A beginner’s guide to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

There are many books considered foundational to modern science fiction. From the works of Arthur C. Clarke to Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the sweeping science-based space opera once dominated the literary landscape.

With themes of politics, history, and war, an argument could be made that no series stood more dominant than Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Never before filmed for television or theaters, Apple has commissioned a series based on Foundation for its growing Apple TV+ service, and it looks like fans are in for something unique.

The original Foundation Trilogy centers on the concept of psychohistory, a science that allows people to predict future events. While Philip K. Dick would perhaps make the idea famous with Minority ReportFoundation engages with it on a huge scale.

Mathematician Hari Seldon uses psychohistory to predict the fall of the vast Galactic Empire, subsequently founding the Foundation of scientists and Second Foundation of psychologists, which both endeavor to limit the impact that the fall of the empire will have on its inhabitants.

An award-winning series

The original series of Foundation novels was a collection of eight shorter stories written by Isaac Asimov between 1942 and 1950, published in Astounding Stories of Super-Science, now known as Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The first collected version was published in 1951 and was simply titled Foundation. The book was followed by Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), which completed the original trilogy.

Much like with Star Wars, the original trilogy wouldn’t be the end of the story. In 1981, Asimov was persuaded by his publisher to write another sequel, and Foundation’s Edge was published the following year. More books would come, including Foundation and Earth in 1986 and two prequels.

The later books tied up other works in the Asimov canon to create a single universe — I, Robot and The Positronic Man, based on his earlier short story The Bicentennial Man, may be the most famous.

The Foundation Trilogy was very popular and influential. It won a special Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, beating out J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Foundation’s Edge would go on to win the award for Best Novel in 1983, and there would be further awards after Asimov’s death in 1992.

Foundation vs Star Wars

The Foundation series is a unique blend of futuristic speculation and human history, with Asimov looking to our own past to envision the path that we may take once we finally reach the stars. For example, the Galactic Empire at the center of the series is based on the Roman Empire, which famously fell. As Asimov was writing during the World War II, we can also see those cataclysmic events echoed in the text; indeed, the fall of empires resulting in violence and instability is a theme throughout the trilogy. We see the end result of jingoism, the weaponization of patriotism, the disconnect of monarchies, and the essential futility of bravado in the face of war.

The grand sweeping narrative of Foundation is a departure from many so-called space operas; unlike with Star Wars and Luke Skywalker, the story is not focused on individual greatness. Instead, the message is that social and political movements genuinely change the world, and that they will one day change the universe, not single people. While there are heroes in Foundation, they are fulfilling their role in history, and the march of the grand narrative would survive without them.

Yet Foundation is far from a bleak narrative. The novels focus on the role of the human spirit and how science can save the species, not by creating weapons of war but through the underlying philosophies of advance, inquiry, and innovation. Essentially, we can reduce the threat of tyrants with real solutions to the problems they cause and exploit.

In an era where science denial has become commonplace, Asimov’s message that science and education will always triumph over militarism and ignorance has never been more relevant.

The influence of Foundation

There can be little doubt that Foundation is one of the most influential works of all time, both in the world of science fiction and in general. Astronomer Carl Sagan was a known fan, as is Elon Musk; the entrepreneur has said that the books influenced his career and eventual adventures into space. So devoted is Musk that when he launched his Tesla vehicle into the sun’s orbit, an optical data version of Foundation was on board.

Echoes of Asimov’s seminal work can be found in franchises as varied as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Star Trek, with Douglas Adam’s Guide being a direct parody of Encyclopedia Galactica, a fictional resource that contains the knowledge of the galaxy in the Foundation novels.

Perhaps the work most influenced by Foundation is Frank Herbert’s Dune. Many believe that Dune was written as a counterpoint to Foundation, with Herbert starting with the premise of the fall of an empire and going somewhere vastly different with it.

By coincidence, Dune will be coming to movie screens nearly at the same time as Foundation debuts on Apple TV+; it will have its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on September 3, a few weeks before Foundation begins.

“A 1,000-year chess game”

After earlier attempts from the likes of Fox, New Line Cinema, and HBO to bring the trilogy to screens failed, it was in August of 2018 that Apple confirmed they had commissioned a 10-episode Foundation series from Skydance Television. In 2020, Apple Chairman Tim Cook announced that the series would debut in 2021, and was to be produced by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman. Isaac Asimov’s daughter Robyn will serve as one of the executive producers.

The streaming wars between Apple, Amazon, Netflix, HBO Max and others have led to a golden age for new shows and commissions, with Goyer saying he won over Apple with a single one-sentence pitch: “It’s 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.”

The sprawling narrative is likely to draw comparisons to Game of Thrones, with Goyer envisioning a similar length for the series, saying in January that “…with Foundation we can tell the story, hopefully, over the course of eighty episodes; eighty hours, as opposed to trying to condense it all into two or three hours for a single film.”

Filmed in Ireland, Malta, and Tenerife, the production wrapped up in March. The show will debut in September, with the first three episodes being released on September 24 and the remaining seven released weekly thereafter. Foundation will star Jared Harris as protagonist Hari Seldon with Lee Pace as Brother Day, Emperor of the Galaxy. The series will also star Lou Llobell, Laura Born, Terrance Mann, and Alfred Enoch.

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