Regular blog readers also know my three all-time favorite authors of this style of literature are Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Robert A. Heinlein. Isaac, the “good doctor,” is probably the greatest of the three in my estimation. He was a doctor. Ph.D. in biochemistry and a professor at Boston University. But his life was soon absorbed in writing, and he is one of the most successful American authors of all time, regardless of the genre. And not just in Science Fiction. Plenty of nonfiction too. His books have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.
I’ve read just about everything he ever wrote, both fiction and nonfiction, and that’s quite a boast since he authored over 500 books. He wrote so much that even the total number is in doubt and depends on how you count it. But no matter how you perform the math, that is a prodigious output and it wasn’t just SciFi, but books on science, physics, chemistry, astronomy, even the Bible and Shakespeare. The “good doctor” indeed!
I don’t know when I first read the Foundation Trilogy. Probably some time in the late fifties or early sixties, but conceivably I didn’t read the three until I was in the Navy in 67-73. I don’t remember exactly when. Like all of his work, I was very impressed by the story … the scope and expanse of a tale that included the entire galaxy (what we would call the Milky Way). He imagined mankind expanding and colonizing the entire galaxy. A civilization of millions of worlds and trillions of people. Although it isn’t clear, especially in the first three books, ultimately the series was expanded and we learn what we always suspected. All these people are descendants of the men and women of Earth.
Foundation was originally a series of eight short stories published in Astounding Magazine between May 1942 and January 1950. According to Asimov, the premise was based on ideas set forth in Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and was invented spontaneously on his way to meet with editor John W. Campbell, with whom he developed the concepts of the collapse of the Galactic Empire, the civilization-preserving Foundations, and psychohistory.
Psychohistory was a branch of science developed by Hari Seldon at a time when the Galactic Empire was in decline. (Compare this idea to the fall of the Roman Empire and the dark ages that followed its collapse.) Psychohistory combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people. Seldon, a mathematician, had developed the method. It could not predict the actions of an individual, but collectively and with statistical accuracy limits well known to those that follow election polls, it would describe the actions of nations, worlds, and the entire empire.
Seldon foresaw a complete collapse that would last for 30,000 years. Repeating the dark ages after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. His plan was to establish two “foundations.” These core organizations would work, using psychohistory, to reduce the collapse to just 1,000 years and leave a reborn (and much improved and stable) galactic civilization.
The magazine short stories were collected, along with a new story taking place before the others, in a single volume published by Gnome Press in 1951 as Foundation. The remainder of the trilogy were published in pairs by Gnome as Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), resulting in the "Foundation Trilogy," as the series is still known.
Much later, in 1981, Asimov was persuaded by his publishers to write a fourth book, which became Foundation's Edge (1982). Four years later, Asimov followed up with yet another sequel, Foundation and Earth (1986), which was followed by the prequels Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993). During the two-year lapse between writing the sequels and prequels, Asimov had tied in his Foundation series with his various other series, creating a single unified universe.
The basic link is mentioned in Foundation's Edge: an obscure tradition about a first wave of space settlements with robots and then a second without. The idea is the one developed in Asimov’s Robots of Dawn, which, in addition to showing the way that the second wave of settlements were to be allowed, illustrates the benefits and shortcomings of the first wave of settlements and their so-called C/Fe culture. In this same book, the word psychohistory is used to describe the nascent idea of Seldon's work. Some of the drawbacks to this style of colonization, also called Spacer culture, are also exemplified by the events described in The Naked Sun.
This complete work of seven novels, some sequels to the original trilogy, and some prequels in a sense merged all of Asimov’s work. This included his robot stories with the three laws of robotics as well as the “Spacer” tales and even his interesting SciFi detective stories that starred the “stay at home” sleuth Elijah Bailey and his robot companion R. Daneel Olivaw. The early exploration of the galaxy covered in these books and tales of the Empire which predated the Galactic Federation are fit into the overall plot. Places such as the planet Solaria and mental telepathy are all combined with a search for mankind's original planet, now all but forgotten by the Galactic Civilization.
I had read the trilogy years ago, and read Foundations Edge over thirty years ago. I recently purchased the entire 7 book combination for the Kindle and read it all over the last few months. The collection was ordered the original three novels, which I re-read to remember the details, and then the sequels. Finally, at the end of the collection, came the prequels. Some what of an odd ordering time-wise, but it made sense reading it that way. Besides, with a Kindle, rather than individual volumes, it works best to just follow along the intended order.
I won’t ruin any of the stories by repeating plots or climaxes, but I did finish the series just the other night and it was a pleasing capstone for this long time fan of Asimov. Now I really do think I’ve read everything he every wrote. I don’t know what will happen to my library after I’m no longer here to read and enjoy it. It isn’t fancy. Mostly just paperbacks. I hope that somewhere, an Asimov fan will get that collection whether from a second hand store that my heirs assign it to, or possibly he or she will find it in the dump. Words on paper. That’s all it is. (Sadly the Kindle works will probably just be deleted. A downside of electronic books. They don’t fit on the shelves.)
In any case, it doesn’t matter. It is how those books and those words molded and shaped my life and career that is important. I assume there will always be libraries full of Asimov’s words for future generations to explore. After all, the Galactic Library and the Encyclopedia Galactica from the series give away Asimov’s own view of literature. A little study will quickly show that I’m not the only one influenced by the series or other of Asimov’s writings. Many a famous scientist and economist will tell of the early influence of this wide open tale.
Sure there’s Star Trek and Star Wars … they’ve influenced a lot of people. But folks my age will probably tell you of their early influences that predated television and special effects movies. Reading is the theatre of the mind, and the effects and impact are only limited by the mind of the readers.
I’ve had many mentors in my life and times. Asimov, although I never met him, was one of the more important ones. Some of my first exposure to deeper concepts of physics and astronomy, plus chemistry and many other physical sciences, was in books written by the good doctor. Thank you Isaac. Live long and prosper. (He died in 1992 at 72 years of age. But he still lives on in the hearts and minds of his gentle readers, including yours truly.)
If you’ve never read the Foundation Trilogy or the expanded series, that’s still a great place to start. It isn’t hard to find lists of all the books that are now considered part of the expanded universe of Isaac Asimov. It won’t take that long for you to read them all. Oddly, very few movies have been made from his tales. I Robot was pretty good, but you really need to read the book(s)!
Perhaps the biggest problem when tackling Asimov's work is what order to read the books. The author himself suggested this series. So this is a solid recommendation. He wrote in the Author's Note of the Prelude to Foundation that he is providing a guide for those readers that might appreciate it since the books "were not written in the order in which (perhaps) they should be read." Therein, he offers the following chronological order: