Basic Course: Your Guide to Asimov Books and History
The books, the legend, the legacy, the series and why the origin story of the Isaac Asimov Foundation is so much like how JK Rowling first imagined Harry Potter. Here’s all you need to know.
The Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation), published between 1951 and 1953, is a gem even among science fiction classics. In 1966, it won the Hugo Award for Best Series of All Time, beating The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. It is a single price; no other book has received it.
Asimov was only 21 when he imagined the first stories. But he had a head start. Born in Soviet Russia in 1920 and three years old when his family moved to New York City, he grew up reading voraciously – locals remember he had a book under one arm and his nose in another as he ‘he was walking in the street; came from a family who ran a store that sold candy and science fiction; and is a regular contributor to the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction.
Foundation was born during a metro ride in 1941, when Asimov was on his way to meet the magazine’s editor-in-chief, another science fiction giant, John W Campbell. Along the way, he developed an idea about a declining empire, inspired by historian Edward Gibbon’s 18th-century classic, The Story of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Asimov’s tale extended to eight short stories, published between 1942 and 1950, after which he developed them into novels. JK Rowling said the idea of Harry Potter “hit her head after a similar ride on the London Underground, after a weekend home search.
The trilogy is sprawling. An all-powerful Galactic Empire has ruled over thousands of planets for thousands of years. One scientist, however, predicted that the system is on the verge of collapse. How does Hari Seldon know this? He developed psychohistory, a discipline that can predict the future using mathematics and data on collective human behavior.
The Empire is not happy. But how do you minimize the dark days ahead? Establish Foundation, a library of all knowledge and technology to fall back on. They do it through thick and thin, even fighting barbarians and warlords. So far, so good. But then comes a twist. It turns out that Seldon had an entirely different motive for building his encyclopedia, which is not revealed until centuries later, in the middle of the second book.
This is not the story of a single hero. And despite the space travel and blaster weapons, it’s not much of an action adventure. The novels are about society, about what people do to exercise, retain and wrest power. How big data doesn’t always do what it says. And how knowledge can change the future.
It is by no means a perfect job. Critics, even fans, found Asimov’s characters lacking depth. There are always more words and thoughts than action. Women are sexualized. A friend of Asimov once described him as someone who “turned into a dirty old man at the age of 15”, a title the author readily acknowledged. The Apple TV show will likely offer more nuance and responsible storytelling – a key character, Gaal Dornick, was written as a male but is played by a female on the show.
The Foundation’s universe is not limited to the trilogy. All three books are the best place to start before moving on to sequels, prequels, and side stories. Or you can start with the TV series.
Two Foundation episodes released on September 24. Eight more are expected to fall, one at a time, every Friday. Jared Harris, who you may remember from the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl, plays Seldon. Other stars include Lee Pace as Brother Emperor Day, Cassian Bilton as Brother Dawn, Terrence Mann as Brother Dusk, and Laura Birn as Emperor Demerzel’s assistant.
David S Goyer Foundation Showrunner, who co-wrote Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), says he made a one-sentence pitch to Apple to get the job. He described the Foundation as a “1,000-year-old chess game between Hari Seldon and the Empire, and all of the characters in between are pawns, but some of the pawns during this saga end up becoming kings and Queens”. It’s as good a summary as any.
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