Issac Asimov’s Foundation series beat out Lord of the Rings for the Hugo Award’s Best All-Time Series while it was still just a trilogy. While the first three volumes were released in 1951, 1952, and 1953, respectively, Asimov began adding to the series in the 80s. While we endure the interminable wait for the HBO adaptation to start production, let’s review how it all began.
Part I—The Psychohistorians
The first book begins with an excerpt from an Encyclopedia Galactica entry on Hari Seldon, the mathematician who revolutionized the field of Psychohistory (“that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli”). The entry mentions that he died one year after the inception of the new “Foundational Era,” which came after the “Galactic Era.” His biography was written by Gaal Dornick. In Part 1 we follow Gaal’s journey to Trantor, the seat of the Imperial Government of the Galactic Empire, to come work for Hari Seldon. Gaal is followed to his hotel and then to the observation deck he goes to to see more of Trantor, where his pursuer informs him that Hari Seldon predicts disasters. Hari Seldon then appears unexpectedly in Gaal’s room and tells him that he’s calculated a high probability that Trantor will become completely destroyed within three centuries:
“As Trantor becomes more specialized, it becomes more vulnerable, less able to defend itself. Further, as it becomes more and more the administrative center of Empire, it becomes a greater prize. As the Imperial succession becomes more and more uncertain, and the feuds among the great families more rampant, social responsibility disappears.”
Gaal is arrested the next morning and he and Hari Seldon are put on trial for treason with the claim that Seldon’s prediction is designed to be self-fulfilling, that the destruction of Trantor would not actually happen without his prediction. Seldon manages to convince the aristocrats trying him that this is not the case, and that he has nearly 100,000 people working with him on a project to alleviate not the fall of the empire, which is too far along to do anything about, but to minimize the dark period that will follow the fall from 30,000 years to 1,000 years with the creation of a comprehensive encyclopedia that preserves human knowledge. They send him and his group to the uninhabited planet Terminus at the edge of the galaxy to work on the encyclopedia. This exile turns out to have been part of Seldon’s master plan all along. A companion Foundation will also be set up on the opposite side of the Galaxy.
Part II—The Encylopedists
The Encyclopedists have now been on Terminus for fifty years and have established “Encyclopedia Foundation Number One.” Pirenne, an encyclopedist and Chairman of the Board of Trustees (and so a representative of the Emperor), is working when the mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, comes in and tells him that the governor of Anacreon has declared himself king, an action which will effectively cut Terminus off from the rest of the empire since they’ll block Terminus’s trade route to get metals, which don’t exist on Terminus. Hardin wants to establish some kind of government to fight off Anacreon, but Pirenne insists they can only focus on the encyclopedia. Hardin says Anacreon is sending a special envoy of dubious purpose in two weeks. Anacreon’s prefect, Haut Rodric, comes and announces that they think the nearby kingdom of Smyrno will attack Terminus and so they’re going to establish a military base on Terminus to protect it. He tries to get Pirenne and Hardin to agree to some kind of payment for this protection, like giving away land, and Hardin says something about getting more plutonium for their atomic power plant; from Rodric’s reaction he gauges that none of the surrounding kingdoms in the Periphery have atomic power anymore. Hardin argues with the Board of Trustees about whether the Empire sending its Chancellor will actually nullify the Anacreon threat; Hardin asserts that the mission of recording pre-existing knowledge, this lack of forward progress, is the reason the Empire is dying. One Board member reminds them that soon it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Foundation and so Hari Seldon’s Time Vault will open. The Empire’s Chancellor, Lord Dorwin, arrives on Terminus and pontificates on how well-read he is in archaeology, dismissing the need for any actual firsthand knowledge; he also calls the planets in the Periphery “barbarous” (actually “bahbawous,” since he can’t pronounce his r’s). After Lord Dorwin leaves, Anacreon sends a demand that if Terminus doesn’t give them what they want in a week, they’ll take it by force, a threat Hardin concludes they’ve sent because the Board just told them that the Empire would support Terminus against Anacreon. Hardin examines the treaty the Empire has with Anacreon and deduces that it essentially says the Empire actually has no power over Anacreon. The Board is surprised, since Dorwin promised the Empire’s support, but Hardin recorded everything Dorwin said and analyzes it to show that Dorwin actually made no concrete promises. One Board member says they need to wait for Hari Seldon’s advice on the matter when the Vault opens, and Hardin goes on another rant about Galaxy-wide stagnation and worship of the past being the reason so many planets have lost nuclear power. He points out that Hari Seldon didn’t allow any psychologists on the Foundation because he didn’t want anyone to be able to figure out the real plan. Hardin then discusses plans to overthrow the Board with Yohan Lee. He watches with the Board members as a hologram of Hari Seldon appears from the Vault and tells them the Encyclopedia was a “fraudulent project.” Seldon further expounds:
You will be faced with a series of crises, as you are now faced with the first, and in each case your freedom of action will become similarly circumscribed so that you will be forced along one, and only one, path.
He says their plan is still for both Foundations to shorten the period of barbarism that will happen after the inevitable Fall of the Empire that’s already started, but that he can’t tell them what the actual plan is. He says that due to their being “an island of nuclear power in a growing ocean of more primitive energy” the answer to their current crisis is obvious. The Board members admit they were wrong, but Hardin thinks it’s too late because Lee’s men will already be in charge. In six months he believes Anacreon’s threat will also be nullified thanks to the obvious solution.
Part III—The Mayors
Thirty years after his “coup against the Encyclopedists,” Hardin is talking to Yohan Lee. Around the time of the coup, Terminus lost all contact with the Empire, and now communicates only with its four surrounding kingdoms—as the planets became known after the Empire lost control over them. A deputation from the City Council of four young men headed by Sef Sermak comes in and complains that the foreign policy of the last thirty years has stripped Terminus and made it defenseless by appeasing these kingdoms with bribes (including nuclear power) so they won’t attack them. They’re forming a new political party that will overthrow him unless he resigns. When Sermak says they need to attack the kingdoms before the kingdoms attack them, Hardin reminds him of how he handled the situation with Anacreon thirty years ago: he went to the other three kingdoms and told them that if Anacreon got Terminus’s secret of nuclear power then it would also be a threat against them, the kingdoms, and so the three kingdoms banded together and forced Anacreon off Terminus. His gifts to the kingdoms are ways to play them off against each other. Sermak complains that:
“Yes, but you were forced to surround these scientific gifts with the most outrageous mummery. You’ve made half religion, half balderdash out of it. You’ve erected a hierarchy of priests and complicated, meaningless ritual.”
Hardin explains that he started presenting science as a religion “because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery.” The kingdoms developed a priesthood, and it’s the priests who run the nuclear power plants. Lee brings Hardin a paper with some kind of message. After Sermak’s deputation leaves, Lee says that Hardin needs to be careful with Sermak since he’s gaining a large following. Hardin reveals that the message was that Ambassador Verisof is coming to Terminus. Verisof is a high priest on Anacreon who, after complimenting Hardin on how well turning science into a religion has worked out, tells him about the deteriorating situation there due to the young King Lepold’s uncle, the regent Wienis, who has clashed with the priests in the past, and who wants to attack the Foundation. They recently found an old battle cruiser floating in space from centuries ago in good condition and with significantly more capabilities than existing ships. When the Foundation requested it for research purposes, Wienis tried to claim this was evidence the Foundation was planning to attack them. Hardin advises Verisof to let Wienis repair the ship; he plans to let the situation ride until there’s only one possible course of action for them, as per Seldon’s Plan, though he’s worried that the internal pressure posed by Sermak and the external pressure posed by Wienis should have come to a head at the same time, but they’re a few months off.
On Anacreon, the young King Lepold has just returned from a Nyakbird hunt when his uncle Wienis comes to his chambers to tell him there will be war with the Foundation for withholding the source of their power from them. He says that Salvor Hardin is coming to Anacreon on Lepold’s birthday and remembers the last time Hardin came, with the power of the other three kingdoms behind him to kick Anacreon off Terminus. The thought of killing Hardin makes Lepold nervous because he’s afraid it might offend the Galactic Spirit (which he learned all about from Verisof), even though Wienis tells him that the religious stuff is all nonsense, nonsense that helps them rule because the populace believes the king rules by divine right; he points out that if they destroy the Foundation he’ll be eliminating everyone who doesn’t believe he rules by divine right. Lepold agrees to do what Wienis says. Lewis Bort, a member of Sermak’s new Action Party, has gone to Anacreon to spy and reports back to Sermak about how functional the religion the Foundation has created is there, so entrenched that there’s no possibility of overthrowing a king who supposedly rules by divine right. The Foundation has put science behind making the king appear divine by giving him a radioactive aura that burns people when they touch him and a throne capable of flying. None of them can understand why Hardin established “monarch worship.” They wonder how much time they have before Anacreon attacks. Someone bursts in with a paper announcing that Hardin is going to Anacreon, and Sermak says he’ll try to have Hardin impeached for treason, thinking that he’s really been working with Anacreon all along. On his way to the airport to go to Anacreon, Hardin discusses with Lee Sermak’s failed impeachment attempt and his party’s vow to take action. Hardin tells Lee to tell everyone there will be another Hari Seldon Vault appearance on the upcoming eightieth anniversary of the Foundation’s founding; though he doesn’t know if it’s true, he hopes it will postpone Sermak’s attack. On his way to Anacreon he visits “eight of the larger stellar systems of the kingdom” to confer with Foundation reps there. On Anacreon’s capitol planet he meets briefly with Verisof between the latter’s running temple festivals for Lepold’s birthday. Keeping his identity secret, Hardin goes to the palace’s ballroom, but Wienis knows who he is and invites him to speak privately. Wienis suggests that Lepold might soon rule the Galaxy if the Foundation would help Anacreon demonstrate its scientific superiority, but Hardin says the Foundation can’t play favorites. Wienis announces there are armed guards outside and that the Imperial ship they helped repair (now called the flagship Wienis) has just left to attack the Foundation at that very moment. Hardin says he thought Wienis would wait until midnight, the moment of the king’s official coronation, and the time he set his counterstrike for: the priests of Anacreon will go on strike because attacking the Foundation is tantamount to sacrilege. Wienis goes out to the ballroom and watches as Lepold’s throne starts to rise (powered by a nuclear motor), but as midnight strikes, it stops and drops to the ground as all the lights go out. Someone tells Wienis that the palace is surrounded and that Verisof is outside demanding Hardin’s release and a stop to the attack on the Foundation. Hardin informs Wienis that the city has no functional power except in the temples, and when Wienis says he’ll have the army take over the temple, Hardin reminds him that he doesn’t have the working power to issue the command through the usual communication lines. Wienis says the ship is still on its way to destroy the Foundation, so the mob and loss of power make no difference. But Hardin had the ship outfitted with a “hyperwave relay.”
Theo Aparat is the priest attending the flagship Wienis, while Wienis’ son Prince Lefkin is the admiral officially in charge; Aparat can’t believe the ship is supposed to be used for something so wicked, and when midnight strikes, he sends a message to the ship’s entire crew about the sacrilege the commander plans to use the ship for, removes the blessing of the Galactic Spirit from it, and strips Lefkin of his command. Someone in a distant Temple opens an “ultrawave relay” that shuts the entire ship down. With some soldiers Aporat locates Lefkin, who tries to tell the soldiers to arrest Aporat and that the Galactic Spirit is fake, but they follow Aporat’s orders to arrest Lefkin for his blasphemy. Aporat makes Lefkin order the rest of the fleet to turn around. In Wienis’ office, then watch Lefkin announce their abdication of the mission on the televisor. Hardin explains the irony of the situation to Wienis with a fable:
“You see the analogy, I hope. In their anxiety to cement forever domination over their own people, the kings of the Four Kingdoms accepted the religion of science that made them divine; and that same religion of science was their bridle and saddle, for it placed the life blood of nuclear power in the hands of the priesthood—who took their orders from us, be it noted, and not from you. You killed the wolf, but could not get rid of the m—”
Wienis tries to order his soldiers to shoot Hardin with their atom blasters, but they won’t, so he takes a blaster himself and shoots at Hardin, who dons a forcefield that reflects the blast back to Wienis and kills him.
At the Time Vault this time, there’s a much bigger crowd. Harry Seldin appears and reveals that everything is going according to plan:
“According to our calculations, you have now reached domination of the barbarian kingdoms immediately surrounding the Foundation. Just as in the first crisis you held them off by use of the Balance of Power, so in the second, you gained mastery by use of the Spiritual Power as against the Temporal. … The Spiritual Power, while sufficient to ward off attacks of the Temporal, is not sufficient to attack in turn. Because of the invariable growth of the counteracting force known as Regionalism, or Nationalism, the Spiritual Power cannot prevail. I am telling you nothing new, I’m sure.”
He tells them they’re only at the start of their work and that a “vast tangled jungle of barbarism … extends around the entire breadth of the Galaxy.” He reminds them about the other Foundation on the other side of the Galaxy and says the problem is theirs to solve. Hardin assumes that the next time Seldon comes back he’ll be dead.
Part IV—The Traders
Limmar Ponyets receives a message on his “free-lance trade ship,” delivered by Les Gorm, that a fellow trader, Esker Gorov, has been imprisoned on Askone for interfering with local politics, a problem since Gorov is not really a trader, but a Foundation agent. After getting to Askone, Ponyets has to wait two weeks to see Askone’s Grand Master. Ponyets fails to convince him that the trader landing there was a mistake, and the Askonian ruler threatens to kill the trader; Ponyets convinces him to let him see Gorov to “Tend his Soul.” Gorov tells Ponyets, who apparently has some past beef with him, that the Grand Master wants gold, and to get it from the Foundation. Ponyets says Gorov will just try again, which Gorov confirms: “‘It’s my assignment to sell nucleics to Askone.’”
Ponyets was nodding. “This I realize. And any system that doesn’t accept nuclear gadgets can never be placed under our religious control—”
“And can therefore become a focal point for independence and hostility. Yes.”
Gorov explains they won’t accept the devices because of their form of ancestor worship, but that if he can get key people to accept the devices they might push for change of the laws. Ponyets said they shouldn’t have gotten a diplomat like Gorov to try this, but an actual trader like him, and implies that he will try to sell them his cargo. He takes a week making a transmutation machine he shows the Grand Master and his councilors, turning two iron buckles into gold and arguing that they can take the gold itself even if the ancestors haven’t blessed the machine, though one councilor, Pherl, tries to argue this means the gold is tainted. Ponyets convinces them to leave the gold buckles out on an altar to the ancestors to see if anything happens to show their disapproval. A week later, he goes to see Pherl and tries to make a deal with him to buy the transmuter, though Pherl will have to use it in secret from the population who thinks it’s evil. Pherl says he’ll pay a week after he’s had it or he’ll have Ponyets executed the next day. In the next chapter, Gorov is released, and as he and Ponyets fly away from Askone in their ships, Ponyets tells him over the “tight, distortion-bounded ether-beam” that he rigged the transmuter from a “food irradiation chamber” and that it will only work temporarily, but will last long enough to buy Pherl the next election. Gorov thinks he’s only succeeded in getting them to accept gold when what they needed was to accept the mechanism. Ponyets points out that they have Pherl’s private navy escorting them away from Askone and they’re actually going to Pherl’s estates on the outskirts, where they’re going to stock up on tin, which he’s taking from Pherl not just in exchange for the transmuter but:
“For my entire cargo of nucleics.”
Ponyets then explains that Pherl took the transmuter, a crime on Askone, with the idea that if he got caught he could claim to the Grand Master he did it out of patriotic motives to set up Ponyets. But Ponyets then recorded Pherl using the transmuter with a “microfilm-recorder,” which Pherl had no idea existed. When he showed the footage to Pherl and threatened to show it to the whole city, Pherl offered him whatever he wanted. Pherl’s also slated to be the next Grand Master, which is promising for the Foundation since he’ll probably start using the devices he bought to recoup his losses.
Part V—The Merchant Princes
Jorane Sutt thinks they’re approaching another Seldon crisis and enlists the trader Hober Mallow from Smyrno to go to the Korellian Republic to see if he can find out if they have nuclear power, since three trade ships have disappeared in the vicinity of the Republic and it seems like only someone with such power could have overtaken them. Then we see Sutt later talking to Publis Manlio, a “primate” since he holds the office of “the primacy,” about how he’s duping Mallow and considers the traders a domestic threat that, combined with facing enemies that might have nuclear power, would constitute the third Seldon crisis; Sutt says it’s Manlio’s job to deal with the problem of the traders. Then we see Mallow talking to Jaim Twer about how the Actionist party (started by Sermak) is breaking up, and Twer wants Mallow to help finish it off but Mallow says he’s leaving. Twer thinks Mallow’s being sent on a secret mission to deal with the third Seldon crisis is a trick, but then agrees to go with him.
Korrell is past the phase of Empire but its Commdor keeps a tight reign on traders and missionaries, preventing the age of the Foundation from starting there. When Mallow and his crew land, they’re kept waiting for a week, and then Mallow’s men let a Foundation missionary who’s been injured on board. As the missionary, Jord Parma, is babbling incoherently about the Galactic Spirit, Mallow’s lieutenant reports that there’s a mob of Korellians outside the ship; they want Parma and Mallow hands him over against Twer’s protests. He explains to Twer that he sensed a trap, and then gets a message of invitation from Commdor Asper that seems to confirm it was a test he succeeded in passing. Mallow tries to get the Commdor, who prides himself on being “Well-Loved,” to consider Free Trade between their nations, but the Commdor says they can’t do it on the Foundation’s terms of including “compulsory religion,” and cites the case of Askone, “‘now an integral member of the Foundation’s system.’” Mallow says his religion is money, that missionaries annoy him, and that he can make the Commdor rich. He has the Commdor fetch a girl to demonstrate a glowing cloak, and convinces him they can both be rich if he buys stuff from him, because he can sell it at a high markup. The Commdor invites Mallow and all his men to dinner that night, and we see the Commdor talking to his wife, who complains about how he doesn’t make enough money. He gives her the glowing cloak and she shuts up. Then we see a conversation between Mallow and Twer about how they’re letting Mallow into the town’s steel foundry (so he can show them a steel-manipulating device they might buy) too easily, which means they probably don’t have nuclear power there. But when they do go and he demonstrates the pipe-fusing device, he notices that the soldiers have atomic guns, and that they have uniforms with the old Galactic Empire’s emblem on them, the “Spaceship-and-Sun.” Mallow is happy that the Empire “was emerging again, out into the Periphery.” Mallow leaves Senior Lieutenant Drawt in charge of his ship the Far Star and leaves the ship in a “lifeboat.”
He goes to the house of a man named Onum Barr on the planet of Siwena to ask directions to “the center of the government”; Barr informs him that Siwena is no longer the capital of the Imperial Sector. He asks if Mallow knows anything that’s happened in the last 150 years and explains that it’s been a bad time and the provinces have become increasingly impoverished; he insults the current viceroy. Under a former viceroy, Siwena rebelled against the Empire and had its population subjected to a nuclear blast. Barr only escaped because he was too old to pose a threat, but all of his sons died except for one who joined the force of the new admiral. He points out that Mallow is wearing a “force-shield” and that he knows that a portable atomic force-shield has not been invented; he thinks Mallow might be one of the “magicians” he heard tales of long ago (these magicians are presumably Foundation men using nuclear power). Mallow asks if Siwena has nuclear power and Barr says there are generators, but that he won’t be able to get near them without getting shot, that only “tech-men” can enter power stations. When Mallow asks directions to the nearest city with a power station, Barr offers him his passport to use as ID and tells him to talk as little as possible or he’ll arouse suspicion.
Mallow then meets a tech-man he offers gifts, but the tech-man is suspicious that religion will be the string attached to them and threatens to report Mallow, who then tells him he has something the Emperor doesn’t. He tells the tech-man to shoot him, demonstrating the power of his portable shield. He gives the shield to the tech-man, who can’t believe its power source is the size of a walnut, and when the man threatens to keep the shield and shoot Mallow, Mallow says he has another shield, and a weapon designed to pierce the shield he just gave the tech-man, so the tech-man complies with his demand to let him see a generator, which the man says are built for an eternity, revealing that he doesn’t have the capability to fix any problems with it should they arise.
Some time later, Mallow is at his new house with Ankor Jael, whom he enlists to help him get a council seat, which he knows Jorane Sutt will strongly oppose. Sutt then shows up at the house, saying that the report Mallow turned in months ago about what he did in Korell was incomplete, since in the interim Mallow has opened a bunch of factories and moved into a palace, raising suspicions about where his money came from. Mallow explains he got the money from the Commdor of Korell in a legitimate trade deal; when Sutt says this wasn’t in his report, Mallow says it was not relevant to his mission of looking for the missing ships and signs of atomic power. Sutt says traders are supposed to advance religion with their trades, but Mallow says he follows the law, not custom, that the religion-spreading policy is outdated, and that no planets outside of the Periphery will let traders in because they’ve heard the stories from Askone about religious takeovers:
“If nuclear power makes them dangerous, a sincere friendship through trade will be many times better than an insecure overlordship, based on the hated supremacy of a foreign spiritual power, which, once it weakens ever so slightly, can only fall entirely and leave nothing substantial behind except an immortal fear and hate.”
Sutt tries to convince him with bribes to change his convictions about foreign policy, and when Mallow refuses, Sutt threatens to arrest him for the murder of a Foundation priest, the one he handed over to the mob on Korell. Jael speculates that Sutt knows the religious policy is no longer effective and that he’s only defending it for some self-serving purpose.
“Now any dogma, primarily based on faith and emotionalism, is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user.”
Jael speculates that Sutt
“…could mobilize the various hierarchies on the subject planets against the Foundation in the name of orthodoxy…planting himself at the head of the standards of the pious [to] make war on heresy, as represented by you, for instance, and make himself king eventually.”
Mallow says he needs to get on the council to fight Sutt, but Jael is worried Sutt will ruin Mallow’s chances of doing so by spreading what Mallow did to the priest. We then see Mallow’s trial at the point when he gets to testify. He confirms that the story the prosecution told about what happened with the priest was accurate, but says it’s incomplete. He reviews the conversations he had with Sutt sending him on the Korell mission, and the one he had with Jaim Twer right afterward asking him to run for a council seat, saying he suspected ulterior motives in both—for Sutt, to get rid of him, and when Twer didn’t know what a Seldon crisis was, Mallow figured he wasn’t a trader as he claimed, but was trained in holy orders and possibly a priest, since priests learn of Seldon as a prophet instead of a psychohistorian. He figured that meant Twer was actually a spy for Sutt, so invited him along to keep an eye on him. He set up a “Visual Record receiver” to record what happened with the priest, and plays this in the courtroom. He shares his observations about the oddities of the mob coming out of nowhere and points out that the prosecution has said nothing about the person of the missionary priest, Jord Parma, and freezes a frame of the recording when ultraviolet light was flashed, revealing a tattoo on Parma’s wrist that says “KSP”—Korellian Secret Police, proving that Mallow was set up. The crowd starts cheering “Long live Mallow.” Some time later, Mallow tells Jael to have Sutt and Manlio arrested for “‘inciting the priesthood of the outer planets to take sides in the factional quarrels of the Foundation’” to get them out of the way for his election. He says he needs to simultaneously be in the office of mayor and high priest when the Seldon crisis comes because he’s the only one who knows how to handle it—by doing nothing.
We then see a scene of the Korellian Commdor talking to his wife again three years after Mallow’s visit about how she wants him to make war against the Foundation; he says there is war between them. Then there’s a quick scene of an officer on a small Foundation ship encountering a much bigger ship with the emblem of the Empire on it. We then see Mallow two years into his mayoralty, and Jael worried about “Sutt and his Religionists” and how Mallow’s policy of doing nothing after they’ve reached a stalemate with Korell is not appealing to the mob. Sutt again wants Mallow to return to the religious policy, but Mallow maintains that trade alone is strong enough for their needs. He says Korell, though currently not trading with them due to the war, has become increasingly dependent on nuclear devices and that the Commdor won’t be able to hold out once the generators stop and big industries start to fail. Sutt says they can just get new generators from the Empire, but Mallow points out those would be gigantic, while the Foundation’s had to develop tiny ones because of their lack of metal. He says the Commdor “‘won’t stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years.’” Sutt says that if Mallow made some kind of deal with the Empire to betray the Foundation then he’d be doing everything he’s doing now. Mallow has Sutt arrested for not cooperating. Jael is worried about a popular rebellion as a response, but Mallow is confident that economic control will work, because he controls all the factories, and he says that where it looks like Sutt’s religious propaganda is succeeding, he’ll make sure prosperity fails. Jael concludes that Mallow is “‘making us a land of traders and merchant princes,’” and asks what this means for the future. Mallow says it’s up to his successors to figure that problem out, as he’s figured out the current problem. An Encyclopedia Galactica entry confirms that Korell surrenders and Mallow becomes a famous Foundation figure like Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin. THE END.
The scope of the plot that Asimov has taken on is incredibly ambitious, unfolding in this book over a period that spans nearly two centuries. The structure he uses to tackle this span is essentially dividing it up into Parts that each stand alone as a potential novella. Each of the novella’s individual arcs contribute to the main arc of the Foundation’s progress. While Seldon is a character who’s referred to throughout the novel, he only appears as a living, breathing character in Part I. He gets Time Vault cameos in Parts II and III, then his likeness fades entirely. Salvor Hardin is the only main character who actually appears alive in more than one Part, getting to tackle the first Seldon Crisis in Part II and the second Seldon Crisis in Part III. After that, he, too, vanishes except in name. This structure could make the book difficult for a certain type of reader, the type who likes to get invested in character. By the time we get to Part IV, we have to attach ourselves to characters who have thenceforth not appeared at all, and acclimate ourselves to a completely new situation. Asimov demands that our interest be invested in a different type of character, that of the Foundation itself; this is the only character we can really remain invested in across the sections, but the stakes are high enough that he pulls this off. This book is about the future of the human race, and as such cannot narrow its focus to just one human.
The “series of crises” that Seldon mentions the first time his Vault opens provides the book’s structure, specifically the episodes that each novella will explore. In Part I, we see the inception of the Foundation and its Terminus headquarters. In Part II, we see the first threat to the Foundation’s establishment from the surrounding barbarian kingdoms, which is the first crisis, resulting in the development of a longer-term strategy to deal with such threats: turning science into a religion. (By training priests how to manipulate nuclear devices but not actually explaining how they work, Hardin mirrors Seldon’s strategy of not letting any actual psychologists onto Terminus who might be able to figure out the real plan.) In Part III, there’s another threat from one of the barbarian kingdoms, the second crisis, which is handled by manipulating the science-as-religion policy established in the wake of the first crisis, proving this policy’s utility. In Part IV, the only besides Part I that doesn’t explicitly constitute a “Seldon crisis,” the science-as-religion policy is starting to deteriorate as those from Terminus try to use it to spread the Foundation’s reach farther than the four surrounding kingdoms; science is actually used as the predominant instrument of force when Ponyets uses it (in the form of the technology of the video recorder) to manipulate the Askone councilor to violate his religion. In Part V, we see the third Seldon crisis, in which the science-as-religion foreign policy is officially overthrown, and economic control instilled in its place. We sense that, with time, this policy will also eventually become ineffective (or will it?), and some future crisis will necessitate the evolution of a new type of foreign policy for the Foundation to continue to spread its influence.
By making the Foundation itself the main character, Asimov puts the reader in the position of rooting for one entity to spread its influence across this entire galaxy; it is the spread of this influence that is the strategy to stave off the dark period that will follow the Empire’s fall. That is, Asimov has put the reader in the position of supporting an expansionist foreign policy, and, as with Ender’s Game, one wonders what parallels there are here for American foreign policy; it seems to be these ongoing, mutating parallels that make this book still relevant decades later. We as Americans tend to believe that when we interfere with the workings of other nations, it’s for the sake of doing something good, as the Foundation’s ultimate mission is supposedly benevolent. But is it really? When Seldon claims that the galaxy is a “‘vast tangled jungle of barbarism,’” this attitude seems similar to that of Americans advocating for an expansionist and/or interfering foreign policy, but perhaps experience has taught some of us that this attitude derives from not understanding and appreciating cultural differences. Only reading the rest of the Foundation series will reveal if the spreading of the Foundation is as benevolent a mechanism as it’s originally supposed to be.
If dividing the plot into novellas is one structural strategy, the use of dialog is another. The vast majority of the text is in fact comprised of dialog exchanges. Asimov frequently ends a Part without fully following the arc of the action he’s set up to its logical conclusion; instead, the reader learns what happened after the end of one Part in a dialog exchange in the next Part. Asimov somehow pulls this off without the dialog feeling contrived, maybe because he so meticulously creates the setting and scene of where the next phase of the action should be, and also because it feels natural that the politicians discussing these issues would describe these things in the context of the new situation in which they find themselves. Notably, Asimov never uses straight-up exposition to explain to the reader what’s happened in the intervals of jumped time. The structure feels like a stone skipping over water, landing briefly in a new period where circumstances have entirely changed.
This book should be required reading for any politician, as the action is primarily comprised of moments of political intrigue. Seldon manipulates the aristocrats of the original Empire into letting him set up the Foundation. Hardin overthrows the antiquated Encyclopedists, brokers peace with the surrounding kingdoms by playing them off against each other, and establishes religion as a means of control. Ponyets blackmails a foreign ruler into buying his cargo and actually a lot more than that. Sutt has plans to use religion as a means to make himself king of many planets, but is outmaneuvered by Mallow, with his acute awareness of ulterior motives. Nuclear power is the device around which all of this political maneuvering largely centers. Those who control it control everyone else.
Something that’s notable about Asimov’s approach to otherworldly sci-fi elements is that, as per his utter lack of exposition, he doesn’t explain how anything actually works, such as Hari Seldon’s Time Vault, or the ultrawave relay that shuts down the flagship Wienis, or the hyperwave beam that allows a ship to communicate with a planet, or the nuclear force-shields that work from a generator the size of a walnut. This lack of explanation is particularly fitting because it coincides with the book’s plot: those who don’t know how these things work—particularly the nuclear things—are the ones who lack power. Only Foundation members actually know how these things work, and we, the readers, are not technically Foundation members. The Foundation spreads its influence by spreading its nuclear devices, or “nucleics” (a clever play on “electronics”) but they must maintain control over other entities’ use of these devices, or they might find the devices turned against them. As readers, we are further put in the position of the characters who do not know Hari Seldon’s ultimate plan. We’re figuring it out as the characters do.
The internal and external crises that are supposed to herald a Seldon crisis mirror an ideal fictional structure for tension. The internal crisis could be a parallel for a story’s chronic tension, while the external could be a parallel for acute tension. The internal and external crises come to a head at the same time, or the external (acute) causes the internal (chronic) to come to a head, until there’s only one fitting outcome for a character.