Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series (1951 – 1993)
A long time ago, before the internet, before eReaders and iPads, before PDFs and webzines, people used to consume their literature in two forms – books and magazines. The former was the natural progression from the latter for many a struggling would-be author. Numerous young writers began their careers writing short stories or linked serialisations of their stories in the pages of weekly and monthly magazines. The concept was particularly well suited to genre literature: Detective Fiction, Thrillers, Romance, and of course Science-Fiction and Fantasy. Many great Sci-Fi novels began as serialised adventures in the pages of the small but intensely competitive battle ground of magazine publishing. Titles like Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures were eagerly snapped up by young boys (and men – and some girls and women) in the America of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the heyday of the pulps, and by their counterparts elsewhere in the world. One notable novel to have emerged from the tail end of this era was Frank Herbert’s epic Dune. Another, from its so-called Golden Age, was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which began in serialised form in the Astounding Magazine periodical from 1942 to 1950 and later followed the well-trod route to book form with three complied volumes published in 1951, 1952 and 1953.
Asimov’s inspiration was in part the best known work of the historian Edward Gibbon, the ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. Asimov wanted to create a futuristic story with a similar background, the rise and fall of some great star-spanning empire – the Galactic Empire. His concept was to set a series of human dramas against this great background, in part illuminating it, in part driving it. So we are given a series of dramatic vignettes dealing with a small planet and society perched on the edge of the soon to be crumbling and then finally crumbling empire, a society which is destined (predestined in fact) to become the epicentre of new future empire built upon the bones of the old one. At least that was the intent at the outset of the stories though Asimov in fact reinterpreted the basis of the series several times to match new ideas and concepts elsewhere in his writing, and like many other writers retroactively tried to tie all his works together (for reasons both noble and perhaps mercenary).
The three earliest novels in the series are the very epitome of American Cold War Sci-Fi. At times endearing, at time cringe-worthy, fully rounded human characters and motivations are rare: most are stereotypes, cardboard cut-outs, with dialogue that is sometimes embarrassingly old fashioned, filled with antiquated views about politics, economics and gender. Yet the books themselves do work as pieces of fiction, as literary pieces of an overall story arc. Asimov is sufficiently gifted and imaginative to create a pleasingly believable future for us to explore, with a sort of now retro-chic feel to it. While things like ‘Space Navies’ and ‘Ships of the Line’ should jar they in fact add a quaint charm to the whole thing, bygone ideas of a bygone age of Sci-Fi (though of course some modern Sci-Fi writers still use those terms or similarly anachronistic phrases when they should know better). Likewise the use of ‘introductions’ to each chapter (which in part inspired Frank Herbert in his later Dune series) while a trick devise with long routes in the SF and Fantasy genres still manages to add greatly to the air of verisimilitude and the overall sense of ‘historicalness’ about the story. And unlike many others, Asimov’s ‘introductions’ are in fact an important component of the narrative, the Encyclopaedia Galactica, the sum of all human knowledge which was at one time to serve as the bedrock of a reborn Galactic Empire. It has had as many imitators in the Sci-Fi genre, from writers as diverse as Gordon R. Dickson to Douglas Adams, and is a lasting testament to Isaac Asimov’s influence. Despite all the limitations of the Foundation books the reader is carried along and is willing to turn the pages – and keep turning.
After hitting the shelves in the early 1950s the original novels of the Foundation series remained in almost continuous print thereafter. Nearly thirty years later Asimov was persuaded to return to the unfinished series but by then both he and the world he was writing for had moved on. The later books (beginning in 1982) seem like they come from another series altogether, lacking completely the charm of the original, and stretch the original boundaries of the story to breaking point in order to tie them into other stories by Asimov now set at different times in the same imagined future universe. It is the original group of stories that remain the quintessential ‘Foundation’ series and one may fairly ignore the rest and loose nothing in the process.