Foundation Retrospective

Christmas 2001 and the world was gripped by the ‘Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring’, which exploded into cinemas with almost unanimous critical approval and huge box office success. It was the film everyone had to see. However, what is less well known is that New Line Cinema only embarked on the plan to adapt Tolkein’s seminal fantasy novel after a plan to make a very different trilogy of films collapsed. In 1998, New Line were busy developing film versions of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. How different would film be today if they had succeeded? Asimov is best known for his Robot novels (I, Robot; Caves of Steel, etc) but his Foundation novels have perhaps had an even greater influence on science fiction. The Foundation series began life as a series of short stories published in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1950, which were collected into the first novel, Foundation, in 1951. Two further novels, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation followed in 1952 and 1953 respectively. All were well received and quickly became classics of post-war science fiction. In 1965, Asimov was award a special Hugo for Best All-Time Series, beating The Lord of the Rings to the title.

Foundation’s influence upon the rest of the genre is subtly but persistent. Most obviously, Asimov was the first to use the concept of a world being covered by one vast city. Trantor, the capital of the Asimov’s future human empire, is echoed across sci-fi books and film, from the vision of the future of Earth in ‘The Fifth Element’ to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic/Empire in the Star Wars films. Trantor has reappeared again and again since Asimov first imagined it during the Second World War. Many other classic works give nods to Foundation, most notably The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy name drops the Encyclopaedia Galactica, the great compendium of all human knowledge which the Foundation is working to collect.

Foundation is set in the distant future, where one single human empire covers the entire galaxy. On the imperial capital, Trantor, the empire’s greatest scientist, Hari Seldon, claims that he has found a means to predict the future of human society through a new science, which he calls psychohistory. Through complex mathematics, Seldon has discovered that the empire is doomed and will soon collapse. This will be followed by ten thousand years of barbarism, but this could be reduced to a mere thousand if the greatest scientists are gathered together to create a library of all human knowledge, the Encyclopaedia Galactica. This group will be known as the Foundation and, after a thousand years, will emerge to found the Second Empire. Seldon’s plan is approved, but the Foundation is consigned to the remote world of Terminus at the far end of the galaxy from Trantor.

The book then chronicles the Foundation’s attempts to survive and thrive in the years of chaos which come after the collapse. The scientists of the Foundation are guided by Seldon’s plan and his map of how events will play out. However, unforeseen and extremely unlikely events shift the fate of the galaxy away from Seldon’s plan, which must later be re-established by the Second Foundation.

Foundation was one of the earliest novels of what we now understand as science fiction. Distinct from the dystopian fiction of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Asimov became known as one of the big three writers of science fiction, together with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. The Foundation novels are a love letter to the 1950s technological optimism that can be seen in Hergé’s Tintin or the British TV show Space 1999. When Asimov was writing Foundation, the atom had just been split for the first time and it was thought that atomic energy would transform every aspect of our lives. The Foundation novels are filled with atomic blasters and nuclear belts which seem dated now, but which preserve a vision of what we thought the future would be like. Future generations may think the same about current authors’ enthusiasm for nano technology.

However, Foundation is also tinged with fear for what the future will hold. The collapse of human civilization is discussed at length in the books, something which was on everyone’s mind as the world entered the nuclear age and the Cold War began. As America and the USSR tested larger and larger bombs it was felt that humanity needed Hari Seldon to imagine our survival after the complete destruction of our civilization. This fear of the future can be seen in the cinema of the 1950s, where popular films included a remake of ‘Godzilla’ in 1954, an adaptation of ‘1984’ in 1956 and ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ in 1951, where an alien chastises humanity for our self-destructive streak.

Foundation was out of step with the trend of its time, but now this in common place, with superhero movies from ‘Iron Man’ to ‘The Fantastic Four’ regularly featuring scientists as heroes. The ‘Stargate’ TV series is a good example of a science fiction show in which scientists and soldiers work side by side to save humanity. The spin off, ‘Stargate Atlantis’, also borrows heavily from Foundation. Set in a galaxy where war has wiped out most of humanity, one last bastion of science and civilization holds out against the chaos. Over 70 years after Hari Seldon and the Foundation first appeared in print, its influence upon science fiction is still profound.

Isaac Asimov created a series of novels which continue to astonish today with their intricate plotting, vivid imagination and sprawling narrative. Over the following decades, other great writers have been inspired by his work in their own creations, and it is this which gives him the status of titan of the genre. The Foundation novels are essential reading for any science fiction writer (especially in the space opera or hard sci-fi subgenres), as Asimov has a created a story that is as enduring and brilliant as The Lord of the Rings.