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History as inspiration, part 1

Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy

Does history serve a practical purpose? Yes, it does, and nowhere is its practical use more evident than in how it has inspired countless modern works, including Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

I though it would be fun to do a short series of articles about different things that have taken inspiration from the ancient world (other than Star Trek!). In this first instalment, I focus on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy of books.

Together, the books in the Foundation trilogy are probably the best known science-fiction novels, rivalled only, perhaps, by such landmark works as Frank Herbert’s Dune, or the older novels written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. And while I write “trilogy”, but Asimov actually added more books to the series, and retroactively connected them to his series of Robot books, as well as The End of Eternity. All of those books are well worth reading (though I admit that I have a particular fondness for The End of Eternity), but the original trilogy offers arguably the best read.

The Foundation trilogy consists of the books Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). The books were originally published in Astounding magazine, in the 1940s and early 1950s, in the form of short stories and novellas before being bundled together. The books have been continually in print ever since the first edition, and cheap paperbacks can be found almost anywhere if you’re interested.

The premise of the series as a whole is straightforward. Scientist Hari Seldon has developed a new discpline known as “psychohistory” that allows him to predict the future in a broad sense (i.e. large-scale developments only). Using psychohistory, he realizes that the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way Galaxy, will collapse in the next three centuries.

The ensuing Dark Age would last 30,000 years. However, Seldon has figured out a way to avoid this prolonged Dark Age by creating an enclave on artisans, scientists, and others at the extreme edge of the galaxy, who will preserve humanity’s knowledge. These people will be the foundation – hence the name – of a Second Galactic Empire.

All of the foregoing can be found in the first book of the trilogy. The second book deals with an attack of the dying Galactic Empire against the Foundation and the rise of a mysterious character known only as the Mule, a mutant who is able to read and manipulate the emotions of others. Seldon had failed to predict the appearance of the Mule, causing consternation among the leaders of the Foundation.

To reveal more, would spoil the story of the trilogy, and it’s best experienced by yourself. The only thing I will add is that, unbeknownst to almost anyone, Hari Seldon had also created a Second Foundation, as the title of the last book makes obvious. This Second Foundation consists of psychohistorians, who seek to build on Hari Seldon’s work and who also have to keep an eye on the First Foundation.

As is perhaps obvious, Asimov was inspired by Edward Gibbon’s classic work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789). He worked out a lot of the details of the story with editor John W. Campbell. There are obvious parallels between Asimov’s Galactic Empire and the Roman Empire, and the concept of a “Dark Age” following the collapse of an empire has obvious parallels with history. The location of Terminus at the very edge of the galaxy, the place where the First Foundation was to preserve human civilization, is comparable to the role that some have ascribe to Ireland after the fall of the Roman Empire (see, for example, this article based on the book How the Irish Saved Civilization).

I thoroughly recommend that you check out the Foundation trilogy. You’ll notice how Asimov’s books have served as a source of inspiration for others, most notably George Lucas, creator of Star Wars. The evil Empire, on the verge of collapse, is not too dissimilar from Asimov’s Galactic Empire, and Lucas’s city-world of Coruscant is more than just superficially similar to Asimov’s gleaming capital planet of Trantor.