Foundation course: Your guide to Asimov’s books and backstory

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series casts a long shadow over science fiction. See why, and what connections Hari Seldon to Harry Potter.
Foundation course: Your guide to Asimov’s books and backstory PREMIUM
Foundation course: Your guide to Asimov’s books and backstory
Updated on Sep 24, 2021 08:33 PM IST
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The books, the legend, the legacy, the series, and why the origin story of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation sounds so much like how JK Rowling first dreamed up Harry Potter. Here’s everything you need to know.

The Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation), published between 1951 and 1953, is a gem even among sci-fi classics. In 1966, it won the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, beating JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s a one-time award; no other book has received it.

Asimov was just 21 when he thought up the first stories. But he’d had a headstart. Born in Soviet Russia in 1920 and three when his family moved to New York City, he grew up reading voraciously — locals recall he had a book under one arm and his nose in another even as he walked down the street; came from a family that ran a store that sold candy and sci-fi works; and contributed regularly to the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction.

Foundation was born during a subway ride in 1941, when Asimov was on his way to meet the magazine’s editor, another sci-fi giant, John W Campbell. En route, he worked out an idea about an empire in decline, inspired by historian Edward Gibbon’s 18th-century classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Asimov’s tale expanded to eight short stories, published between 1942 and 1950, after which he developed them into the novels. JK Rowling has said that the idea for Harry Potter “fell into” her head after a similar ride on the London Tube, following a spell of house-hunting one weekend.

Born in Soviet Russia and three when his family moved to New York City, Asimov grew up reading voraciously; came from a family that ran a store that sold sci-fi works; and contributed regularly to the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. (Mondadori via Getty Images)
Born in Soviet Russia and three when his family moved to New York City, Asimov grew up reading voraciously; came from a family that ran a store that sold sci-fi works; and contributed regularly to the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. (Mondadori via Getty Images)

The trilogy is sprawling. An all-powerful Galactic Empire has been governing thousands of planets over thousands of years. One scientist, however, has predicted that the system is set to collapse. How does Hari Seldon know? He developed psychohistory, a discipline that can predict the future using maths and data on collective human behaviour.

The Empire isn’t pleased. But how to minimise the dark days to come? Establish Foundation, a library of all knowledge and tech, to fall back on. They do it against heavy odds, even fighting barbarians and warlords. So far, so good. But then comes a plot twist. Seldon, it turns out, had an entirely different motive to build his encyclopaedia, which is revealed only centuries later, in the middle of the second book.

This isn’t the story of one hero. And despite the space travel and blaster weaponry, it’s not really an action adventure. The novels are about society, what people do to wield, retain and wrest power. How big data isn’t always doing what it says. And how knowledge can change the future.

It is by no means a perfect work. Critics, even fans, have found Asimov’s characters lacking in depth. There’s always more talk and thought than there is action. Women are sexualised. A friend of Asimov once described him as someone who’d “turned into a dirty old man at age 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 male but is played by a woman on the show.

There’s more to the Foundation universe than just the trilogy. The three books are the best place to start before you move on to the sequels, prequels and side stories. Or you could start with the TV series.

Two episodes of Foundation were released on September 24. Eight more are scheduled to drop, one at a time, every Friday. Jared Harris, whom you might remember from the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl, plays Seldon. Other stars include Lee Pace as Emperor Brother Day, Cassian Bilton as Brother Dawn, Terrence Mann as Brother Dusk and Laura Birn as the emperor’s aide Demerzel.

Foundation’s showrunner David S Goyer, 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 Foundation as a “1,000-year chess game between Hari Seldon and the Empire, and all the characters in between are the pawns, but some of the pawns over the course of this saga end up becoming kings and queens”. That’s as good a summary as any.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021