr series, a collection of six works for children not related to the Foundation series. Asimov borrowed heavily from history, specifically the history of the Roman Empire, to create his plot lines for the Foundation books. Of all his novels, The Gods Themselves, a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, was Asimov’s favorite.
The Empire series consists of three novels, Pebble in the Sky, The Stars Like Dust, and The Currents of Space. Later Foundation series books attempt to tie these three into that series. Asimov’s first published novel, Pebble in the Sky, is the best of these. The writing is not Asimov’s most polished, but the hero, Joseph Schwartz, provides an interesting middle-aged counterpoint to Bel Arvardan, a younger man of action coping with a postapocalyptic, radioactive Earth.
The Foundation series began as a trilogy. The first three Foundation books, known for some time as the Foundation trilogy, were written in the 1950’s and took much of their plot lines from the history of the Roman Empire. Because of the length of the trilogy, it is rarely taught in schools, but the first two of the three books, Foundation and Foundation and Empire, are examples of Asimov’s fiction at its best.
The hero of these novels is Hari Seldon, a mathematician who invents the discipline of psychohistory. Using psychohistory, Seldon is able to predict the coming fall of the empire and to help set up the Foundation in order to help humankind move more quickly through the coming “dark ages” that will be caused by the collapse of the empire. Psychohistory is unable to predict individual mutations and events in human history, however, so Seldon’s Foundation is unable to predict the rise of the Mule, a mutant of superior intelligence, to the position of galactic overlord. Asimov’s introduction of the concept of psychohistory, a science that could predict the future course of humankind, has inspired many scholars of history, psychology, sociology, and economics and was significant in the creation of an actual psychohistory major at some colleges and universities.
By the third book, Second Foundation, Asimov was tired of the Foundation story and came up with two alternate endings that he hoped would let him be free of it. In the first, the Mule discovers the secret second Foundation and destroys it, thereby ending Seldon’s plan. Asimov’s editor talked him out of this ending, so he wrote another, in which the Second Foundation triumphs. Seldon’s plan is restored to course and nothing of interest happens again to the human species—thus freeing Asimov from the need to write further Foundation novels. Time and financial incentives eventually overcame Asimov’s boredom with the Foundation trilogy, however, and thirty years later, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, he began filling in the gaps around the original stories with other novels. He went on to produce Foundation’s Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, and Forward the Foundation . None of these has quite the same magic as the...
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- Critical Essays