Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series (1951 – 1993)
A long time ago and in an era far away, before the internet, before eReaders and iPads, before PDFs and webzines, people used to consume their literature in two forms – magazines and books. The latter was the natural progression from the former for many a struggling would-be author. Numerous writers began their careers penning short stories or linked serialisations of their stories in the pages of weekly and monthly periodicals. The form 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 intensely competitive battle ground of magazine publishing. Titles like Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures were eagerly snapped up by young boys (and men and women) in the United States 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 period was Frank Herbert’s epic Dune, a conflation of two earlier stories. Another from the so-called Golden Age was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This 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 most famous work of the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, the ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. Asimov wished to create a futuristic story with a similar background, though charting the destruction of some great star-spanning civilization – the Galactic Empire. His aim was to set a series of human dramas it this catastrophic event, in part illuminating it, in part driving it. So a he wrote a collection of dramatic vignettes dealing with a small planet and society perched on the edge of the soon to be crumbling empire, a society which is destined (predestined in fact) to become the epicentre of future interstellar state built upon the bones of the old one. Or at least that was the intent at the outset of the stories. Asimov in fact reinterpreted the basis of the Foundation books 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 times 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 pieces of an overall narrative arc. Asimov is sufficiently gifted and imaginative to create a pleasingly believable future for us to explore, with a sort of 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 books) while a trick device with long roots in the SF and Fantasy field still manages to add greatly to the air of verisimilitude and the overall sense of ‘historicalness’ about the story. 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 authors 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 saga the reader is carried along in page-turning anticipation.
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 story 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 the charm of the original, and stretch the original boundaries of the story to breaking point in order to tie them to other publications written by Asimov. 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.
Much better than Dune, which has some non -credible postulates, are Frank Herberts earlier ‘Dragon Under the Sea’ and ‘Destination Void’. The latter is somewhat dated in terms of the hardware described, but the enquiry into consciousness is admirable. The sequels are avoidable. Dragon Under the Sea can be understood now as an alternative reality/world story, as it postulates a US/Russia hot war in the early 2000’s.
As for the ‘Foundation’ series, well, I liked it 50 years ago. I don’t think I could read it now.